Friday, January 15, 2010

CBC Radio 2 Overhaul - more cheerleading from the desperate

The following article appeared in the January 11 edition of the National Post. You can read the article on the National Post’s web site here. I’ve also copied the text below in case the link to this article is ever broken, as often happens in the world of the internet.

CBC Radio 2: The mix fix

16 months after CBC’s overhaul of Radio 2, it’s like the all-classical version never existed — in a good way

T’cha Dunlevy, Canwest News Service
Published: Monday, January 11, 2010

"Hi, I'm Laurie Brown. Welcome to The Signal." These are a few of my favourite words. And I can hear them six nights out of seven on what just might be the best show on Canadian radio.

It's The Signal, like the lady said, on CBC Radio 2. Therein, Brown presents an array of evocative sounds, from the simply pretty to the esoteric and experimental, all with a fluidity and grace that can take you to unexpected places.

Much like Radio 2 these days. The dust has settled following the station's controversial makeover 16 months back, when it completed the transformation from an almost all-classical format to more varied programming featuring everything from indie-rock to folk, jazz, world and pop, with a little classical thrown in for good measure. The overarching emphasis is on Canadian content.

Brown arrived in 2007, at the early end of the change process. A veteran arts reporter for CBC-TV, it was her first foray into radio.

"I came to CBC and said I wanted to be able to do a music show that was capable of playing any kind of music, that was all about new music and about discovery," she says.

To her great surprise, her words fell on open ears: "For the first time in my entire career, CBC management was totally in sync," she said. "I hit the magic word: 'discovery.' I can't tell you how refreshing that was."

Another key player in Radio 2's overhaul is Rich Terfry, host of the station's recently expanded afternoon Radio 2 Drive. Also known as acclaimed rapper Buck 65, Terfry took over from revered DiscDrive host Jurgen Gothe in September 2008, replacing the classical symphonies of yore with a more youthful playlist.

He has been settling into his "first real job" ever since, weathering the initial storm of protest by keeping his head down, and emerging with one of Radio 2's most popular shows in the process.

"I don't look at emails," he said, reached at his Toronto home last week. "But I do get a sense of the people in the country, all over the country. After a while, you feel like you're beginning to develop a relationship with the whole country."

That's music to the ears of CBC programming director Chris Boyce, who sees Radio 2's metamorphosis as an opportunity to redefine the station's relationship with Canadians.

"We went into this with the theory that there is an amazing range of music being made in Canada," he said, "and very little of it is being heard by Canadians over the airwaves. We've been able to broaden the range of music being played on the station, being played on radio. It's been fantastically successful, if that's the measure."

It's not, or not the only one. Ratings matter, too, and Radio 2's are more or less on par with what they were before the change. The station reaches just over one million Canadians per week -- which is down 10% with a 2.7 share of the national market compared to its previous 3%.

So almost the same number, if not the same people, are tuning in. The average age of your typical Radio 2 listener before the facelift was a golden 65. It's now a sprightly 52.

"It's getting more evenly distributed," Boyce said. "To me, changing our audience is as important as increasing it. Is it about chasing younger listeners? No, we're a public broadcaster -- it's about serving all Canadians."

One of Radio 2's biggest coups has been its newfound support of Canadian independent music. A recent edition of Radio 2 Drive featured songs by Sarah Slean, Sarah Harmer, Chantal Kreviazuk, Native pop singer Elisapie Isaac, Sam Roberts, Joel Plaskett, K'naan, Stars, Feist, as well as established Canadian and international acts including Kate Bush, Wilco, Bob Dylan, Charlotte Gainsbourg, The Police and Drive hero Neil Young, who gets a daily tribute.

"Speaking not so much for myself but for Radio 2," Terfry said, "and listening to what management has to say, they want the show to be [one where] if people really want to know what's going on in Canadian music, what's up-and-coming, who are the artists making an impact, listen to this show and you'll know.

"The problem with that, the challenge from the beginning, is to get people to care about Canadian music. The average person doesn't."
The average person hasn't had much of an opportunity to care. Spin your way across the radio dial and you'll find station after station playing a mind-numbing loop of chart-topping pop, most of it from south of the border.

So for our national station to be presenting a homegrown alternative is a sort of quiet revolution. There has been resistance to Radio 2's makeover, from both the media and hardcore classical fans.

The latter can still hear their music during the daytime and on weekends, it should be noted, and all the time online on the first of Radio 2's four specialty channels: classical, jazz, Canadian songwriters and Canadian composers.

What's harder to hear is the emerging dialogue of a country coming to terms with its multi-textured musical identity. From Bob Mackowycz (weekdays) and jazz singer Molly Johnson's (weekends) eclectic Radio 2 Morning show to mezzo-soprano Julie Nesrallah's Tempo, Tom Allen's genre-spanning ( "from Bach to Bachman, Haydn to the Hip") early afternoon Shift, Andrew Craig's Canada Live and Katie Malloch's jazz show Tonic in the evening, there is lots to listen to.

Weekend offerings include Newfoundland musician Tom Power's Deep Roots, Bill Richardson's Saturday Afternoon at the Opera, Randy Bachman's Vinyl Tap and the ever-gregarious George Stroumboulopoulos's new Strombo Show on Sunday nights.

It's a lot to fit into a week without coming off like an allover-the-place college station. The trick is to have it all make sense, and create a flow from one show to the next.


General manager and executive director of CBC Radio's English services Denise Donlon has come a long way from co-hosting CityTV's The New Music with Laurie Brown in the late '80s. She became MuchMusic's VP and general manager in 1997 before becoming president of Sony Music Canada from 2000 to 2004. She arrived at CBC in September 2008, just after Radio 2's transformation:
Her opinion "I agree with the changes. [Radio 2] was really a service that was very niche before -- which is great for commercial radio, but as a public broadcaster, it meant so much Canadian music had no other area for exposure."

On the naysayers "You can't make everyone happy. ...We're trying to please not only our audience, but the Canadian cultural community, independent artists, major label artists, the classical community. We're serving many masters to celebrate the best of Canadian music."

On the bright side "There's a real depth of conversation and richness of programming; any other station would be racing to commercials, while we're talking about all kinds of things."

The most remarkable statement from the article is this:

Ratings matter, too, and Radio 2's are more or less on par with what they were before the change. The station reaches just over one million Canadians per week -- which is down 10% with a 2.7 share of the national market compared to its previous 3%.

As I pointed out in my letter to the National Post, it should be remembered that the goal of the CBC’s restructuring of CBC Radio 2 was to make Radio 2 more “relevant” to Canadians. Presumably, one measure of relevance is the number of Canadians listening to Radio 2. After all, how can Radio 2 be relevant to Canadians if no one is listening?

Yet, as T’Cha Dunlevy states in the news report, CBC Radio 2’s audience share has fallen 10% (according to his/her figures) since this grand experiment was initiated. In fact, recent BBM results indicate a more alarming loss of market share of approximately 38.4% in the major markets surveyed by the BBM. See my next blog entry to follow. For the sake of argument, however, let’s assume a loss of market share of 10%.

In a public corporation, any corporate initiative which resulted in a loss of market share of 10% would result in those responsible for the intiative being sacked, or at least being given other responsibilities where they can do less damage. Has this happened at the CBC? Apparently not – management at the CBC is too busy patting themselves on the back at the so-called success of the Radio 2 experiment. Meanwhile, formerly loyal CBC Radio 2 listeners have abandoned CBC Radio 2 for other media which are more to their liking, such as satellite radio or Wi-Fi radio.

Please, tell me again – how is this good for CBC Radio?

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