Monday, May 7, 2007

My letter to Mr. Robert Rabinovitch

As I mentioned in my May 4 entry to this blog, I had decided to write to Mr. Robert Rabinovitch, President and CEO and Acting Chair of the Board of Governors of the CBC, after having sent my letters to Ms. Jane Chalmers and Ms. Jennifer McGuire. I decided not to wait until I had received a response from Ms. Chalmers and Ms. McGuire since I did not have high expectations that I would receive a response from either Ms. Chalmers or Ms. McGuire.

Mr. Robert Rabinovitch was, at the time that I wrote my letter (March 28 2007), the Acting Chair of the Board of Governors. Since then, a permanent Chair of the Board of Governors has been announced, Mr. Timothy W. Casgrain. I have yet to write a letter to Mr. Casgrain, but intend to.

Mr. Robert Rabinovitch had been acting as the Chair of the Board of Governors since the previous Chair, Mr. Guy Fournier, had resigned due to some unfortunate comments made in a column that he wrote in 7 Jours in September, 2006. For those of you who are unfamiliar with these events, they are recounted on this page on the CBC web site.

These comments were apparently the last straw for the Minister of Heritage, Ms. Bev Oda, following comments that Mr. Fournier made the previous May concerning the joys of defecation. This may all seem to be too hilarious to be true, but unfortunately it is not.

But I digress. Back to my letter to Mr. Robert Rabinovitch. I had found on the CBC web site the text of some remarks that Mr. Rabinovitch had made to the House Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage on March 22, 2007, just three days after the new CBC Radio Two evening schedule was launched upon an unsuspecting public. The House Standing Committee is apparently conducting an investigation into the "Role for a public broadcaster in the 21st century". You may read the mandate for the Committee's investigation at this link. (You may find the mandate/study themes somewhat wide-ranging and seeming to lack focus, but hey! that's why you're not an MP!).

You may find the full text of Mr. Robert Rabinovitch's remarks to the House Standing Committee here. The final remarks are worth repeating here:

"Today, CBC/Radio-Canada is at a turning point that no one-year answer, no one-dimensional response will resolve. What is required for CBC/Radio-Canada to reach its potential as an instrument of national policy is a new contract with Canadians. Like all contracts, this would lay out the obligations of all parties and have a specific term of, say, ten years.

Such a contract would provide guidance on the big questions I have just raised. It would be based on principles already enshrined in the Broadcasting Act and serve as the basis for a clearer contract with our 32 million shareholders.

A fundamental principle that underpins any contract is that sufficient resources be provided to be able to meet the expectations set out in the contract. Frankly, if the money isn’t there to fulfil these expectations, the contract will fail.

It is our clear hope that this Committee will see in the idea of establishing a permanent process to review CBC/Radio-Canada’s mandate the opportunity for Canadians to renew their relationship with their national broadcaster, and to clarify, through a new contract, how Canadians can be best served."

Now, to my somewhat naive mind, I find it extremely audacious for the President and Acting Chair of the Board of Governors to request a new contract with - who? Canadians? the shareholders of the corporation? - mere days after CBC Radio had screwed over said shareholders with the new CBC Radio Two evening schedule.

I wonder what might be the obligations that Mr. Robert Rabinovitch is referring to when he states that "Like all contracts, this would lay out the obligations of all parties"? Might one of the obligations be for the CBC to actually solicit feedback from it's shareholders and act upon that feedback? Or are the obligations more one-sided; i.e. taxpayers continue to fund the CBC with our hard-earned money and CBC management will do whatever they think is in our best interest with that money? I'll let you be the judge.

One of the "big policy questions" that Mr. Rabinovitch believes needs to be addressed is the following:

"Or this question: How do we engage Canadians in advancing democratic principles?

A significant part of the magic of our main Radio services is their devotion to providing the forum for the national debate. Whether it is Christiane Charette or The Current or Cross Country Checkup or Maisonneuve en direct our Radio is at its best when it hosts the country in conversation. Increasingly, we will use technology to bring that hosting role to the local level."

Well, they could start by soliciting feedback from listeners, don't you think? Advance some democratic principles in their own backyard, perhaps?

So, having read this, I sent the following letter to Mr. Robert Rabinovitch, President and CEO and Acting Chair of the Board of Governors of the CBC:

"Dear Mr. Rabinovitch

I am writing to express my outrage at the changes that have taken place in the evening schedule of CBC Radio Two. I have listened to the new programming for a full week and I am just as outraged now as I was when I first heard of the programming changes to come.

Why am I outraged? I am outraged because CBC Radio Two listeners have not been given a choice. I would have agreed with the launch of an alternative station to CBC Radio Two with this new programming. As a taxpayer I would have fully supported such an initiative. Alternatively, I would have agreed with the changes to the CBC Radio Two programming if there had been a public consultation with CBC Radio Two listeners, via public forums such as the CBC Radio web site or phone-in shows where the proposed changes could have been announced, discussed with the listening audience and only then, once the listeners had been allowed to express an opinion, changes had been made (assuming that the listeners supported such changes). It appears that nothing of the sort has taken place. As a regular listener to CBC Radio Two I expect I would have been aware of such a public consultation. However, the first inkling that I had of the changes coming to the evening schedule was an announcement by Danielle Charbonneau several weeks before the event that her program would be ending and new programs would begin March 19. I believe the CBC Radio Two listeners were blindsided by such sweeping changes.

In your March 22 appearance before the House of Commons Committee on Canadian Heritage you spoke of the need for an "explicit contract" (I presume between the Canadian public and CBC) and stated that "This is the kind of clarity and predictability that we seek". However, what kind of contract is it that allows one party to summarily change the terms of the contract without any means for the other party to seek redress? Can I withhold my portion of taxes that fund the CBC if I feel that you are not meeting the terms of the contract? No, obviously I can not. You state that you require predictability. Does the CBC Radio Two listener not also have the same right, or at least the right to be consulted about changes to the contract? Apparently not.

I am outraged because it appears that CBC Radio Two listeners have been told by CBC Radio Two that no, our tastes in music are not sophisticated or worldly enough. Instead of listening to classical music while driving home or preparing dinner, we should be listening to jazz. Instead of listening to classical performances after 8:00 PM, we should be listening to live performances, of many different genres, most of which we may have no interest in.

I am outraged that CBC Radio Two listeners have been deprived of a full newscast on the hour, and of the World at Six newscast on weekday evenings. Why would you think that CBC Radio Two listeners are not interested in a full newscast? Why must we switch to CBC Radio One on the hour, just to hear the news, then switch back to CBC Radio Two? You note in your March 22 address the "trend [in] the private sector of gradual withdrawal from local news". Does it help that CBC Radio provides little to no news on CBC Radio Two? I think not.

I am outraged that the Arts Report has been cancelled on Music and Company. Why was this done? What has taken it's place? How does this contribute to the quality of the programming or help keep the listener informed?

I am outraged at the lack of a public forum for listeners to express their views, share opinions and see responses from CBC Radio Two management. I strongly urge you to create a site on the new CBC Radio Two web site where listeners may express their opinions. Will this site reflect all of the opinions being expressed by CBC Radio Two listeners. No, it will not - I expect that many listeners do not have access to personal computers and are not computer and Internet literate and are therefore unable to use this site. I therefore also urge you to scan and post any written letters that you receive (such as this one), with the permission of the author, on such a site. Will CBC Radio Two create a site and go to such lengths to ensure that public opinion is expressed? I sincerely doubt it. Why should you? It is not in your interest, nor will it reflect well upon CBC Radio Two management.

What alternatives does the poor downtrodden CBC Radio Two listener have? Unfortunately, not many. As you may have noticed, there are few radio stations that broadcast classical music programs. In larger centres such as Vancouver, Toronto or Ottawa there may be one or two others. But what about smaller cities? The great value of CBC Radio Two was that it presented an alternative to commercial radio and provided a means for younger listeners to discover classical music. Will a young person discover the evening programming and become a long-term listener? I sincerely doubt it. Yet, in a Globe and Mail article on March 19, Jennifer McGuire (identified as CBC Radio's executive director of programming) was quoted as saying that "... we are trying to have a service that is sustainable, with an audience that regenerates". By presenting a consistent format, with programming that was an alternative to commercial radio, CBC Radio Two was able to do just that - acquire a new audience who would stay with the programming. I believe that the new programming in the evening is not sufficiently distinctive, or consistent, to provide an alternative to commercial radio that will attract new listeners. You state in your March 22 address of "a decade of almost continuous growth in audience share and loyalty". Clearly, then, CBC Radio was not broken - and yet you appear to be trying to break CBC Radio Two in the most egregious manner. As for audience loyalty - well, do you think your audience will continue to be loyal after this betrayal of their trust?

If this were a commercial radio station the outcome would be predictable. Listeners would abandon the station, advertisers would become aware of the declining audience and pull advertising, advertising revenues would suffer and the management of the radio station would realize their mistake. Management that must answer to shareholders would be quick to revert back to the format that was successful in the past, or go out of business. Given the lack of accountability of CBC Radio to the audience, I expect CBC Radio Two management to continue blithely onwards with their plans, unaware of audience interests and unresponsive to those listeners that express their opinions.

So, you may be thinking, what does this listener want? I would be satisfied with nothing less than a return to the former CBC Radio Two evening schedule, reinstatement of full newscasts on the hour, a return to CBC Radio Two of the World at Six newscast and reinstatement of the Arts Report on Music and Company in the mornings. If you want to create a new CBC Radio Four broadcast with the new programming then fine, as a taxpayer I would fully support this. However, I believe Canadians require and deserve an alternative to commercial radio that focuses on classical music that CBC Radio Two formerly provided.

Do I have any hope that this will happen? Yes, a great deal of hope. Do I have any expectations that this will happen? No, none whatsoever. Will I contact as many individuals and government officials as I can to help make this happen? Yes, I will."

Yes, I know that I recycled my letters that I sent to Ms. Jane Chalmers and Ms. Jennifer McGuire, and that the only original content here is some references to remarks that Mr. Rabinovitch made during his March 22 2007 address to the House Standing Committee. But I thought I'd include the entire letter here, just to have everything fully on the record.

Now, I won't leave you in suspense. Did I receive a response from Ms. Jane Chalmers, Ms. Jennifer McGuire, Mr. Robert Rabinovitch, or even perhaps from a spokesperson working at the CBC? Perhaps a letter beginning as follows:

"Dear CBC Radio Two listener and shareholder,

Thank you so much for taking the time and effort to contribute your comments. We appreciate the interest that you are taking in CBC Radio Two. You may rest assured that CBC Radio Two management will carefully consider your comments ..."

But of course I received no response and, the truth is, I did not expect to, based on my experience thus far in dealing with the CBC.

I had exhausted all venues in expressing an opinion to CBC Radio. Where to next? I decided that, since the House Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage is currently conducting "A full investigation of the role for a public broadcaster in the 21st century", some comments from a citizen and listener to the CBC would be in order. Coming up next: my letters to Mr. Gary Schellenberger (who, at the time that I wrote my letter, was Chair of the House Standing Committee), Mr. Maka Kotto (Vice-Chair of the House Standing Committee) and Mr. Jim Abbott and Mr. Andy Scott (Members of the House Standing Committee). I see, however, from the list of members for the Committee that there is a new chair and new set of members for the next session of Parliament. A whole new cast of characters to write to in the hope of getting some results!

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