Convocation, Graduate Liberal Studies

Convocation Profile: Don Shafer, MA, Graduate Liberal Studies

October 04, 2018

By Christine Lyons

Vancouver broadcasting veteran and innovator Don Shafer had a busy year in 2015. Not only did he begin an SFU master’s program in Graduate Liberal Studies (GLS), he also co-founded city-centric talk/music radio station, Roundhouse Radio and was inducted into the Canadian Broadcast Hall of Fame.

Shafer has been a broadcaster, a journalist and a student who has sat in many chairs at radio and television stations in Canada. He’s apprenticed at a few century-old newspapers like The Los Angeles Times and The Toronto Star, and witnessed the Cold War in Turkey, the not-so-cold war in Viet Nam, the Gulf War, the Watts Riots, Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ) protests, “love-ins” with John and Yoko, Standing Rock, and now Kinder Morgan.

It was with this wealth of experience that Shafer wrote his MA thesis, “Climate Change and the Many Faces of Denial” while also working as Roundhouse Radio’s CEO, program director. During this time, Shafer also served as host of the daily radio program and podcast  “Impact,” where he interviewed the likes of David Suzuki, Al Gore, Tzeporah Berman, and Naomi Klein, to name but a few.

He says the motivation to enrol in SFU’s GLS program was to “get as far away as possible” from media and journalism and to ‘fill in some of the academic holes” in his education with a liberal arts curriculum.

“I found that liberal arts provided an overarching study of humanity and our history, the physical world we live in, and ironically how we communicate with each other through our art, dance, sculpture, music, literature, poetry, weaving, mosaics and story telling. We learned how to ask important questions about our world, our differences, where we come from, our history, traditions and beliefs,” an approach that both suited the programming philosophy of Roundhouse Radio and his own approach to creating meaningful dialogue. “

The idea for his MA project began with the notion that he could take a few of the  interviews he had done on climate change for Roundhouse and build his thesis around the question, “why does human inaction against climate change persist despite the growing evidence that our activities are the cause and that the situation is serious?”

The final project ended up being considerably larger; a narrative-based inquiry that used field texts, stories, journals, and interviews with  over seventy experts from around the world to investigate the science as well as the varying degrees of denial about climate change, and how climate change relates to social, political, and economic issues.

“I was in a dark place for much of this project as I was overwhelmed by the enormity and complexity of climate change,” Shafer recalls.

“Fortunately many of the people I interviewed reminded that there are unsuspecting movements, acts of bravery, activism, and love that may carry the day. We know from history that social, cultural, or political change does not work in predictable ways or on predictable schedules. Humans don’t know what is going to happen, or how, or when, and in that uncertainty there must be room for hope.”

The project was immense and Shafer collected enough material to comprise a book. But he’s not considering publication quite yet, though. This fall, he will be completing a Faber Residency in New Journalism II: an Arts, Sciences, and Humanities Residency of Catalonia in Olot.

Expanding upon the ideas he investigated in his thesis on climate change inaction, Shafer’s project “Asking Beautiful Questions” will look at what it takes to “move beyond a public discourse of certainty or absolutism and understanding why achieving a common ground does not have to be a goal.”

Reflecting on his broadcasting and academic career, Shafer reflects that it is rather ironic to be involved in communications and journalism again having begun grad school with the intention of distancing himself from the field. But he’s excited to approach issues from a different angle and engage in international conversations about journalism, climate change and creating space for meaningful dialogue. He is also considering a PhD in Human Geography. Combined with his lifetime of knowledge and experience, Shafer’s openness to asking difficult and beautiful questions will certainly guide him well, no matter where the path takes him.