Pop made your numbers go down by Russell Smith

Dec 18, 2008

Source: Globe and Mail

Well, I admit I am surprised. Even I didn't predict quite how dramatic a failure the new CBC Radio 2 would be. I expected that after the change to programming dominated by easy-listening pop, folk and blues, the number of listeners would rise. I was all prepared to argue that this didn't indicate anything of value: I was going to attack the value of numbers-based programming; I was going to argue that of course the numbers would rise if you started playing pop music instead of classical, but that numbers are not how you define the value of anything; and that an avenue of access to educated music for people living outside educated circles was still crucial to a nation's general sophistication. I would have said that if you want the greatest number of listeners, all you need to do is play the stickiest of commercial pap and then you obviate government involvement of any kind. And now I don't need to. Because the numbers have gone down.

On Nov. 27, the CBC distributed an exuberant press release boasting of the great market success of Radio One. This network, according to the fall research results released by the Bureau of Broadcast Measurement (BBM), is doing just great: There are more listeners than last year for a large number of shows on Radio One.

There is a little aside down at the bottom of this triumphant report: Radio 2 is not doing as well. Overall numbers of listeners are the same as they were before the change (around 1.2 million listeners), but the market share - the percentage of people with radios who tune into your network - is down.

The executive director of CBC Radio, Denise Donlon, claims this decline was totally part of the plan. "When you change a radio station as we did with Radio 2, you have to expect a dip in listening patterns before you gain new listeners," says Donlon in the press release.

My schadenfreude knows no bounds.

But then when you think about it, it really isn't that surprising. They expected the million or so old listeners of Radio 2 to tune out. But then they expected several more million younger listeners to tune in. Why would young people do that? Young people are already used to choosing their own popular music from multiple Internet streams. They chafe at the pop playlists of others. They have mostly forgotten what radios are.

Furthermore, the new music of Radio 2 is not very young. The few boomers I know really love it. All that Neil Young - it's just like being back in college! This new network is to middle-aged guys what the Lawrence Welk show was to their parents.

But there are a whole lot of other easy-rock networks out there. And the desperately sought 18-to-39s are still AWOL, glued to their iPods.

When CBC management was trying to placate the couple of million fans of classical music it was alienating, it tried to distract them with the Internet. Look, it said, you can have as much classical music as you want, you just have to get your grandson to tell you how to hook up your computer to your car radio. Classical will be on the Internet, they said; pop will be on the radio.

But isn't that the opposite of what they should have done? If the audience for pop is a bit younger, shouldn't it be they who are more comfortable with online music and the technological know-how required to get it into their cars? Isn't an older audience more likely to listen to radio generally?

Wouldn't it be a good idea to have a CBC-funded all-pop music station completely online? It would cost very little. You could call it, say, Radio 3. (Rule one of CBC public relations: Don't mention Radio 3. Radio 3 does fine without us. We don't talk about Radio 3, got it?)

As for the remaining classical programming - the midday weekday ratings dead zone occupied by a giggling Julie Nesrallah - it's apparently not meant to target either young or old, but the teachers of elementary-school children who want to introduce their charges to the most-played music of all time. A great idea, but you could also buy one of those Favourite Classics compilations that Starbucks puts out. So I'm not surprised it's not bringing former listeners - most of whom have already heard Beethoven's Fifth and Dvorak's Ninth a few more times than they need to - back.

It's those crazy 18-to-39s the managers really want anyway. That's why the top brass of CBC Radio are pushing really commercial music on the unfortunate Tom Allen, who hosts the morning music show on Radio 2. They want to make that show the flagship. My spies tell me that the programmers of that show are not happy with the pressure coming down from on high to play more of the likes of Nelly Furtado and Jann Arden. (The pressure seems to have increased at around the same time as the appointment of a former MuchMusic and Sony Music Canada executive as head of radio.) Their point, I imagine - and I can't disagree with them - is that you can hear Nelly Furtado, indeed must hear her, in any Aldo shoe store in any mall in Canada. Why should the government pay for it?

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