By guest blogger Brian Brennan
Update to story below: CBC Radio announced on January 18 that it is cancelling the pop-culture show “Freestyle” effective mid-March and replacing it with an as yet unnamed daily arts magazine program hosted by Jian Ghomeshi. A CBC executive told the Globe and Mail “this does not mean an increased emphasis on pop culture.” I’m still trying to figure that one out.
Some time around the end of December, 2006 — there was no announcement in the mainstream press about this — Kelly Ryan quietly left her post as co-host of “Freestyle,” the weekday Vancouver-based afternoon chit-chat and pop music show on CBC Radio One. She was replaced without fanfare by Marsha Lederman, previously featured on air as a national arts reporter for the radio network.
There had been some surprise expressed in Canadian newspaper columns during the Fall of 2005, when Ryan took on the “Freestyle” job, because she had earned her stripes as an investigative reporter. Why, asked the columnists, would a seasoned journalist who had led the radio network’s reporting on such cases as the Swissair Flight 111 crash and the arrest of alleged serial killer Robert William Pickton want to squander her broadcasting talents on a fluff show billed by the Corp as “water-cooler fodder at its finest?”
Ryan explained that she needed a break from the hard-news reporting. But one got the distinct impression she was gritting her teeth during every scripted exchange with “Freestyle” co-host Cameron Phillips, a former television actor who actually did seem to enjoy yapping about the playful habits of dolphins and the litter left behind in movie theatres after the patrons finished their fizzy drinks and buttery-topped popcorn.
Loyal CBC Radio One listeners reacted with predictable outrage when “Freestyle” first aired in November, 2005. It came on as a replacement for “The Roundup,” a show that had lost its focus after veteran host Bill Richardson left in 2004 to host a short-lived weekend Radio One program called “Bunny Watson.” The expression “dumbed-down radio” was prominent in most of the 144 negative phone calls and 173 negative e-mails received by the Corp during the first two weeks of “Freestyle.” So were such expressions as “white bread” and “banal chatter.” The listeners pointed to such other CBC programming aberrations as Brent Bambury’s “GO” and Jian Ghomeshi’s “The National Playlist” (now mercifully put to death) as further evidence of the Corp’s limp attempts to lure a youth audience by moving in the direction of dumb and dumber.
The CBC stuck to its guns with “Freestyle” and so did Kelly Ryan, who gave the show a year. Her bio on cbc.ca now lists her credits as an investigative reporter, but makes no reference to the time spent on “Freestyle.” Fine. Time to move on.
What still galls, though, is the spectacle of those print columnists claiming the high road while CBC wanders down the low.
To hear them tell it, the press alone now functions as an oasis of intelligence and serious coverage in a desert of pop-culture banality. But is this, in fact, true? Let’s pick a random date — Tuesday 2 January 2007 — and turn to the entertainment section fronts of some CanWest newspapers to find out:
And so it goes. Time was when the review of the new production at Theatre Calgary or the latest presentation of the Calgary Opera appeared on the front of the Herald entertainment section the following day. This was a way of signalling to the readers that the paper’s editor-in-chief considered local arts coverage to be more important than Hollywood gossip. But that was a long time ago — back in the pre-Internet 1980s when I worked as a theatre critic for the paper. Nowadays, the Herald‘s main entertainment focus from day to day is on the type of vacuous showbiz coverage featured on such television shows as “eTalk Daily” and “Entertainment Tonight,” while much of the local arts coverage gets bundled into a weekly ghetto named “Books and the Arts.”
Over at CBC Radio, meanwhile, the local morning and afternoon shows feature daily reports on cultural events happening around town, Canadian authors are interviewed more frequently than they are in the daily newspaper, the regional weekend program invites Alberta authors to come on weekly and read excerpts from their books, an Alberta historian named Harry Sanders has fun stumping the listeners with questions about the history of Calgary, and Governor General Award-winning playwright Sharon Pollock gives weight and authority to her reviews of local theatrical productions.
Dumb and dumber? Canada’s mainstream newspapers should take a closer listen to what CBC Radio is doing on a local and regional level, and then go take a look at themselves in the mirror.
Brian Brennan is a Calgary author and journalist. His latest title is How the West was Written: The Life and Times of James H. Gray.