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CBC radio reconsiders its audience, reinvents itself and cues up 'Q'

Apr 22, 2007

Source : Ottawa Citizen

Listeners were more than willing to pitch in when CBC radio, in the throes of change, was searching for a name for Jian Ghomeshi's new afternoon show.

Suggestions ranged from the bland ("State-of-the-Arts in Canada") to the slightly risque ("Afternoon Delight") to the amusing-but-unusable ("Smells Like Canada") and to the obscure ("Full Duplex Repeater"). Some bright spark even suggested "Ghomer's Pile."

Ghomeshi, being of Iranian extraction, got the biggest kick out of "Royal Canadian Air Farsi" but there was no way that was going to fly.

So they rejected all the listener suggestions and settled on Q, which is just a letter and has no connection at all with either James Bond's gadget-maker (full name Quartermaster) or Star Trek's enigmatic character of the same name.

Q is Q. It doesn't mean anything.

"A couple of the listener suggestions came close," said Ghomeshi, former front man for the eclectic but now resting Toronto band Moxy Fruvous.

"Naming the show reminded me a lot of naming a band -- it's something you defer because you want consensus. But when someone mentioned 'Q' there was a pause in the room and we went 'yes, that's it.' It felt like the right name. It's an enigmatic letter we hope will become associated with the show."

Q launched last week and is the main plank in CBC Radio One's re-shuffle, which also includes an extension of the evening international affairs show Dispatches and the dispatching of Shauna "Promo Girl" MacDonald, whose contract expired last month. Her replacement is a Promo Guy, Jeremy Harris, who performs double duty on Radio One and Radio Two.

The Radio One changes follow a refurbish of Radio Two's evening programming, which added more jazz, contemporary music and increased Canadian content by 20 per cent. It was the start of a push to attract a younger audience -- younger, that is, than the current 65-plus who comprise almost half the station's audience. More changes are coming the way of Two but nothing CBC radio management is ready to talk publicly about.

What they will happily talk about are ratings, which, given current trends in radio, are impressive. (Broadcasters are typically chatty about ratings when they can be spun into a positive story but notoriously reluctant when the numbers are not in their favour.)

While commercial radio listening is down across the board in Canada, CBC has held steady and its listeners have remained faithful: Nationally, CBC radio commands about a 10 per cent share of the radio audience with larger chunks in some areas -- most notably in the Ottawa region where one in four of adults are regular CBC listeners -- either One or Two or a slice of both. The remaining three- quarters is scattered among the myriad of commercial stations.

Nationally, those CBC percentages mean that approximately 2.75 million adult anglophones listen to Radio One each week while about 850,000 tune in to Radio Two. The numbers are approximate because CBC only calculates data in areas of the country where it owns stations. Another way of looking at it is that about one in seven radio listeners regularly tunes in to Radio One and about one in 20 listens regularly to Radio Two. Those numbers haven't changed significantly for many years but data show that CBC listeners are tuning in for longer periods and listening less to other stations.

In the Ottawa area, that faithful CBC radio quarter amounts to about 180,000 listeners who, in the parlance of commercial radio announcers, have their dials locked to the public broadcaster.

Barry Kiefl, a ratings specialist and president of Ottawa-based Canadian Media Research, says it's difficult for non-CBC listeners to appreciate the loyalty CBC radio commands.

"When you tell people outside of that one-quarter group that CBC radio is No. 1 in Ottawa," he says, "they don't believe you because they never listen to CBC."

As with most radio, commercial or public, CBC gets its biggest audiences in the mornings. Anna Maria Tremonti, host of The Current, is the most listened to morning radio host in Canada.

The CBC says it is now in the top three in 14 of the 18 markets in which it has stations.

So if it wasn't broken, why fix it?

Challenging what appears to be an obvious conclusion, Jennifer McGuire, chief of CBC radio programming, says the Radio Two changes were implemented not to attract a younger audience but a "sustainable" one.

"The Radio Two audience is good and very important to us," she says, "but the reality is that no new audience is coming in and any new audience that does come in is in the 65-plus demographic. So there are no 50-, 40- or 30-year-olds coming in. Long term that is not sustainable. But we're targeting the service to adults; we're not going after teenagers."

There were two other considerations also, she says: To widen the musical selection of CBC to better reflect the homegrown musical output and to make Radio Two relevant where it currently has no impact -- especially in the Maritimes where its audience is tiny to non-existent.

"Radio Two does well in Vancouver but does badly in the Maritimes," says McGuire. "And that matters."

Two, she hastens to add, is still 88-per-cent classical but has broadened its jazz content and, with its nightly music show, Canada Live, will carry more "regional" music.

McGuire's decision to shorten news content on Radio Two is forcing news junkies to flip channels and, according to listener reaction, is a major irritant.

Changes at Radio One, adds McGuire, are also being driven by the results of a massive arts and culture study the CBC launched across the country three years ago.

"It had implications for Radio One around comedy, arts journalism and drama," she says.

Which is why there will be more drama in morning prime time and more comedy and arts journalism across the schedule.

For better or worse, the changes mean that some programs have bitten the dust, including Radio One's trailblazing Global Village, which featured world music and mini-documentaries from around the globe.

The rest of the CBC schedule simply caught up with Global Village, says McGuire.

"Global Village was a phenomenal success story," she says, "but we found that a lot of the musicians it was bringing to CBC radio are now part of our mainstream. It's the same thing with the stories -- many you'll be hearing on The Current. So the need that created Global Village has morphed into something that's more mainstream."

Faithful listeners exact a price for their loyalty and reaction to the changes -- especially on Radio Two -- has not been universally warm. Listeners communicate through Internet discussion groups and blogs -- including the CBC's own blog, which has featured much discussion.

Friends of Canadian Broadcasting spokesman Ian Morrison says he hasn't been inundated with complaints but has had "a few e-mails" every day since the changes began.

"The writers aren't in cahoots but you notice certain patterns," he says. "These people seem to feel that Radio Two belongs to them and it's part of their life. If someone mucks around with it, it really pisses them off and they say it's going to the dogs. I'm sure it's not going to the dogs. It's changing and if it didn't change over time it would end up becoming totally irrelevant. Some people really like the changes, I'm sure, but they don't send e-mails to Ian Morrison saying 'what the hell is happening?' "

Although CBC radio runs relatively cheaply -- Radio One costs about $100-million a year and Radio Two $10- to $12-million -- the publicly funded broadcaster runs a risk, however small, of irritating influential decision-makers.

"CBC is clearly making a determined effort to reach certain demographics," Morrison says, "but in the process they are annoying a lot of very important Canadians -- judges, CEOs, politicians etc. I don't know how to quantify that elite thing but there could be a political implication -- you're annoying people who are the decision-makers or who talk to decision-makers. But in a month or two I think it will settle down and people will be used to it."

Chris Cobb is a senior writer for the Citizen

© Ottawa Citizen