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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:
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
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
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."
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