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April 14, 2010

  • How I Fell Out of Love With CBC Radio
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    There was a time during my twenties and my thirties when my life was forever entwined with CBC Radio One. I thought CBC’s radio service was about as perfect as any public broadcaster had a right to be. In fact, when I lived in Britain the late 1990s I committed the heresy of stating that I preferred CBC Radio to the BBC’s current affairs radio station, Radio 4. (I wept tears of joy the night I discovered that with broadband and RealPlayer I could listen to As It Happens on live streaming at 11:30 at night).

    Over the past decade, piece by piece, I fell out of love with CBC Radio One to the point where I’ve more or less stopped listening to it altogether, and I’m sure what reasons I have left for listening will soon be gone. It didn’t happen all at once. It was death by degrees—one thing was changed, then another, then another, all in search of the elusive 20-40 demographic. In the CBC’s mad, obsessive quest to find that great white whale, they gradually took away everything I once loved.

    First they dismantled the Saturday morning comedy. In the 1990s and into the early 2000s, the 11:30 Saturday slot was the sweet spot of their schedule (following Basic Black and preceding Quirks and Quarks and Definitely Not the Opera). There was Double Exposure, Radio Free Vestibule and The Great Eastern, all of them part of a renaissance of radio sketch comedy. The Great Eastern in particular may be the smartest, funniest thing ever produced for radio, ever. Over the course of 15 years, the 11:30 Saturday slot was a place for inventive, often groundbreaking and usually quite funny radio.

    And then in 2000 the boom was lowered: The Great Eastern was deemed “too foreground” and too expensive to produce and was cancelled. That was a bitter pill to swallow, but the real hard part was accepting what they replaced it with: extending Basic Black by 15 minutes and a repeat of Dead Dog Café  from the show no one wanted to call Morningside anymore. Although there’s been rumblings of possible returns to glory every now and then, the timeslot has been pretty much a void of original, entertaining programming ever since. Or there’s been The Debaters. Same difference.

    The other thing that really stuck in my craw was the obliteration of intelligent discussion of current affairs in the morning in favour of inane jabbering. Or, more bluntly, they moved Jian Ghomeshi’s Q to follow The Current. Q was, and is, a typical CBC Radio One afternoon show: it’s about the personality of the host more than the content. In that respect it’s a worthy successor to Richardson’s Roundup (I know several Bill Richardson will differ). Jian’s oh-so-hip convos will never be confused with hard news. I know Shelagh Rogers wasn’t exactly a bastion of hard news either, but if she had to she could switch to serious journalism and do it well. Jian Ghomeshi has three speeds: soft, softer and positively gushing. His greatest claim to fame on Q was getting kicked like a puppy dog by Billy Bob Thornton (and I too have been personally been given the “oh, we’d never do that” speech by Jian before an interview where he did just that—I don’t doubt for a second Billy Bob might have been sold a bill of goods as he claims he was). That hardly makes him a worthy successor to the likes of Gzowski, Enright and Findlay—or even a worthy follow-up program to Anna Marie Tremonte.

    I’d forgive Q if it weren’t part of a broader trend to eliminate intelligent programming from the airwaves. Go just makes me nostalgic for Arthur Black, which I didn’t think was possible. The Inside Track was probably the smartest program on radio about sports (because it was about sport and the science and politics behind it and not about the entertainment industry known as ‘sports’) but it gets axed in favour of Norah Young slumming it to talk tech.

    But the thing CBC Radio One did that absolutely outraged me to the point I changed the all-powerful dial on my clock radio was it cancelled its late night classical music program. It’s amazing the loyalty I had to that program whether it had the title That Time of the Night or Northern Lights. I don’t consider myself a huge classical music fan, but I loved the music on selection and the commentary that came latterly from host Andrea Radjuski. It was a nice break from the wall-to-wall talkfest and a good bridge between their nightly arts discussions and their late night rebroadcasts of international public radio stations on CBC Radio Overnight. And I liked going to sleep to it as well.

    In 2007, they yanked Northern Lights off the air. They said at the time it was branding-related—they wanted harder distinctions between Radio One and Radio Two and wanted only music programming on the latter. I called, and still call, bullshit on that.  They replaced Northern Lights with a repeat of The Arts Tonight and started CBC Radio Overnight an hour early. It was a budget decision masquerading as a branding choice. As Radio Two, itself the victim of a rapacious remformatting didn’t have a similar program at that time, I just switched my radio over to a private station, Moses Znaimer’s Classical 96.3. I never looked back. I missed waking up to Metro Morning but soon got over it.

    It wasn’t just that they cancelled Northern Lights that bugged me. It’s that they replace every good show in their schedule with a repeat of something else. They’ve been doing that as far back as I’ve listened to them when they replaced Geoff Pevere’s Prime Time in the early ‘90s with The Best of Morningside. They just shrink the number of interesting voices to a smaller and smaller core, heard more often. I think that’s to public radio’s overall detriment.

    There are now only really two shows I listen to with much enthusiasm: The Sunday Edition and As It Happens. (My wife continues to worship Jonathan Goldstein and Wiretap).  Last week, the CBC got rid of As It Happens’ announcer Barbara Budd. Again, they justified a convenience decision (it’s cheaper to use the CBC’s in house pool of reporters who are already working on nine different shows than a contractor like Budd, who, let’s be honest, is probably not the easiest person to work with) as a policy decision, saying they don’t want to have announcers on Radio One, only journalists. Which misses the point with As It Happens: the segments are set up by an announcer who can inject the items with appropriate levels of gravitas or comedy.

    It also sums up everything that’s been wrong for me about CBC Radio One:  They have less and less good programming, they have moved away from the folksy, intelligent atmosphere that made it distinctive and they stopped getting what their core audience wants because they’re convinced another one lies somewhere else out there.

    The irony is…for the past ten years I have been their elusive 20-40 demographic. I came to CBC Radio One because it was the best place to listen to intelligent, funny, persuasive, thoughtful discussion. Nowadays as a listener, I’m more alienated than ever.  It makes me wonder who else they’ve lost while hunting for the great white whale of hipper listeners.

    Posted by graeme | (2) Comments | Permalink

    << Strangers on a GO Train   |   Main   |   By The Numbers >>

    Scott  on  04/14  at  07:45 PM

    I’ll see your rant and raise you a “Go”

    My CBC these days consists of cherry picking podcasts (as I am also a sad fan of Jonathan Goldstein).

    Eric  on  04/14  at  10:18 PM

    Jonathan Goldstein isn’t so great…  it’s all about Gregor.

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