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CBC Radio has adapted the mantra of the environmental movement as its new way of operating. A once-devoted fan goes behind the scenes to find out why his favorite station just isn't the same anymore
5:47 A.M. This early in the day - this late in the age of cutbacks - there's little afoot in the echoing concrete corridors of CBC Vancouver. Studios stand empty, newsrooms lie deserted. All is quiet and still. Until I stumble across the little third-floor warren of computers and cubicles where CBC Radio makes its home. Here the pace is frenetic.
Thirty-one-year-old news reporter Mary Griffin punches 10 digits into the telephone keypad, listens for a moment then hangs up and punches in another number. She's trying to track down cabinet minister Jan Pullinger to get confirmation of a report that a Saudi Arabian prince is looking to buy the PNE and turn it into a theme park.
She tries Pullinger's office - no response. She tries her home - a sleepy voice informs Griffin that the minister is airborne, on board the early bird special back to Vancouver. So Griffin calls the airline and asks them to ask the pilot to page the truant pol to the cockpit and put her on a cellphone. The airline makes no promises.
Not until quarter past seven does Pullinger ring back. Griffin does a quick interview, storing the digitized sound directly onto her computer. "I've got it," she calls across to colleague Karen Tankard, who sits hurriedly sifting and selecting stories from the newswire.
Tankard, a 35-year-old reporter who is acting as a temporary replacement for injured newscaster Cecilia Walters, has already prepared a 30-second update on the PNE story for the 7:30 a.m. newscast, but an audio clip from the minister would give the piece a welcome touch of authority. She strides over to Griffin's computer, and like a football team on hurry up offense, the two huddle over the computer searching for an appropriate eight-second sound clip. Then Tankard's off, sprinting down the stairs to the basement studio and her appointment with the news.
7:27 a.m. Griffin still has to cut and paste the sound bite to the network clipboard so the studio tech three floors below will be able to play it over the airwaves. She drags her mouse across the jagged up-and-down spikes that represent her interview with Pullinger, carefully lining up the start and end points. Then she does a quick two-key flick on the keyboard. A little rotating hourglass appears on the screen. And stays there. "Oh Christ! I can't believe I did that," fumes Griffin. She's told the computer to re-save not the seconds long clip, but the entire minutes-long interview. The sound file will take at least a minute to finish saving, and until it does, the computer is effectively blocked.
7:29 a.m. The chimes announcing the news go out over the airwaves. The hourglass disappears. Griffin reselects the eight-second snippet and saves it to the network just as Tankard begins reading the intro.
Out in the Lower Mainland no one notices a thing. CBC Radio is still in the game.
Meanwhile.... For fans of the public radio service - myself included - it's an encouraging sign. When in February 1995 the federal government reneged on yet another of its Red Book promises and took an axe to the CBC's budget, it wasn't at all clear how much - if anything - of CBC Radio would survive.
Nationally, CBC Radio had its budget reduced by $34.3 million - or 27 per cent - over three years. Five hundred twenty-five people were either laid off or given early retirement. Shows disappeared, including Gabereau, Sunday Morning, Morningside, Double Exposure. The repeat rate was jacked up to 30 per cent of broadcast time in order to plug the holes left by those shows. Locally, the Vancouver news and current affairs department lost $650,000 from its budget and had its staff chopped by 37 per cent, from 35 to 22 employees.
And yet the basic shell of radio programming appeared to remain intact. Vancouver still had locally-produced morning, noon and afternoon shows. There was still a three-hour national show in the morning, and Ideas and As It Happens in the evening. What seemed to have gone missing, however, was an ineffable something that for lack of a better word might be called 'quality'.
As a raging radio junkie, I used to turn on the radio - always set on CBC, 690 on the AM dial - as early as 7 a.m. and leave it on until 10 p.m. or midnight, sampling and tuning in and out as time and interest allowed. Now I find myself more often than not snapping the radio off in annoyance as early as 9:30 in the morning. Comparing notes with other radio junkies I found that, while many felt the same, few of us could clearly describe exactly what had gone amiss. So I decided to take a peek behind the scenes.
7:35 a.m. Worried perhaps that I might have picked up the wrong impression of the CBC's fancy new digital audio system, Mary Griffin starts showing me her paces on the PC. With a few flicks of the mouse she's assembling a broadcast-quality news piece complete with interview, voice over, background sounds and sound effects - as easily as one might cut and paste text on a word processor. The system was brought in about the same time as the cutbacks as a way for reporters to do more with less. And tight as that last deadline was, Griffin assures me, she wouldn't even have made an attempt with the old reel-to-reel machines.
7:40 a.m. Patrick Munro walks out of a small third-floor studio, where he's been delivering the news to listeners outside the Lower Mainland, and nods in our direction. A decades-long CBC veteran, Munro has spent most of his career as an announcer. In his current incarnation, however, he's a walking, talking, newswriting, studio teaching example of the CBC's new workplace flexibility.
In the wake of the cuts, CBC management put a gun to the head of its many unions and made a proposal: accept what we're offering or eat lead. The unions quite sensibly decided to cooperate. Twenty-seven separate bargaining units were consolidated into four, and the myriad rules and regulations dictating who was allowed do what (that is, announcers talk into microphones, researchers talk into telephones, technicians talk to nobody because they're busy fiddling with the innumerable little knobs on the big confusing soundboards) were either relaxed or eliminated completely (and about time many would argue). The new rules were dead simple: do what it takes to get out the news.
In Munro's case, what it takes is everything. Starting every morning at 5 a.m., he chooses the day's top stories from the wire, writes them out in broadcast form, arranges them in order, then every half-hour heads into a studio and reads them to listeners 'out there', all the while fiddling with the requisite buttons so that his voice makes it out over the airwaves. The bureaucratese used to describe this new work arrangement is either 'multi-skilling' or 'cross-skilling', depending upon which former workplace rules are being broken.
Munro is easily the CBC's most extreme example of multi-skilling, but hardly the only one. The technician for the Early Edison (the local morning show which runs from 6 a.m to 9 a.m.) now selects the listener comments from the talk-back line, and writes and announces the afternoon community notes. Other techs research and read out sports reports and weather forecasts. Most reporters do double duty as announcers and sometimes technicians.
Ostensibly, the resulting productivity gains have been enormous. Though 13 positions were eliminated from Vancouver's news and current affairs departments, the news bureau has the same number of reporters it always had; the Early Edition has only one less person behind the scenes, the Afternoon Show only two less.
But there have been sacrifices. Dead air and other miscues - the result of hosts and announcers reaching for the wrong button have become commonplace, giving CBC a slightly student radio sound. More important, in reporter Karen Tankard's case, what's been sacrificed is time for reporting. In between selecting stories, writing them and reading them on the air every half-hour, there is little or no time for actual news gathering. So stories come from the wire services, or from what's left over from the night before or though Tankard hates to admit it - from the pages of The Vancouver Sun and The Province.
Nor is that the only place where compromises have been made on content.
8:20 a.m. In the basement studio the Early Edition is into its last hour. Host Rick Cluff, a newcomer to Vancouver last fall, does the roads and weather one more time with a practiced patter that, to some CBC listeners, sounds disturbingly similar to that of a private-radio DJ. Meanwhile, studio director Allison Braddle is on the phone with news reporter Michael Tymchuk, on location in a hotel room in the northern community of Horsefly. She has his news report, filed in time for the 8:30 a.m. news, but she wants him to come on live around 8:40 a.m. As she talks to Tymchuk, Broddle types out a list of four or five sample questions for Cluff to ask Tymchuk.
8:30 a.m. The news arrives. Tymchuk's taped report explains that Horsefly residents held a meeting the previous evening to demand more RCMP protection after a recent crime wave, which they believe is linked to one of the town's new residents.
8:42 a.m. Host Rick Cluff explains that he has Michael Tymchuk on the line from Horsefly. Using the questions provided by Breddie, Cluff elicits from Tymchuk the information that Horsefly residents held a meeting the evening before to demand more RCMP protection after a recent crime wave, which they believe is linked to one of the town's new residents.
It's called a debrief, and it's used extensively on the new CBC Radio, not only on the Early Edition but also on the local afternoon show, on national newscasts and on This Morning, the new national morning show which runs out here from 9 a.m. to noon. Depending on your viewpoint, debriefs are either a shameless recycling of the same information, or an intelligent way to use existing resources to shed greater light on a story. Alison Broddle thinks it's a bit of both. "The reporter usually knows more about a story than he can put into his report," says Broddle, "so we are adding something. But we wouldn't do it if we had another AP [associate producer] to do the research for a different story."
Debriefs, in fact, are symptomatic of a major reshuffling at CBC Radio. When the cuts came down, the news department and the current affairs department (responsible for shows like the Early Edition) were forcibly merged into single entity. Walls that physically segregated one show from another were taken down. Now when the news reporters hold their daily 9 a.m. story meeting, the producer of the Early Edition Philip Ditchburn, sits in. When the meeting ends at 9:30 a.m. or so, Ditchburn carries the information across and recycles it for the Early Edition's story meeting.
On the one hand this has reduced the sometimes crazed duplication of effort that saw three or even four CBC staffers all hounding the same cabinet minister for an interview. Now one person gets the story and shares it with the rest of the corporation. On the other hand it has forced the Early Edition (and indeed all the current affairs shows) to focus almost exclusively on the hot topic of the day.
Producer Philip Ditchburn says he favors the shift to greater topicality, which is good because even if he wanted to focus for a moment on a non issue-du-jour, he wouldn't have the staff to do it. This interdependence between news and current affairs is what forces CBC shows to grab on to the day's hot topic and hold on for dear life. Be it the PNE, MacBlo cutbacks or bank mergers, the topic will be reported in the news, debriefed about on the Early Edition, debated by a panel of experts on This Morning, ranted over on the Almanac phone-in lines and ultimately recapped on the Afternoon Show.
What's been lost, alas, is the ability to break away from the media pack, to cover issues or stories or people about which nothing as yet has been heard, to delight and surprise the listener with completely new information, once the hallmark of the CBC for many fans. (Of the two shows that once did this best, Sunday Morning and Ideas, the first has been cancelled and the second was so thoroughly gutted as to be unrecognizable.)
Arguably, however, the marriage of news and current affairs was unavoidable, given the severity of the cuts. There are yet more changes, however, for which the CBC has no one to blame but itself.
9:45 a.m. The morning news meeting has broken up and reporters are on their way to cover their assignments. Reporter Terry Donnelly is packing up his tape deck for the trip to Pullinger's PNE press conference, but he takes a few minutes to talk about the changes he's seen since joining the CBC back in 1976. "News reporting back then was very different. Even the language we used was different," says Donnelly. "We used a kind of elevated CBC English."
The switch to more everyday language is not something Donnelly regrets, but he does kind of mourn the passing of that highly polished - what he calls "sculpted" sound of a CBC news report. In the current regime reporters focus on getting the information to the air as quickly as possible. There often isn't time for polish. "That sound required a luxury of time resources," says Donnelly. "We don't live anymore in a time of luxuries, though we do live in a time of high expectations."
Though the local CBC news bureau hasn't actually had its numbers reduced, it now has to produce a great deal more product. As part of the recent programming changes, the CBC national news desk handed over control of most of the top-of-the-hour news broadcasts to the local bureaus, creating what's called 'blended' newscasts. Some national and international stories may still be included, but the choice and ordering of the stories is done in Vancouver, and local stories are always featured prominently in the mix. In addition, CBC Radio has also added 90-second newsbreaks at the bottom of the hour, and these are strictly local.
For local reporters, the changes have meant both greater access to the airwaves, and a great deal more work. "Before, you might display your wares maybe two or three times in the course of the whole day," explains Donnelly. "Now I'll air a piece two or three times in the morning, and then I'll stretch and manipulate the material so there's something different for the afternoon."
The changes were implemented as a result of research with focus groups that suggested listeners wanted a bit more of a local flavor to their news. Alas, there's only so much news to go around, and as with CNN or all-news CKNW, CBC now repeats the same story every half-hour, sometimes up to 20 times a day.
When I ask B.C.'s director of radio, Susan Engleburt, whether the very repetitiveness of the news broadcasts may be driving listeners away, she suggests I don't know how people listen to radio. She does, because in the lead up to the programming changes, CBC management commissioned a study of its real and potential listenership, making use of both the Bureau of Broadcast Measurement surveys and its own research with focus groups. The result was a massive volume entitled - you guessed it - How People Listen To Radio.
Among other things, the book shows that listeners like me do not exist. During the 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. period, listeners tune in on average for just over 45 minutes. In the 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. slot, this figure shortens slightly to between 30 and 45 minutes. Going by the book, then, repetition is not really a problem. (As an aside, my under-35 status merely confirms my non-existence. Eighty-three per cent of CBC's listeners are 35 and over, as compared to just 10 per cent in the 25 to 34 age bracket. There are none so powerful, however, as those who will not listen. CBC brass brought in Avril Benoit to co-host This Morning in a frank bid to appeal to my generation. Thanks guys.)
Robert Blackwood just shakes his head when I tell him about the focus groups. A former senior executive with CBC Radio - now retired - Blackwood thinks the CBC's approach to dealing with the cuts is fundamentally misguided. "I think CBC Radio is in the same state as the supper-hour newscasts were 10 years ago," says Blackwood. "They're trying to compete with the commercial stations, trying to woo their listeners, and the question that has to be asked is 'Why?' Should you be doing what the commercial stations already do, or should you take the resources that you have and dedicate them to the two or three things that you can do well, that the commercial stations can't do at all?" In the case of the CBC, Blackwood adds, the things to concentrate on would be national news, international news and documentaries.
The comparison with TV is a bit harsh, perhaps, because unlike the TV news hours -which have always been less than stellar local CBC Radio news has always been a cut above the commercial competition. For the past two years running CBC has won the prestigious Webster award for radio news reporting, and even as I write this the noonhour show Almanac is airing a week-long special series on forestry - produced in cooperation with news reporters from around the province- that is quite simply excellent, and six cuts above anything on CKNW. In short, chopping back the local service would hurt. But the fact remains that local commercial stations can do local news, weather and sports, whereas only the CBC can do high-quality national, international and documentary programming. It's a dilemma.
I call up the director of English language programming, Alex Frame - the man most responsible for CBC Radio's current configuration - to ask how he worked his way through this conundrum. The telephone number suggests that Frame works out of Toronto, but as the conversation progresses it becomes clear that he actually inhabits a parallel universe where the standard rules of perspective simply don't apply.
In Frame World, replacing a sculpted piece of news reporting with a debrief is not a decline in quality, just "a different style of presentation." The three hours of babbling experts offered up on a recent Sunday edition of This Morning is only a major decline from the old documentary-laden program Sunday Morning, "if you happen to like documentaries." This Morning host Michael Enright's recent 45-minute chat with the Canadian king of polka was not a blatant example of an interviewer desperately stretching the material way beyond its inherent ability to sustain interest. No, it was a fun exploration of an offbeat topic. In Frame World, tradeoffs need not be considered, because CBC Radio sounds better than ever.
Now, it's possible that Frame is just putting the best possible public face on a painful situation. But what if he really hasn't considered this issue? According to at least one CBC staffer, Frame was asked much the same question - 'How do you guarantee quality with declining resources?' - by reporters themselves when he came to Vancouver to explain the rationale behind the new regime, and he dodged the question then, too. Alas for Frame, and all of us, CBC doesn't broadcast into Frame World.
4:42 p.m. It's a few days after the conversation with Frame. Macmillan Bloedel has just announced a massive downsizing of its workforce, and on the Afternoon Show Kathryn Gretsinger is talking to a forestry expert about the layoffs. Unfortunately, the 'expert' has taken control of the interview, spinning the facts furiously and putting a mad cant on the situation that could and probably does come straight from the Liberal opposition: The MacBlo debacle, he says vociferously and at length, is solely and completely the fault of the New Democratic Party and its infernal Forest Practices Code.
Any number of intelligent objections to this point are possible - quibbles or questions that will force the guest to defend or explain his assertions in greater detail, and in the process provide a more balanced look at what's happening in the woods: pulp prices are at an all-time low; the Asian timber market has just vanished down a hole of currency speculation; the company has been underperforming since at least 1990 (years before the infernal code) and even new CEO Tom Stephens has laid much of the blame on MacBlo's bloated senior management corps.
But a host is only as good as the information she is fed by her researchers, and this afternoon Gretsinger is clearly starving. No objections are raised, and her guest is allowed to rant happily away for minutes more, finally concluding with a biblical flourish: "The government will just have to reap the whirlwind."
Now, Gretsinger is not the only CBC host of late who's been sent into an interview completely unprepared. Indeed it seems to have become an all-too-frequent occurrence.
The dilemma that faced her producers when they contemplated doing that interview is the same one CBC management so far seems to have dodged: do we do take on this task, knowing we may do a half-assed job, or do we wait and come back only when - and if - we have the resources to do the job right? Until CBC's senior management is willing to come to grips with this dilemma, CBC Radio will continue to slide on down the trail to mediocrity so ably blazed by CBC Television.
Shawn Blore is a Vancouver freelance writer.
COPYRIGHT 1998 Shawn Blore