CAN RADIO MAKE A COMEBACK?
INSIDE CBC THROUGH THE EYES OF TOMORROW
Radio? That’s television without pictures — and for the CBC, too often without an audience. Now it’s Operation Bootstrap for a near-corpse: a fresh new sound, a gamble for survival
CBC RADIO IS ENGAGED in a last-ditch push for survival. It’s a sort of Operation Boot-strap that follows almost 15 years of zombie-like repetition of what it had always done before TV took over our evenings.
The reassessment began with the appointment of bearded, 40-year-old Jack Craine as Director of CBC Radio three years ago. New programming formats soon began to pop up, fall down and reappear in other shapes so fast that it has been hard for the listener to keep up. Which is probably the way it should be during an upheaval — though it’s still not fast or bloody enough to satisfy many of the energetic people within the Corporation.
For one thing, the dramas of decision take place on lower Jarvis Street in Toronto, in a rundown ex-schoolhouse, architectural style Ontario Gothic (“WASP Gothic would be
more like it,” comments one disenchanted inmate) — unpleasant anyway — full of brokendown equipment such as microphones that were probably used during King George's final visit, and dirty studios, and tatty bits of drapery, and maybe the worst corporate cafeteria in existence. This was, believe it or not, the unifying mother of us all — the Radio Building of the CBC.
With that parental image, over the years it has become a gigantic womb-in, home to an impressive hierarchy of researchers, broadcasters, producers and network program supervisors who rush around trying to ward off obsolescence even though they suspect their chances of success are slim.
The set-up should be worth saving. It is, after all, the centre of an English network that spans the nation — partly through 189 little black boxes called low-power relay transmitters hooked into mountains in British Columbia and remote stretches of northern Ontario, bringing the word to communities that have no other.
But people’s listening habits have changed. Except for those lonely citizens up north and the scattered elderly who cling to their daily date with The Archers, nobody really pays much attention to minority-oriented “programs” in familiar time slots any more. The realization has finally hit everybody at CBC
Radio that there’s hardly anybody out there. Audiences arc particularly thin in the cities. CBC Radio has to begin justifying its existence as a tax-supported unifying force in Canadian life. And to do that it needs listeners.
Running a diverse countrywide network is not an easy job, particularly when the network must choose its content from all the cultural, political, economic and educational news, information and music that’s going for an audience in seven time zones. So it’s not altogether surprising if, in the midst of its Operation Bootstrap, the Corporation occasionally programs 1945-style material in 1968.
“No matter what we do, the bulk of the population is TV oriented. If you tell yourself TV never happened and go out blockbuster on things like drama and special events, you’re going to go down. We’ve learned it’s silly to put our heavy money into programs after 7 p.m.” — Jack Craine.
Much of what CBC Radio is doing lately is valid and pertinent — especially on feature shows such as Gerussi! and ambitious news shows such as The World At Six. So when the program planners blow it, as they usually do in light entertainment, you wonder at the inconsistency.
Though they acknowledge that it’s silly to put heavy money / continued on page 54
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“There’s the real world—and CBC’s lovely idealized world”
into programs after 7 p.m., they too often fall back on outworn program ideas — such as a relic-y quiz show called Now I Ask You, broadcast nationally at nine o’clock Saturday nights and featuring such personalities as Mavor Moore, James Bannerman and Morley Callaghan, with special guests such as June Cal I wood.
Despite its new thrust, the CBC network at certain hours seems determined to comfort those who still refuse to admit a change or accept the pop world around us. It offers them WASPy little reassurances that the old values are not gone, as a group of personalities sit around, talk and giggle delicately, mostly at inside jokes. It’s quaint — four knowledgeable people talking lightly about the real meaning of “free port” or the difference between reindeer and caribou. With some genius for selection, one night they gave as their prize copies of Stephen Leacock’s Further Foolishness.
You get the feeling sometimes that the network’s program planners are just waiting for someone to invent a way to play charades or musical chairs on radio.
“ You try and put together programming that makes sense, but it’s like baking an angel-food cake. Before you start somebody says,
‘But you have to use raisins.’ ” — Jack Craine.
“We have a lot of program commitments,” says Craine. “We are the main support for a number of musical organizations across the country. The money we pay them makes the difference between their lingering on and not succeeding.
“We have to use as many ACTRA performers as we can, which means the creation of programs that use actors and variety people. It’s a bind when you have to start with that as a consideration. It leaves you very little elbow room.
“Then there are farm and school broadcasts and we have a commitment to regional programming. We are dedicated to the Canadian mosaic to helping the havenots, so we can’t use the simple yardstick of what is the best program for artistic quality alone. We are not in the business of helping the dominant ones retain their dominance.
“You know, some days around here it seems as if we broadcast commitments rather than programs. It’s a real test of our skill to make them something the average listener can accept.
“I’m glad I’m not 30 years old. I would be more worried and more hesitant to make drastic change. But my children are all grown up and I don’t have to be so careful any more.” — Jack McPherson, Assistant Radio Network Supervisor, Farms and Fisheries.
Twenty-nine years ago, when farmers made up 25 to 30 percent of our population, and communication to
them was negligible, the Farm Broadcast Department was started strictly as a service department. Broadcasts went across the country at noon, when most farmers were in from the fields, to bring them market prices. In this way, a farmer in a remote community would know roughly what price he should be getting for his eggs, or what to charge if someone walked in off the highway and wanted to buy a cow.
It was a successful department. So successful that representatives of other countries came to Canada to learn
from it. So successful that, as the country industrialized and the farm population dropped to its present 10 percent and the farmers who remained became specialized, the department itself just went on doing what it had always done.
“It was a department that resisted change,” says McPherson, appointed last spring to his present position.
“They felt they were so good they didn’t have to change.”
But the day of reckoning has come. Now the orders are to shape up or forget it. Noon hour is prime time in radio and if the stated objective of the network is, as Jack Craine says, “to aim at all Canadians at all times, or at least the largest possible minority we can reach,” then 10 percent of the population does not deserve 45 minutes daily at a choice hour.
It’s going to be a struggle and McPherson knows it. At present his de-
partment is among the most seriously threatened in the CBC. “I want to bring about as much change in broadcasting as we have helped to bring about in agriculture,” he says. “Now the challenge is for us to show the same degree of updating. It is essential that we draw more than the farm listener.”
So Farms and Fisheries, as the department is now known, is moving into a broader resource picture, covering pollution, forestry, pesticides, fishing, hunting, land use and more information for consumers
— food prices relating to the farm situation, for example.
McPherson, now 53, is a University of Saskatchewan graduate in economics. He was raised on a Prairie farm and started with the department 25 years ago. He does not share the ^Corporation’s reputation for timidity and indecision. “I’m not a person who can sit around waiting for a pension,” he says. “By the end of the year I’ll have this department on the road, or I’ll be looking for a job with External Aid.”
“The one advantage of the CBC is that there are so many different types around — most of them unemployable elsewhere.”
— Raoul Engel, Producer, Public Affairs.
“Picking Raoul Engel as a typical CBC producer has got to be the biggest inside joke in years,” says a freelance contributor to Engel’s group of shows, which encompass a daily science show, and a weekly review program of Toronto art, music, theatre and film.
Engel is an expatriate Hungarian physicist, known for his wild temper tantrums. Co-workers call him “idiosyncratic.”
“That’s because I’m the only one around here who blasts off about what’s wrong,” says Engel — and starts blasting. “For one thing, there seems to be a divorce between the crass real world of industry and business and the lovely idealized CBC world where people concern themselves with the kind of tenderly moral issues that occupy social workers and those kinds of people. Like stories about Eskimos learning French.”
Engel isn’t the type of CBC man who talks in press releases and nods his head sympathetically but helplessly when you mention something that doesn't fit the image. But he is wrong in saying that he's the only one who blasts off. For the most encouraging aspect of CBC Radio people is their willingness to talk about the Corporation’s innumerable faults.
“This place is a marshmallow Me-
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dusa that reduces you into jelly,” says one. “One of the worst things you can do when you want to get something good going is to start appreciating the problems of the guy who shares the responsibility for change. How can you criticize somebody for not being a wizard?”
“There are two kinds of people in the CBC,” says another, “the producers who work from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., and the people who book technicians and announcers and run switchboard and Telex machines. They work from nine to five. The two sets of lives only touch for a short time of the day. If you want to send an urgent Telex to Vancouver at 5.05. God help you. It gets pretty frantic.
“Of course, the compensation for the inefficiency of the bureaucracy is that producers have a great deal of creative freedom and power. You can put on almost anything you want, because nobody takes radio as seriously as television.”
“The number of people who get into this place who know nothing about anything except their own little interest is unbelievable.” comments another. “Maybe they don’t start off that way, but eventually they have functioned within the system for so long that they can’t think outside their own compartmentalized thing. I’m amazed when they manage to have kids.
“To be successful in mass terms is a useful concept for a mass medium. But everything here is structured according to air time. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. People just don’t listen to radio that way any more. They use it in a very informal way and that’s the way we should be presenting it.”
“Permanent satellite broadcasting will be possible in TV some day and this is where the drama will be, but TV is so complex that it is all still science fiction. I like to think we can achieve this so-called internationalism in radio right now. Certainly the technology is there, if not the capital.” — Jack Craine.
What would Jack Craine do if he were suddenly presented with his own satellite 22,300 miles above the equator to play with? He’d probably set out to unite the country, because with all those circuits free (240 radio channels for one television channel) each minority interest could have its own special programming party all day every day.
There could be a serious-music service that would be broadcast simul-
taneously to the entire nation without regard for time zones.
There could be a continuous voicecast from parliament. “One of the things that bothers MPs,” says Craine. “is that they know radio stations don't have time to run everything said in parliament; they edit what they have picked up. No MP trusts an editor with what he has said.
“If we had a number of circuits free we could simply plug into the House, and produce an electronic
Hansard. It would be better than TV because there wouldn't be the image impact everybody gets so worried about. Of course, it wouldn't be pop entertainment, but numbers of people would be interested.”
And the CBC could provide an umbrella service in English and French so that “people could feel at home in any part of the country, no matter which of the two languages they speak.
“There was a time,” says Craine.
“when biculturalism meant Quebec against the rest of Canada. Now we mean the whole country is bicultural. As the Quebeckers have come out to man the French stations we are setting up across the country [Vancouver, Edmonton. Toronto. Ottawa. Moncton], they have realized that the people they serve are not necessarily Quebecoriented even though they speak French.
“If there’s any future for bicul-
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turalism in this country, it’s in things like that — in an extension of French programming so that it provides an umbrella service right across the entire nation. It’s the kind of thing we could do right now if we had that satellite. It’s not a question of if it could happen, but when.”
“News is where the action is.” — Jack Craine.
Two years ago in October the CBC administration made a big decision in line with its new philosophy of survival. It was a decision that suited the listeners’ convenience. The network pulled a sports program and a publicaffairs program out of the prime-time half-hour of 6-to-6.30 p.m. and put in something logical, something a lot of people could listen to. It was a slick, informal news show called The World At Six. It was designed for all Canadians — each broadcast to a different region contains news pertinent to that region as well as world and national items.
People started to listen. The World At Six today probably has more listeners across the country each night than a number of other CBC shows lumped together in a month. Thirty-one affiliate stations, which would normally be tough about picking up an unsponsored half-hour, are jamming commercials in just before and after the show because the ratings go up so much. In one city, Yellowknife. NWT, The World At Six has had such impact that local bars, seeing their customers drift off home to catch the show, asked the manager of the local station, CFYK, to reschedule the show to some other time less damaging to their business. When the request was turned down, they installed radios to keep their clientele happy and stationary.
Such success is a coup for the News Department, which has spent years in the shadow of Public Affairs.
“It’s a hell of a good broadcast,” says Charlie Gunning, Director of CBC National Radio News, and he waves his arm in the air. “I can tell anybody! It’s said to be the best news program anywhere!”
How did they do it? They did it by pouring in money and building a special studio equipped with fecdlines and telephone lines and live tape machines. They staffed it with two announcers, two technicians and two producers. And they gave it to Angus
McLellan. a 44-year-old broadcaster with a flair for mixing pretaped, live and announcer material, and they let it go.
“All kinds of rules have been broken,” says McLellan, “and from what we can gather the show has had a remarkable reception all over the country. Our announcers even get fan letters, which is very strange. News programs generally don’t get reaction — just complaints.”
If the CBC can achieve so much
in one department, why not in others?
“There just aren’t that many people around who are good at being bastards,” says one producer. “There are a whole mess of nice guys with good intentions, but what this Corporation needs is a dictator without a heart who will purge all the decrepit personalities, all the creeping vines who have become part of the masonry.
“The reason we lose audiences is because we're unpredictable. You never know what's coming next —
Siamese folk art or a priest hiccuping into the mike. Radio should be like a fire-hydrant service: you turn it on and you know' what you’re going to get.
“But the CBC has vested interests dating back to the Ark. There are so many minor bureaucrats across the country who have built up little empires. There are so many aging actors and performers who have to be placated. I just don’t know' if Jack Craine has it in him to be that tough." ★