Wednesday, October 21, 2009
Diversity on CBC Radio
Last night, a session on cultural diversity on CBC Radio was held at Innes College at the University of Toronto. The case study involved a local morning radio program here in Toronto. The speakers were Nick Davis, the senior producer (and a Jamaican Canadian) and the executive producer, Joan Melanson who is white, and Canadian born.
The question of the evening was can an appeal to a more diverse garner new and larger audiences without alienating the core, traditional listener? The answer according to the producers, is an unquestioning "yes."
The program is called "Metro Morning" (a clunky bureaucratic nod to the greater Toronto area which used to be known as "Metropolitan Toronto"). For the past number of years, it's been a consistent number one in a very competitive market.
The program when I knew it in the 90's, was stolid and slightly stodgy. But in its public radio sensibility, it worked very well because it addressed the issues of concern to the core listeners (mostly white and older) to CBC Radio. It was serious and did not do "light-hearted" very well. Compared to the "morning zoo" format of commercial radio, it took its audience seriously. And that was enough. The program became the show of record. Politicians and other local notables pushed to get on "Metro Morning" as a validation of what they do. It also helped that the host, Andy Barrie is smart and smooth without sounding smarmy.
A few years ago, CBC Radio management decided to break the mold and move the program into uncharted waters. Toronto is, after all, the most ethnically diverse city in North America. More than half the residents were born elsewhere. Municipal signage is often in eight or nine languages including French, Russian, Vietnamese, Chinese, Italian and Greek.
But Toronto is no ethnic utopia. A few years, an influx of handguns into the Jamaican community caused a spate of shooting which was almost exclusively black-on-black violence. While other media deplored and tut-tutted the black community, CBC Radio did town halls to explore the issue with some depth and sensitivity. Torontonians were shocked and there were fears that Toronto-the-Good was becoming more American.
But despite the increase in gun violence, the murder rate continues to decline in Toronto, as in Canada and the United States overall. The traditional method of "settling of accounts" was becoming more high-tech - moving from the traditional weapons of choice in bar fights - knives and broken beer bottles to cheap Saturday Night Specials.
So I was cheered by last night's discussion. The producers were clear about change. They hired and retained a more diverse staff. They endured the criticisms of their fellow CBC-ers who accused them of political correctness and pandering. Staying at number one in the market has helped quiet the critics. But as the producers said, it's a work in progress and not all the issues are resolved.
For example: many communities prefer news organizations to report on them in a way that makes the community look good. How can you balance a need for access and trust with accurate reporting? In last night's audience, a group of young black people was openly dismissive - even hostile about "Metro Morning's" portrayal of their community.
One serious problem remains to be addressed: the newscasts which are part of the morning show sound at variance to the rest of the program. News doctors from Frank Magid and Associates in the US have been brought into the CBC with their philosophy of "if it bleeds, it leads." It ain't true, in Toronto at least. And the tone of forced angst and de-contextualized violence on the newscasts is in stark contrast to the sensible openness and community engagement of the rest of the programming.