Saturday, April 12, 2008

Classical Gassed

My evening productivity goes completely south this time of year. Three or four hockey games on per night at three hours apiece, each of them equally important and almost all of them interesting, means I don't get much of anything done unless it can be squeezed in during an intermission.

Since Friday was a day off from work for me, I was up the entirety of Thursday night writing an Uptown article and then slept for most of the next day. But had I noticed what was scheduled for that day, and had I been awake, I would have headed downtown -- because Friday was the day classical music lovers across the country gathered outside CBC headquarters to lay out some newfound grievances.

(Hey, photographer, way to focus on the oldest people there. And hey, Free Press, way to bury this story deep in the bowels of the What's On Winnipeg site that nobody reads!)

Morley Walker, himself apparently cordoned to the What's On ghetto, summarised the CBC's woes last week; a couple of days ago the venerable Bill Neville put out a fine piece about the hullabaloo, correctly suggesting that we as taxpayers shouldn't have to pony up for a public radio station if it shadows the same decisions and plays the same music as the existing commercial stations.

The whole situation owes to this patronizing salvo from the Mother Corp, exactly one week after they'd announced that they were firing the CBC Radio Orchestra. As you can imagine, the public response has been overwhelmingly negative; the majority of listeners don't (and won't) give half a hoot about CBC radio at all, and the announcements seemed specifically made to alienate the people that do listen to it.

Also -- at the end of March, between the dismantling of the CBC Orchestra and the public announcement of mistakes things to come, the CBC bought and ran a full-page advertisement in the Globe and Mail (estimated at $30,000) bragging about how record label executives and a handful of artists fully supported the changes to Radio Two that hadn't actually been announced or made yet.

None of this adds up, does it? This is all completely bizarre.

For one thing, it seems completely counterproductive for a radio station to switch away from the one genre that distinguishes it from its competition and attracts its continuing listener base; hell, even the ratings viability of abandoning classical music is entirely questionable. Moses Znaimer has an all-classical music station in Toronto that is absolutely crushing CBC Radio Two in the ratings (5.3 to 1.9); similar all-classical stations are drawing big numbers in Montreal and Gatineau. (Didn't expect Gatineau, did you?)

Ostensibly one of the goals in all of this would be to draw in younger listeners, but that doesn't make sense either. At best it would be a Pyrrhic victory, because A) the CBC seems intent on driving away all their older listeners first, B) kids these days are internet-savvy and a lot of them can't really be bothered with conventional radio, C) people who listen to Hot 103 or whatever are entirely unlikely to switch over to the CBC to begin with, and D) the CBC already killed off almost everything that would appeal to younger audiences (like, say, Brave New Waves) in their last round of unwelcome and poorly received programming overhauls.

Go back to that open letter for a second; you can go over the entire announcement about the future programming of Radio Two and not see Radio 3 mentioned anywhere (or even alluded to!), which should be warning sign number one that most of the artists listed on the Globe and Mail ad have been completely hoodwinked. Enjoy your balkanization, Radio 3!

And that full-page ad with its pledges of support from major-label heads makes me more uncomfortable than anything else; any changes that are good for them will most definitely be bad for us. I don't want my public radio alternative snuggling up to the record execs. Am I expected to believe that the station is going to expose me to exciting and challenging material from smaller bands and obscure artists that I wouldn't have otherwise heard, but it just happens to have the full support of Universal, EMI, Warner and Sony? If they're excited about the upcoming changes, who are the upcoming changes about to benefit?

Oh, and that isn't even the best part. Check out the scheduling they've decided on:

This is untenable horseshit. (The odds are low that Bill Neville or Morley Walker would ever write the words 'untenable horseshit', but mine is a more new-school approach to describing these developments.) I don't know about you, but I'm nowhere near a radio between 10:00 AM and 3:00 PM; I'm at my job, working, and I'd imagine that the majority of workers in this country are also working at that time. And those five hours also just happen to be during the school day, which means the very vast majority of students are also nowhere near a radio.

It's obvious to anybody with a grasp of foreshadowing what their intentions are; their next step will be to cut back on classical music even further, or jettison it entirely, because they'll have new figures to show that classical music is somehow pulling in lower ratings than the newer and more mainstream-friendly programming. Could this be because the seven hours of newer and more mainstream-friendly programming will chew up all the peak driving hours and the classical programming will be nigh inaccessible to almost everyone except the elderly and unemployed? Could this be because the classical music is specifically scheduled against Sounds Like Canada and Radio Noon and Q*, while the newer programming is 'competing' with the same news programs that the listener has already heard completely summarised into five-minute pieces every hour on the hour? OF COURSE NOT IT'S BECAUSE CLASSICAL MUSIC SUCKS SHUT UP AND LISTEN TO YOUR JANN ARDEN

Personally, my understanding of classical music is firmly intermediate at best; I enjoy listening to it, and I know a bit about it, but I'm a million miles away from being an expert on the stuff. I wouldn't be able to tell you the particular significance of Bach's passages inverting the Tenebrae in the Ruht Wohl of his St. John Passion blah blah dick etcetera etcetera, or what have you, but occasionally I can hear something playing and realize that I recognize who wrote it -- and I can spell 'Tchaikovsky' correctly without looking it up first, so I figure I'm doing alright for myself.

So I'm definitely not somebody who would count as a classical music devotee, or a classical music elitist, or even a guy who can tell you much about Robert Schumann except that he let Johannes Brahms move in with him and then Brahms started coveting his wife. But I can say with definite certainty that I would sooner hear all seven Sibelius symphonies (eight counting Kullervo!) in a row than listen to the same ten Canadian-content artists that I can already hear on every other radio station in the city. Winnipeg radio is already enough of a miserable sinkhole as-is! It's bad enough that Radio One just plays some hit singles in between its fluffy chatter about local interest stories; is it entirely necessary for Radio Two to pull the same crap on us while we're driving to work?

We already hear plenty of Jully Black and Kathleen Edwards. Jann Arden has sold over two million albums. Feist is god damn inescapable right now. And I could die a perfectly happy man if I went the rest of my entire life without ever hearing another song by Sloan or Great Big Sea. (Not that I could pull off such a trick, since both bands have songs that are featured prominently in heavy-rotation television advertising -- and during Hockey Night in Canada, no less. Hell, Great Big Sea appears in the commercial!) These are not tiny acts starving for recognition and frozen out of commercial radio; these are label-backed mainstream national and international superstars, and they're stoked about the new CBC programming because the CBC programming is going to be playing them coast to coast at peak listening hours instead of fuddy-duddy string selections for old people by some dead guy.

Those ugly no-hopers like Franz Hayden and Franz Schubert only got airplay for two hundred years because people didn't have GREAT BIG SEA to listen to yet! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha oh god I'm going to stab my radio.


Muzition said...

Hey, I'm 23 and I started listening to the CBC Radio 2 10 years ago. I know a hell of a lot of people my age and younger who enjoy classical music.

I don't listen to CBC 2 anymore, but I heard some of the new radio show hosts can't even pronounce composers' names!

They've already been cutting down on classical music for a long time. They used to play classical concerts in the afternoons, then they replaced that with the only semi-classical "Studio Sparks." Then they made all those changes in March 2007 (which is when I stopped listening.)

It's ALL horseshit!

James Howard said...

Horseshit indeed! CBC Radio hasn't exactly been a breeding ground for good decisions in the last couple of years, and it seem things are going to get a whole lot better before they get worse.

The changes made in 2007 demonstrated that the CBC shouldn't have fixed what wasn't broken; their proposed programming changes for 2008 indicate that the CBC has decided to take the broken pieces and keep breaking them. Good plan, guys!