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


Jeffrey Dvorkin

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The End of the Line: Radio News at the CBC

It's been brewing for months.

Finally, a group of very frustrated radio reporters surveyed their peers about the reorganization and relaunch of CBC News. The results of the survey can be found in a 60 + page document presented recently to middle management.

Some conclusions:
  • 90.5% say radio culture at CBC is worse than before.
  • 95% say CBC Radio is on the wrong course.
  • 80% disagree with the increased use of TV sound, entertainment "kickers" and heavy promotion inside radio news programs.
  • 85% say they are not valued by management.
According to a source at that meeting, management claimed to be surprised by the discontent. But management also confirmed that there is no going back. CBC Radio News and CBC Television News are now just one, integrated CBC News.

That fusion of the Radio and Television News services has been proceeding for years, and not always smoothly. A number of long time radio staffers have quit in disgust. A few talented ones have gone to NPR.

Management persisted and a few months ago, the last radio news program units were moved into a large space on the 4th floor of the Broadcast Centre in Toronto, alongside their television colleagues. Similar physical moves have happened across the country. The lack of a collective identity is palpable around the building. While some may appreciate the opportunity to do tv and online, there is a sense of loss among many in radio.

In theory, it was supposed to work like this: co-ordination of stories, resources, and agendas would be centralized and given to a unit known as the Hub. The Hub would take a large, multi-platform editorial function involving hundreds of people and create a logical flow of information inside CBC and prioritize decisions for the benefit of all news and information programs - everything from local radio news headlines, to the flagship night newscast to the website.

But planning and execution are two very different beasts. Morale is at an all time low and this was confirmed in the survey given to management.

There may be a certain inevitability to this change. Most multi-platform media organizations are doing much the same things. At CBC, radio people have often had a certain cozy nostalgia - even insularity about their medium. While some of that is valuable and appreciated by the listeners, it can also be perceived by management as tribal and reactionary. Yet there is a strong feeling inside CBC Radio that the changes are being foisted on the whole system in a attempt to bolster the failings of the TV side. There is a lot of truth to that.

Compare this to the same difficult process of integration at the Canadian Press, the national wire service and co-operative used by newspapers and commercial broadcasters. CP is not the CBC and there are many cultural and logistical differences, not the least of which is the relatively smaller size of CP.

But according the Scott White, CP's Editor-in-Chief, many of the same issues at the CBC were tackled successfully at CP. At the Canadian Press, there was constant consultation with the staff. Early in the process, the union - the Southern Ontario Newspaper Guild, Canadian Media Guild* was part of the discussion. At CBC, that same union seemed more concerned with limiting the effects of recent layoffs than with the internal reorganization. According to some CBC-ers, they feel the union dropped the ball on this one.

At the Canadian Press, print, audio, video and social media are now part of the daily routine. In a recent visit to the offices of Canadian Press, there is clear evidence of how a news organization can successfully integrate different platforms with different cultures for the benefit of the public.

There are some valuable lessons there for CBC management, if they care to look.
____________________________
* Apologies to CMG.

19 comments:

  1. Thoughtful piece, nicely done.
    I'd like to read more about your thoughts on the core question of the radio/TV divide.

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  2. Thanks. I will do a post on that soon. The short version is that integration is inevitable. So how to do it so it works? CBC needs to focus on its core function which is news and information and that deserves public funding (a combo of private and public). The rest of the CBC should be made into a private company to compete with commercial broadcasters. Radio-Canada is a different bird and needs a "made in French Canada" approach.

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  3. I'm at sixes and sevens about this issue. When I worked at ABC-Australia on the television side, the "national" headlines [there is no ABC network newscast in Australia on television, except for special events] were dictated by ABC radio and there was grief if you didn't include all the headlines in the local newscast you were producing. Then when I was National Assignment Editor for CBC Television I had excellent relations with Eric Moncur, my opposite number at radio. We talked often throughout the day to swap ideas, story suggestions and to get a sense of what was likely to still be a story when The National aired. OK, there was no social media to service; our major and only goal was to get ALL the news we could for television. Then when I was Senior Foreign Producer for CBS News in New York, I took the time to make certain CBS Radio News was covered when I sent correspondents off to a story. Tom Fenton enjoyed doing radio news pieces because he said it sharpened his script for television. I still have messages from the recently deceased Joe Dembo who was VP CBS Radio News praising me for my constant interest in radio news and protecting its interests at major breaking stories. When I worked at CTV News, there was no radio service to worry about, but there were some very pushy affiliates who needed a lot of hand-holding. I had learned about affiliates at CBS News.
    The point of all of this history is news is news. It happens and if a news division of a major media group has the right people who are left alone to do their job, everyone goes away happy. Accept the fact you are going to get phone calls at all hours and you have no real family life, but by talking to reporters, correspondents, producers, cameramen in the field you get a sense of what's happening so you can anticipate news and cover it effectively. At CBS NEws I spent about an hour a day in what became known as "wives hour" when I would get calls from partners and wives complaining that their husbands [crews were mostly made up of men] hadn't called them and what was really happening. I spent a lot of CBS' money patching phone calls together so couples could talk to each other and stay in touch. A small, behind the scenes, effort which paid off when I had to send someone off to an armpit part of the world. It doesn't take a legion of assignment desk people to cover news. It takes one or two really dedicated people openly and visibly supported by management to ensure the news is covered. Once you've got the story, where and how it's presented: radio, television, social media, doesn't matter. It's the getting of it that counts. If you don't have a story then you don't have a newscast or a social media story. And coverage by committee in my experience is not coverage at all, except of the behinds of those involved. The decisions of one or two smart assignment desk people - right or wrong [and if they are wrong often the person doesn't last long] at least they've made a decision and everyone knows it and can work on covering the story or event. There are basically about a dozen assignment editors in all media around the world and they know each other - or SHOULD - and it's that circle of contacts and sources, those phone numbers, which make the difference. Not a slick sounding hub of people.

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  4. I grew up listening to CBC radio, and watching the National every night. I would once have agreed with the idea that CBC radio was the glue that held Canada together, but now I just don't give a damn any longer.
    CBC abandoned me long ago in an attempt to appeal to a younger audience. Add to that the obvious left of centre bias, and the entire organization has become an enormous irritation to this taxpayer.
    Fire. Them. All.

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  5. Louis Cooper is right. Content IS king and we forget that at our peril.

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  6. Content IS king all right. But as a former journalist and a lifelong CBC radio reporter, I feel like a patsy when I hear on CBC Radio news the audio from a tv story that aired on the National the evening before, complete with photos. I'm no broadcast pro, but as a listener I can tell you that radio and tv are different beasts and I really really value radio news done well.

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  7. Crap.
    I'm the author of the previous post and I am NOT a "lifelong CBC radio reporter", I'm a lifelong *listener*.

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  8. Pushing changes through can be difficult, especially if it's foisting a bigger workload onto staff.They should expect grumbling and push back.
    But it strikes me there's a deeper issue here with how the changes are made - a lack of consultation and communication between The Hub and staff and maybe a lack of consideration too.
    They need to sit down and talk about the issues instead of entrenching and drawing battle lines. Hopefully, the survey will be a start.

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  9. Amen Brother Anonymous (the last one).

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  10. Much of this sounds like "it was better back then."

    I agree with the concern over TV on the radio, but complaining about changing the tone/texture of stories (World Report used to sound like Your Father's CBC) is a bit rich.

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  11. Yesterday we launched the renewal of CBCNews .ca with a series of discussions with staff across the country. There was genuine excitement about the direction, which is about better serving our audiences. There were also constructive questions expressing a need for more detail, and expressing fear and some concerns about change. The questions were totally appropriate and welcomed. It was gratifying to see people engage in making CBC News a better service.
    CBCNews.ca is the latest phase of our ongoing renewal. Through it all we have tried to keep the process as open and collaborative as possible. Every layer of CBC News has participated in shaping the changes you are seeing on air and that will continue. Change is difficult. As is true of every massive change, not everyone will be happy all the time. And programs and processes will evolve through time. We have been listening to feedback and making adjustments. We are working together on solutions and, while not perfect, the project is moving forward. Concerns are being heard and adjustments are being made. This is how it should work.
    Recently the new Executive Director of News Content, Jonathan Whitten, had a productive dialogue with a group of radio news reporters who were concerned with their place in the CBC News change. Again, some of the feedback is well founded and we listened. This is totally appropriate and welcomed. This is how the process should work and I applaud the reporters for coming forward.
    So I have to honestly say that it was particularly dismaying to see today’s twitter flutter and blog postings about an informal survey of network radio reporters. The survey is something we are actively discussing with the reporters. In fact, we have a survey that is intended to go out to staff shortly. We are happy to engage on the issues but I want to stress a few points:
    First of all, by all measures of success – in terms of audiences and journalism – our radio programs are meeting audience needs. It doesn’t mean there isn’t room to make them better, but they are not broken. They are performing well, to record audiences in fact.
    Secondly, if you were to follow the blogs and columns (including some from disgruntled former employees), it reads as if CBC News has abandoned the cornerstone of its mandate: doing quality journalism. Nothing can be further from the truth. The truth is that quality journalism is still our biggest priority. As part of news renewal, we began a discussion about what defines quality journalism, how should it be showcased, and how we make sure it meets the needs of all Canadians in 2010 and beyond. But make no mistake: the quality is still ever present. We have had numerous examples of original, enterprise, exclusive and investigative stories on all our platforms in recent weeks, the most recent being Dave Seglins’ dogged pursuit over the weekend of the investigator linked to the Jaffer-Geurgis story.
    My final point is about the culture we want to create here in CBC News. Some of the comments made public about colleagues are not attributed, unsubstantiated and unconscionable.
    This is damaging. And let’s be clear, it damages us all in the public’s mind, including the authors and participants in the survey. It embarrasses us all. And all of you are working incredibly hard and deserve accolades.
    So, while I totally understand the motivation of former CBC’ers with an axe to grind, I am more perplexed as to why people who are invested in CBC News would not engage in conversations through channels that would actually make things better.
    My point is not to censor what you have to say, nor hide the fact that there are still things to fix and work to do, but rather to encourage you if you have concerns or feedback to engage in the process of making it better and moving us forward.
    Jennifer McGuire
    General Manager and Editor in Chief, CBC News
    April 21, 2010

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  12. Two things:

    1) This survey only polled National Radio Reporters, of which there are about 20 across the country. CBC has something like 10,000 employees. Not only is the sample size ridiculously small, it's incredibly narrow. Radio reporters may have issues but how representative are they of the entire system? Would any one of those reporters take such a survey and present it as fact?

    2) Read between the lines and what you see is a group of very insecure people worried about being upstaged by television types. The problem with radio people is they know almost anyone in TV can do radio; very few people in radio can do TV.
    That's why the attacks in this survey were so pointed and personal. Why name names? Why slam tv types foisted upon them and disparage their news sense? Why state outright that radio is 'lowering' itself to tv's level of journalism?

    There were many good points made in the survey. Unfortunately that's overshadowed by the manner in which the complaints were presented.

    From the recipients' perspective, this is little more than radio reporters bitching again, as they are wont to do.

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  13. CBC management and especially senior news management are stuck in a back to the future time warp. Richard Stursberg is trying to create his own private US-style early 1990s entertainment empire at the expense of the news service, radio, TV and online. So, forget about Canadian culture on CBC, watch Jeopardy.

    Broadcast TV as we know it will be dead in five years once the iPad 5.0 and its competitors have enough memory capacity that anyone can download their favourite shows in full HD without a network as a go-between. So the CBC is on the wrong track there. (There is still great potential for radio both over the air and as podcasts)

    A half dozen years ago, CBC.ca was a dynamic, innovative organization. Now,like radio, it is nothing more than a promotional vehicle for Stursberg's television. And those CBC.ca "renewal" meetings aren't changing that at all.

    People have given up offering ideas and feedback because the answer always is, "Get with the program, be a team player." CBC management would rather bring up a consultant from the United States than listen to the employees. That's because there is no respect for the employees, while if a consultant charges big bucks, they have to be good, right? (Even if the employees actually know more than the consultant which is usually the case)
    The process is only as "open and collaborative" as Richard Stursberg allows and that amounts to "a hill of beans" to quote a famous movie. That's why it's useless to "engage in conversations through channels that would actually make things better. "

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  14. Consider another internal survey...the one indicating CBC National Radio reporters each filed on average 1.5 stories a week. This isn't about TV integration or The Hub. This is about a small group of lazy, overpaid, self indulgent radio reporters who don't want to work. There's no shortage of smart hardworking journalists who would kill for these jobs.

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  15. I am delighted that you mentioned Canadian Press. It is an under-appreciated news service that does a lot with very few people. One of CBC's problems is that it has too many people -- still -- despite cutbacks. And they get into each other's way.

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  16. In response to feedback we have gathered over the past few months we are making some structural changes to our assignment complex which, among other things, will merge our current Planning and Daily assignment desks. These changes begin Tuesday, May 25th.

    Beginning that day, our domestic assignment producers will be handling smaller geographic areas, but tackling a wider range of responsibilities. These responsibilities include daily and short term planning across radio, television, and cbcnews.ca.

    We will adjust the staffing and boundaries of these areas as we gain experience with the new structure, but the breakdown for our Assignment Producers beginning Tuesday is as follows:

    Linda Kelly and Vaune Davis / British Columbia and Alberta

    Michael DSouza / Saskatchewan, Manitoba, The North

    David Tweedie and Allison Brachman / Ontario

    Phil Park and Rita Tonelli/ Quebec and Atlantic Canada

    They will be working with Senior Producers Brenda Murray and Ian Kalushner

    The group can continue to be reached at 6301 in Toronto.


    On the foreign side, we will also be dividing areas of responsibility. Karen OLeary will be doing multi-platform assignment in the United States and South America. Brien Christie will do the same in the rest of the world. They will be working with Senior Producer David Taylor.

    On the weekends we will continue our current radio structure with Jeff Brown assigning for weekend programs, and Harmen Meinders assigning for television and cbcnews.ca.

    Cathy Perry and Greg Reaume will oversee this combined daily and short term planning desk. They will also supervise a small team that will continue to do long term planning for larger events and elections.

    Also beginning May 25th, our Content Units will be put together under a single assignment producer, Pat Onysko. Pat will be on leave until September and Carrie Schipper (5716) will step in until then. Joanne McPherson will now manage the units. Senior Producer Sandra Varanesi will also work with Joanne, organizing our multi-platform projects and series. And Joanne will continue to manage the Live Now desk.

    Assignment structures in our Parliamentary Bureau will remain the same.

    We hope these changes move us toward a streamlined operation with clear lines of responsibility and communication, and fewer points of contact for our network reporters and producers. It is also designed to help move the focus of discussion from process, to content.

    We also hope the smaller geographic focus of our domestic assignment producers will help create a more functional and efficient two-way relationship with the centres. Our assignment producers in Toronto will work as a team with their regional counterparts to create coverage plans designed to benefit both our local and network programs and platforms. This stronger relationship, combined with the further integration of the desk, is in keeping with our larger one news strategy for CBC.

    We will be announcing and implementing more changes over the next six months, as part of an ongoing process of evaluating how our new integrated assignment complex is functioning.

    Thanks for your help (and patience!) as we continue to evolve and strengthen the Hub.

    Jonathan Whitten
    Executive Director of News Content
    CBC News

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  17. I have trouble with the "c" word. Content.

    "Content is King"?

    There is a difference between content and journalism.

    The former is self-fulfilling, neutral filler, and the latter involves a narrative that requires an audience to actively make their own interpretations.

    I don't agree that integration and the content company structure are King. This direction is a cost saver, can we admit this and openly discuss this? I don't appreciate being given the roundabout by corporate officials.

    And no, just because The National now has an 8-minute mobile version, this does not mean that the Internet allows you to be more interactive with Canadians.

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  18. I am a confused 85 year old. As an avid listener since the Peter Zosky days the thing I resent most is the endless repetition - and no - not all of us are addle brained. We do listen to much more radio however. It is too bad that we cannot get truly fresh material more frequently. Remember, the senior segment of the populatio is growing & we are sitting back in our rocking chairs waiting, waiti , wa-- .

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