Words on World Music


Friday, February 22nd, 2008

radio2.jpgFebruary 25th, the CRTC opens a round of hearings in Vancouver to deal with a host of radio, television and other communications-related business that fall under their authority. Most attention however, will be focused on the 13 applicants who are vying for what could be the last FM frequency in the market. It’s funny, because going back 10 years to when Fairchild Radio received the license for 96.1 FM, and a few years later when The Beat was awarded 94.5 FM, and more recently when Red One received a license for 93.1 FM, we were told on each occasion that this was likely the last FM frequency in the market. The new spot on the dial, 104.1 FM apparently became available when a station close by in northern Washington State went dark, allowing for a north of the border, low power FM to operate without undue interference.

At this point I would like to express to my US readers that what follows is an example of how your system of rewarding forward-thinking, bold new ideas and pioneering entrepreneurialism is superior to the Canadian model where conservative, tried and true, market-tested with a solid track record-type of thinking gets the prize.

The odds-on favorite to win the bid for the new FM is Canada’s national broadcaster, the CBC who would like to flip their AM outlet (Radio One) to the FM dial. Actually, it’s just one third of a much bigger proposal to exchange the AM for three FM signals to serve the same area of southwestern British Columbia. “AM still has tremendous advantages over FM on the distance it’s able to cover,” said Ted Kennedy, chief of staff for CBC English Radio. “But the issue we’re having, and it’s an issue facing everybody, is that with modern construction techniques in major urban centres, AM doesn’t penetrate the buildings as well.” True dat. But, Vancouver isn’t Toronto, Calgary or Edmonton where line of sight will get you coverage into the next province because the terrain is flat as a pancake. What about service to Lions Bay and Deep Cove, or all the little communities tucked between the mountains and up and down the fjords that might be better served by an increase in power to the Mother Corp’s AM radiated frequency? After all, her mandate is to provide service where no other exists. And, as long as we have an AM band, which is a public utility, shouldn’t the last rat to flee the sinking ship be the government’s official broadcaster?

Please forgive the digression, but this is the ideal moment to ponder another point. 10 years ago, broadcasters were ready to snap up any frequency available, be it AM or FM, because the great occurance of the transfiguration was close at hand; that glorious day when all frequencies would be equal in the new light of the dawn of digital radio. Is it just me? Nobody is talking digital anymore. AM stations are slowly but surely turning off their transmitters and no one seems to be holding out hope for a saving technology. It could be interpreted as a lack of confidence in the medium of radio in general. Let’s hope not and let’s move on.

The majority of the commercial applicants for this 104.1 FM frequency have obviously asked themselves the same thing, “What format can we propose in a radio landscape that is saturated with every shade of the same popular music, from AC to CHR and all things in between, that government bureaucrats and our conservative investors can easily understand and, could be construed as being a gap in the marketplace?” They must have asked themselves the same question because nearly all of them came up with the same answer; AAA. From our friend, Wikapedia: “Adult album alternative (also triple-A, AAA, or adult alternative) is a radio format broadcast mostly on FM. A spin off from the album-oriented rock format, its roots may have been established sometime during the 1960s from what was called underground music and later progressive. The radio format has a broader, more diverse playlist than most other formats and tends to appeal more to adults than to teenagers. Less-played tracks are also common.” Yes, there currently is not a AAA format on the air in Vancouver, but the concept is hardly revolutionary and it could be argued that in light of the fact that the ‘single’ is making a comeback because consumers can rarely cull any more than 2 or 3 strong songs from a new popular music album, it doesn’t make practical sense in 2008 to be playing a bunch of ‘inside cuts’.

Then comes the best part of any radio license hearing, what I like to call the ‘gifties’. What can we bring to the table to make Madame et Monsieur Commissionaire like our application more than the next guy’s? Here’s where applications are spiced up with a colourful sprinkling of music drawn from a grab bag that, while near and dear to my heart, is considered by corporate broadcasters to be ‘the vegetables on the plate’. I’m talking about Category C. In the CRTC Regulations, C is defined as Special Interest Music including ‘Concert’ (the spectrum of classical music), Folk and folk oriented music, Jazz and blues, non-classic religious music and (I bet you were wondering when I was going to get around this) worldbeat and international! Nothing says ‘team player’ and ‘noblest of intentions’ like showing some support for beleaguered, under-exposed music genres. Then there are the Canadian Talent Development Initiatives; creative schemes to prop up Canada’s music community. And, by creative, I mean throwing huge amounts of cash at it. With this giftie, it really is all about the giving, and those with the deepest pockets always come out looking like winners. The final giftie is one of self-sacrifice and it’s a poker game. Who will ante up the most Canadian Content? Because, you’re going to have to see the other guy’s wager to stay in the game. At this upcoming round of hearings, the stake to stay at the table is 40 percent Canadian Content. That’s up from the going rate of 35.

I stand before you, my fellow Canadian musicians and Canadian radio colleagues and testify; through 27 years of serving the industry in Vancouver I have gladly and generously played my part in the exposure and promotion of local Canadian talent. Vancouver’s world music community is vital (which should surprise no one because as I’ve said ad nauseum, worldbeat is completely reflective of our city’s societal construct), and I’m proud to be associated with it. But, if I were given the challenge of creating radio programming that presents an accurate picture of the true state of global music today, where nearly half the selections would have to be Canadian, I’d be sunk. I think promising 40 percent Cancon to appease the Commission is a dangerous precedent that inevitably is going to bite Canadian broadcasters in the back side.

I’d like to wrap this up by saying to Canadian broadcasters, “This is an industry that has long prided itself on being able to sell anything through the power of creative thinking. Is a 40 year old music format really the best alternative you can come up with?” To Canadian musicians, “Be careful what you want from radio because you just might get it.” And, to the CRTC, “How about a public forum where people can tell the Commission what they would like to hear on the radio before applicants get a chance to petition them for support.” Now, that would be a hearing I could really believe in.

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