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No News is Bad News on the Dial

By Gene Costain

"It is virtually an irrelevant thing in the lives of most people, except as a way to get the 'hits.' You do not get much commentary or enthusiasm. It has become a merchandising product. It is sausage that is ground out with a little more spice. That's computer-programming, not radio." -Sjef Frenken, CRTC

Hardly a glowing commendation for private radio in Canada, a medium with such potential to stir the mind and emotions, but which has slid into a sorry state of inanity.

Newly-retired Sjef Frenken is a pragmatic veteran of regulatory Ottawa, who laboured for decades over policy with the CRTC and today deplores the sad decline of private radio broadcasting. A significant factor in this degeneration is the recent wholesale deconstruction of radio news; the emptying of a broadcast newsroom near you. A decade of deregulation, removing CRTC requirements for spoken word, has left a hole in Canadian news culture, with barely a murmur of notice from the press.

Here's part of what that means in numbers:
· 125 of 500 radio stations in Canada no longer carry a news staffer;
· a total of 2,100 newsworkers employed today - down from 3,300 six years ago, almost 4,000 10 years ago - and still dropping daily;
· in Ottawa, just five radio journalists covering Parliament Hill, where 25 worked 10 years ago;
· in Quebec, Radiomutuel and Telemedia merged, closing down six stations and 100 jobs eliminated and hundreds of towns have lost a significant source of local news.

Despite the pervading banality of radio, Canadians still tune in for aggregate millions of hours - 20 hours a week on individual average. And, ironically, 41 percent of us still awaken to get our first news fix of the day via radio, according to Statistics Canada. For 12 years, I was one of those who rose with 3 a.m. wake-up calls to provide it, in radio newsrooms across Canada. My career was launched in Whitehorse and fetched up kitty corner to Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, reading news for the CKO "all-news-and-information" network. (Perhaps not surprisingly, the demise of the CKO network provides the thesis for my graduate degree in Interdisciplinary Studies at York University.)

Now, in fairness, private radio news has never garnered a lot of honours. At its worst, it was always a sorry excuse for electronic journalism, never approaching the best as represented by CBC radio which can provide first-rate news and current affairs programming. The private sector, in response to regulated information provision, grudgingly invested pittances at most in talent and hardware. Still, despite this financial neglect, eager community college grads often managed to fashion a credible product, largely through contribution of local stories.

Peter Desbarats, dean of the University of Western Ontario's Graduate School of Journalism, sums it up:

"It was an adolescent business operated by adolescents, usually novices with little experience. They were recent community college graduates working within news organizations where there is an almost total lack of direction."

(Western, he notes, has rarely placed a graduate in a radio newsroom.)

Recent Ryerson journalism graduate Bret Dawson says radio today offers little attraction for him and his fellows. "The only place anyone finds in radio today is in some entry-level position, reading headlines from the day's newspaper for $18,000 a year."

Tayler Parnaby of CFRB Toronto, a 40-year radio news veteran, concurs:

"The owners could never cope with guys and gals in the newsroom, who represented an interruption in the flow of music. Ultimately, owners are to blame because they invested nothing in talent or news and told the newspeople to get out and go to work in public relations, slamming the newsroom door behind them."

On the other hand, the station owners providing today's thin news gruel cry poverty, while pulling in $750 million annual revenue. For the last 30 years, radio has consistently cornered nine to 10 percent of national advertising. True, hard times overtook radio in the 80s and 90s. Two grinding recessions did plenty of damage. Statistics Canada claims private station losses of $150 million between 1990 and 1994. CRTC figures put the losses closer to $193 million in that period.

But, Carleton University Social Sciences Professor George Pollard sees claimed losses as largely sham. With 80-per cent ownership by chains, he says, the red ink is easily diluted across the balance sheet.

Laval University Professor Marc Raboy, an authority on broadcasting policy, says the Canadian social and political reality was always mirrored in broadcasting.

"From the 1970s to the 1990s," he suggests, "broadcasting has become a potent symbol of a collision of ideas over how Western society should be organized, not just economically, but also culturally, creatively and morally. At root, the struggle is over two opposed models of social and political order, involving different conceptions of democratic rights and freedoms, different ideas of the relationship between culture and economics."

All the assorted commissions and task forces on communications and broadcasting of the past have agreed that radio, and in particular the spoken word element, formed a major component of national self-expression.

The Davey Committee in 1970 stated:

"A nation is a collection of people who share common images of themselves, it the media that can make it grow. Poets, teachers, artists, yes journalists, too. It is their perceptions that help us define who and what we are."

And, the earlier Fowler Report had said:

"One of the essential tasks of broadcasting is to stir the minds and emotions of the people and occasionally make them acutely uncomfortable . . . broadcasters should not play the role of an Old Testament prophet, but in a vital broadcasting system there must be room for the thinker, the disturber, the creator of news forms and ideas."

Today's challenge is to find any of the above in Canadian commercial radio. As former broadcaster, David Spencer, now a professor of sociology at Western, puts it:

"There is no culture of excellence in private radio, there is a culture of marketing, selling and advertising; and, the flippant is paramount. What you have in radio is anti-professionalism and they are locked in a time-warp, where wonderkinds, junior geniuses and that type rule the roost."

The regulators made a concerted attempt to save the emerging FM band with the 1975 FM policy. Although they never spelled out the regulation in great detail, they indicated they wanted broadcasters to reflect and serve local community interest and news content was an efficient way to do that. The owners, though not forced to employ news staff, often considered news provision the legitimate price of doing business. In 1993 though, under years of heavy lobbying by the station owners, even the vague FM spoken word stipulations were stripped away. Station owners quickly dropped long-running news, information and commentary programs.

"It had an enormous, but almost unnoticed impact here in Toronto," attests CFTR News Director John Hinnent. "Except for CHFI, all the FM stations in town dropped their information programs. It's all gone and there is only one show left and that is CHFI's Chronicle."

At the same time, the difficulties for owners were magnified by the wholesale issuing of more licences. Between 1984 and 1994, the number of operating FM stations mushroomed from 312 to 467.

Says Prof. Pollard: "The philosophy under the Mulroney government was to grant a plethora of licenses - they basically said, 'Here, guys, fight it out.'"

The CRTC, itself created in 1968 to enforce rules for the use of the public airwaves, gets much of the blame for the decline of private radio programming. York University Professor Liora Salter, Dean of York University's Graduate Law School, cites a tendency of regulators becoming captives of the regulated.

"The continuing interaction of regulator and regulated creates an inevitable mutuality of concern, a common definition of issues and problems and of the very process of decision-making."

Carleton's Prof. Pollard puts its more bluntly. "The CRTC is to blame for yielding to the big broadcasters and I think the commissioners see big buck jobs with the broadcast chains, so they are sympathetic while they're in their regulatory positions."

But, somehow, radio has always had a tantalizing capacity to side-step the stampede to self-destruction. As Neil Strauss, editor of Radiotext, an eclectic collection of essays, published by Columbia University Press, New York, puts it:

"Radio, contrary to what broadcasters and regulatory bodies would have you believe, is a model built on putty. You can stretch it, tug it and reshape it until you are no longer able to define it and no longer want to."

And, in some locales, there are encouraging signs of resurgence, something of a renaissance through alternate forms, including community radio, student stations, digital broadband sound and even the oddball democratic virtues of phone-in talk radio.

Nor is everyone is ready to write off radio news potential. CBC Radio Manager David Anderson sees radio adapting with automation and fancy new technology that can create striking efficiencies.

"If one had not seen a newsroom for a half-dozen years," he says, "the operation would be unrecognizable. We may be forced to reduce our budgets, but we may not have to reduce our reporters because of the efficiency of this new technology."

He notes that a reporter sent to, say Lagos, with a laptop computer, carries his/her own radio studio with them. A piece of audio that once took five minutes to edit now takes 15 seconds, as CBC reporters tap into digital audio files.

However, there is another consideration in advanced technology, of course: the delivery of information, news included, directly from computer to computer. That promises a much more utilitarian communication service, promising information to your specification from magazines, newspaper, radio and television. Nothing superfluous, just rock-solid information with no distractions.

The first "golden age" of radio ended in the early 1950s as television captivated us. Radio then adapted and survived. It could do it again, with new technology and an injection of creativity, talent and ideas.

What is needed now is an assembly of innovative approaches by new people with fresh ideas for the radio wave of the future.

Gene Costain is a Toronto-based graduate student and freelance broadcaster. Now preparing his M.S. thesis on the Demise of CKO, he would be interested in hearing via Sources from anyone with pertinent ovservations about the former "all-news-and-information network."

This article originally appeared in Sources, 36th Edition.


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