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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 13, No. 9

Remember the Avro Arrow: How CBC Radio Lost its Way

by Wah Keung Chan / June 4, 2008

The destruction of CBC Radio 2 is akin to the loss of the Avro Arrow

This Issue's Classical Radio Coverage

Ongoing coverage

Growing up in 1970s Canada, a junior high school friend introduced me to the Avro Arrow, the Canadian fighter plane that was technologically 10 years ahead of what the Americans and the Russians had produced. In 1959, shortly after they came to power, the Conservative Diefenbaker government killed that pride of Canadian technology and took the baffling step of destroying all evidence of the Arrow's existence. Most of Canada’s best and brightest engineers and scientists left the country to power the American aeronautical industry and the space program of the 1960s. Not until the Canadarm in the 1980s did Canadian engineering recover its pride. In a similar way, the recent systematic destruction of CBC Radio 2’s classical programming and the closing of the CBC Radio Orchestra will have a detrimental effect on Canadian culture.

For the last 5 years, CBC and Radio-Canada (SRC) have been systematically dismantling their classical programming. The seeds were planted 10 years ago in Montreal, when media personality Jean-Pierre Coallier started the “easy listening” classical music station CJPX, or Radio-classique. To everyone’s surprise, marketed with ads and billboards using a black and white image of Beethoven, Radio-classique gained a major market share, doubling and tripling the listenership of Radio-Canada’s Chaîne-culturelle. The French network fought back valiantly to try to capture first place in classical music but in a misguided effort, by first using the image of Mozart to go against Beethoven, and then trotting out a retired Montreal Canadiens TV announcer to prop up ratings for its morning show. Misguided because instead of promoting its strengths – knowledgeable programming – it was pandering for ratings. Some market research would have told their decision-makers that Beethoven beats Mozart 2 to 1. Arguably, they could instead have countered Beethoven with Mahler to market themselves as providers of passionate and thoughtful content.

The Radio-classique conundrum exposed an existential question for the SRC decision-makers: how can the SRC, a corporation with hundreds of staff and a billion-dollar budget justify its existence when it draws fewer listeners than a company with a handful of staff spinning CDs?

Four years ago, when it abandoned its Chaîne-culturelle for its music-only Espace-musique, being all music to all people, Radio-Canada simply gave up the classical music and culture market. After its initial bump in ratings, it has taken over 3 years for Espace-musique to finally proclaim a rise in listeners, yet it is still behind CJPX. Looking back, the decision to abandon its cultural mandate is perplexing from both a business and philosophical sense. According to Jim Collins's best-selling business treatise, Good to Great, good companies become great (and great companies stay great) because they stay close to their core values, what they do best or what they are leaders in. By destroying the Chaîne-culturelle, SRC abandoned what it did best, and by playing more diverse types of music, the raison d’être of Espace musique became to produce ratings, the currency for commercial radio. In the process, it systematically eliminated many of its best programs and employees.

Why Ratings?

Ratings are important for commercial radio to set their ad rates and to keep their advertisers happy. Since CBC/SRC is publicly funded, the quest for ratings should not be a fundamental concern. However, CBC/SRC’s board has been lobbying the federal government to increase or index its budget, which has been frozen for years. Indeed, CBC/SRC should have been indexed long ago and the funding woes have long been felt. Instead of fighting for quality programming as the reason for increasing its budget, the CBC Board has chosen a politically convenient approach: wrapping itself around its new mission to be representative of the country's diverse mosaic. Seen in this context the recent push for ratings is nothing more than a tactic to justify increased funding, and failing that, a cost-cutting measure.

The reason for public radio

Canada already has many commercial radio stations spinning CDs, so it doesn't need a national broadcaster doing the same thing. The void created by the changes at the French network has now inspired Parti-Québecois MNA Daniel Turp to create the Mouvement Radio-Québec (see sidebar) as a means to promote arts and culture in Quebec. If there was a Trojan horse to revive the separatist debate, this would be it. Nevertheless, if CBC/SRC were to be created today as the national broadcaster, its mandate or mission would be similar to the proposed Radio-Quebec, that is, to be a conduit of arts and culture, ideas and science.

Canada already supports the arts through the Canada Council to the tune of $181 Million. Adding the amounts from cities and provinces, government funding for the arts would be close to $400 Million. A national radio should protect this investment by promoting the fine arts. It’s called synergy. n

(c) La Scena Musicale