MacLeod is a fun guy, you can tell right away. Dressed in khakis and a lemon yellow button down shirt, he looks like your favourite uncle, or your dad’s robust hockey buddy, gussied up for Thanksgiving dinner. He’s the kind of guy that’ll give you noogies and is always cracking up so hard at his own jokes he sounds like he’s sobbing. Sniffing, he spins around on his chair. “Hey where’d you get that?”
“Aw, someone sent Derringer a bunch of it,” says Scott. “You want some?”
MacLeod makes a sour face. “No way, that stuff’ll kill ya.”
He turns back around and begins flipping through the Toronto Sun, looking for something funny to talk about in the next newscast. The news director for Q107 Classic Rock and MOJO talk radio for guys, MacLeod used to work at Broadcast News writing the same wire copy that he now relies on for his “MOJO Info” broadcasts. His line-up of stories this morning includes: Hurricane Isabel, terrorist deportations, a Pickering man attacking his daughter during a hockey game and a Survivor Pearl Islands update. It’s right before Ontario’s autumn provincial election, and I ask him if – besides referring morning commuters to the station’s Web site – he’s going to mention it. “We talk about what people care about,” he says. “Some stations will talk about the election. The way I see it, the majority of people a) don’t vote, and b) don’t care. So why talk about it?”
This kind of thinking could very well be the reason that news on commercial radio stations in Canada is so bad. I’d like to think that people would care if they at least knew what was going on in the world around them. Where radio used to be a dominant source for news, stations now find themselves competing for attention in a media-saturated culture. Ten-minute newscasts produced by a bustling room of eager journalists have been replaced by two minutes of news and traffic read by an amateur comedian. Hey, anything to get the listener’s attention. From what I can hear, news on a commercial station like MOJO isn’t about information, it’s about infotainment. The more entertaining the news is, the more people will tune into the show. And more listeners mean more advertisers, which brings us to a familiar bottom line: more money for the corporations that own the stations.
Radio stations run on the belief that they are giving listeners what they want. If they are, what does this say about us? Even Broadcast News, a reputable division of Canadian Press’s wire services, is caving into pressure for more ‘cool’ news. In February, it began providing subscribers with lighter, more entertaining news on its wires. Radio stations want the kind of consumer-friendly, celebrity-driven news that travels seamlessly across the country – who doesn’t love gossip? – because it makes programming cheaper and faster.
There used to be rules about the kind of news that stations were required to air, but in the late 1980s the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission rethought the formatting rules for FM stations. It decided the across-the-board requirements for spoken word or news did not take into account the needs of different communities or the differing resources of station licensees. So it did away with the foreground format, a plan that required FM stations to have at least 12 hours a week of one-hour public affairs or current events shows. Any program director or news manager – even Denis Carmel, the CRTC’s director general, media communications – will tell you: when the CRTC deregulated formatting, it was the end of talk radio on FM. It makes perfect sense. Once FM was deregulated, stations went straight to all-music formats. In order to make any serious money in the radio business you need to be playing hit tunes. In a consumer world, youth rules: advertisers want their attention, radio stations want advertisers and the kids want music. It isn’t a commitment to the community that drives radio formats toward news, but money that makes them run away from it.
Until a few years ago, there were also strict regulations for radio station ownership. Any one owner was limited to one station on each band, fostering a diverse and competitive industry. But in 1998, thanks to pressure from large corporations, the CRTC relaxed regulations to allow ownership of two stations on each band in large markets. In the last six years, three media giants have swallowed up almost all of the high profile stations, and a significant chunk – 22 per cent – of the 668 independent commercial radio stations in Canada: Corus Entertainment owns 52, Standard Broadcasting 51, and Rogers Media Inc. 43.
The growth of corporate radio has an enormous impact on the lack of diversity in news and programming. Radio is becoming more and more homogenous, as both music and news formats are bought, sold and packaged. You can drive from Halifax to Vancouver, going up and down the dial, and no matter where you are, you’re always in the same place on the air. “Big corporations want money, and one way to do that is spend less,” says James Compton, assistant professor at University of Western Ontario’s media studies faculty. “You spend less on gathering up news and producing news and telling stories. There’s an appalling lack of commitment to public service, in particular when it comes to private radio and news. No one who really wants to follow news listens to private radio.”
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The MIX 99.9 studio is in the Standard Broadcasting building on the busy corner of St. Clair Avenue and Yonge Street in midtown Toronto. Well, busy if it weren’t 5:30 in the morning, an hour of the day when people like me should be in bed, not in a drab studio being harassed by morning show hosts. I find it exhausting for the few hours that I’m there, but Kim Rossi, news host from 5:30 to 9 a.m. with “Humble” Howard Glassman and Fred Patterson, has to do it every weekday morning. Fred turns to me during one of the many music or commercial breaks and asks, “Melanie, do you drink?”
“What do you drink?”
“Uh, gin mostly. And scotch.”
“Wow, a girl that likes scotch, now that is rare…”
A few more songs and smart-ass remarks later and it’s Humble’s turn. “Now Melanie, tell me, do you still love your dad? Do you have a good relationship with him?”
“I get so worried that my daughters are going to grow up and not love their dad as much any more,” Humble says in a half-joking tone that tells me he’s not joking at all. Then he leans back in his chair and calls home to check on things. He does this at least twice more before 9 a.m. rolls around.
Rossi’s petite frame is poised at the end of the large control desk. She stays on her toes for three-and-a-half hours, perkily typing and retyping the news. She contributes to the morning show banter – on and off-air- whenever she can get a word in. Which is practically never. “I think I’m going to go buy some Halloween decorations today,” she says during a rare moment of silence. No one seems to hear her. A few times throughout the morning the “boy’s club” – Humble, Fred and producer “Bingo Bob” Willette – huddle in the corner and talk quietly between fits of loud laughter.
Ninety per cent of the morning newscast comes from wire services. The remaining 10 per cent is culled from Internet and newspaper sources. Rossi has a lot of rewriting to do to keep the same six stories sounding fresh. When she quickly walks me through the computer system, it strikes me as odd that she has access to a goldmine she doesn’t really use. Standard Broadcasting owns CFRB Newstalk 1010, and its computer system allows her to see its newscasts and line-ups. But it seems like she uses it only to see if she has pulled the most important stories from the wire. The system is very professional looking, allowing her newscast to run on her computer screen like a TelePrompTer, as if it were a real newsroom. But it is actually a glorified version of the rip-and-read that goes on at MOJO, Q107 and just about every other FM station in the city. Give them the basics, as MacLeod told me at MOJO: people just want to know if their neighbour is dead and if they should bring an umbrella to work.
The time remaining after Humble and Fred’s smart-ass banter and Top 40 music is precious, and something has to give. Less airtime for news means more airtime for ads. Compton says dashing news for cash is directly connected to the way owners view their listeners. “It’s all connected,” he says. “They’re bringing in marketing managers to approach audiences as consumers and not as citizens. Listeners are being fitted into market niches.”
When it comes to making money with radio news, stations have pretty much been out of luck for over a decade. A 1998 study done by Statistics Canada found that the holy grail of moneymaking demographics, teens between the ages of 12 and 17, not only listen to radio half as much as adults, but when they do, it’s talk radio only 2.3 per cent of the time. Even the CBC, the network held as the pinnacle of news and talk radio in Canada, is tuned into by teens only 1.6 per cent of the time, compared to the 39 per cent contemporary music stations are getting. The numbers speak volumes – news radio stations are for parents, and nothing turns off young people more than what their parents like. AM’s poorer signal quality has meant, in effect, that it has won a consolation prize. It has become a bastion of talk format, and has been losing money steadily since 1990 (the year the CRTC did away with the FM foreground format). If you want to make money in radio, FM is the way to go. But that hasn’t stopped some AM stations from trying to match the musical pizzazz with quality news broadcasting.
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The newsroom at 680 News in Toronto feels more like a boring departure terminal than the frenzied air traffic control tower you might expect from a station that broadcasts news 24 hours a day, seven days a week. People are sitting at control centres, faces deadpan, headphones on, calmly filtering news in and out of their computers. The only trace of urgency comes from program director Scott Metcalfe’s office. “Someone spilled coffee on the weather board early this morning and fried it,” he tells me, after running in and out of the room to talk to technicians during our interview. “We’re out $25,000 if it can’t be saved.”
Ten people are working in the newsroom. No one’s talking. In his office, Metcalfe has tuned the radio to 680 so I can hear what’s going on. I can see the hosts’ mouths moving intermittently behind the glass window in the studio, not quite matching what I hear on the radio. Every once in a while I hear the business report in stereo when a woman, just outside of Metcalfe’s office, airs the report from her desk. 680 News has been around since June of 1993, when it appeared as Toronto’s only all-news station. It works on a 20-minute news wheel format. No current events segments, no calls from listeners, no personalities. Just news, traffic and weather “together on the ones.” Like a variety show, 680 is all bells and whistles without a lot of substance. Its greatest success lies in the use of chimes that seep into the subconscious minds of listeners. Each kind of news – business, weather, traffic – is preceded by a distinct chime so that people know when to stop filing their nails or watching the road and actually listen to what they want to hear. Metcalfe says this is what they’re aiming for – small bits of information in quick bursts. “That’s why we say, ‘Three, four, five times a day.'” He says. “We don’t expect people to listen to us all day. Radio is still king of the road. We try to get immediate information out there. We don’t target one demographic. We target drivers and so weather and traffic anchor the programs. It’s built for a city that moves all night, not for all-day listening.”
Marlane Oliver, the afternoon anchor, has been working at 680 for 10 years. Prior to this, she worked at Standard Broadcasting for eight. She thinks she knows what kind of news listeners want, and believes that station funds haven’t diminished. In fact, with corporate ownership, she thinks in some cases the resources are much better. All that has changed is the way news is being collected. More money is now being spent on wire services like CNN and ABC, instead of on reporters for local news. She tells me that as consumers we have come a long way, and as a society we are more globalized in our news interests. But then, in the next breath, she explains that there are two ways of doing news. “The CBC, The Globe and Mail and TVO way of doing things,” she says, before switching to a deep, solid newsman voice: “There is news that is important to you, goddamn it, and I will tell you and you will listen!” She chuckles and goes back to her regular voice. “This is an old-school way of doing things, where you’ll get an aboriginal story or one about salmon fishing disputes. For people who live in Leaside or High Park, it doesn’t matter a whole hell of a lot. If you’re being honest with the people who are listening, it’s your obligation to tell them stuff that matters to them.”
But according to the Bureau of Broadcast Measurement’s fall ratings, depth of news matters. On average, 680 News gets 4.5 hours of listener attention. Meanwhile, CFRB Newstalk 1010 in Toronto gets 10.6 hours per week, half the total listening time for those over 40. The difference in staying power is a difference in quality, not quantity. CFRB holds listeners longer, running only 13 newscasts every day. While 680 may broadcast news around the clock, on any given day you can listen for six hours straight and hear the exact same headlines, sometimes rewritten, 18 times in a row. When CFRB program manager Steve Kowch talks about radio and news, it has nothing to do with corporate money. It doesn’t even seem to have much to do with ratings, although when he reads statistics to me out of the pink BBM survey book, it’s clear that he takes great pride in the station he has headed for six years. News isn’t a competition for Kowch. He sees his station’s job not as a news breaker, but a diffuser. “Anyone can rip and read,” he says. “It’s our job to explain what it means to our listeners.”
Radio types throw around the term heritage station like it’s an Oscar or Grammy when really it’s neither designated nor voted on by anyone with authority. Essentially it’s a term of respect used to refer to the one station in each major Canadian market that has a reputation for being the best. It’s like a good parent – a little older, a little wiser. And even though it may not be cutting edge or outrageously entertaining, its high quality is consistent and dependable. In a group of people acting like children, everyone knows who the parent is. CFRB is considered a heritage station, and when Kowch talks about what that means to him, he looks like he’s on the verge of tearing up. He speaks deliberately and his voice gets very calm and quiet. Instead of looking me in the eye, his eyes are fixed on the corner of the room with thoughtful concentration. “A heritage station is the station the community turns to in good times, and especially in bad times,” he says. “We are more than a radio station, we’re part of the community. We strive to justify our position and to maintain the level of respect we’ve earned, which is why news is important.”
At CKNW, a Vancouver heritage station known nationwide for its superior radio news, there is a 60-year-old system that news director Gord MacDonald wouldn’t dream of changing. With six full-time reporters and bureaus at the courthouse, the provincial legislature and out in suburbia, it has the city covered. Beat reporters have a story meeting every morning to develop ideas, from which they each average seven original stories per day. Anchors spend all day on the phone generating stories. As a result, they do 39 newscasts a day – more than the CBC – that concentrate on local news and don’t rely on wires for more than 30 per cent of their content (all national and international). These elements make CKNW widely heard – and consistently profitable.
News on private radio stations can be profitable both financially and intellectually, yet bad radio news and infotainment dominate the airwaves. Radio consultants tell their stations to try to broadcast not what they think people should know – like city issues or politics – but what people will want to talk about at the water cooler. New York City radio consulting demigod Walter Sabo has many Canadian clients, including CFRB. His Web site gives the following advice: pay attention to what they talk about not what you think they should be talking about. So even though radio news has proven that it can be profitable, it seems going out and developing real, tough news stories is more work than most stations want to do. What I don’t understand is why FM music stations bother trying to report the news at all. At least 102.1 The Edge, a Toronto hard-rock station that caters to young males “with an edge,” comes right out and admits that it doesn’t even have a newsroom. “We just look for funny stuff on the Internet,” former program director (and current Q107 program director) Dave Farough tells me.
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Wayne Waldroff comes down to greet me in the reception area of Broadcast News, one of the few Canadian wire services available to broadcasters. It is a small corner at the front of the newsroom that looks like it came off the set of Nine to Five, minus Dolly Parton. He quickly whisks me onto an elevator and over to another side of the building. From the few minutes that I was sitting on that brown office chair amid faux-wood panelled furniture, staring out into the newsroom, I can say this: it is the only newsroom so far that has met my expectations in terms of hustle and bustle. There are 40 people sitting at desks, with two or three televisions in front of each of them. They are talking to one another, rushing around, flipping through papers, using two and three computers at once. Listening, reading, making phone calls. Writing, writing, writing. It looks like a newsroom you would see in the movies.
Waldroff could be an intimidating man if his voice didn’t sound like a late-night radio shrink: soothing, wise, thoughtful. He is very tall and dressed in different shades of black from head to toe, while his office is decorated in varying shades of grey and beige. He speaks about commercial radio news as though he is its father, in a sort of “boys will be boys” kind of way. He reminds me that music stations don’t pretend to be news stations. He says their priorities lie with music, not news. He is patient and calm about his opinions, saying he doesn’t think the hacks on commercial radio are doing a disservice to radio news. In fact, he says what is being transmitted as news on these stations is more important than it sounds. After 35 years in radio, he has managed to listen to it and hear a bigger picture.
Waldroff has also seen to it that BN stays current with the changing formats and sensibilities, and recently introduced a new product called BNHotwire. An online newswire dedicated solely to entertainment and lifestyle news, it recently became available to BN subscribers free of charge. BNHotwire can be accessed through the BN Web site, or the wires can be e-mailed directly to the radio announcers so they can access them while on the air. Waldroff calls it a “value-add” for clients, confirms that it is directed at FM music stations and that it has “news” for every station from country to rap. “Music stations do care about news,” he says. “They just care in different ways.” Waldroff says that silly little story we hear on stations like MOJO is actually passing on valuable information about our culture and society.
This may be true, but what about what’s actually going on in our society? Radio that engages and informs its listeners – that treats them like citizens and not like game-show winners or tabloid junkies – passes on more valuable information. This kind of radio is still possible, even on the ratings battlefield where pop music and crude or lame jokes are the new warriors. CKNW and CFRB have shown that news radio can win ratings and turn a profit. Yet in the corporate boardrooms there’s no desire to invest in news – it’s just a lot easier to keep listeners laughing between product pitches, so nobody has to think very much.