Sunday, June 29, 2008

Clueless at the CBC

I suppose that I wouldn't be a true Canadian music blogger if I didn't comment on the impending cuts to CBC's classical music programming. For those of you who haven't been following, the casualties are as follows:
  1. The 75-year old CBC radio orchestra, the only remaining radio orchestra in North America, is to be disbanded.
  2. CBC Radio 2, previously a predominantly classical music station, has announced its new schedule for the fall. Aiming to showcase Canadian performers in genres including "folk, blues, acoustic, and world music" as "adult singer-songwriters", the network has relegated the bulk of its classical music programming to weekdays during working hours, when most people will never be able to hear it.
  3. Much-loved shows with announcers such as Eric Friesen, Danielle Charbonneau, and Rick Phillips have been cancelled.
  4. Members of the Canadian classical music community have held protests, written letters, and signed petitions. The CBC has responded with patronizing form letters explaining the need for greater "diversity" in its programming.
Now none of this is exactly news - these announcements were made months ago - but the continuing protests have kept the issue at the back of everyone's mind. A couple of recent developments are worthy of note; first of all, a profile of CBC vice-president Richard Stursberg from Saturday's Globe and Mail. Any right-thinking person should feel a chill run down their spine as Stursberg explains to a reporter why it's necessary to cancel original, critically acclaimed Canadian television series, why it's necessary to replace them with the American game shows Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune, and why the iconic Hockey Night in Canada theme song will disappear because he allowed the rights to lapse. (The answer in each case: the bottom line.) Here's Stursberg on why the CBC radio orchestra was shut down:
The problem is, it costs about $750,000 a year to run it. We said to ourselves, we can do that, or we could record with a bunch of other orchestras and not retain our own.
The elephant in the room here is that the CBC already records dozens, probably hundreds of orchestral concerts every year. Every other time I go to a Toronto Symphony concert, there are microphones set up and an announcement that the concert will be rebroadcast, and the same is true of most other professional orchestras, particularly new-music ensembles like the Esprit Orchestra. In order to record an additional season's worth of orchestral music, the CBC would have to start recording high school and university orchestras.

Stursberg's colleagues describe him as taking a sort of wicked pleasure in the storm of controversy that he's stirred up. When asked, he flaunts the fact that he had no TV or radio experience prior to his CBC appointment. What is this clown doing running English-language programming for our national broadcaster?

Also in the Globe and Mail, columnist Russell Smith devotes another of his columns to debunking the CBC's PR-speak. Here's the punchline:
Let's be clear: Nobody is against a diversity of music on the radio. It is precisely because we desire a mix of freely available music that we want there to be one - just one! - national radio station that broadcasts music composed before the 20th century, and music from an intellectual tradition from that century and this. Without such a station, there will be no mix. Without a public broadcaster supporting this crucial but unpopular art form, there will be no choice.
At last, someone's talking sense! Yet Smith's arguments haven't gotten through to enough people, and Andrew at The Transcontinental has figured out why:
One of the amazing things about this whole debacle is the success of CBC's communications strategy. Whether we like it or not, there is a deep dislike of anything that smacks of elitism in this country, no matter how padded with straw, and the CBC has very successfully manipulated this feature of Canadian life to their advantage.
. . .
No one, and I mean no one, wants to be seen as somehow "repressing" voices, especially in a forum where public money is involved. But that's exactly what's happening here, and it's happening because classical music is seen as some kind of white male upper crust bastion. In other words, getting rid of classical music is about getting rid of "The Man".
And here's one of the least endearing traits of contemporary North American culture exposed for what it really is: the tendency to dumb down literally everything in society in the name of "non-elitism". If there's one thing I rant about on this blog more than anything, it's this boneheaded, misguided trend, in all of its manifold guises:
  • Canadians won't appreciate thought-provoking, domestically-written dramas. Let's license American game shows!
  • Canadians won't appreciate classical music. Let's play Joni Mitchell instead!
  • Audiences at choir concerts won't appreciate traditional repertoire. Let's program John Rutter pieces and arrangements of show tunes instead!
  • Congregations won't appreciate traditional choral and organ music. Let's program K. Lee Scott and Natalie Sleeth instead!
And so on. It's the same trend that has allowed standards in high school and university to slip for years, because education "needs to be accessible to everyone" - with the result that a student can enter a program in science without more than the faintest inkling of calculus, pass a survey course in music history without ever listening to an entire Beethoven symphony, or get an English degree without seriously studying Chaucer, Spenser, or Milton. That all of this is done in the name of NON-elitism is horrifying, for this attitude is possibly the most elitist of all. Those of us who appreciate Beethoven, or Shakespeare, or T. S. Eliot, or Herbert Howells, are labelled elitists for wanting to share our interests with a broad audience. And if you pursue this path long enough, one of the self-styled populists will call you into his office and explain that while you and he might appreciate all of these things, the common rabble will never understand them. So can you offer something lighter? There's a lovely piece I've heard of called "On Eagle's Wings".

Here's hoping that this Bizarro World situation, where smug elitists masquerade as defenders of the people and wealthy middle-aged men tell artists what will appeal to today's youth, will turn around soon.

1 comment:

Andrew W. said...

Thanks for the link!

At the end of the day, it is clear to me that the CBC does not want us as listeners anymore, and is going to great lengths to break up with us in the nicest possible way.