Thursday, 11 June 2009

Getting Back to Basics: What the CBC Should Do If It Wants to Survive

Yesterday’s mention of Stuart Robertson’s gardening books reminds me to tell those of you missed his last phone-in on Tuesday, that he is retiring from the CBC as of the end of this week. He’ll be missed, but his absence brings up a whole lot of questions about the future of Canada’s public broadcaster.

Some 800 posts at the CBC and its French language equivalent Radio Canada were cut earlier this spring. Some of them were supposed to go through attrition, but others appear to have simply got pink slips. The slashes in staff and the inevitable changes in programming have raised a furor among listeners to Radio-Can. A petition collected 65,000 signatures on-line in 72 hours, and on Tuesday the Quebec legislative assembly unanimously passed a resolution calling for increased funding and respect of the long-standing mandate of the public broadcaster.

Supposedly a campaign to save English-language programming will be launched next week, but to date the most vigorous response has come from areas like Northern Ontario where local programming will be cut. Elsewhere a ground swell of support has not yet materialized.

Sadly, that is to be expected because over the last few years the CBC brass have systematically alienated its core audience in a misguided attempt to attract younger listeners and viewers. The result is pitiful. Take the most depressing case, that of Radio Two, which formerly broadcast serious music and now has "lightened" its offerings. In markets where its station competes with an all classical station, it's the latter that has gained strength, not the former. In Montreal, Radio Two had 2.3 per cent of Anglophone listeners in the fall, but 2 per cent in the period January 26 to April 26. The all-classical station which broadcasts in French, on the other hand, went from 3 per cent to 3.3 among Anglos and from 4.3 to 4.7 among Francophones.

While the National Post reported last weekend that nationwide the number of listeners who listened to Radio Two for at least 15 minutes a week went up by 53,000l to 1,157,200 since last fall, most of that increase appears to have come in Edmonton and Vancouver, and definitely not where there is a serious music competitor. (Those audience figures, by the way, are pathetic, just as CBC television figures are. Radio Canada, with a linguistic base about 30 per the size, regularly draws twice as many viewers and listeners because what it broadcasts is relevant to its community--and not because you can't get US TV and English-language pop everywhere in French Canada.)

More than a year ago when the CBC announced its remake of Radio Two, Globe and Mail columnist Russell Smith mused: “a radio station that is indistinguishable from commercial stations will have no reason to receive government support. Why not just shut it down already?"

That appears to be what is happening now, with the government of Stephen Harper looking on approvingly from the sidelines. The CBC has become of such marginal relevance to its Anglophone listeners that people don’t care, except where-- some how, because of some good management choices perhaps—the peculiar needs of a real community have been addressed.

The end might not be coming for Radio Canada because it has been more successful—or wiser—in understanding what is special about its audience. But if the CBC is to survive, the people in charge are going to get back to their real mandate of informing, entertaining and supporting the intellectual and cultural life of the country. In other words, get back to nurturing Canada's soul.

What about a petition about that?


Anne Peterson said...

130,000 people signed the on line petition which is still there to be signed.

lagatta à montréal said...

Right after the Radio-Noon phone-in, there is an utterly ghastly pop-culture type show called "The Point", if I recall (I walk over to the radio and switch it quickly to Espace-Musique if I'd been concentrating on my work and didn't think to). The young people I know don't like to listen to groovy pap like that; they are interested in culture and society.

Unfortunately the commercial all-classic stations have a very limited playlist; sometimes I tune in when both Espace musique and CBC Radio 2 aren't interesting, but I swiftly tire of hearing the same pieces over and over again.

For some reason local CBC shows here (Montréal) tend to be much more interesting than most of the network shows except the national news.

Mary Soderstrom said...

Pressure is the only thing that might work. That and perhaps changing the vibes in Ottawa. It's too bad when the CBC brass is so scared of the government. The whole idea of a public broadcaster is like that of the loyal opposition: civil society profits when there are elements who are securely part of it, yet feel free to criticize, inform, and broaden horizons (as in the case of music.)