Monday, April 21, 2008

CBC’s Radio Two is being run into the ground



CBC’s Radio Two is being run into the ground,

writes Howard Knopf

The devastation of CBC Radio Two in the last year by a small cadre of senior and middle managers after decades of distinguished history is a travesty that is becoming a tragedy.


Never before in Canadian culture has so much damage been done to so many by so few so fast. The devastation of CBC Radio Two in the last year by a small cadre of senior and middle managers after decades of distinguished history is a travesty that is becoming a tragedy. And it will soon get even worse. If this isn’t decisively reversed now, many children - especially those outside of the big cities - are going to grow up in Canada with virtually no exposure to classical music. Moreover, many older people who continue to pay lots of taxes - and to vote - will arguably be deprived of their right to hear “a wide range of programming that informs, enlightens and entertains” as required by the Broadcasting Act.

By fiat of elite CBC management, dead European classical composers will be all but purged from the airwaves. Living serious music composers will be marginalised unless they have broad appeal, like Phillip Glass or Marjan Mozetich. Forget about the more challenging modern masters like Elliott Carter, R. Murray Schaeffer, or Harry Somers. They are no longer important or even relevant in the brave new diverse world of CBC. Even the CBC’s own flawed small-sample survey research that supposedly justified the new “renewal” indicated that 49% of respondents who listened to Radio Two wanted more “classical” music and only 32% wanted less. Likewise, only 35% of respondents wanted more of “today’s popular music” and 56% said they wanted less.

As a result of CBC management’s plan to abandon the “over 50" audience in its doomed mission to win the hearts, minds and ears of a younger generation, we’ll soon hear lots of Feist and countless lesser wannabe song writers and performers. We’ll hear CanCon Old Gold that is too worn out for commercial radio, such as BTO, Lighthouse and Anne Murray. These will be the new “classics.” We’ll also hear much more Old Gould, which is always good for Canadian flag waving. Just what the downtown Toronto music elite establishment wants us to hear because that’s where the money is.

Out with the old elite. In with the new elite, who will include the very successful commercial musicians and record companies who recently signed a very expensive ad in the Globe and Mail, clearly suggesting the answer to the question of “cui bono” (who will really benefit) from all of this.

Speaking of elites, the elite few that are now running Radio Two (into the ground, in my opinion) want us to believe that all music is equal. But it isn’t. Popular music is rarely really “good” music that will endure and become classical. Much of it is part of the junk and fast food of modern culture.

Pierre Juneau did a great thing for Canadian commercial music with the Canadian content requirements. But let us not gild the lily by turning the CBC into a second rate commercial network. That would not only be contrary to the Broadcasting Act. It simply won’t work because CBC doesn’t have the skills to make it work.

One of the yet unexplored ironies of this sad Canadian version of a cultural revolution is that this exercise in inverse elitism may end up actually costing the CBC a lot of money, despite the stated goals of CBC management to the contrary. For example, CBC has just killed off the CBC Vancouver Radio Orchestra, the last remaining jewel in a crown that was once acclaimed throughout the world. No less than Igor Stravinsky, the giant of all twentieth century serious composers, chose to use the long gone CBC Symphony Orchestra in Toronto to make some of the most definitive recordings of his own music, including the legendary performance of his Symphony of Psalms that he conducted in 1963. Naturally, in classic Canadian fashion, the orchestra was disbanded the following year.

CBC claims that eliminating its Vancouver radio orchestra will save money. It reportedly cost only about $600,000 a year to run the orchestra. Even CBC brass claim they will save less than a million a year with the cut. Much of that will now likely go to recording and subsidizing commercial music.

Moreover, here is what CBC is not telling us. In dumbing down to five hours a day of “classical” music (in the middle of the day when almost nobody can hear it), CBC will greatly increase its airtime for copyright protected music (music not in the public domain). This means that CBC’s copyright tariff costs will surely increase. At last report, the CBC was paying almost $1.5 million a year to SOCAN as of 2005 for its radio activity alone - for the use of repertoire that historically has included a lot of public domain classical music. According to Canada’s Copyright Board, in 1998 the percentage of “protected” music played on CBC radio overall was somewhere between 21% and 24% of its broadcast day. Clearly, this percentage will now rise substantially.

Whatever calculation may have been in place before will likely now change. Someone will probably do some arithmetic on the back of an envelope and suggest that CBC should double or treble or increase even more that amount of $1.5 million a year in view of the fact that the dreaded (dead for more than 50 years) European composers will be taking up very little time now on the CBC’s subsidized radio network. CBC will likely agree rather than offend Canada’s commercial music elites and have to go to the trouble of actually having a hearing at the Copyright Board, which it hasn’t done for a very long time. Such increased payments would be perfectly consistent with CBC’s new policy of pandering to these commercial elites.

So the small saving realized from killing off the last radio orchestra in North America will likely be more than offset by increased SOCAN payments alone. This is not to mention inevitable new demands by NRCC - the record companies’ and performers’ collective that is trying to play catch up and then some with SOCAN. NRCC will also greatly benefit from the banishment of old foreign recordings and their replacement with newer Canadian product. Needless to say, most if not all of these extra tariff costs will go to the commercial music interests that CBC will now actively promote and play at taxpayers’ expense.

Even though SOCAN takes in well over $200 million a year, very little of this money goes to serious music composers in Canada. Many of the best known names in Canadian serious music (at least they were well known up until last year when CBC management cut the much loved and acclaimed “Two New Hours” show) earn barely enough money from SOCAN to cry in their beer, and only a few beers a year at that.

One hears that even very well known “serious” composers in Canada are earning well under $10,000 a year from SOCAN - many less than $100 a year. Much of these meagre amounts come from outside Canada because SOCAN’s distribution rules have greatly hurt serious composers since the merger of CAPAC and PRO into SOCAN was allowed in 1990. This is the way the copyright system works in Canada. It rewards commercial success and has nothing to do with merit or artistic importance. This is not the case in Europe which has “cultural funds” institutionalized in the collective system. Indeed, Europe still has magnificent public radio networks and radio orchestras. The BBC alone has five orchestras and the BBC Singers. There are many great radio orchestras on the continent.

It is true that the world has survived admittedly more drastic cultural revolutions. However, even so, what is happening on Front Street at CBC headquarters is still very disturbing.

Moreover, bad as this is, some are cynical enough to see the possibility of an even bleaker future unfolding than is now apparent. This could entail the possibility that, in the longer term, Canadian listeners/taxpayers will become so turned off that they will beg to eliminate or privatize CBC radio. Then, in typically Canadian fashion, the Government might even end up having to pay an opportunistic party to take over the surely very large liabilities for salaries, severances, and other items that the accountants and lawyers will surely come up with. We could then see a national version of Moses Znaimer’s CFMZ.

Enough said. Whatever happens, Canadian taxpayers will soon end up paying much more for much less.The current disaster in Canada is easily reversible with appropriate changes by or, if necessary, in and to CBC management. This must happen as soon as possible.

By the way, Ben Heppner grew up in Dawson Creek, somewhere in northeastern B.C. He won the CBC Talent Festival (which no longer exists) in 1979. This launched his career. How will the next Ben Heppner develop? He is one of many wonderful CBC stories. There might have been many others. But they won’t be told because they will now never happen.

Howard Knopf is an Ottawa cultural curmudgeon, former CBC recording artist, formerly fervent CBC Radio Two listener, and copyright lawyer.

The Hill Times


  1. Excellent article.
    This article should be brought to the attention of the CBC brass. If they'll listen.

  2. Thank you Howard. When we farmed in Nova Scotia, 1971-86, what is now called Radio Two was our lifeline to the rest of Canada and the world. Since then my listening to Radio Two has steadily declined to virtually zero thanks to the deterioration in progamming of all sorts. I may be well over fifty, and therefore of little interest to current CBC management, but I am still an active citizen and classical music devotee. This means more CD's and print , less CBC in my life.

  3. Perhaps the reason for this change is embedded in the result. If copyright costs go up for the CBC then this will give more excuses for the goofballs in Ottawa to destroy the network entirely. The predecessors of the current Conservative party have always hated the CBC. Intelligence is the enemy of tyranny. It's hard to imagine that anyone who likes Mozart is likely to vote for these airheads. This sounds like the role of the pornography industry in Nazi Germany. Pander to the stupid and you can tighten your grip over everyone.