There used to be advertisements for evaporated milk from contented cows, oatmeal that would control your weight, throat-cooling cigarettes and three-for-10-cents cigars. Those vintage spots ran on CBC Radio back in the 1930s and 1940s, and while the notion of ads on Canada's public radio programs might today seem as oddly foreign as those vintage examples, contemporary listeners will have to get used to the concept. In 2013, advertising will return to CBC Radio 2 and to the French-language Espace Musique if the public broadcaster gets the go-ahead from federal regulators. Listeners could start hearing ads as early as May.
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) is expected to hand the CBC its licence renewal this spring, and it must decide whether to permit the broadcaster, after 38 years of commercial-free radio programming, to place ads on its music networks. CBC says it needs to find new sources of revenue after suffering a 10-per-cent cut to its government grant that takes full effect in 2014. Critics say the ad money will take business from commercial networks, will hurt the quality of CBC's music programming and may open the door to ads on other CBC radio services.
"When a broadcaster is run as a business, programming decisions are influenced by the size of the audiences you can generate," said Ian Morrison, spokesperson for the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting lobby group. "On television, that is why hockey is important and children's programming is not."
However, Chris Boyce, executive director of radio and audio for CBC English-language services, says Radio 2 would lose its audience if it abandoned its distinctively cross-genre mix of music.
"Radio 2 plays everything from classical to singer-songwriter to jazz to opera. We have nothing to gain from copying formats that already exist on commercial radio," he said. "Would it not be tempting to change the formula or be more commercial? I don't think that [question] speaks to the reality of the market … there is a very good reason to stay exactly as we are." He also pointed out that the service's high percentages of Canadian music and emphasis on emerging talent are conditions of its licence that keep it distinctive.
CBC Radio got started in the 1930s to compete with the American signals that reached Canadians anywhere near the border and, with its soap operas and variety shows, it was initially similar to commercial radio of the day. The broadcaster added the FM service that became Radio 2 in the 1960s, and dropped ads from all its services in 1972 as part of a format change that moved it toward the longer, more serious-minded programs with which it is still associated.
Banishing visions of cheesy jingles for mattresses and car lots, Boyce said any new ads would be in keeping with the service's tone, and would be ready to go within two months of the CRTC's decision. "Philosophically, our approach would be to put on ads that, as much as possible, don't disrupt the listening experience," he said, pointing to the discreet advertising on classical and jazz FM stations as a model. The CBC already runs ads with audio content on its website, including in podcasts and live streams, and has not received much complaint, he added.
The CRTC may examine how the ads might change programming on the public broadcasters' music services, but will probably give more weight to how its decision might adversely affect the commercial stations it also licenses.
The CBC has projected ad revenue from the two services at about $20-million annually, representing less than two per cent of the $1.6-billion commercial radio advertising market. The CBC has not requested permission to put ads on the higher-rated Radio One, where programs such as the morning shows in Toronto and Ottawa are number-one in their markets, partly because that would have a much greater impact on privately owned competitors.
Commercial radio broadcasters and other media analysts dispute the revenue numbers, saying the CBC is underestimating the total by about half.
"The impact of CBC commercialization … would be significant," researcher Barry Kiefl wrote in a report he prepared for the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting. Assuming the CBC earned 60 per cent of the industry average revenue per listening hour, Radio 2 would be earning almost $30-million by 2015, and Espace Musique would be earning $11-million.
The Ontario Association of Broadcasters predicts CBC ads will have a particularly negative effect on radio stations in smaller markets that depend on their share of revenues from national ad campaigns.
But in a response to the CRTC this month, CBC stood by its numbers and complained that its critics demand it maintain historical program standards without historical levels of funding – while expecting all cuts to be made in areas outside their particular interests.
Boyce said the CBC wouldn't be contemplating any of these changes if it weren't for its financial situation, and added: "We are at the point where we have run out of places to cut."