Friday, May 2, 2008

Interview with Mark Steinmetz and Chris Boyce on "Inside the CBC"

There is a very revealing interview with Mr. Chris Boyce, CBC Radio’s Director of Programming, and Mr. Mark Steinmetz, CBC Radio’s Director of Music, on the “Inside the CBC” web site. You can find the transcript for the interview on the Inside the CBC web site here.

I have copied the full text of the interview below, for fear that it will some day be removed from the “Inside the CBC” web site.

Note that the interview was apparently added to the “Inside the CBC” web site on April 30, and that comments to this interview will be closed on May 6. So make your comments while you can!

Maffin: There’s been lots of chat these days on the blog, and in the media, and inside the CBC around the changes to CBC Radio Two, specifically the reduction of classical music being played, the addition of a streaming classical music station online and closing the closing the CBC Radio orchestra. It’s been very contentious, and I’ve got a couple people with me from the CBC who will hopefully shed some light and maybe explain some of this. One is Mark Steinmetz. Hi Mark.

Steinmetz: Hi.

Maffin: Briefly, what do you do?

Steinmetz: I’m the Director of Radio Music.

Maffin: And what’s your background?

Steinmetz: I’ve been at CBC for over fifteen years. Was a producer, did disc shows, recorded concerts, recorded cd’s, and went to music school, and that’s it.

Maffin: Chris Boyce is the newly minted Director of Programming. Hi Chris.

Boyce: Hi Tod.

Maffin: You came through the Director of Program Development, and then you had some time at DNTO. Where have you been, briefly, at the CBC?

Boyce: You’re right. Before I got in to management, I was Executive Producer at DNTO and the Content Factory, producing a wide range of content for CBC Radio. And television. Most recently, I was Director of Program Development where I worked developing a wide range of programming, from current affairs, to cultural programming, to music. I just started officially a few weeks ago as Director of Programming.

Maffin: Just by way of disclosure, you used to be my boss when I worked at DNTO. I believe I still owe you five bucks.

Boyce: You were an exemplary employee.

Maffin: That’s so not true.


Maffin: Before we get to the topics at hand and the controversial aspects, I want to ask a couple of questions on the overall environment. Maybe Chris, you might be best to answer this. How has the way that we listen to radio changed in the last five to ten years? Are we listening more or less? Do we listen in different places than we used to?

Boyce: If you look at the overall radio environment in Canada, people are listening to slightly less over-the-air radio. Where it’s most predominant is in the under thirty-five demographic. Thirty-five plus people have lost about an hour of listening a week, still in the twenty hour a week range. The drop off is most noticed when you’re under thirty-five, and incredibly noticeable in the under eighteen demographic.

Maffin: It’s sort of an obvious answer, I suppose, but I guess those people are turning to podcasts and satellite radio. Where are we losing them to?

Boyce: That’s the million dollar question, Tod. I think it’s safe to say that people are finding any number of places, whether it be satellite radio or podcast. Everybody now seems to own an iPod and essentially programs their own music, so in the digital sphere, it’s not just other programmed radio services. It’s people essentially creating their own programming as the technology has enabled them to essentially replicate the experience of listening to a radio station but programming it themselves.

Maffin: I have to say, since podcasting came online a couple years ago, I listen to almost no radio live off the radio now. I subscribe to CBC podcast, NPR, ABC and stuff like that every day. It really changed my listening anyway.

Steinmetz: There’s another fact that we just found out. It’s between, I think, sixteen and twenty-five percent of listeners of traditional radio are actually listening off of their computers, so they’re not even listening to radios, like radio units. They’re listening through their computers. That’s across North America, so that’s interesting, as well.


Maffin: I want to get to that as well, when we talk about changes to the classical music, because I know that one of the things we’re going to be adding is an online radio station. But let’s start more widely with the changes to Radio Two overall. I was looking through the blog comments, and of course, we’ve had plenty. There was a fellow named Alan Shearn, of course, you never really who’s name it really is, so a person who calls himself Alan Shearn reminded people in there, there’s an old saying that says if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. CBC’s certainly changing. I don’t know whether we’re fixing, maybe we are. Does that mean Radio Two is broken?

Steinmetz: No. Radio Two, it’s a quality service. I think there are two things that we’ve realized over the past few years. One is that we’re not adhering to the overall mandate. That is that the Radio Two public space reflects the broad range of music making in this country. We don’t feel that we’re living up to our mandate, and the second reason is we described as a sustainable audience. We’ve got a relatively good audience, but fifty percent of the audience is over sixty-five. We appreciate that audience. We want to keep that audience, but the fact of the matter is the thirty-five to sixty year olds are not coming in behind them. Our audience, over the last twenty years, has grown twenty times faster than the Canadian population. Everyone thinks that the boomers are coming and they’re going to discover classical music, but the truth is that thirty-five to sixty group are not coming to our service. Over the last bunch of years, we’ve been asking ourselves why that is. And there’s many reasons for that, but those are the two reasons. We need a sustainable audience. We need to find an adult audience that will come to us and replenish us and keep us going in to the future.

Boyce: Tod, we have a great classical music service, but the reality of music in Canada today is there’s a whole list of genres of music that people listen to and that are made across Canada. Roots, world, folk, blues, jazz, contemporary music. There’s singer song writers, there’s a ton of incredible music being made in Canada today that just isn’t heard on Canadian airwaves. It’s our responsibility as Canada’s broadcaster to bring that music to Canadians wherever they live, across Canada. For us, that’s what this is about. It’s about bringing Canadian music to Canadians and it’s not really something that anyone else is doing in Canada right now.

Maffin: I wonder if we sometimes end up accidentally shooting ourselves in the foot though. Sometimes we’ll give examples of artists that would be played. I remember when Freestyle was about to launch here in Vancouver. Somebody, somewhere at the CBC mentioned, probably in passing, that among the many Canadian artists they’ll be playing we’ll see some lighter fare. There occasionally be Madonna. Of course the media reported, CBC Radio goes pop radio. I kind of fear we may have done the same thing by mentioning Celine Deon and Joni Mitchell as examples, so let’s set the record straight. When people tune in to the new CBC Radio Two in the fall, what will they hear? Will it be an easy listening station?

Steinmetz: No, it won’t be an easy listening station. It’ll be a station that brings quality music across genres to Canadians. We’ll not be focusing in on the top ten hits of this country, the commercial stations do so at presenting to Canadians. There are thousands of pieces of music across genres, including classical music, made in this country that are not heard. Quality music, across genres. We will be reflecting that music. You’re right about you mention one or two artists, and I think the two artists that were mentioned in passing long ago were Serena Ryder and Joni Michell, and all the sudden that’s what CBC Radio Two’s going to become. I don’t know where Celine Deon came from, but anyway. The fact of the matter is, will there be Joni Mitchell on the service? Yes, there will be some Joni Mitchell on the service, but it’s not going to be exclusively a service that is going to play music just like Joni Mitchell. I guess that’s the key. Whenever you bring up an artists name, then that’s what happens. Anyway, quality music across genres.

Boyce: The bottom line, Tod, is tens of thousands of cuts of music are made every year in Canada. A few hundred of them ever get heard with any regularity on commercial radio, so there is a really deep catalog of great Canadian music that nobody gets to hear. We’re going to put that on the radio.

Steinmetz: That’s right, and the number is often cited as thirty thousand and acknowledged that there are thousands that aren’t very good. And we will avoid those not very good ones, but there are thousands that are excellent and quality recordings that are heard nowhere else, and we will reflect those recordings.

Boyce: And we’re excited because it’s a radio service that doesn’t exist anywhere else in Canada right now.

Maffin: As an aside, I actually have a list of music I think is really bad. Can I just email that to you and maybe we can make some sort of arrangement?

Steinmetz: Sure.

Boyce: A “do not play” list.

Steinmetz: I get lots of those lists, Tod.

Maffin: It kind of raises in a way, I wonder how diligent we would have to be to ensure that we don’t compete in a way. There’s a commenter on the blog, named Dave, who wrote on April first. This is his comment, the new CBC Radio Two will be more like pop stations than it was before, and I think you’ve addressed that, but he goes on to say, it may not occupy exactly the same terrain as a pop station, but it certainly may appeal more to pop listeners, which I think might be true. Therefore, regardless of whether we attempt to compete with the pop stations, we kind of are in a way competing with them, so will we be paying close attention to make sure we don’t match those, or is that not really in our radar?

Boyce: We know what the service is that we want to make. We know what the music is that we think Canadians want to hear, that they aren’t hearing now. We’re going to put it on the air. If that’s something that’s appealing to people who are presently listening to another radio station, that’s great, but for us, this is about what it is to be a public broadcaster in Canada in the year two thousand and eight.

Maffin: To be fair, the numbers on Radio Two are not that great. I think, just over three percent of Canadians, who listen to the radio, tune in to Radio Two.

Steinmetz: That’s right.

Maffin: So how do we defend against charges that these changes are just an attempt to get higher ratings? And are higher ratings that bad?

Boyce: We’re a public broadcaster. Our job is to serve the citizens of Canada. If the citizens of Canada aren’t consuming our service, I don’t think we’re doing a very good job as a public broadcaster. That’s very different though, than going out exclusively to get the largest audience possible, by putting whatever we think will go on the air to attract that audience. For me, attracting Canadians is important, because they are our constituencies. They are our clients. They are the people who we serve. How many of them are listening is only one of a whole bunch of measures that you use to measure success.

Maffin: Was money, at all, a criteria here? How does this change Radio’s Two budget? Does it save us money, or cost us money?

Steinmetz: Neither.

Boyce: We’ll be spending about the same on the service after the change as we were before. What we spend it on, that’s where the change will be.

Steinmetz: I was just going to say that one of the things that will remain the same is that we’re going to bring quality presentation to the schedule. What separates us from the commercial stations, first of all, is we’re commercial-free and that’s obvious, but the second thing is there will still be the contextualization of music across the schedule. There will still be that in-depth look at music, so regardless of genre, the quality of presentation is still something that’s really important to us.

Maffin: Since you brought up the commercial-free point, is it your position to guarantee that Radio One and Radio Two will remain commercial-free? When we’re starting to see a little bit of slippery slope with the podcasts, which are now sponsored, are there any plans, or research, or anything going in to considering adding that to the terrestrial service?

Boyce: We have no plans whatsoever to add any commercial sponsorship to our over-the-air service.


Maffin: Okay, let’s move on to, more specifically, the classical changes, which of course, have gotten most of the attention around this. I presume we’ve done polling on music tastes among Canadians. Do fewer people in Canada like listening to classical music? Is that part of this decision?

Steinmetz: Fewer than what?

Maffin: Fewer than in the past?

Steinmetz: No, it’s basically been between four and six percent of Canadians listen to classical music at some point in the year.

Maffin: So the preference hasn’t changed? It’s not like people are listening to it less as a whole, as a genre? Fair to say?

Steinmetz: No, I think it remains stable. In fact, I know in the digital space the consumption of classical music is actually quite high. The changes are not about classical music. Classical music is doing very well. It continues to do well. Our changes don’t mean the death of classical music in this country. And in fact, as I was saying, on the digital space there’s a great demand for it.

Boyce: These changes are about everything else that we want and need to be doing, rather than anything to do with whether people are listening or not listening to classical music. The reality, Tod, is that as an over-the-air service we have one music channel, and it’s what is the range of music that we need to put on that channel. The beauty, as Mark says, of the digital space is that we have way more flexibility in targeting music to niche audiences. Come September, if you’re in to classical you will be able to listen to a classical web radio station. Same for jazz, singer song writer or contemporary Canadian compositions. Part of this is the reality, all of those music genres exist on Radio Two, we just have the ability in the digital sphere to target to people’s interests a little better.

Steinmetz: Yeah, you heard it here first actually, Tod, because we haven’t announced it yet, but we do want to add a fourth station, a contemporary classical music, all one hundred percent Canadian composed art music digital streamed. We intend to launch that as a fourth one. We’re saving that announcement for a couple of weeks from now, but there, you heard it here first.

Maffin: What does “art music” mean?

Steinmetz: Good question. I guess it is composers in this country who come from the classical music tradition. It’s not electronica. It’s not contemporary new popular music. It used to be [called] serious [music].

Maffin: Will it dive in to the area that perhaps, Brave New Waves used to cover, which was further on that edge?

Steinmetz: We feel that Radio Three does a lot of that similar kind of programming. There was a show we had on the air ago called Two New Hours, and it’s that kind of contemporary music we’re talking about. We haven’t designed the playlist. We haven’t designed what it’s going to be, but it will be that genre, sort of twentieth century, twenty-first century Canadian composed music.

Maffin: Mark, how does that process work, you mentioned designing playlists and things?
Steinmetz: We’ll be putting a group of producers together to come up with what it would sound like. We create intentions of where we want to go. We set criteria. Then producers get together and they, through program development, come up with what the musical framework and what the musical world and tone is going to be. That kind of work still has to be done.

Maffin: Did I read right that we’re calling them Radio Four, Radio Five and Radio Six?

Steinmetz: Nope.

Maffin: Okay.

Boyce: At this point, we’re still figuring out how they’ll all be branded. To be honest, for the online stations we’re still figuring out exactly what the playlists will look like, and what the range of music is. At this point, we know we’re doing them. We know the broad areas that we’re going in to, but we haven’t finished the developmental work on exactly what they’ll be, Tod.

Maffin: So how many stations?

Steinmetz: We’re looking at four. Generally, one will be a jazz station, one will be a classical music station…I should call them streams actually. I think that’s a better word. One of them will be this contemporary music one that I was talking about. And then one will be feature singer song writers’ songs across genre.

Maffin: Will there be commercials on those streams?

Boyce: There certainly won’t be commercials, per se. There may be a short, ten second sponsorship message, like a podcast, but certainly no commercials.

Maffin: Are these hosted stations? Will we actually hear someone introducing and chatting, or is it essentially like Radio Three has a station on the internet, but it’s primarily just music, music, music, back-to-back, with some pre-taped host?

Boyce: It’ll be mostly a music-focused service.

Maffin: So no live hosts:?

Boyce: Again, that’s some of the details we’re working on, but the expectation is the focus is on the music.

Steinmetz: Yeah, and you’ll know it’s CBC Radio Two.


Maffin: Let’s talk about the orchestra briefly. The only question I really have here is why close it?

Steinmetz: Why close it? Because we had to make choices. We had to make a choice about where we wanted to direct the money that we have. We thought about it for a long time and we feel that by reallocating the money to other music productions across this country, including classical music, including [orchestral] commissions…It was a very tough choice, but we felt that was a better use of the money overall.

Boyce: It’s interesting, Tod, the CBC Radio Orchestra was created seventy years ago at a time when there were no other orchestras in Canada creating Canadian classical music. Seventy years later, there are essentially, over forty orchestras across the country. The situation that led to the creation of the orchestra is very different than the situation we find ourselves in today. As Mark said, this is about getting the most bang for the buck. It’s about the most efficient use of resources, and it’s a very, very difficult decision to make. Nobody wants to see the orchestra go, but that’s the reality that we work within.

Maffin: How much money in real dollar terms was it consuming?

Steinmetz: Can’t go there. I think in media it’s between five hundred thousand and a million dollars.

Maffin: And do you dispute the figures the media have come up with?

Steinmetz: No, I don’t, but budgets change year to year. What I can tell you though, ten years ago the Radio Orchestra did more than it did today. As years go by, it’s hard to sustain, and to keep cutting back the season, keep cutting back the concerts became not an option.

Maffin: Just to play devil’s advocate and be fair, the decision to cut back concerts and you mentioned slowly reducing, that’s not something that just happens by osmosis. There’s a decision at the CBC to reduce the level.

Steinmetz: Yeah, that’s right. We made a decision.

Boyce: But it’s not a cost cutting move, Tod. It’s about using the limited resources we have in the way that will create the most impact across the country. That’s the bottom line.

Maffin: Okay, and that makes sense. The details on that I’d love to get a little more sense of. Does this mean we’re going to become a grant giving organization, or we’ll just record more concerts, or are we going to commission specific pieces? Where will that money, specifically [Sound Cuts Out].

Steinmetz: We’re not going to be a grant giving organization, but we are going to be upping what we call the commissions budget here for orchestral commissions. That’s for sure to make up for the decision that we made about the orchestra. Then we’re going to be reallocating to music productions, recording concerts, more concerts than we had before. That’s the goal.


Maffin: Anything that I’ve missed in this quick interview that you want to add?

Boyce: I’m just really excited about what we’re launching in September. For the first time there is going to be a truly Canadian music service that reflects the music that’s being made across Canada to Canadians. To be honest, Tod, I’m really excited. I think it’s an amazing opportunity for Canadians to get something that they’ve never had access to before. I can’t understate the impact I think this is going to have for Canadian musicians and for Canadian audiences.

Maffin: Fantastic. How can people continue to add their thoughts in to this dialogue?

Boyce: If people are looking for more information about what we’re doing, there’s information on the Radio Two website, CBC dot C-A slash Radio Two. There’s a little section that you can look at, which talks about the new Radio Two, what we’re doing, what our plans are. We’ll be updating that as we head towards the launch in September.

Maffin: There’s always, of course, commenting on the CBC blog at Inside the CBC dot com, and CBC dot C-A slash contact is a web form there where people can send their opinions in to the CBC, and those emails do get read. We actually have a department. I don’t know how many people it is, a dozen I think, or more, who read those responses, collate them, put them in front of senior managers, as well, so those messages do get through.

Steinmetz: Oh yeah. We see them all.

Maffin: Just a quick housekeeping note. Some people may wonder why Jennifer McGuire is not on this call. Jennifer, of course, was quoted in the media for a lot of these things. That’s because at the time, she was largely responsible for communicating this. She has now moved on to another role inside CBC News. Mark Steinmetz, Director of Music for CBC Radio. Chris Boyce, Director of Programming. Thank you so much for your time today.

Steinmetz: Welcome.

Boyce: Thanks, Tod.

I find it interesting that Mr. Steinmetz and Mr. Boyce are only now beginning to explain the rationale for the changes that have been taking place at CBC Radio Two for the past year. I applaud their attempt to explain their thinking in this interview with Mr. Maffin, even if it is only on the “inside the CBC” web site, which I suspect very few CBC Radio listeners know about.

The changes that are being made to the CBC Radio Two programming are unprecedented in the history of CBC Radio. And, to be quite frank, the execution of these changes has been a fiasco equally unprecedented in the history of any corporation, either public or private. The only new product introduction that I can think of that rivals CBC Radio’s botched attempt to change their offering to consumers is Coca-Cola’s attempt to introduce “New Coke” in the late ‘80s. Fortunately, Coca-Cola realized their blunder and reintroduced “Coke Classic” in an attempt to placate an outraged clientele. Will CBC Radio management eventually realize their mistakes and reintroduce “Radio Two Classic”. No, they won’t, because they are not dependent on their consumers for funding. Public funding means they have the luxury of toying with the programming until they drive their audience away, to Classical 96.3 FM in Toronto or to Sirius or XM satellite radio in those Canadian cities that have no commercial classical stations that are alternatives to CBC Radio Two.

There are many excellent points made by those who have left comments to this article. David’s comment that “It is rarely a good business decision to alienate customers you already have - what if the ones you think you will get don’t actually switch to your side? Then you’ve lost them all.” is especially relevant. Why is this so obvious to CBC Radio listeners, but lost on CBC Radio executives? Is it because some of the CBC Radio listeners actually work in competitive industries and understand what it takes to attract and retain customers, and how difficult it is to attract new customers? Because they have some real-world experience in running a business that must offer a product or service that their customers want, otherwise they will go out of business?

There are many points in this interview that I could comment on. However, I will only repeat a point that I made in a letter to Ms. Jennifer McGuire on June 7, 2007, and that is still relevant to the present discussion:

“I agree that the mandate of CBC Radio should be to deliver programming that is meaningful to Canadians. What, however, is programming that is "meaningful to Canadians"? Should it attempt to reflect every region, every ethnic group, every musical genre that may be performed in Canada? If you attempt this then it is my opinion that the result will be a musical melange that will be of interest to only a very few. The programming will become so fragmented and unpredictable that you will lose your audience to stations where the programming is more consistent. If you succeed in broadening the scope of the programming, only to reduce the size of your audience, have you truly succeeded in making CBC Radio more relevant to Canadians?”

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