Published Nov 01, 2005The only radio that plays the kind of music we like around here has gotten pretty trite, it's pretty boring," says Krash Coarse, who co-hosts The Oka Zoo Show with his wife Betty Rock as well as the music show Audio Popcorn. "From what I've heard on commercial radio in the last five years or so, everything is about play lists and how many commercials they can stuff into an hour. If it's not a little spontaneous, it's boring."
While what Coarse is describing is a common problem in all Canadian cities, decent radio is especially scarce in a small town like Oka, Quebec, where Coarse broadcasts from. With a population of about 5,000 people, most of the radio Oka picks up comes from Montreal. But the town isn't harbouring any kind of hidden indie hotbed of community radio Oka's voice is rising thanks to podcasting, and it's going further than any local station ever could. With worldwide range and no corporate control, podcasts are making it possible for DIY enthusiasts to create their own shows. Akin to community radio it has the independent spirit held dear by those compelled to find and expose the new and innovative podcasting is ushering in a new wave of broadcasting.
But it's not working alone in this radio transformation. While podcasting is leading a revolution, satellite is furthering its evolution. Satellite is poised to make Canada's mainstream radio a much-improved medium by eliminating all of the reasons that radio is hated. It promises to obliterate under-representation of different genres and the small play list heavy rotation that caters to a lowest common denominator and does it without commercials. But although it will offer up plenty of varied content, it won't be leaving the mainstream behind completely.
These two formats have brought radio to the proverbial fork in the road. The old school methods of pirate radio and microbroadcasting are still kicking around, and more recent technologies like online streaming audio have been especially important for campus stations that aren't able to reach out beyond local communities. But instead of using airwaves illegally to make broadcasts, podcasts are a way for individuals to create and publish their own shows for online download. Despite the name, you don't actually need an iPod, or any kind of MP3 player, to make a podcast, just access to a computer. First known as "audio blogs," podcasts started popping up about a year ago, and their popularity has boomed. While they started out as a tech nerd hobby, they have quickly gained a reputation among the media-savvy and music devotees as well.
On the other end of the spectrum is satellite radio, which works to get into the nooks and crannies of the country where commercial radio stations can't reach. While most radio signals can only be picked up 30 or 40 miles from the source station, satellite radio can send its signal, which bounces between ground transmitters and space satellites, from over 35,000 kilometres away and still deliver CD-quality sound.
Although satellite technology and podcasts are pioneering the shift in radio, the two don't only differ greatly in ideology, but also in their format and consumption. Satellite, essentially, is pay radio. It requires a costly receiver, which varies in price from $100 to $300, and the subscription-based service runs about $12.95 a month, but there are dozens of stations offered, all commercial free. Podcasts can't be heard or made without a computer, but they are free to create and consume. And for anyone who wants to take those podcast shows on the road instead of listening on a computer, an MP3 player is mandatory for mobility.
Yet both are in essence radio on-demand. Podcasts cater to our ever-expanding schedules, while satellite still works in a similar vein. Since it is so niche-oriented, a listener can tune in at any time and find what they're looking for, whether it's an all-vinyl show like All Hand, obscure favourites chosen by Tom Petty on Buried Treasure, psych-rocking with The Blacklight Room, or a BBC concert series station that showcases archived rock performances.
Satellite and podcasting also reflect the changing definition of community today. Podcasting is community radio for a global village. Satellite cannot localise its broadcasts, but it can connect an entire country to the same media.
Radio has long been seen as a medium struggling to hold on to its audience. One reason is simply that radio is playing less new music, as commercial stations focus on big hits and heavy rotation. But today's technology has trumped radio's reliance on the formula these same overplayed hits are readily available for download. And satellite radio in particular has been raising some serious concern in the industry.
Since the CRTC's decision to grant licenses to Sirius Canada and XM Canada, which are partially owned by U.S.-based firms, major broadcast corporations and organisations set out to either beat 'em or join 'em. While Corus Entertainment Inc., a Canadian company that owns 51 radio stations across the country (including London's The Hawk, Calgary's Q107 and Toronto's 102.1 The Edge), has joined up with Canadian Satellite Radio (CSR), owner of XM Canada, other major media outlets haven't been so enthusiastic. CHUM Ltd., owner of MuchMusic, and its associate Astral Media Inc., who together own 57 Canadian stations, appealed the CRTC's decision in June to grant the satellite licenses out of fear of not being able to compete with this "U.S. controlled and originated" service. (CHUM/Astral is launching its own terrestrial subscription-radio service.)
Since the required broadcast satellites are owned and operated by the American firms, and its satellite channels will be available across North America and not just specifically in Canada, the most noise was heard from organisations like SOCAN, CRIA and Friends of Canadian Broadcasting over satellite's threat to existing CanCon standards.
These groups made it clear that they were not against satellite radio itself, but that its CanCon requirements were set too low. Although Sirius Canada is owned jointly by CBC/Radio Canada and Standard Radio Inc., and XM Canada is owned by Canadian Satellite Radio, both are in partnership with their U.S.-based firms and a lot of the control will still originate from their southern counterparts.
The CRTC's mandate for satellite radio requires Sirius and XM to offer a total of ten percent home-grown content on their channels, but lobby groups are concerned that this regulation isn't set high enough. That ten percent adds up to at least eight Canadian-produced channels, and 85 percent of the music programming on those channels has to be Canadian, with a large focus on emerging talent. Twenty-five percent of those Canadian channels must also be in French. On top of that, Sirius and XM must hand over at least five percent of their annual revenues for the development of Canadian talent through initiatives such as FACTOR or MusicAction, and these funds will go to develop both English and French-language talent equally.
The reasoning behind all the CanCon-related worry seems to show an unfortunate lack of faith in Canadian talent, despite the immense success that acts like the Arcade Fire, the New Pornographers and Hot Hot Heat are enjoying internationally. But those who fought against the CRTC's ruling predict that when it comes time for FM stations which are required to broadcast 35 percent CanCon to renew their licenses, they'll ask for a lowered CanCon level to compete with satellite stations. Some fear that it could lead to the obliteration of CanCon altogether.
Obviously, lots of people are excited by the potential attention this could bring to Canadian artists, but Ian Morrison, spokesperson for Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, says artists should be sceptical about how much exposure satellite programming will bring. He says the stations dedicated to Canadian talent will be a "ghetto" of Canadian music that Morrison doesn't think anybody will bother listening to.
"Satellite radio is dealing with culture, it's dealing with cultural property, it's dealing with identity," he says. "So when you don't have access to a certain amount of your own culture and music is culture you can lose your identity and be swallowed up by someone else's. [This is] a matter of defending a certain amount of space for Canada."
The recent introduction of podcasting also has some industry heads worrying. Since technology has been playing such a huge role in hearing and acquiring music, the radio industry fears losing even more listeners as the hype surrounding these downloadable shows continues to bloat. In a scramble to lure back some of its audience, many commercial stations have been adapting to the demand for podcasts. Major media outlets have swarmed the podcast scene, and heavyweights such as CNN, ABC News, and even Disney have repackaged their programming to appeal to the MP3 set. But in their rush to dominate this new technology, media companies have missed the whole point of the podcast. Instead of focusing on the alternative content that has set podcasting apart, they've simply rehashed the same programs they regularly produce. Though many smaller broadcasts are still the most revered, in contrast to "corporate podcasts," there is one exception, and its success is timely considering the apprehension surrounding the protectionist stance that many in the industry have toward Canadian culture.
It might come as a surprise that CBC's Radio 3 has created Canada's most important podcast. Serving up a play list that is 100 percent Canadian and completely independent, Radio 3 is not only providing listeners across the nation with some of the country's finest independent talent, but also exporting it worldwide.
Radio 3's podcast was launched in June under what its director Steve Pratt calls a streak of luck. Being one of the few all-music podcasts available at the time, it received significant buzz from the onset. Pratt says everything fell into place at exactly the right time, and that buzz turned into way more hype than anyone could have expected.
Radio 3 has always hovered between the traditional and the innovative. Initially intended as a third broadcast channel for CBC radio, it was hatched as a strategy to draw in a younger audience. The basis for it was simple the station would play non-stop music that would appeal to Canadians under the age of 35. But before the CRTC could grant a license for the station, CBC honchos halted the project due to funding issues. As a compromise, Radio 3 established itself online, in conjunction with a weekly Saturday night radio program on CBC's Radio 2. While the weekly program has retained a significant following since its inception in 2000, the launch of this year's podcast has brought unanticipated success for Radio 3. The programming that it was known for has turned out to be in high demand in a format with wider reach. If commercial radio is out looking for its lost listeners, chances are it'll find some of them here.
The CBC podcast broke out only a few weeks before Apple's iTunes debuted theirs, and when a programmer from iTunes took notice, they promoted Radio 3's podcast in every store worldwide for weeks. Radio 3's podcast went from 400 to 500 downloads a week to over 20,000. Pratt says he receives feedback from listeners in Japan, Malaysia, Europe, and the U.S. These are people who are "discovering Canadian music for the first time and loving it," and not only are they listening, they're buying, too. This podcast isn't only giving independent artists exposure, it's boosting their record sales.
"You'll notice in Canada that podcasts are full of independent music because the music bodies haven't determined how they want to charge people for doing that," Pratt says. "Right now, podcasts are the domain of independent music."
At first it appears that for podcasters the freedoms are great and the drawbacks few, but the focus on indie acts isn't simply taste. While podcasting is part of the unregulated internet domain, podcasters aren't exempt of all rules. Sure, they can use more cusswords than you'd ever hear under the CRTC's watch, but they have to use discretion with what they play and adhere to licensing regulations.
Licensing is the buying and selling of the rights to a song, including broadcast rights. It means that copyrighted music that's played on radio earns royalties paid for by the broadcast station. Playing independent music is important to podcasters because the material isn't tied up in costly red tape. If they wanted to use licensed material, they would have to pay up. And increased fear of free online downloads means that the licensing cops are paying close attention to popular podcasts.
But the diversity and possibility of podcasting isn't the only way to win an audience over, and satellite radio is out to prove it. By focusing on highly specific niche-oriented stations, satellite radio promises to deliver an abundance of choice without one-hit-wonder overkill.
Despite the heavy competition traditional radio is setting itself up for, Stephen Tapp, president and chief operating officer at CSR, sees XM's addition to the airwaves as part of the evolution of radio, not as a complete overhaul of the medium. He also sees it as something that will bring a surge of support to Canadian talent. XM will not only be working to focus on new music, but will also be pumping around $33 million into developing emerging talent money that will cover expenses from album pressing to promotion to tour support.
"First and foremost we're giving artists play who haven't had exposure before on radio because of the tight play lists on FM and exporting them into the U.S.," Tapp says. "Part of our condition of license is to support indies and new talent, so it's going to be good for the guys who have always been ripped off by Canadian content. If you talk to anyone who isn't an Avril Lavigne or Celine Dion and ask them how much Canadian content has really done for record sales, they'll probably tell you not a hell of a lot."
Content-wise, satellite's channels will differ greatly from podcasts in that they are streamed by categories, but there will be an incredible range of genres available with programmers who are hired based on their music knowledge and appreciation. And though it might not have the same reach as the internet, because of the distances satellite can travel, for the first time in Canadian history, residents in rural communities will have just as much choice as those in urban centres. XM expects to get much of its initial customer base from rural communities when the service launches in December. But Tapp says satellite won't cut into commercial radio's already tough competition.
"We think satellite radio is complementary to existing FM," he says. "It's a pay service, first of all, so you're going to have to be motivated to go out and get it. You're going to have to want a lot of choice, especially commercial-free. So we're not cutting commercial radio's grasp on advertising. We're not going to be doing any local production."
Tapp sees satellite technology as a way to repatriate some listeners back to radio, whether they are younger listeners who have latched on to new technologies or established listeners who have strayed. "We believe in freedom of choice and listeners should have the freedom to navigate around different technologies to choose what they want," he says. "Let's stop being afraid of technology. Let's use it and harness it to give the listener what they want and the artists the platform to be heard in different ways instead of only through one technology that controls when, and if, you're going to hear somebody."
Fans and musicians are going back to being listeners and artists instead of consumers and products. The DIY revolution of podcasting and the evolution into satellite are only the beginning. And while these two technologies are taking radio's format further away from what we've always known it to be, they're certainly not bringing radio to an end.
While these two formats seem, for the most part, to exist in extreme opposites, they also run parallel to each other. Podcasting offers diversity, community, and DIY values. Satellite radio offers niche-oriented programming, wide reach, and a new spin on commercial radio. But both formats are headed in the same direction, and that's to take radio to a new and better place.
Five Podcasts You Should Hear
Based out of Montreal, WeFunk's live DJs and MCs feature classic underground sounds from the funk and hip-hop world. (www.wefunkradio.com/rss-currentshow.xml)
Afterglow's presenter John P Shea recommends his podcast for those who grew up listening to bands such as Joy Division, the Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Depeche Mode or for anyone who's had "a long held fascination with black eyeliner." (extrinia.com/afterglow/wp-rss2.php)
Expect to hear anything from Wire to Tortoise to Diamanda Galas on this extremely eclectic weekly podcast. (www.brainwashed.com/podcast/podcast_rss.xml)
Ottawa Live Music
Working to bring college radio to the realm
of podcasting, Ottawa Live Music proudly features, without tape delay, live performances out of the nation's capitol. (www.ottawalivemusic.com/rss/olmrss.xml)
Beyond the Dial
This all-indie podcast provides a cool mix of country, rock, punk, psychobilly, and a touch of power pop. (www.garageband.com/user/beyondthedial/podcast/main.xml)