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Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Monday, March 1, 2010

Hipper Than Thou: Music on CBC Radio

I've tried. Really I have. But I can't get into the non-classical music that is played on either channel of CBC Radio. Some of it is my age - I admit that. But as a longtime radio guy, I know what works, even if I may not like it personally. But the cultural rebuffs of the programs are now wearing thin on both Radio One and Radio Two.

Radio Two is supposed to be "young." Even "edgy." But not so discordant that it messes you up the way some zoned-out kid on the subway does, whose earbuds shatter everyone within ten feet.

Radio Two is (among other things) supposed to attract a younger demographic. But to me it sounds like whoever has come up with the program concept hasn't understood how people - of ANY age - use the radio.

First, there is something in the radio industry called "daypart." This means that the programming should be respectful of the time of day that people listen and put stuff on the radio that is useful at that time. Head banging music doesn't work for most people. Perhaps after 8 pm.

Second if a younger demographic is what is being sought, then putting the content and the playlist on line, where it can be accessed and downloaded for podcasts would be more useful.

Third, whatever is being played is often impenetrable. It makes no sense and the on air staff - with some notable exceptions like Tom Allen and Katie Malloch - go out of their way NOT to explain why I should listen. Arch hipness, or just arrogance?

Radio One is the information service, but it comes festooned with a lot of minimally talented local bands whose claim to fame is that they are playing next Tuesday at some lounge in the west end of Toronto. Sadly, I fear that many of their offerings would get scant attention if it weren't for the relentless plugging on Radio One. It feels like the revenge of outdated CanCon regulations and it makes for simply awful radio. Even the usually well-informed hosts on Radio One seem to be at a loss for words when they ask me to listen.

There is - I should mention - an online service on CBC Radio called Radio Three. It claims to be a source for indie Canadian bands and specializes in music that is even more toneless and talentless than what gets played on Radio Two. Whew! Do any managers inside the CBC listen to this?

Compare this with the music service called Espace Musique on the French-language service of the CBC - Radio Canada. It's worth learning French just for this service, because the quality of programs and the credibility of the announcers are simply spectacular.

Also compare (once again) with the musical offerings on NPR: there,  information programs have developed the "performance chat" between host and artist to a fine art form. You hear the musicians speak AND play. You learn about their influences and the hosts actually help the listeners get involved by being journalistic with and about the artists.

Even the interstitial music that is played for 30 seconds or so between NPR news stories are well thought out. So much so, that listeners began demanding to know the names of the snatches of songs. Out of that was born an entirely online music show: All Songs Considered, which became a hit in its own right. As a result I learned a lot about contemporary music (all genres) and want to know more.

So CBC Radio, I'm still here and still willing to stop switching to Sirius XM as soon as I hear the grim strains of yet another no-name band. But help me out by reaching half-way. Talk to me. What should I be listening for? Hello? Anyone there?


  1. Nice post. I really liked it.. Don't forget to update it regularly. I am
    looking for new updates dying to read more stuff from you.

  2. The complete lack of classical music on Radio 2 in the morning "daypart" that Tom Allan filled so well for so long is a void CBC will now never fill with demographics of ANY age. The four hours starting at 0900 are acceptable except the host tries to hard to be a part of the younger demographic and, as a result, sounds like trash between the music. Words with "t" and "g" in them seem to tumble out of mouths without any consideration that they are sounding so cheap and nasty and uneducated.
    Local Radio One in the morning, certainly on Prince Edward Island, is everything you want local radio to be and then some. Involved. Interesting. Informative. Friendly. And breaker of news stories into the bargain. It often makes the CBC's network news at the top of most morning hours sound insipid as a result.
    My wife and I agree with your blog about CBC. No one is listening to the shows within the Broadcast Centre so how can they expect the listening audience to tune in?

  3. No offense, but I do think your age is showing. Why not check out what other "hip" music sources are playing - for example, head over to and listen to all of the tunes in the forkcast. Like it or leave it, this is what the kids want to listen to.

    As a 30yr old music fan, my only complaint with radio 2 is that the "alternative" music they play is too mainstream and watered down. I prefer a more eclectic mix such as that offered by WFMU in New Jersey (and that used to be offered on Radio2 with Brave New Waves RIP)

    You'd best be careful, or you'll be agreeing with the NIMBYs before you realise how old you've gotten.

  4. Dear not.robb - I admit I am out of the audience demographic. But I hope I am not out of the professional ability to know how to program radio for a large audience. Don't confuse personal preference (which I may not share with younger folk) with an ability to sense what works and what doesn't on the radio. Too often program directors think of themselves as wizard-like keepers of the ancient secrets to successful formats. It's not that arcane and it has nothing to do with age. IMO.

  5. I didn't think that the post was some wrinklie rant, rather it is a representative slice of the attitude that is shared by many CBC listeners share whose loyalty is being tested almost to distraction; I fail to see how causing people to snap off their radios and go elsewhere can achieve any strategic purpose for the CBC.

  6. I'm in the target demo for CBC r2 and I am BORED by their purposely repetitive playlist (I know for a fact that CBC Morning and Drive are 95% programmed by a computer).

    You're right Jeffrey, NPR do it right. They know how to make the radio interesting, as opposed to filling us with useless wikipedia knowledge and telling me how the music is supposed to make me feel before I've even listened to it.

    As a further example of how far CBC has lost the way, WFMU reminds me of what shows like Night Lines and Brave New Waves used to be. Those shows were hip and edgy without being pretentious or egocentric.

    I love Tom Allen, but he's so much better with classical. Julie N. annoyes me everytime I hear "Wow, that was an awesome concerto!".

    Rich T. really needs to get out of his navel, and Molly Johnson's analysis of every tune is "I love that song, that's a great song". And don't get me started on Strombo.

    Not to mention that EVERY song sounds the same - folky or r&b lite. Completely homogenized with no surprises.

    I just bought a bunch of Max Fergusons's Rawhide albums from Smithsonian Folkways, and I've enjoyed that more than anything I've heard on CBC in the past 10 years, not surprisingly.

    As long as radio by committee is the chosen direction, CBC will never be the same.

    And I would enjoy R1 more if they stopped rammed Promo Guy and Jian down my throat...

  7. I listen to Espace Musique in the morning on my clock radio, which is a lot like Tom Allen used to be. Then I listen to Radio 2 Tempo and the first hour of Shift. After that I turn off my radio and listen to CDs or on-line radio. I bought a transmitter for my computer so I can listen to on-line radio on my stereo system.

    On weekends Espace Musique plays wonderful classical music. And my french is improving!

    All this so I can avoid those awful Radio 2 programs. Radio 2 programmers really blew it ...

  8. I have tried too, and although I like some of the contemporary music played, the cbc R2 is sounding more like a commercial radio station as three of their shows play all the same music from their playlist.

    I remember hearing from Eric Freisen,about 4-5 years ago that classical music's popularity was at at an all time high and that younger people were starting to listen,buy cd's and go to concerts.
    And,then CBC changed its format.It seemed counter-intuitive to me.

    I started listening to R2 when I was 28 and I was overjoyed to listen to informed hosts and panels play,discuss, inform and open the minds of its listeners.
    There were new plays being show-cased and and great hosts like Peter Tognie, Daniele Charbinueau,David Wisdom and many others.And,they didn't tell you thier names at every opportunity and usher you to various web sites.They had something to say.
    I am 45 now and have enjoyed punk,grunge,70's 80's rock,jazz,world-music and scene many concerts.
    But,I have to say that classical gives me the most joy.And,I wish I could here more of it and especially at night.


  9. I'm 46 and have been listening to CBC Radio One and Two since I was 23, finished undergrad and discovered that if I wasn't listening to campus radio, there were... commercials. Yuck.

    I have CBC One on at home non-stop. But what upsets me about the new programming on Radio Two is that it used to be my work/office radio station. They played classical music most of the day and there was minimal talking, so not much to intrude on my concentration (I edit legal books). And of course, hourly, news and a reminder of the time.

    Now with "Drive" and "Shift" I have to turn it off often in frustration. Too much talking, music with lyrics, and gah, overlapping playlists. Hawkesley Workman and Feist twice a day everyday, are you trying to make me hate them? It's like listening to someone's modest personal collection over and over. I could and do sometimes switch to the classical stream, but then I very resentfully lose my news.

    So I agree entirely that they are not thinking about what people use the radio for at what time of day. Miss you Jurgen Gothe. And even the dreaded Thursday organ music.

  10. I think that PromoGuy's name is Jeremy Harris.

    I have been a recording engineer and producer for major international voice actors for nearly forty years. He is an embarassment to the radio profession. This guy cannot read a script. He does not know what he is reading. He does not even sound Canadian. He is a fake. CBC should be ashamed that no creative head has the guts to fire him. "Canada lives here!" Yeah sure!

  11. I disagree with this! CBC Radio 2 is great now! I love the Canadian music they play, old and new. I like that it is repetitive, like having my own, continuously renewed, iPod. I am 37 and listen all day online in my cubicle.

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  13. Deannie in DartmouthApril 6, 2012 at 12:47 PM

    Just writing in praise of Espace Musique. I'm an Anglo who listens now to CBC's Espace Musique every day- the music is wonderful -the hosts know their stuff and I am learning French. Every other station pales in comparison.

  14. I too, am still burning a candle for CBC Stereo. 4 years ago, almost to the day, CBC decided that they could abandon it's audience, some of whom have listened to this service for 50 years. I don't know any other business that would be so willing to turf their regulars, in hopes of gaining a younger customer. They painted the long time listeners as stuffy, and stodgy, and their former shows as 'filled with stale chit-chat'. In the 25 or so years I've listened to this station, I never found the informative banter between Tom Allen and Joe Cummings to be stuffy or stale. Now don't get me wrong. I've seen Alice Cooper, Kiss, and Blue Oyster Cult, I've also seen Feist, kd lang, and Devotchka. What bothers me, is that this genre of music has a plethora of stations along the dial. My orchestral music had one, and now that's being systematically eliminated so more, singer/songwriter/populist music can be heard. True. CBC does have the online music does that help me when I'm walking the dog, or running errands? 4 years on, and I'm still scratching my noggin' about that. I tune to Classical Minnesota Public Radio, feeling very much like an exile from my own country's public radio service. It's a 4 year old shame, and I'm waiting for a resolution.

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