CBC kills Two New Hours

Two New Hours producer, David Jaeger with Norwegian composer/performance artist Maja Ratjke (left) and Canadian composer Melissa Hui (right) in happier times .

Canadian music has been dealt a serious blow by CBC in their decision to axe the award-winning show Two New Hours, the last broadcast bastion for the live presentation of new Canadian art music. This program was truly world-class, occupying a prestigious place in the international music community and among international classical broadcasters. Knowledgeably moderated by host Larry Lake and produced by Canadian composer, David Jaeger, it was a jewel that has been thoughtlessly cast aside.

Will CBC stop presenting Canadian art music entirely? No, it seems not, but the replacement show, The Signal, in its initial show has broadcast only a small sampling of serious Canadian music from recording. By relying on recordings rather than taping live concerts as Two New Hours did so successfully for 30 years, CBC is presenting the works of composers who have already met with some success, rather than being a launching pad for new voices. It has ceased to be a partner in the creation of a unique Canadian musical voice and canon.

How do we create a Canadian canon of music with so little support from our national public broadcaster? Canadian icons like R. Murray Schafer came to international attention in large part through their concerts being broadcast by CBC and through CBC exchanges with international public broadcasters.

What is happening at CBC? Their corporate communications all cite a need to appeal to a younger demographic and have a larger market share. Surely this is a problem for commercial radio rather than public radio. Is not the mandate of public radio to serve the interests of the development of a national body of art and to serve the interests of minorities within the population–those NOT served by commercial media. Surely there is a plethora of commercial radio stations serving the interests of teens and young professionals with a taste for pop culture. One might say, “serving the lowest common-denominator”.

As an arts administrator I have become familiar with the basic criteria of Canadian national and provincial public funders when it comes to grants for Canadian performing arts. If it is populist it is deemed to not require public support, or require less support–the marketplace will fund it. If it has artistic merit but is unlikely to find an immediate audience–so not commercially viable–it is deemed to need support from the public sector. To give just one example: in 2001 I was serving as interim General Director of Opera Ontario when Canada Council of the Arts threatened to cut our funding in large part, because our opera seasons were–at that time–deemed as too “popular” in presenting standard opera repertoire rather than taking risks with new opera and less-performed works. We were encouraged to increase our presentation of Canadian works and Canadian artists to receive public funds. We made adjustments and commitments to new programming and a policy of presentation of Canadian artists to re-coup those funding cuts.

So why is CBC, a publicly-funded radio station being allowed to pursue a course of populist programming, when a regional opera company could not? And indeed once the CBC management has managed to wreck a national treasure–one of the things Americans have envied us for–and deliver radio and television just like their commercial “competition” will politicians not turn around and say, “why are we funding this”? I sure would.

Does the rush to serve the youth market even make sense?

It may have escaped the marketing braintrust at CBC but the older demographic that they have traditionally appealed to is not disappearing, but rather growing, as the baby boom matures–and older citizens will always be with us. The CBC seems to be saying, “if we don’t attract young people, our audience members are all going to be dead in 10 years” but this is a very simplistic analysis. Every day people are getting older, so there are new people always entering the mature demographic that has a taste for thoughtful, challenging programming in news, opinion and the arts. And serious music has always appealed to a larger proportion of the older demographic than youth. This has been true for centuries.

The CBC move to axe Two New Hours was made quietly and swiftly before effective opposition could be mounted. Now that the changes at CBC Radio Two are in place, there is opportunity for the mature, sophisticated music community to speak out if their interests are no longer being served by their public broadcaster. We need to reclaim our public broadcaster. In the meantime, oddly enough, in the Toronto market, the classical music community is being best served by WNED FM from Buffalo, NY.

Radio culture used to flow the other way across the border.

Want to speak out?

Lobby your MP to keep CBC Radio Two free of commercial pop music
Find your MP here

Contact Mark Steinmetz head of CBC Two programming

Contact members of Heritage Canada committee responsible for commenting and recommendations on the role of CBC as a public broadcaster in preserving Canadian culture

Read another more informed and involved voice on the demise of Two New Hours.

(I will add more links to this post as I find them)

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Bread and Roses Life, L. Rogers

Mel Swart

There were a wealth of newspaper tributes to Mel Swart this week–one of the founders of Canada’s New Democratic Party, dead at 87. I won’t echo the tales that everyone has heard.

But I have a few personal memories that stick with me. Mel’s example of a life-lived together with his various words of wisdom have always been a big part of my own definition of democratic politics at its best. And that’s important to reflect on in times when we most often see democratic politics at its worst.

I’d met Mel first in the 1980’s but I only really got to know him when I was working on Peter Kormos’ 1996 campaign for the leadership of the Ontario New Democrats. This was an enterprise that most of us on the campaign team knew had a slim to no chance of ultimate success. Despite this realistic assessment, our view was that this initiative had to be undertaken in order to get some items of principle onto the convention floor for discussion. And in that latter task, we succeeded beyond our wildest dreams– as issues which had been shut out of the leadership debate came to be its central focus.

During the campaign, I ran into people who said things to me like, “You’re insane.” “You people can’t hope to win.” “What are you doing?”

What these people didn’t understand or had forgotten was the many successes of the NDP in opposition. You don’t have to win to have a voice and, ultimately, the success of the ideas outlives the success of individuals.

Mel was the fundraising chair for that campaign. I was the media chair. I remember calling Mel on the phone the first time and cracking up at the phone message. First there was about 10 seconds of nothing but wind sound and then a crackling voice like an old Edison cylinder that began with … “This is Mel Swart talking to you on a (pause and carefully enunciated) telephone answering machine… ” crackle pop.. I asked people, “How long has Mel had that answering machine, anyway?” It turned out–to my surprise–that it was brand new.

Throughout the time that Mel had been an MPP in Ontario he’d never had an answering machine at home, was always listed in the phone book and answered his own phone. Only when he “retired” did he feel that it was permissable for him to put the public at a little distance by purchasing an answering machine. It was his unfamiliarity with the device that caused him to be awkward in recording his message.

In this regard and many others, Mel really believed himself to be a “public servant” and lived that way. It just didn’t seem right to him that he should not be as available as possible to the people that elected him to help them in any way he could and he was famous for pinching every penny of the legislative budget he was given. He never took an apartment in Toronto. Instead he drove two or more hours back and forth to his home riding of Welland everyday, sometimes making it in time to attend mid-week events and meetings. Of course there are also a lot of stories of him crashing on his office couch and being seen tiptoeing to the Member’s loo in the wee hours.

Perhaps the thing that sticks with me most was an anecdote that Mel related that seemed humorous at the time but took on broader meaning as I have reflected on it over the years. A group of us were shooting the breeze about campaigning in general when Mel said,

“Well people want to talk more than they want to listen. So when you’ve got nothing they think want to hear I think it pays to listen. I worked a few times on some just hopeless campaigns and I’d walk up and say just one thing, ‘what are you thinking about the election.'”

“And then I’d shut up and let them talk.”

” They’d spout off for a few minutes and no matter what they said, I’d just smile and say, ‘You sound like a New Democrat to me!'”

” I’d leave them scratching their heads wondering what they had said that fit with our political program and my hope was that it got them thinking and listening more to what we were about. I don’t know whether it did or whether it didn’t, but it sure was better than arguing and leaving them angry and closed-minded.”

It’s a funny story and a clever strategy but it’s more than that.

Mel was telling us that politics IS more about listening to the people than trying to ram any “key messages” down their throats. And politics at its best is about developing some positive ideas–a political program–and engaging people in thinking about those positive ideas and reflecting on them. Would this set of policies would improve things for their family and community? His advice was to engage people in supporting your positive ideas and you don’t have to waste your energy in in negative attacks on the policies of other parties.

Mel was passionate about ideas but always able to separate a difference of opinion from respect for individuals. He could hate an opponent’s viewpoint on one issue while liking the individual and respecting him/her on other achievements or opinions. This statesman-like stance is so at odds with the unfortunate divisive politics that have become the norm. Communities are helped when politicians across the political spectrum can work together on issues in common.

It’s unfortunate that in recent years the NDP has been better at throwing people out than attracting new people to share in a positive vision. Most recently the furor surrounding an initiative to attract spiritual progressives comes to mind. Mel was all about listening, about bringing more people into a big tent of progressives that shared key values. It was that positive, inclusive, spirit that made me want to work for the NDP as a campaign worker, volunteer and staff member. I hope as we individually and collectively reflect on Mel’s legacy it helps us all to find that spirit again.

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Bread and Roses Life, L. Rogers