Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Messages on the People's Radio

"Ladies and gentlemen! We're going to have a good show today! We're going to have a big party ... The batteries on my show are falling off. We forgot to do balloons! Ladies and gentlemen, we're going to have a party today! But it's not going to be super good. It's going to be a little bit good, because we're just going to have a little bit of cake."

And so began the final broadcast of Brave New Waves' last Friday night, with the sounds of Patti Schmidt's toddler nephew. Ten months after she recorded this concept show about radio, it was a fitting farewell to the program that had consumed her life for the past 17 years, and had captivated the rest of us since 1984. Friday's farewell was the show that it should have been: hosted by Patti Schmidt, opening with a proper acknowledgment of the end, and four hours of music that was both irreverent and deadly serious, high and low culture, avant-garde and amateur, with a concert in the middle from a new Canadian politically active punk band. The bookend bits were gold, featuring Patti's toddler nephew talking about a party that's going to be a little bit good, a little bit sad.

The fact that this episode was originally recorded and broadcast last May, without any acknowledgement of its significance at the time, still hurts a bit. For a show that always thrived on the new, it's slightly absurd that the last show was a repeat. But considering the excruciating state of limbo this show has existed in recently, the final show managed to sound dignified and proud. No nostalgia, no tears, just a final statement of purpose.

David Wisdom's final show on Sunday night was also lovely, though the show I heard him do a couple of weeks ago seemed to be more self-consciously about The End. (It included Sarah Harmer's "The Ring," about gratitude and the gift of song, which ranks among her most exquisite lyrics.) Along with "Tumbling Tumbleweeds," some Satie, and Sinatra singing "Let's Face the Music" (“A song I think of in uncertain times,” he said), Wisdom reprised a set from the final Night Lines broadcast that juxtaposed the Rheostatics' "Northern Wish" and The Band's "Whispering Pines" (which he talks about here). Hearing that while driving down the DVP into Toronto with a glorious sunset beyond the skyline was a radio moment I'll not soon forget, especially with the first of the final Rheostatics shows scheduled for seven short days later.

I'm slightly sad to say that I didn't hear the final Radio Sonic/ Radio Escapade/ Radio3-on-Radio2 show Saturday night, except for the last track just before midnight immediately after Grant Lawrence signed off. It was "The Singer" by Stompin' Tom Connors, which argues that "a land without song cannot stand very long," and still rings true as a rallying cry for the state of Canadian music. I first heard the song when it underscores an on-stage assassination in the Bruce McDonald film Roadkill; I later used these lyrics to close the book Have Not Been the Same, and I like to play it as an alternate national anthem every time I'm the organ player at a game in the Exclaim! Hockey League. Hats off to Mr. Lawrence, a huge Stompin' Tom fan, for making that his final selection on the democratic medium of old-fashioned terrestrial radio—the people's radio.

Why wasn't I listening to the whole show on Saturday night? Personally, it's been a rough winter all around, and this month in particular I'm tired of goodbyes. So instead, I spent it in the good company (and good cuisine) of other radio geeks, where we talked about everything but radio: equally cheery subjects like vanishing farmland, municipal politics, Katrina aftermath, and the cranes of Dubai.

But therein lies the problem that the Saturday night program—whatever they chose to call it—always suffered from. The audience for this program—broadly speaking, young people interested in new music—are not at home on Saturday night in so-called "prime time." I only ever listened to the show for the first two hours before I went out, if in fact I happened to be home alone for dinner. Or if I was too burnt out from Friday night and stayed home Saturday altogether—and furthermore if I eschewed television for a book, writing, or personal projects. That's a lot of ifs.

It's true that Brave New Waves had an equally problematic time slot, but there's something to be said for the late night radio listener, who is no doubt there for a reason and is a captive audience member. I would argue that very few people—Canadians, particularly—actively engage with their radios on Saturday nights, despite Mr. Lawrence's frequent pleas to turn the TV hockey game sound down, and your radio up.

I was a bit worried by some of the comments posted here following by Brave New Waves essay, the Brent Bambury interview and the David Wisdom interview, because I don't want to be pegged as a naysayer or a guy who pines for the same CBC Radio that he grew up with. The reason I posted or wrote all those things was to pay respect to the great tradition that these shows built at the CBC. In the case of BNW, I was worried that in the wake of all the new changes, that the fate of the show was going to be swept under the rug like a dirty little secret—which it had been for at least the last six months.

I don't think change at the CBC is bad, and I have no desire to sit around and talk about glory days. I like a lot of what they are doing with Radio 2, and I think their approach to mixing genre is going to work. De-classical-fying the network is also long overdue (27 years), but I'm glad they're not chucking that continuum entirely. I also think it's wise to have a more clear delineation between talkie Radio One and the music of Radio Two; the latter has always been the poor cousin that seemed like an afterthought to the main network.

Some of the hand-wringing around these changes has been a tad ridiculous. Rumour has it the McGill Students Union held a moment of silence for Radio 3, as if the Saturday night show was the only component of the ongoing operation. This only proves that much like the mourning of the Radio 3 webzine, most people actually have no idea what Radio 3 is and what it encompasses. And granted, it has never fit into a soundbite at any point in the past eight years. But at least it no longer elicits puzzled stares.

It pains me greatly to think that there's no room for Radio 3's rock'n'roll on the new Radio 2. Because Radio 3 was and is primarily about rock'n'roll--which for these purposes will also mean hip-hop and electronic music. Much of the new CBC Radio 2 is—rightly so—aimed at an adult audience, and by that I don't mean a geriatric one. People between 30 and 50 who aren't interested in classic rock, hit radio or 80s retro really have few other places to turn, and the new CBC Radio 2 sets out to address this. This demographic's tolerance for young, raw rock'n'roll is admittedly limited.

But, goes the eternal question, what of the youth? The assumption here is that they're all on the internet anyway, which, after a series of bumps and hurdles (that we won't get into here), Radio 3 has proven itself good at. And it's an assumption worth making: the Radio 3 podcast is exponentially more popular than the Saturday night program ever was, in any of its incarnations. The concept of podcasting in general represents a triumph of time-shifting radio, doing for radio what the VCR did for TV watching 25 years ago. So when you take a show that had such a terrible time slot and repackage it into a readily accessible hour-long format, it's little wonder that it took off.

(We also won't talk about the lack of will to consider Brave New Waves as a podcast-able program until after they formally announced its cancellation. I’m convinced that had that show become a podcast that it would have been a worldwide hit, finally convincing all naysayers that the show did indeed have currency beyond a handful of vocally loyal geeks in urban Canada, that it did fill a void not only in Canada but around the world.)

I realize that I'm a 35-year old fogie, but I do think something is lost by removing Radio 3 from terrestrial radio—as opposed to the economically elite model of satellite radio, which is another kettle of fish worthy of another essay.

Radio is a democratic medium by nature: the airwaves are free, belonging to everyone. Radios are ubiquitous and affordable; you can even build one yourself with little effort. (Or, as childhood myth had it, your orthodontist could install one for you.) It requires no effort or forethought to turn it on and experience it live, as Radio 3 thankfully was in recent years; the Saturday night show was the best it had ever been lately, largely due to its off-the-cuff nature. But there's no spontaneity in listening to a podcast, and if you're a youngster searching for something new, the chances of stumbling across a podcast accidentally are nil.

The web-based approach to radio offers infinite exciting possibilities. But at the end of the day it still requires more work (and more technology) on the part of the listener, both returning ones and potential new ones. Ideally, these two mediums can work in tandem. Sadly, it was decided that was not the case for Radio 3.

Though it kills me to admit it, Brave New Waves had to die. There were plenty of managerial misunderstandings about what the show was. For a show that produced 20 hours of radio a week, it was seriously understaffed. There was a lack of will on all sides to make it go forward. Without a serious examination of adapting it to new platforms and expanding the staff, the show was headed to obsolescence. Everyone, on both sides, was tired. The show had become an albatross.

That's not to say it didn't still have plenty of unparalleled purpose to offer the current Canadian musical landscape. I still think the show was valuable right up to this point last year. (And I say this in complete vanity, because that's when I left, in March 2006. I wasn't replaced, and the show was slowly dismantled between then and June. Please don't infer I'm cocky enough to infer that it had anything to do with my departure; I merely saw what was coming and jumped ship first. Well, second, actually.)

Last night I listened to the inaugural episode of the show that's billed as filling some of the gap left by BNW's departure, The Signal. Some of it was great, and it fills a long-ignored gap in CBC programming. Some of it had me literally screaming in frustration. There will be those who will think the show is the ideal way to illustrate that you can present challenging cross-genre material, without all those perversely petulant noisemakers stirring up shit. There will be those who will think it's a castrated, compromised version of BNW that's terrified of speaking above its audience. But many of the musical choices were genuinely inspired, I heard plenty of new music I didn't know about, and overall it would have made for an ideal show to lead into BNW's old time slot at midnight, a gateway drug to when the screaming and squawking could begin. But I've already said too much. You can't judge a show on its first episode.

I don’t fear for the future of CBC Radio Two. There are plenty of changes afoot. I hope the talented people there who have contributed so much to its strengths in recent years are recognized for their talents (what is Jowi Taylor doing exactly?). I hope the new programming manages to tap into the immense talent pool we have in this country, and the fact that our cultural industries are stronger than ever, even while other national threads are eroding. I hope the corporation doesn’t second-guess itself to death, which is what public institutions excel at (and with no shortage of peanut gallery posers like myself, can you blame them?). There’s so much work to be done. Let’s hope they get it right.

Nephew: "The show is over now. We're going to have a different show about, uh, er, um, about, um, uh, about lamps."
Patti: (laughter) "What are you going to say about lamps?" (laughter)


Anonymous said...

It was an albatross that turned out some excellent profiles over its last year, judging from the number of tapes I saved. I get the feeling that there was a method to Patti's last show madness; that is, the radio squeals and screeches, whipping through the shortwave dial, and the numbers stations. Maybe she even nudged Joshua Carpatti and murmured: if they think this is bad, wait until they tune in on Monday!

scott w. gray said...

barclay: this is a really thoughtful post. i agree that the decision to not podcast bnw is a mistake, and i actually think it suggests a far greater dis-connect than is being talked about. i also agree that despite bnw's incredible impact on cdn music development, the show had to die.
finally, i too have been talking and writing a lot about bnw of late. maybe we can talk about it a bit at the tourney (if yr hangin out). have a boo at the blog, its the science of hope its the science of love its the science of It:

mmmbarclay said...

the final show was recorded long before anyone knew what sort of placeholders or eventual replacement there would be for BNW.

scott: i applaud your work, and at the very least i'm glad that this discussion is not entirely in the hands of ex-employees (excepting mr. zoilus). i look forward to hearing what stories you can gather. i will likely be at the exclaim tourney, yes, though i haven't been booked for any organ slots yet!

Hamingja said...

I was a rabid listener to BNW and was saddened to learn of its demise. Most of my record collection was inspired by that show. I still tr and listen to breaking new sounds and experimenters out there when I find them I fall in love all over again.