Is the CBC boring? A recent report says yes, resoundingly so. "Loosen up," urges a summary account of the public broadcaster's six-month, 1,000-page study, which suggests the network's image could be "enhanced by having a more youthful and lively style."
The findings are hardly new. Back in 1957, Canadian media guru Marshall McLuhan made a case for Why The CBC Must Be Dull in Saturday Night magazine. A grainy black-and-white photocopy of that article hangs on the wall behind Rob McLaughlin's desk.
"It reminds me that the struggle is a long one," laughs McLaughlin, executive producer of Vancouver-based CBC Radio 3.
Long, perhaps, but not impossible. McLaughlin's experimental new-media unit is doing everything in its offbeat, high-tech power to reach new audiences while injecting some excitement into Canadian public broadcasting. And despite the odds, they're succeeding spectacularly.
In just four years, CBC Radio 3 has chalked up more than 30 awards, including several Webbys, the holy grail of new media, and a Prix Italia, the oldest and most prestigious radio competition in the world. When CBC Radio 3 won that prize for arts and culture in 2001, it was the first for CBC in nearly 40 years.
So what is CBC Radio 3? It's not exactly radio, although the unit does produce three late-night programs on the network's regular FM frequency, CBC Radio Two. And it's not exactly a website, although they do have five.
If you go to the flagship site at , preferably with a broadband connection, you'll find stories on a diversity of subjects, ranging from the Dene Winter Games finger-pulling contest to the Romanow commission, photo essays, poetry, videos, interviews with bands and a smorgasbord of weird and wonderful art commissions.
Take Sites Unseen, for example. "Seven Days, Six Disposable Cameras and Two Blind Photographers," reads the tag line. And you really must see the lopsided shot of the urinal with your own eyes to understand what photographer Ryan Knighton means when he says it's not easy to feel his way around public washrooms.
The elements, which flash, pop and slide through the virtual matrix with greater ease than daring young men on a flying trapeze, are all accompanied by audio and a steady stream of independent Canadian music, selected from a huge bank of songs submitted by musicians from across the country.
Every week, the site features a new 20-song playlist, downloaded from one of Radio 3's other sites, .
For folk, country and world music, tune in to . Or for recordings of live concerts across Canada, go to . The White Stripes in Vancouver anyone?
CBC Radio 3 also produces the veteran indie-music program Brave New Waves (weeknights on CBC Radio Two from midnight to 4 a.m.), plus the new CBC Radio 3 program (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. to 4 a.m., and Sunday, midnight to 4 a.m.).
The virtual network has been hailed as the vanguard of independent Canadian music. Some say it's a model for the future of broadcasting. But most visitors simply can't believe it's a part of the CBC.
"HOLY CRAP!" one listener calling himself G.K. exclaimed in an audience feedback form.
"This site is incredible," wrote another, named Dave. "I had no idea the CBC was producing material like this. It's so nice to see CBC getting back to ree-ali-tee."
These new CBC converts are just two of the half-million unique users who visit the flagship website on average each month. Most listeners belong to the coveted 18-to-34 demographic, but Radio 3 executive director Robert Ouimet prefers to describe the audience as connected by a common psychographic.
"Some of them are 15, some are 34, some are 50. They're all interested in music, and are voracious users of new media. They're using the medium to get unique points of view that aren't the same old, same old. The stories they find on Radio 3 are not stuff they're going to see elsewhere. And it's Canadian."
The fans of CBC Radio 3 sound awfully similar to the type of audience the network has been desperately trying to attract for ages. But it didn't happen overnight.
In 1999, when Ouimet was producing all the Saturday-night programming for CBC Radio's FM frequency, the network's board of directors asked him to create a proposal for a new, youth-oriented network. They liked what he proposed and asked him to write a licence application to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. But just as the CRTC was about to publish the application and make it public, Robert Rabinovitch, CBC's new president at the time, pulled the plug.
"There were a lot of tears that day," recalls Grant Lawrence, former host of the program Radio Sonic, and now one of the two "personalities" on CBC Radio 3 (it has no hosts, or at least not in the traditional sense).
Ouimet, Lawrence and the others working on the application all got drunk that night. And the next morning, they decided to pitch Rabinovitch on another idea. The proposal included three websites (120seconds.com, newmusiccanada.com and justconcerts.com).
"We told [Rabinovitch]we were not going to take the linear radio idea and put it on-line, we were going to develop new ways of talking to our audience," Ouimet recalls.
The CBC president liked what he heard, and gave them $1.5-million to develop the project. The underground buzz grew slowly but steadily, beginning with the independent-music community. In a few short years, CBC Radio 3 has propelled a number of musicians out of obscurity into the mainstream. The Hidden Cameras, for example, were signed to Britain's Rough Trade Records after the label's owner, Geoff Travis (the music legend who discovered the Smiths and first signed the Strokes), heard the band's session recording on Just Concerts.
CBC Radio 3 is more than just music, Ouimet says. "We're trying to develop new forms of storytelling and develop a web presence that incorporates audio, video and text. No media company in North America is doing anything like this."
Don't be alarmed if you hadn't previously heard of CBC Radio 3. Most CBC executives themselves don't even understand the on-line revolution happening right under their noses.
"I spend a lot of time talking to people within the CBC, trying to explain what we do here and why it's important," Ouimet says.
"The question I get a lot is: 'Surely you want them to go to the website and then get them to radio. Isn't that the goal?' Well, yeah, if they do that, that's great. But that's not the imperative. The goal is to introduce them to the stuff that the CBC makes and if they get it on-line and never go to the radio, that's totally okay."
No matter how baffled some CBC insiders might be, Ouimet says the content developed by the 26 young web designers, music junkies, journalists, artists and cold-fusion programmers who toil away in this dark corner of a basement in the CBC's regional Vancouver bureau is hugely important. And the CBC study should be a wake-up call.
"The way people consume media has changed drastically. I worked in radio for more than 20 years. The way we made radio didn't change dramatically. We went from analog tape to digital, but the way in which we assembled the stories did not change.
"In four years here, I've seen the way we tell stories change four times. The change is huge. And a very small part of that is the technology. A much larger part of that are the people making the stories discovering new ways of expressing or getting a point across."
He compares the revolution in new media with the transistor radio. "When everyone started getting one, we suddenly experienced the rise of Top 40 radio and DJ culture because people were no longer bound by being plugged-in in order to listen to the radio."
Ouimet believes the "stuff" they're doing now on CBC Radio 3 will by flying through the air in a similar way. "You won't have to sit at your computer. You'll be consuming images and music and text in a much more fluid way. We are rapidly becoming wireless everywhere we go.
"I don't think anybody knows where this stuff is going. But in order to be ready, you have to practise it. It's a bit like being an athlete. What we've been doing here over the last three or four years is making content, but at the same time flexing our how-do-we-make-our-content muscles."
No matter how important or successful an experiment, Ouimet says there's no guarantee of CBC Radio 3's survival.
"We're not a staple of the CBC family. We're new. There's a lot of questioning."
Uncertainty, however, is not necessarily unhealthy, he adds.
"Our mandate is to explore. We take a lot of risks. I keep challenging [the staff]to do new things. The moment they stop doing that, we're screwed."