DON'T GO CHANGING...
Listeners are furious over a CBC revamp. So what else is new, says the Corp
by GUY DIXON
Globe and Mail, Monday, November 28, 2005 Page R1
'Dumb-downed radio" is probably not the kind of listener response CBC Radio One's programmers were after. But they aren't surprised by the reaction. They hear that every time any major changes are made to Radio One's programming.
The recent revamp of Radio One's weekday afternoons was meant to provide a livelier, more pop-oriented feel -- a midday recess, some at the CBC declared -- with new shows introduced such as Jian Ghomeshi's The National Playlist, Vancouver-produced Freestyle and the expansion of local drive-time shows. But the changes launched Nov. 7 have brought reams of negative reviews from angry listeners.
"A copy of cheap AM material." "Commercial, banal chatter." "White bread." At least, the critics contacting the CBC remain colourful in their condemnation. Various Internet discussion boards and blogs are also laden with spite, and there's even a website (http://www.stopcbcpop.ca) with a letter-writing campaign against the recent Radio One changes.
Much of the vitriol has been aimed at Freestyle, the new Radio One show sandwiched between local noon-hour news and rush-hour programs.
It was chosen from various in-house pilots and proposals this summer and departs from the usual Radio One sound, with more pop music interspersed with offbeat news items, interviews and conversation between Kelly Ryan, a seasoned CBC Radio reporter, and Cameron Phillips, a former actor who had previously freelanced for the CBC. "Water-cooler fodder at its finest" is the show's slogan.
"Whenever there is a new change or new programming format that is introduced, this is the reaction. People, and radio listeners in particular, don't like change," said Jennifer McGuire, executive director of programming at CBC Radio, who helped create CBC Radio One's stalwart The Current, which attracted its own listener anger when it was introduced in late 2002. "But program development is crucial to a creative organization."
In short, CBC programmers must feel damned if they do, damned if they don't.
The latest round of changes was sparked by a study in the spring that determined, among various general findings about CBC Radio listeners, that 61 per cent of Radio One listeners would like more "entertainment" on the network and 66 per cent want (somewhat incongruously) more "comedy." Both of these suit Freestyle's format.
But according to a report distributed to CBC Radio producers, the CBC's National Audience Services department received 38 negative calls and two angry e-mails between Oct. 29 and Nov. 13 from people generally upset by Radio One's changes.
Yet Freestyle specifically attracted 144 negative phone calls, 173 negative e-mails and just eight positive e-mails during those two weeks.
In comparison, the long-running show Metro Morning in Toronto got one negative call, three negative e-mails and one positive one. (However, showing CBC listeners' steadfast ways and aversion to change, the local Ontario show Ontario Today, which is also being reworked, received 207 negative calls during those two weeks.)
Not all listeners were mad. Some said that Freestyle lifted their spirits, and although they thought they would hate the program, "change can be good," the audience service department reported. Of course, there's no telling what the majority of CBC listeners who don't bother to send in comments think.
But for Paul Steenhuisen, a listener in Edmonton and a composition teacher at the University of Alberta, "It's hard to find CBC on the dial now just by turning it on and listening for it as you scroll through. If you do that [at] certain times of the day, you could not find it at all. The character of CBC's original content is being minimized."
He has been among those leading the campaign against the new programming and has been actively contacting CBC senior management. He has also contacted them as a representative of the Canadian League of Composers, which has an interest in maintaining Canadian content, particularly the kind of Canadian content that rarely gets played outside of the CBC, such as new classical, avant-garde and less-commercial music.
He would even take exception to Freestyle if it played nothing but the most critically acclaimed Canadian pop music (say, an act such as Broken Social Scene) amid the co-hosts' conversation.
"I don't hear anybody begging for more Canadian pop music [on Radio One]," he said. Instead, serious discussions with writers talking about their writing, artists talking about their art and music which can only be heard on the CBC are what he wants.
However, CBC programmers are being told by their study that Radio One's own staff believes (83 per cent) that the CBC needs to broaden its definition of arts and entertainment, meaning an acceptance of more pop content.
It's also debatable whether a show such as Freestyle is merely copying pop radio. McGuire doesn't feel that it is, and it's true that the show doesn't have pop radio's usual cynicism and aggression. Also, the conversational bits between the hosts are obviously researched.
One show this week, for instance, interviewed a collector of airplane sick bags, which was preceded by Doug & the Slugs' perennial Too Bad. Later, there was a short interview with the founder of the Dull Men's Club, which came after Billy Idol's Mony Mony.
The following day, some of the segments were a little more sober, including an interview with an introspective collector of found film left behind in other people's old cameras.
McGuire says that the show is still evolving and that the CBC remains committed to it. It's part of what the CBC describes as an effort to keep programming relevant (a favourite word in last spring's study) to listeners, in other words to give them more of what they already know. Although many undoubtedly tune in to CBC Radio with the hope of being introduced to music and ideas that are new and enlightening.
It points to fundamental differences in how people listen to Radio One and what they expect from CBC Radio, and inevitably these differences spark angry phone calls and letters whenever there's change.