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CBC Radio -- "The New Two"

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CBC Radio -- "The New Two"
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We felt this subject was important enough to deserve a page of its own!

CBC Radio: "The New Two"

Just when we thought that CBC Radio’s "New Two" had been in place long enough to make an assessment (about eight months), along came announcements of severe cuts to CBC programming, because of the current economic crisis. Here at Dilettante’s Diary we don’t go for kicking people while they’re down. But let’s face it, we’ve gotta make our points about Radio Two while there’s still an entity around that bears some resemblance to the one we knew and loved. In any case, we’ll try to make the ‘kicks’ as gentle as possible.

Not that the blow inflicted on us was all that gentle. In fact, it was a rude wakeup call to discover that the fiat of one person – presumably Richard Stursberg, the CBC’s Vice-President of English Services – could bring about such devastation in the lives of many of us. Surely, the high standard of Radio Two’s programming was one of the glories of Canadian culture. That one bureaucrat can have decreed that something so magnificent should be taken from us and replaced with something we so didn’t want hardly seemed possible. I thought it was only in dictatorships on the other side of the world that one person’s decision could affect so many people so drastically.

How drastically? Here follows my assessment of the damage. I’ll confine my observations, for the most part, to the programs replacing the ones that formerly meant the most to me.

The most problematic new one is the early morning show, "Radio 2 Morning with Tom Allen." On his former program in this time slot, "Music & Company", Mr. Allen proved himself one of the best hosts in the business. It was always a pleasure to wake up to his cheerful, assurred voice, to have his whimsical comments following us around as we staggered into the beginnings of the day. Equally important, the selection of the music was perfect: classical and engaging, now and then something slightly unusual or less well known, not much recurrence of the old chestnuts. During this program, you almost never had to turn the radio off.

And now we have Tom introducing pop. (I don’t know what else to call the mixture of folk, jazz, soul, blues, rock, world music, etc.) Apparently, the CBC thinks it’s doing a big favour to the nation by clearing the decks for music by up-and-coming pop musicians, particularly Canadian ones. Now, if I had a daughter or son trying to make a living in that field, I would be totally in favour of this policy. As I’m not in that position, however, I keep wondering why the CBC thinks I should get to know this genre of music. Oh I know, they’re not aiming it at me; they’re hoping to draw a young (and bigger) audience. As far as I know, though, that audience isn’t tuning in. The audience still consists mostly of us diehards who haven’t yet completely given up on Radio Two.

When the new program started, it was hard to believe that Tom liked this pap, given that his enthusiasm for the classical repertoire was still ringing in our ears. Sort of like a guy who always came to the party with a girlfriend everybody liked; we all thought they made a great couple. Now he shows up with somebody new. You find it pretty hard to believe that he cares as much about this new partner.

But Tom has gradually convinced me that he does like the stuff he’s playing now – at least to the extent that he manages to find tidbits to share about the musicians and the background of the pieces. And he continues to sprinkle newsy and philosophical comments through the program. Is it just me, though, who detects a slightly less enthusiastic note in his presentation of this fare? Maybe I’m wrong about that. Still, the employment of his hosting skills in this context does seem a great come down. One day, while listening from another room, I thought I heard him mention Yehudi Menuhin. My heart leapt. Unfortunately, I had mis-heard.

Another day, in the early morning, I heard the soothing sounds of a Haydn symphony. What joy! I thought: maybe the CBC has realized the error of its ways? But it turned out that the dial had been accidentally set to another station, one that plays classical music all day.

So why not switch to that station?

Two reasons. First: the commercials on that station are unbearable. Second: the succession of "hit" classical tunes gets tiresome. It’s like a steady diet of dessert, with no substantial nourishment.

So I’ve been trying to make my peace with Tom’s new program. To my surprise, I don’t hate the music all that much. In fact, some of it’s quite listenable. Now and then, I even hear something that strikes me as delightfully fresh and new. It usually turns out to be from the 1960s or 1970s.

But one thing that comes through very clearly in the endless repetition of pop songs is the banality of the subject matter. How many variations can a listener stand on the subject of love? You’d think we were a nation of love addicts. When you’re listening to a Beethoven quartet, you don’t have hear somebody’s stupid lyrics. You can decide for yourself what the music is saying.

I suspect that’s why Tom’s program gives us so many non-English songs – to provide a break from the "love...dove...spoon....June" syndrome. Maybe the lyrics are just as bad in the other languages, but most of us don’t know. Hence a lot of French music, especially from Quebec (no quarrel with that) and lots of Latino (is Alex Cuba the CBC’s new golden boy?).

It’s not just the music that has changed, though. The format of the program has taken on a more commercial style. Mercifully, we don’t have any commercials – yet – but that announcer, the who sounds like his voice has just changed, keeps popping up with chirpy blurbs for upcoming programs. Could this be CBC Radio’s way of softening us up for the eventual inclusion of actual commercials?

Another aspect of commercial radio that has crept in – the frequent playing of two pieces back to back, without interruption. This means that we keep getting the phrase "...and before that we heard...." I much preferred it when an announcer told you what you were going to hear before you heard it. You didn’t have to keep guessing as to the identity of the piece and/or the performer.

And who couldn’t fail to notice the attempt to stir up audience response with all the invitations to join email competitions? There was always a bit of that in the old program but it became relentless in the first months of the new one. Tom Allen always tries to make it sound as though these initiatives represent a benevolent out-reach to listeners but, cynical though this may sound, the motivation is probably more calculating: to provide numbers to prove to the higher-ups that the program has devoted listeners. Hence, to my ears, these pitches always sound a note of hucksterism.

Moving with the clock, it’s on to "Tempo" the five-hour classical music program with Julie Nesrallah, a new CBC host. For the most part, the music is fine. It’s not all to my liking, but neither was the music in that time slot’s previous shows. The good news about Ms. Nesrallah is that she has a warm, friendly radio personality and a pleasingly mellow voice. Nobody could question her enjoyment of the gig or her accessibility to listeners.

The problem is with the tone of her comments. The gushy enthusiasm, the gee-whiz sensibility don’t do it for me. To be honest, I had to give myself a stern talking to on this point: was it possible that sexism was at play here? Could I only accept my classical music as served up by a plummy-voiced male announcer? No, that accusation won’t stick – not in consideration of the fact that Catherine Belyea, the host latterly of "Here’s To You" was, with her gracious charm, one of my favourite CBC classical music hosts. And I’m perfectly comfortable now with Catherine Duncan’s bright, lively approach on "In Tune".

But both those programs have (or had) a clear identity. It has taken me a long time to figure out what the identity of "Tempo" is supposed to be. The best way of pegging the program that I can come up with is that it’s meant to be like a party for friends. Ms. Nesrallah has invited us over to her place and she’s gonna spin some of her favourite disks for our enjoyment.

That’s more or less the way I used to think of Bob Kerr’s program "Off the Record". He just loved sharing his fondness for classical music with us. But the big difference is that Mr. Kerr knew so damn much about the subject. There were always new insights on offer and there was never time to fit in everything that could be said. By contrast, Ms. Nesrallah doesn’t seem to have a lot to say. The brief blurbs that she passes on sound like they’ve just been culled from the liner notes. Her knowledge of the classical musical field, even granting her status as an accomplished opera singer, seems nothing like as extensive as Bob Kerr’s. Admittedly, she’s also at a considerable disadvantage in having five hours to fill, compared to Bob Kerr’s two.

All the more reason, then, for more informational content to the program. Without some such context, it feels as though the music is being thrown at us helter-skelter. It’s as if the CBC top brass are saying, "Here, you classical nerds – gorge yourself on this five-hour chunk and don’t let us year from you again."

Unless, of course, you opt for the 24-hour classical music streamed by the CBC on the Internet. Presumably, this barrage of classical is supposed to satisfy those of us who lament the replacement of classical music on Radio Two by so much pop. But the time when we need our fix most is first thing in the morning. Who wants to wake up, crawl out of bed and stagger into the other room to crank up the computer? It was such bliss simply to reach out from bed and have the best classical music at your fingertips.

Besides, the whole point of the old system was that the erudite commentary of the hosts enhanced the experience greatly. Without their guidance, I wouldn’t have come to discover so many composers who were new to me. Some people probably think we classic-music buffs do nothing but wallow in the same old stuff. Hardly. CBC Radio Two introduced me stars of the baroque like Telemann and Corelli, whom I might not otherwise have come to know. Same for contemporary composers like Gavin Briars, John Tavener, Arvo Pert and Canadians such as Glenn Buhr and Marion Moiseyevich.

Buying lots of CD’s might lessen the pain of the changes at Radio Two. But what CD’s to buy? In the old regime, the Radio Two hosts alerted you to worthwhile purchases. Without their guidance, there’s no way to find your way through the vast field of CDs for sale. In any case, acquiring enough of them to make up for the loss of Radio Two would be beyond the financial resources of most of us.

As for the late afternoon time slot, I had to stop listening to Jurgen Gothe’s "Disc Drive" on a regular basis some years ago. In the early days of that program, I used to enjoy very much his witty, laid-back take on everything. He is, without doubt, another of the best hosts in the business. But the mix of music on his program became too irritating – Bach followed by Aretha Franklin, say. Like caviar with coke.

The new host in that time slot, Rich Terfry, is clearly destined to become another of the stars of CBC Radio. The greatest tribute I can offer is that, although the music he plays is not at all my kind, I often listen for a few minutes just because his on-air personality is so attractive. While he sounds like a member of a generation much younger than mine, there’s a cordial, congenial decency about him that makes me feel included in the conversation. Too bad I can never listen to more than a couple of the songs he plays.

We used to enjoy listening to Peter Togni on "Weekender", early Saturday and Sunday mornings. Although the quotient of lesser music kept creeping up, there were always some pieces worth hearing. Now that the time slot has been given over to jazz exclusively, it’s a dead loss to us, with the result that we have no opinion whatever on the radio presence of new host Molly Johnson.

However, one advantage of her taking on the hosting duties is that Peter Togni has been re-deployed to "Choral Concert". It was sad to lose Howard Dyck as host, who, with his wise, cultured approach, was one of the last of the old-school CBC hosts. But it’s nice to hear Peter Togni in a setting where his profound understanding and appreciation of classical music have more room to be expressed.

Another saving grace of weekends is Radio Canada, the public broadcaster’s French station. On Saturdays and Sundays until noon, hosts from Quebec offer excellent music with scintillating commentary. (On Saturday afternoon, the French station broadcasts opera, as does Radio Two.) By way of a bonus in terms of listening enjoyment, the French spoken is usually very clear and precise, which gives you the pleasure of feeling that you can understand quite a bit of the charming, informative chat.

Of which there’s precious little left at Radio Two. One result of the new regime is that I find myself switching to CBC’s Radio One more frequently than in the past. Not that I’m likely to become an avid listener to some of the cornball programs. But Anna Maria Tremonti’s "The Current" usually offers something interesting in the morning between 8:40 and 10:00.

At other times, we’re learning to appreciate the sounds of silence around here.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com