CBC: what’s wrong

by admin

I have been doing a fair bit of bitching about the CBC recently (see: here, here, and here, and here for examples), including my digs during a small presentation on podcasting I did at Concordia — audio: here. This has been in conjunction with some back and forths with the folks at publicbroadcasting.ca, some of whom are CBC employees with insights into the strange world of the Crown Corporation. It occurs to me that I should try to articulate not just criticsms, but outline what I think a public broadcaster, and CBC in particular, should be doing in this dawning age of distributed media.

This post, I hope, might grow (or shrink) into some kind of digital manifesto to publicly present to the CBC — a statement from Canadians involved in digital media one way or another (consumers of or creators of) about what the CBC could/should become. Again, this is just a first step at getting some thoughts down. Please let me know if you think this is worthwhile.

Firstly, I’ll just list some of my major frustrations with CBC:

1. please, please podcast more
2. communicate with your frustrated listeners
3. look at what other public broadcasters are doing (BBC, Australian Broadcast Corp, NPR & PBS)
4. don’t dumb everything down
5. be a leader in digital media

Now I’ll give some thoughts on these issues:

1. podcasting
Tod Maffin, responsible for CBC’s podcasting strategy, is on a cross-Canada tour: he invited Montreal podcasters to have their say. It was an informative evening, mainly for learning why CBC does not podcast much. Dear CBC: please put this info on your website. I thought they were just lost, but there are some reasons, to whit:

a. copyright
Canada has different, and in some cases more stringent, copyright laws than Australia, USA, and UK. In those countries, public broadcasters appear to have priviledged positions with respect to copyrights, and so are able to broadcast content with music without much worry/cost associated with copyright. CBC’s case is different, and they must negotiate with SOCAN and the Canadian Musical Reproduction Rights Agency (CMRRA) in order to put audio on the air, and online. The negotiation on internet archiving rights (ie rights to allow mp3s for podcast, rather than streaming) are, apparently, going slowly.

I’m not clear on this process, so if anyone can illuminate me, please do. But my question is this: to whom do I, as a Canadian and digital citizen, address my complaints? Who do I lobby? Is it CBC? SOCAN? CMRRA? The federal government? The federal government, different department? If you know the answer, please let me know. If you are the CBC please put this info on your site.

So, essentially we cannot get podcasts because the music on the show — not the actual content — is copyright, and cannot be podcast. (Apparently the producer of Quirks and Quarks actually strips out all the music to allow podcasting…kudos). Now this copyright problem makes sense for music-heavy shows, such as Brave New Waves, but what about Ideas, for instance, unavailable because the music in the show?

What is the purpose of a show like Ideas? Or, Eleanore Wachtel’s Writers and Company? etc. … Presumably the objective is to provide Canadians (and increasingly the world) important audio content. Surely writers and company’s objective is not to finance SOCAN musicians. The music may be important, but the content is why I listen. So, if you are a producer of Ideas, why not make a podsafe-music-only policy? Why don’t you say to SOCAN etc: if you do not lighten up, then we’ll just stop playing your music in our shows. See how happy your artists will be then.

If you are the producer of Ideas would you prefer to:

a) have more listeners, or
b) have fewer listeners.

The answer I hope is a). And podcasting will equal more listeners.

See below for more on this.

b) bandwidth
Another “problem” cited by Maffin is this: CBC podcasts are just too darn popular. And the bandwidth costs are high. Well, for a public broadcaster struggling for ratings and relevance, you would think the reaction would be: there are many thousands of Canadians who wish to get CBC podcasts – that’s wonderful! How do we make more of it available? iTune’s most popular podcast week after week is CBCRadio3.

This reminds me a little of a story I heard about Hudson’s Bay Company, who apparently used to sell boxes of cookies, a popular item. After weeks of buying these cookies at a particular store, a customer was shocked to find the boxes not available one week, and then not available the next week. He asked the manager why the cookies weren’t in stock, and the manager replied: “Oh we kept selling out, and it was just too much bother to keep them in stock.”

There’s a bit of a difference here, since there’s real cost to podcast bandwidth & no monetary return … but if I understand right, streaming is the real bandwidth hog. Why not kill the streaming project, and focus resources on the much more useful podcast/archive service?

c) Revenues
This one gets me steamed. CBC apparently makes lots (how much?) of money from selling tapes, CD’s, transcripts, and books of radio programs …so offering free mp3s for download will kill that revenue stream. This is the real problem with the CBC approach. The CBC priority should be increasing listenership, which will put them in a much stronger position in negotiating for funding – what a public broadcaster should argue for.

Instead the CBC is more focused on ways to turn itself into a business – see their worrying announcement of a partnership with America Online.

The CBC’s biggest problem is chronic underfunding from the government – so you can make that up 3 ways: get more govt funding, advertising, or charge for services. I would argue that as a crown corporation, funded by my tax money, CBC should not have the right even to sell me content which I have already paid for… But I may be in the minority. Still what is CBC management position on this? If they are not on my side here, then I would say we are in big trouble.

Podcasting will quickly become the main source of audio in the world – that’s my opinion. Perhaps in 5 years. If CBC management does not recognize this, and does not articulate a clear strategy on how they will provide this content – rather than becoming a commercial broadcaster — then I will withdraw my support.

2. Communication

First: I got much good information about CBC’s podcasting strategy talking to Tod Maffin. It turns out CBC isn’t totally clueless – which is what I told the class at Concordia, and I have written many times on my blog, because that’s all the information I had. Here is what CBC writes on their podcast page:

Podcasting Trial
This is a pilot project.
CBC hopes to explore the potential for podcasting and has chosen the shows listed as test subjects. Your feedback on this process is much appreciated.
If you have any questions or concerns about CBC Radio’s podcasting trial, please contact us at CBC Audience Relations

Now, why doesn’t CBC tell me their strategy and some of the problems with copyright issues on this page? That would go a long way to dispelling my still-bitter impression that CBC (unlike their public broadcasting bretheren BBC, ABC and NPR) are podcast idiots.

And note that CBC’s “appreciation” of my feedback has been demonstrated by NOT answering emails. This is unacceptable. ABC and BBC have both responded to my emails, and here’s what the Australain National Radio had to say:

Dear Hugh,

Thanks for your email, and your kind comments. Hope you continue to enjoy Radio National’s podcasts; more programs will become available for downloading soon. I’m sure the CBC will get on board sometime … maybe you can start a one-man campaign?!

Best wishes,
Kate Leavey
RN Listener Enquiries

3. Other Public Broadcasters
Look at what other public broadcasters are doing. Check BBC’s 19 podcasts, and look too here, and here, and here. NPR = 46 podcasts. ABC = 17 podcasts .

These public broadcasters are leading the charge and defining what a public broadcaster will become in the new digital age. There is no indication that CBC has any idea how they will become more relevant to Canadians through digital media. They seem to be going the opposite direction: How can we become less relevant. Take a look at CBC’s strategies & priorities, and see if you can detect anything remotely forward-looking.

4. CBC dumb content.
This is a more nebulous area, and perhaps the least important point. They are chasing ratings, and think dumb content and EZ listening is the way to go to get it. Essentially replicating crapy commercial radio. There’s no reason to fund a public broadcaster who provides the same content (worse) than commercial radio. It makes no sense at all. However, I am willing to let the CBC shoot itself in the foot by wasting my tax dollars on crap, as long as I can listen to their good content. But I can only do this if they podcast so I can listen to good mp3s while Freestyle is on the radiowaves. As it is, I listen to BBC and NPR instead. So CBC is in the process of making themselves irrelevant to me, and I am a huge defender of the cause. I assume there are others like me who will not defend CBC if it means I have to listen to Freestyle-type programming all the time. But I will let CBC have their Freestyle if they can give me wiretap mp3s that I can listen to when I want.

5. Call for Some Proposals
CBC could become an important enabler of so much wonderful Canadian content – through finding ways to promote & support podcasting, vlogging, and encouraging distributed media. This stuff is so cheap now, and CBC could have a huge impact in helping to spread these technologies throughout the country – to hear voices we don’t normally hear – what about podcasts of interviews with aboriginal elders? what about interviews with street kids? sask farmers? what about a CBC podcasting program aimed at getting seniors in senior homes to tell their stories? what about interviews with university professors? ie. what if CBC committed itself to training thousands of people to make podcasts? CBC would then be enabling Canadians to tell their stories rather than being this big old heavy filter ? Or in addition to that?

These are just a couple of ideas. Maybe CBC’s not the right group to do this. But they’re also not the right group to give forcefeed me EZ listening, but they don’t seem to have any problems doing that.

Comments? Questions?