By Frank Moher
Until I attended the recent CRTC hearing in Vancouver, I had no idea how much time is spent deciding which sort of music serves the greater public good: Triple A, smooth jazz, adult urban, or alternative rock.
Or world beat, or indie, or oldies, or R&B;, or active AC, or traditional AC, or gospel, or youth contemporary, or modern global music format, or world urban dance music format, or world dance music funk jazz showtunes Burl Ives be-bop-a-loo-ba-she’s-my-baby format.
Personally, I only listen to the latter.
Actually, I rarely listen to the radio at all anymore. Recently, I headed out in my car only to discover that I’d left my cell phone, which also functions as an mp3 player, at home. Usually I use it to listen to podcasts I’ve downloaded from the internet. Damn, I thought to myself: I guess I’ll have to listen to the CBC.
And I’m not alone in this. Radio listening has been declining in Canada for some time now, and Forbes reports that the parallel decline in the U.S accelerated in 2007. A 2005 study suggests that radio’s biggest problem is increased use of mp3 players, especially among 12 to 18 year-olds.
Maybe that’s what lent the CRTC proceedings a combined air of desperation and absurdity. Desperation because the licence applicants were jockeying for what one of them, western Canadian broadcasting scion Charles Allard, described as “the last FM frequency available in Vancouver for the foreseeable future.” Absurdity because, with their various micro-formats and monikers (The Planet! JANE! EZ Rock!), they were at such pains to distinguish themselves one from the other, even as they tussled over a dying body, in a city which, with 30-some stations already, almost certainly doesn’t need anymore smooth or urban or alternative anything.
Nevertheless, the hearings brought out many of Vancouver’s heavyweights: Producer Sam Feldman, Keg Restaurants CEO David Aisenstat, musician/actor Jim Byrnes, writer/performers Bob Robertson and Linda Cullen, Rick Arnish, President of the Jim Pattison Broadcast Group, and others. Robertson and Cullen hauled out their comedy shtick, including a joke about Jean Chretien; perhaps it’s just as well they were plumping for a station that would play music from the ’70s. Rather better was Feldman, arguing for what is called “Triple A” radio (“Adult album alternative”): “There are culturally relevant and developing local artists that deserve to have their music heard. The New Pornographers, who are often described in the American press as a Vancouver supergroup, only received one spin of their first single in Vancouver. This single charted on triple A stations right across America . . . . In my own experience, Order of Canada, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, and B.C. resident Joni Mitchell, recently won a Grammy for her new album and it never received a single spin on Vancouver radio. The truth be told, Joni is one of the greatest artists this country ever produced, and you almost never hear any of her music on the radio.”
Well, okay, but you know what?: I just went to my Yahoo! Music Jukebox application and clicked a few times and now I’m listening to Joni Mitchell as I write this. I could as easily have gone to any of a number of free internet radio stations and chosen a channel on which she is played. Or, of course, I could download her music from iTunes or with a torrent program (though the latter, admittedly, would be ripping her off) and listen to it as much and as often and anywhere I please.
In an age when anyone with a computer can create their own niche radio station, a debate over whether the last remaining FM frequency in Vancouver should be used to play The New Pornographers or KISS seems a bit silly. The answer, of course, is that it shouldn’t be used for any sort of commercial music format at all. I was at the hearings as part of a small community radio society hoping to keep that channel open until we have a chance to apply for it. A romantically doomed effort, I expect. But the one thing you can’t get from the internet, at least not yet, is the sort of hyper-local programming community radio provides. As it divvies up what remains of our airwaves, the CRTC should keep that in mind. Dying industry or not, radio can still be a lot more than just a big jukebox.