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“It’s lonely in here,” says Anna Maria Tremonti, host of the new flagship CBC Radio program, The Current, over the intercom from the studio to the control room during the 8 a.m. newsbreak. Tremonti sits at a round table surrounded by abandoned chairs, microphones, and earphones. When the World Report newscast ends, Willy Barth, morning senior producer, counts down aloud, “Five, four, three, two,” cueing studio technician Carole Ito to play the show’s theme music. Barth bursts into a dance, shaking his body spasmodically. Ito lowers the volume. Barth pivots clockwise 90 degrees to face Tremonti, points both fingers at her and says, “And go.”

Tremonti and everyone involved in the CBC’s most ambitious renewal project in decades are feeling lonely as they take flak from critics and listeners who miss what was a remarkably successful format. Morningside, the intimate and folksy three-hour morning show made famous by the late Peter Gzowski and the mainstay flagship program of CBC Radio for decades, has been broken up into two programs?part of phase one in a plan to overhaul the network’s entire schedule. For national listeners, CBC Radio’s day now begins with the hard-hitting and edgy The Current, followed by the fluffier Sounds Like Canada. After months of listener protests and complaints to management from Sounds Like Canada’s host, Shelagh Rogers, management announced that the show would undergo a “fundamental redesign,” set to relaunch from Vancouver in the fall.

Local morning shows across the country that lead into The Current have experienced similar shifts. For instance, Toronto’s Metro Morning, in the network’s biggest local market, was subjected to a jarring transformation last fall. But many of the changes in that show didn’t stick either, and since January they have been discarded. Then, in late March, the architect of these disastrous and costly changes, Adrian Mills, was himself cancelled after a two-year stint as executive program director.

Still, even most of the CBC’s biggest fans agree that modifications were required to the morning lineup, and especially to the 9 a.m. to noon block. Even though ratings, at times, rivalled those of Gzowski, who retired in 1997, by the spring of 2002 it was apparent that nobody, even the widely liked Rogers, could carry the venerable format. Three decades after the launch of Gzowski’s This Country in the Morning, precursor toMorningside and This Morning, it was showing its age. The show had been the most prominent element of the early 1970s radio revolution (other trailblazing programs from that time include As It Happens and Sunday Morning). Since last fall, a second revolution has been underway, involving a bevy of new programs, formats, and on-air personalities, the biggest?and riskiest?remake of the network in 30 years.

The CBC brass knows it’s tampering with a vital national institution with no U.S. equivalent as a coast-to-coast, commercial-free public affairs radio broadcaster. The CBC carries network programming that’s broadcast to all Canadians, while National Public Radio in the U.S. is a patchwork of community-owned stations that may or may not carry network shows, depending on the whims of local management.

CBC Radio commands record ratings of almost four million listeners a week for its two networks, Radio One (news talk radio) and Radio Two (music). The CBC’s weekly audience exceeds that of Canada’s largest daily newspaper, the Toronto Star, and its extraordinary listener loyalty translates into respectable sales of ancillary products ranging from paperback editions of Stuart McLean’s Vinyl Caf? to CDs of CBC recordings of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. The network counts among its avid listeners everyone from high school students, farmers, and truck drivers to Canada’s political elite. The House, a weekly chronicle of events on Parliament Hill, was spared from an ill-advised management proposal to kill the 25-year-old show when Paul Martin, then federal finance minister and one of the show’s 600,000 listeners, personally lobbied to save it. The intimate connection between the CBC and its listeners is also evident in the volume of calls to the talk-back features on various shows, whose contributors are typically as eloquent and knowledgeable as program hosts.

CBC Radio won its devoted following in the course of saving itself from irrelevancy in the late 1960s and early 1970s. With nothing to lose, given the low ratings of that era, the network took a chance on the radical formats of the conversational This Country in the Morning, public-affairs digest As It Happens, and arts magazine Sunday Morning. There’s no disputing the success of those innovative shows and others that followed. Since the 1970s, the radio network’s audience has grown tenfold. But success brought a fear to tamper even with formats that had grown outdated. For decades, CBC executives were chronically wary of projects that might alienate any part of the network’s now-large audience.

A predictable victim of that caution was the creative spirit behind the earlier revolution’s success. Beginning in the mid-1980s, CBC managers were increasingly reluctant to give producers the freedom to experiment. Most conspicuously, after Gzowski’s retirement in 1997, the network clung to the three-hour morning format he pioneered. The program faltered with the new team of Michael Enright and Avril Benoit (now host of the Toronto afternoon show Here and Now), with Enright alone (now the well-respected host of Sunday Morning), and with Gzowski’s popular sidekick Shelagh Rogers. Modest attempts to recreate the excitement of the radio revolution over the past 15 years, such as the ballyhooed “creative renewal” programming revamp of the late 1980s, have also been undermined by a series of demoralizing budget cuts.

At this early stage in the CBC’s risky renewal, some of the new concepts are bold and have met with listener approval. But the network’s second revolution has also been characterized by overhauls that were poorly thought out?changes for their own sake?and by modifications that are neither innovative nor a significant improvement in programming quality. In the 1970s upheaval, ideas tended to be driven from the bottom up. Maverick producers like Alex Frame and Mark Starowicz endured a minimum of bureaucratic supervision in developing the highly personal This Country in the Morning and the pioneering 90-minute newsmagazine As It Happens, respectively. Change today is more often top-down. While senior managers encourage a flow of ideas from producers, bureaucratic committees tend to round off the creative edges. This failure to innovate has sapped morale and stifles the kind of magic with which Gzowski and the late As It Happens co-host Barbara Frum introduced so many listeners to the CBC, and sometimes to radio itself.
Alex Frame played a leading role in the second CBC renewal, as he did with the first. The fundamental problem with Frame’s new masterpiece is that it tends to measure success in ratings rather than breakthroughs in radically new programming?the thing that distinguishes CBC from private radio.

Frame took on the latest renewal project two years before he retired as vice-president of CBC Radio, ending a 36-year career at the network. “We shook up radio even though it had 95 percent approval ratings,” Frame once said, “because when you have 95 percent approval ratings, you are the status quo.” Giving impetus to Frame was CBC audience research that showed 64 percent of listeners were over 50, while listeners between the ages of 35 and 49 weren’t coming to CBC at the same rate. To Frame, the numbers meant CBC Radio was in danger of becoming irrelevant. “We had bottled a formula for radio that was relevant to the 1970s but was not addressing itself in the context of this century,” says Frame.

Among his worries, Frame felt the local morning shows in Toronto and Vancouver didn’t sufficiently reflect the complexity of two of the world’s most culturally diverse cities. Even before studying the audience research numbers, Frame was ready to confront the tough decision to abandon the prime 9 a.m. to noon real estate. “The concept of This Morning and its successors was built around the abilities and strengths of Peter Gzowski,” says Frame. “But Gzowski’s combination of strengths was unique.” Shelagh Rogers, says Frame, “brings a magnificent warmth, shares a great relationship with listeners, and demonstrates a wide and eclectic range of interests. Peter had all that plus a 30-year career in journalism.”

A curious aspect of the dramatic CBC reinvention is that Frame, one of its prime creators, left the execution of his scheme to others. For reasons not made clear by either Frame himself or CBC management, his retirement from CBC Radio on November 1, 2002, came a few months earlier than he would have preferred. Frame says his decision to leave had nothing to do with rumours that CBC chief executive Robert Rabinovitch denied his request to have his term extended by another year. “I hope what they say on my epitaph is that he wasn’t thrown out and they didn’t carry him out,” says Frame, “but he was able to walk out in his own steam.”

The same was not true of Frame’s prot?g?. On March 24, Jane Chalmers, vice-president of radio, announced the departure of Adrian Mills, whom Frame had appointed executive director of programming in 2001. (Mills had joined CBC-TV’s children’s programming division in 1997, after a few years in a similar position at TVOntario. He was managing director of cbc.ca when Frame handpicked him to be his number two.) Chalmers had stepped in when Frame, voluntarily or otherwise, walked out. Her internal memo about Mills contained the boilerplate praise of his “remarkable achievements” and “keen mind,” but it also called attention to the largely failed makeover, noting that Mills was “instrumental in setting a new course for radio program development and implementing the new schedule.” Chalmers left it to Frame to offer the memo’s strongest praise of Mills. (She quoted Frame’s admiration of Mills’s “courage, creativity and spirit of innovation.”) The subtext was clear: she wanted her own pick in the job. The memo indicated that veteran CBC employee Esther Enkin, director of program development and chief journalist, would be interim executive programming director. There was no mention of a future role for Mills at the CBC. According to Lise Lareau, president of the Canadian Media Guild, which represents all of the CBC Radio employees except technicians, this wasn’t a cause of great sadness internally. “I can’t imagine there was a single person who wasn’t thrilled,” she said the day after the announcement of Mills’s leaving. “He was dismissive of his own staff, and that’s what bothered me the most.”

Despite so many changes in top management at a crucial time, ratings appear to be holding up. While they indicate that from fall 2001 to spring 2002 CBL (Radio One’s Toronto station) dropped 0.5 of a percentage point in share and from spring 2002 to fall 2002 fell another 0.8, the CBC cites the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as the reason for that minimal slide. “On September 11, everybody’s numbers spiked up and now it’s back to normal,” says Joan Melanson, senior producer of current affairs at CBL.

Still, such a thorough programming revamp was bound to elicit criticism. One of the harshest detractors is seasoned arts critic Robert Fulford. In “Mourning Show,” his article in Toronto Life late last year, Fulford complained that the new Metro Morning reflected the views of its then senior producer, Priya Ramu, rather than host Andy Barrie. In response, Barrie says, “Someone could vilify you equally for being obstructive [or] for getting with the program and not being critical and protective enough of all that went before.” Barrie concedes that “the changes that we now seem to almost universally regard as being important to building on CBC strength, huge numbers of people found fault with them.”

Earlier this year, Ramu was shuffled to Sounds Like Canada. At about the same time, Metro Morning abandoned many of the elements with which it had experimented, earning it the internal nickname Retro Morning. Other changes have arisen from worries about placating local audiences. In a bold move, The Current begins at 8:30 a.m., supplanting what had been the last 30 minutes of local shows across the country. The decision anchors the front end of The Current in the high-ratings morning drive part of the schedule. But inevitably, some listeners were dismayed by the reduction in local programming. Management responded by carving out a 10-minute local newsbreak from the beginning of Sounds Like Canada.

Shelagh Rogers’s fans and Rogers herself were even more incensed with her diminished role when room onSounds Like Canada was given to a series of rotating “shows within a show,” such as “C’est la vie,” “Workology,” and “Real Life Chronicles.” In a harsh critique of Sounds Like Canada, Michael Posner of The Globe and Mail wrote in February that, “More often than not, Rogers seemed (and sounded) like a frustrated master of ceremonies at a 12-ring circus, reduced to introducing other performers. Her own act was a vanishing one.”

That was the second blow for Rogers since last June, when Mills informed her and the show’s staff that This Morning would be cancelled. Rogers took a medical leave in January, citing high blood pressure and stress. Her blood pressure must have dropped a few points after a February meeting between executives and the show’s staff. At the meeting, Jane Chalmers and Sounds Like Canada executive producer Mike Karapita announced that the show’s format and content would be scrapped. Training department executive Havoc Franklin was appointed to lead the show’s redesign, which CBC spokeswoman Ruth-Ellen Soles says will “better showcase Shelagh Rogers and her strengths as a host and interviewer.” This will be achieved primarily by moving the mini-shows from Sounds Like Canada to another slot in Radio One’s schedule.
Many listeners were initially upset when This Morning was cancelled in June 2002 to make room for The Current (8:30 a.m. to 10 a.m.) and Sounds Like Canada (10 a.m. to noon). Of the two shows, The Currenthas won more praise from listeners. Longtime CBC listener and Calgary resident Penney Kome likes The Current but says the transition was poorly handled. “I find The Current newsy, hard-hitting, and edgy, just exactly what I’d expect from Anna Maria Tremonti,” says Kome. “But what a mess getting it on air and now it’s cutting a half an hour out of the local morning program.” Another faithful listener, Florence Woolner of Sioux Lookout, Ontario, admits she was drifting away from This Morning. “It was too long, too diffused, and it wasn’t working. Shelagh was struggling with a range of topics. Now you have a decent current-affairs reporter coming on for an hour.”

The Current is the most radically new element of the CBC renewal. It opens with an unorthodox concept, “The Voice,” a 20-second satirical take on the news. “The Voice” generated a buzz about its mysterious identity, eventually revealed as actor Stephen Harte. One of Harte’s intros had Jean Chr?tien planning a sequel to his bestselling 1985 memoir. “Chr?tien’s working title for the new book,” said Harte, “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Hotel Investment in Smalltown Quebec.”

Advocates of public broadcasting like Ian Morrison, spokesman for Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, are also jittery about the sweeping changes. Citing Chalmers’s background in TV, Morrison speculates about problems that could arise from attempts to integrate the two broadcast services. “There’s a danger in trying to achieve synergies between TV and radio, because they are very different media,” says Morrison. Former CBC producer Bruce Wark is convinced CBC head office is determined to amalgamate radio and TV. “If this goes beyond sharing information, as I think it will, this will be disastrous for radio,” says Wark, now an associate professor of journalism at the University of King’s College. “CBC Radio has already suffered disproportionately because of budget cuts,” says Wark, “and integration with television will mean a further diminution of editorial quality.”

Budget strains are indeed a worry. While CBC Radio does not disclose how much it spends on each show, the revamp of Metro Morning to make it more appealing to a broader range of age and ethnic groups cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Even before the renewal project, the CBC was starved of resources. In 2001, the CBC Radio stipend was about $272 million, or 18.2 percent of the entire CBC budget. That’s down from $320 million in 1981, or 23 percent of total CBC spending, accounting for inflation.

CBC managers don’t identify budget pressures as a constraint in the renewal project. As for “bi-medialism,” the merging of radio and TV, Chalmers insists it doesn’t mean fewer journalists, or that every journalist will tote a camera and a tape recorder. But “if we team more,” she says. “we can assign our resources better to make sure we get actual value for the journalism.” In a recent example, CBC Radio host Anthony Germain broke a story on GST fraud in Ottawa that aired on the radio service, CBC-TV’s The National, and the all-news network, Newsworld. Chalmers isn’t worried if some people only saw Germain’s report on TV. “It’s important to us that people see the CBC journalism brand and know it’s very credible,” she says.

Some of the CBC’s daring moves have worked better than expected. Importing TV personality Anna Maria Tremonti as host of The Current could have backfired. But she quickly gained a large audience. Best known for award-winning work as a CBC-TV foreign correspondent in the Middle East and Europe, Tremonti was last on radio in 1981, when she hosted Information Morning, a local talk show in Fredericton. Previously she worked in private radio as a reporter and newsreader at stations in Ottawa, Fredericton, Halifax, and New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. The Current, Tremonti says, “is a great job?a new program, and a chance to do radio again.”

Mills was obviously the more awkward fit. After spending most of his career in children’s television, he seemed to believe there were no major differences between TV and radio. “The TVO programming had lost touch with the children of the day,” he suggested last fall, comparing that challenge with the problem of CBC listeners aging faster than Canada’s population.

Mills’s experience was put to the test six weeks into the job on September 11, when CBC Radio failed to go live until 10 a.m. The CBC has since fixed a technological glitch that prevented programmers from flipping the switch to go from tape delay to live material. Mills also gave local news departments across Canada the authority to interrupt taped national programming with live material. The September 11 gaffe was the first of several mishaps that put Mills in the centre of a storm about the supposed ineptitude among top brass. Last spring, for instance, Mills announced his plan for CBC Radio to go live Saturday from 6 a.m. to midnight. This caused much internal hilarity, as it suggested that Mills was out of touch with budgeting reality: all-day Saturday programming would be a financial impossibility.

Chalmers is sensitive to concerns about the network’s mandate to reflect Canada’s regions. “Any issue that’s a national issue has different perspectives depending on where you live,” says Chalmers. The Current and Sounds Like Canada exhibit a strong regional commitment. Sounds Like Canada takes items from staff and freelance producers across the country, in contrast to the practice of Toronto-based producers feeding material to a studio host. Before her leave, Rogers spent a lot of time doing remotes in cities across the country. The Current has two producers in Vancouver and one in Halifax to keep the show in sync with breaking news. On Your Turn, an internal broadcast last year about the renewal project, Tremonti vowed that her Toronto-based show would keep “in touch with our people out there to make sure that something happening in your backyard gets wider coverage.”

A characteristic of revolutions is that you can’t easily know when they’ve ended. At the re-reinvented Metro Morning last winter, the show’s staff agreed with critics who found the new format choppy, with too many short segments. Metro Morning now features items with more depth and less-frequent weather reports, a throwback to the old format. Two of the columnists who were commissioned to represent Toronto’s ethnic communities didn’t work out for financial and performance reasons. Currently six columnists cover business, parenting, music, entertainment, movie reviews, and cheap eats. The continuing changes at Metro Morningdon’t faze its host. “Everything in life is in the process of becoming broken,” says Andy Barrie. “That’s called entropy. Real leadership is finding the fault lines before the thing does break and fixing it. That’s why you fix things that don’t seem broken.”

Back in The Current studio, the staff is wrapping up another show with a phone call to Rogers. Barth and Ito both lean over the control board and shout into the receiver, “We love you, Shelagh.”

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About the author

Sarah Lysecki was the Managing Editor, Advertising for the Summer 2003 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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