zondag, april 17, 2005

CBC Radio 3 joins the choir invisible

The following is an article I wrote about the demise of CBC Radio 3 that a Canadian magazine seems now to have taken a pass on. Rather than it going to waste, I thought I'd post it here.


'What sort of twisted jerk cuts funding for the CBC Radio 3 online magazine? I try not to wish ill will upon people, but someone in
Canada deserves to be tortured with that tool that carpenters use to shave wood off the bottom of doors' - 4 March posting, Slatch.com blog

So posted Jon Buonaccorsi on his Rhode Island-based indie music and pop-culture blog, Slatch.com. He's not the only one apoplectic about the CBC's little indie escàndalo. A small but dedicated corner of the blogosphere is incandescent that CBC has killed off their beloved online alternative culture weekly, CBC Radio 3, this month. Elsewhere, a blog by the team organising C'est Trop Court, an independent film festival in Nice, France, took time out to mark Radio 3's passing. There were even people in Canada who noticed its demise: Fat Citizen, an Ottawa blogger, has launched an online letter-writing campaign to save his beloved alternative, er, well what was it exactly? A radio station? A website? A magazine?

CBC Radio 3's concept was an authentically world-class combination of all three. It was 'multimedia', to use a wretched word long since thoroughly bleached of all meaning, but developed in a way that genuinely lived up to the hype of media convergence. CBC Radio 3 offering a non-commercial outlet for independent and unsigned music, non-traditional photography, young poets and authors of creative non-fiction and the bleeding-edge of creative web design, all with a very high CanCon quotient and was aimed at winning over new audiences to the values of public service broadcasting.

Over its short life span, Radio 3 won the Art Directors' Guild of New York award, the Prix Italia for radio and three Webby Awards - the holy grail of US new media recognition. Its innovative non-scrolling, non-vertical, page-turnable magazine-like design, offering a very eye-friendly readability genuinely unlike anything else on the internet, has even been included in textbooks about the media and is used as an example in university curricula around the world.

Not that, unless you were a member of the blogging, podcasting, indie-music-listening, poetry-slam-attending, zine-publishing cognoscenti, you would have even heard of the thing, as the CBC spent a heaping total of $100,000 on marketing its amazing little product, according to the former head of CBC Radio 3, Robert Ouimet, who has few kind words for the 'committee men' who have shuttered the site while spending considerably more ubiquitising George Strombolopoulos' The Hour, that very specimen of pop cultural product that upper managements tend to think 'The Kids' will be into.

'CBC Radio 3 did not achieve a wide audience as defined by CBC,' admits Ouimet. But the corporation hardly gave the little guy a chance, he points out: 'The publicity department actually refused to even send out press releases about Radio 3's awards.'

'CBC Radio‘s audience is predominantly over 55 and CBC Radio 2’s audience is even older. These projects were never meant for them. The premise behind CBC Radio 3 was that it was meant to speak to and engage an audience that CBC Radio traditionally has never been able to appeal to - 18 to 35 roughly. These are people that do not listen to CBC Radio 1 or Radio 2. No matter what CBC does, they fail at reaching this audience through the radio.'

Ouimet is concerned that by dropping efforts like Radio 3, the CBC is returning to the easy embrace of the CBC's traditional audience - middle-aged wheat-gleaners from Fort Armpit, Saskatchewan - and abandoning the next generation, who are far too savvy to buy into The Hour-style faux-hip swindles: 'You have to go to where the audience is. They’re online, they’re downloading music or grabbing podcasts, they are not getting up in the morning and saying to themselves, gee, tonight after midnight there’s some good music programming on CBC Radio 2 – as long as I can stay awake to listen to it between midnight and 4am, or maybe on Saturday night.'

Originally launched online in 2000 intending to attract younger audiences to the CBC, Radio 3 has been redeveloped a number of times, but was most successful with the launch of the Radio 3 online magazine in 2003. The magazine was the hub of the project, which also included a trio of new music portals, Newmusiccanada.com, Rootsmusiccanada.com and Justconcerts.com, as well an independent music programme, CBC Radio 3 Redux, which broadcast in the early, early morning on the weekend on CBC Radio 2. Radio 3 also brought under its umbrella Brave New Waves, the venerable CBC 2 late-night radio programmed dedicated to underground music that has saved the life of many an awkward, Jean-Genet-reading teenaged Smiths fan over the years.

Newmusiccanada.com in particular was popular amongst independent Canadian musicians. New bands from across the country submitted their music to the site, ultimately creating the largest database of Canadian music in the world, according to Ouimet, allowing young musicians the opportunity to have a potentially global audience listen to their wears. A number went on to sign record deals after being discovered on the site.

'These are award-winning young voices,' says Ouimet of all the musicians, writers, photographers and web designers that have been involved with Radio 3, 'bringing stories to life that do not get play elsewhere.'

Yet the CBC has announced that while musicians will still be able to upload their music, the three portals are to be combined into a single destination, with a single URL, and the magazine - which received the most traffic of all the sites in the small Radio 3 pantheon, is to be dropped altogether, and even the revered Brave New Waves has an uncertain future.

'Brave New Waves has not been cancelled,' says Steve Pratt, the unit's current director. 'It has, however, had a very long run on CBC Radio, and we are looking at alternative strategies to bring this kind of programming to our listeners – including different programmes'

'We've been CBC's best-kept secret and we think it's time we let more people know about all the great things we're doing,' reads the upbeat online missive announcing the Radio 3 magazine curtain call. The letter declares that to the extent that Radio 3 will continue to exist, it will change its focus to exclusively radio programming.

Pratt says he is disappointed that they don’t have the resources to maintain the production of the web magazine and to redesign the site at the same time. But ' there is a great deal of misinformation being spread, both in print and on the web,' Pratt warns. 'This is not the demise of CBC Radio 3. This is a reinvention of CBC Radio 3 to allow our programming to reach a much bigger audience.'

He says that the new product will see increased functionality around the music experience and will add a level of interactivity that didn't exist before, allowing the audience to communicate with Radio 3 and with each other.

The CBC has also partnered with an American satellite radio company, Sirius, to apply for a satellite music service in Canada. A decision concerning the matter by the CRTC will be made later this year. 'When Radio 3 was first created, it was a proposal for a national radio network,' elaborates Pratt. 'At the time, the proposal was rejected because of the cost. It was only then that the web strategy was created. With satellite radio, we have an opportunity to fulfill that original vision.'

CBC had originally planned to offer an entire Radio 3 channel, with 24/7 independent music on the satellite service, but they later rejected Radio 3 as the brand for that station and have decided on a music channel broader in appeal for one of the two channels they hope to offer via Sirius, not something just geared toward young Canadians. The other channel will be essentially a wholesale rebroadcast of CBC Radio 1.

So to the extent that there will be any expansion of Radio 3-style independent music on the radio, it will be as part of a broader, more populist CBC offering. Furthermore, the two CBC English-language channels on Sirius, will sit amidst hundreds of music channels on the almost entirely US channel line-up of Sirius and rival American satellite broadcaster, XM, which has also submitted a licence application to the CRTC.

Furthermore, XM is a paid service, not free over the air. Satellite radios cost around US$125, and require subscription fees starting at US$9.95 payable only by credit card.

'[Radio 3]'s work is outstanding,' CBC Radio vice-president Jane Chalmers told the Globe and Mail when the closure was announced. 'But if you walk down the street in Vancouver or Toronto, unfortunately, most people don't know what it is.'

So in order to raise its profile, the CBC has decided to repackage Radio 3 as, well, 'We're not sure exactly what it will be,' (Ms. Chalmers again).

Exactly how this will expand the CBC audience, Ouimet is unclear. 'If the thinking is that Radio 3 is too “unknown" now, imagine how obscure it will be when it is some part of a music channel, not called Radio 3, and competing with over 100 US made channels on a pay audience service. Huh?'

'At the most basic level, CBC Radio 3 was in trouble when there was a change in VP [to Chalmers] and program director in charge of radio [Jennifer McGuire],' says Ouimet.

'This ‘new’ plan was not one drafted by or involving the staff. It came as a complete surprise to them,' he adds. 'A year ago, when I was still the head of CBC Radio 3, we had developed a plan for Radio 3 that was signed-off by senior management that did not involve cancelling the Radio 3 website. In fact, it leveraged the critical acclaim and reputation for world-class work into other areas of CBC.'

The closure has resulted in the laying off of 18 young producers in Vancouver, and the contributors and musicians have been left adrift. A regular contributor, Billeh Nickerson, who edits Event magazine and is a contributing editor of Geist, is nettled by the actions of the CBC upper-management kulaks: 'I've used the site to find cover artists for the journal I edit and to find performers for events I produce. Radio 3 fostered a community of passionate artists and readers/listeners. Where will we all go to find each other now?'

He also doesn't hold out much hope for the new course: 'My concern is that they may be reverting back to their old ways and that a bunch of old suits may now be deciding what younger, more technological savvy folks want and need.'

In an era of hundreds of television channels, thousands of satellite and internet radio stations and millions of websites, the limited pool of advertising dollars is segmented amongst them all, increasingly limiting the ability of commercial producers to develop quality content. Public service broadcasting, which has no need for advertising as it is tax-payer funded, thus becomes ever more important, no matter which age audience is targeted.

The CBC's public-radio relatives, Australia's ABC and the ne plus ultra of public broadcasting, the BBC, are committed to exactly the sort of experimentation we had seen with CBC's Radio 3.

Originally launched in the seventies by the Labor government of Gough Whitlam with a progressive media mandate, ABC's Triple J station has long had a commitment to alternative music and features high levels of Australian content, radio documentaries, serials and long album cuts that often go unplayed on commercial stations, and is currently experimenting with digital radio.

The BBC has had its 'youth' station, Radio One, for decades, which, while offering fairly standard mainstream music during the day, if commercial-free, is renowned for its mix of music documentaries and alternative music and culture programming in the evening, and, of course, was home to the legendary DJ, John Peel, until his death last year.

In the last two years, BBC Radio has committed considerable funds into its expansion into digital audio broadcasting (DAB) and internet radio. Its 'alternative' music station, 6 Music, is widely admired by musicians, but the broadcaster has also developed digital channels for other audiences that are also often not usually commercially catered to. 1xtra is aimed at a British black audience perennially underserved by UK radio and has been as integral as urban pirate radio to the development of a definitively British hip hop scene in the last two years. Asian audiences of various demographics are targeted by the BBC's new Asian Network and young families have rediscovered spoken-word radio with Radio 7, with its children's story-telling and all-ages family comedy and drama programming. Despite recent attacks on public broadcasting in the UK by the private sector and private internet content publishers in particular, the BBC is committed to the project, and receiving zealous support from musicians, parents, and community groups happy to see a reinvigoration of that ancient medium, radio, with new, targeted content and incorporating new technologies.

While other public broadcasters such as the BBC have coherent, carefully planned strategies to take radio into the digital future, the ever-provincial CBC lurches from one scheme to another, feels Ouimet.

'[ABC and the BBC] are committed to serving a younger audience by investing and tweaking,' says Ouimet. 'In Canada, CBC has for a very long time had proponents of such services, but they’ve never been able to gain any substantial support. CBC’s under-45 demographic draw has been in steady decline since the 70’s, with no sign of doing anything but continue to fall.'

'I don’t think they get it. The vast majority of young Canadians don’t have any interest in the CBC as an institution (aside from Hockey Night in Canada on TV, which of course this year was cancelled), so this isn’t going to generate any significant push back. It makes me very, very sad to see the initiative just shelved.'

Oh well, at least the wheat gleaners of Fort Armpit still have their Rex Murphy.