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Now the Details

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

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

"q", Shad and Public Broadcasting in Canada

Shad - CBC's Latest Host
CBC has launched the newly rebranded pop culture show "Q" - now officially in lower case as "q." That sends a message that the CBC is going low profile for a while. After the drama of Ghomeshi, journalists taking fees for speeches from lobby groups and hundreds of layoffs, that may be a reasonable strategy.

The new host is a hiphop artist named Shad and he seems like a good fit to search out that elusive 18-35 demographic. It will take time for the program to find its own voice and sensibility. But so far, the show sounds like another solid piece of CBC Radio  - fitting in nicely, nothing too alarming and basking in the massive internal CBC media attention being paid to it after the  Corp's serial public relations disasters. No pressure, Shad and break a leg!

"q" is being heard on more than 150 public radio stations in the US. And a brief survey of my former colleagues at NPR-member stations indicates they are glad the show is back with a new host who sounds appropriate.

One difference between "q" in Canada and "q" in the US: on the CBC the program airs at 10 am. In the US, most stations are running it in the evening where it attracts the specific demographic.

In Canada, my guess is that age group isn't listening to the radio at 10 am; they are either at work or still asleep after the previous night's revelry...In public radio-speak, it's called "daypart" and it means putting the right shows, with the right content on the air at the right time of day for the right kind of listeners. "q" will likely struggle to grow that audience if it stays on at 10 am even if most CBC managers (of a certain age) are awake and can listen to the show from their offices.

Andrew Cohen, a friend and colleague who teaches at Carleton University in Ottawa has written an excoriating critique of where the CBC is right now...And more specifically, where it isn't.

The problems at the CBC are extensive, but they are not in specific radio programming. We can acknowledge that the public broadcaster can still produce great journalism and shows.

The problems are much deeper as Andrew suggests: a managerial culture that doesn't either understand or value public broadcasting, an over-emphasis on ratings instead of service and a governance structure that deforms and endorses patronage instead of competence. Also a propensity to value TV over Radio with scant attention to the oncoming digital train. 

There is also the problem of an over-reliance on government-sponsored information. Thanks to the consultants from Magid and Associates, CBC News now over-reports crime. Also weather and traffic. All come from government agencies. 

It gives off a strong whiff of state broadcasting, not public broadcasting. And at a time when crime rates are dropping, crime reporting, especially on the CBC is up. A study by the Dart Center in the US shows that the media's disproportionate focus on crime has a damaging effect on communities and tends to drive voters to support  so-called "tough-on-crime" politicians, usually on the right. No doubt the same trends are happening in Canada.

And there is the constant promotion of TV people into Radio (example: CBC TV's Tom Harrington to replace CBC Radio News reader Bernie McNamee*) is more of the creeping televisionization of CBC Radio. Tom is a great TV journalist, no doubt. But reading newscasts is not the same as being an investigative reporter. Moreover, it sends a message that Radio broadcasters are not particularly valued in todays' CBC.

The problems at the CBC are much larger than these specific issues. If public broadcasting in Canada can be saved, it will now require a major intervention from the public and from the government. Should the Tories be re-elected, it's doubtful that will happen. Other parties might be more amenable.

Assuming a change in government, here are some suggestions for radical change to begin the discussion:
  1.  A complete governance restructuring so that the President is accountable to the Board and not to the Prime Minister. Likewise the Board must be appointed by a disinterested blue ribbon panel of citizens.
  2. The President must hold office at the pleasure of the Board for a limited period.
  3. Public representation on the Board must be an essential element.
  4. The CBC should be financed by an annual Parliamentary appropriation, but should move to a non-commercial model and learn to live within its budget. 
  5. A new Broadcasting Act must be passed by Parliament to recognize the role of the public broadcaster in a digital era. The last Act was passed in 1991 when journalists still used typewriters.
* Thanks to Talin Vartanian for correcting my misspelling of Bernie's name. Apologies to Bernie.


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