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CBC Needs to Be Saved from Its Supporters Print-ready version

by Kelly McParland
National Post
March 31, 2008

The CBC is going through one of its regular bouts of self-induced angst as it struggles to rationalize the money it spends with its inability to attract an audience significant enough to justify those expenditures.

This time the argument is taking place on two fronts, one the decision to shuffle the programming on Radio 2 to reduce the emphasis on classical music, the other to kill off the CBC radio orchestra, the last radio orchestra in North America.

The resistance to both moves has been both predictable and fierce. True believers in the CBC may be few in numbers -- and becoming fewer, it seems, with each passing year -- but theyre passionate. And they dont keep their opinions to themselves.

So there has been the usual outpouring of support for both Radio 2 and the orchestra. Many of the arguments make sense. CBC wont say exactly how much it costs to run the orchestra, except that its under $1 million. That may be a lot for a body that only holds six or eight concerts a year and has trouble selling more than a few thousand CDs, but governments at all levels blow equivalent amounts on far less worthy projects on a regular basis.

Radio 2 is a different debate. It reflects the eternal conundrum at the CBC, between pleasing the audience and falling prey to the mindlessness of the marketplace. There are zillions of outlets offering variations on whatever music happens to have caught the public fancy at the moment, so pouring public dollars into another one makes little sense. But just how far from public tastes can you stray without becoming so irrelevant that the original mandate -- to reflect and promote the country and its culture -- is lost?

Radio 2 is hardly in danger of elitism. Classical music may have a smaller audience than Top Ten hits, but its not insignificant and there are few enough outlets offering it to justify a degree of public support. CBCs strategy -- to continue playing the classics but increase emphasis on the standards, while adding air time for light pop music and jazz -- is hard to reckon. It seems most likely to drive away classical music lovers while offering little to attract new listeners. Why turn to a station offering a few hours of middle-of-the-road pop at odd times of day when you can get it 24/7 from umpteen other outlets?

This argument, and other better ones have been made, here and here and here.

Sometimes, though, supporters of the CBC just cant seem to help themselves. For example, heres an argument from the Globe and Mail that deserves some sort of award for its ability to jam a weeks worth of pomposity, pretentiousness and condescension into a single article.

The point it seeks to make is that classical music appeals to intelligent people, and the CBC has a mandate to satisfy their needs. The word intelligent, or variations thereof, appears 14 times. Derision drips on lower forms of life who enjoy other types of music.

"The last islands of the sustained appeal to intelligence lay in CBC Radio, which remained free from commercial pressures and, until recently, from the fixation to 'solve' the CBCs problems by maximizing its audiences through programs aimed at younger people. The most redoubtable of these islands  a refuge, really  was Radio 2. Radio 2s distinguishing characteristic was its intelligence. It emphasized classical music because that kind of music was not easily available in private radio and because, through the ages, that form of music appealed to the intelligence and deepest emotions of listeners. ... Now we are to have, in the words of radio management, much less of this and much more of Joni Mitchell, it notes. The result will be further alienation of the CBCs core audience and another distancing of the public broadcaster from its elemental mandate to appeal to our intelligence.

Well. Lord knows what poor Joni ever did to offend anyone, but certainly it doesnt require treating enthusiasts like theyre a pack of twerps. Many knowledgeable observers would suggest her music is plenty intelligent, even if it does suffer the stain of popularity. Others would argue that jazz, which makes up much of her work, appeals to the emotions and intelligence to just as great a degree as classical works.

Radio 2 has a place in our world and theres an excellent argument for maintaining its current format. Simply watering down a station doesnt improve it, or guarantee a larger audience. But suggesting enthusiasts of other music are less intelligent isnt likely to elicit much sympathy from said dolts. Lines like: Now we shall have, in the words of radio management, much less of this and much more of Joni Mitchell only serve to confirm the suspicion that supporters of Radio 2 are self-important prigs who should pay for their own pleasures if they dont like the ones others enjoy.

This is a cross the CBC has to bear: struggling to convince listeners its not a network for snots, without the ability to prevent snobbish outbursts by supporters who think theyre doing it a favour.

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Added to Library on April 1, 2008. (802)


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