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Seven versus thirteen.

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I got back from America to discover that the top of the hour had changed.

CBC Radio One, for as far back as I remember, has followed this patttern:

[musical sting]
"Here is the CBC News. I'm [announcer name]."

And then they would read the news.

The music itself would change. Not too long ago, the radio news themes were all changed, each aligned to a single motif. Prior to that, there had been chimes, and those were related to an even earlier set of chimes, for the hourly newscasts. I had no complaints. The underpinnings were the same. The pattern was the same.

When the last round of music was phased in, Radio One listeners became accustomed to a seven-note theme melody on the hour, with varying counterpoints depending on the hour, or the half-hour. (World at Six got a three-note variation which harmonized just so with what you'd heard the rest of the day.)

It wasn't so hard. Whether or not the music appealed, one got a sense of the structure involved: music, identification, news. A regular listener rapidly developed a series of subconscious associations with routine, and knew when to pay attention. "This is the hourly news. That is the half-hourly news. This is the national news appropriate to the morning or the evening. The weather will be on in [x] minutes. The program will resume in [x+ 30 seconds] minutes."

Usability.

In recent weeks, the CBC has moved to a consistent, five-note mnemonic across all of its news broadcasts, over all of its radio and television stations. This is part of a move to unify CBC's radio, network television, and Newsworld resources into a single CBC News division and brand. Flagship television show The National carries this mnemonic just as prominently as each province's hourly regional radio news.

I can't speak to what it does for television, although it seems to work for the new National theme. For Radio One's news, across the board, it doesn't work. This is why:

[one-TWO-three-four-five]
"Here is the CBC News."
[one-TWO-three-four-FIVE-six-SEVEN]
"I'm [this person].

Or, if you're a flagship show [EDIT: At least until now -- this morning, World Report fit the above pattern, suggesting things are more uniform now, but it wasn't always thus]:

[one-TWO-three-four-FIVE]
"This is [important radio news show]. I'm [announcer]."
[theme!]
"In the news: [headlines]"

It was even worse during the first couple of weeks, when not even the national newscasters had the beat quite down.

The Royal Canadian Air Farce, a television comedy troupe which first built its career across over two decades of radio, spoke unintentionally to this sort of situation when parodying the current affairs show Impact. [Scroll to the bottom of the page, where the 17 November 1995 sketch is linked; alternatively, stream or download the RealVideo-encoded sketch.] At various points, saying the word "impact" is meant to trigger the appearance of the show's logo, with an accompanying sharp noise; the announcer, in this sketch, can't quite get the timing to work. It's been rather like that for a few weeks, and is only just sorting out at the regional level. The first few national newscasts I heard along these lines had the same problem. (There's nothing quite like hearing major CBC hosts scramble to the mark.)

The system works a little better for CBC Television. You get a logo with the mnemonic, and that serves the same function as a station ID. CBC Radio, however, has always had distinct station identification spots, associated with different types of pacing. Even when integrated with Promo Girl's quirky program spots, they were very plainly keyed to the same rhythm held by standalone spots; before Promo Girl, one would hear a standalone show promo, then a station ID, then turn to the news. (That said, I like Promo Girl a lot better now that she's just doing the spots.)

The mnemonic introduces an additional concept layer for the listener to absorb, and forces redundant identification of exactly which type of news we're listening to on top of that:

"This is a production by CBC News."
"I am now telling you what show this is. [If this is a national flagship show, I am identifying myself as the anchor.]"
[Musical sting/theme associated and identified with the program in question.]
"[If this is a regional newscast, or a national newscast in offpeak hours, I am identifying myself as the newsreader.] Here are the headlines..."

By altering the structure of how news identifies itself to the listener, CBC Radio One throws off how the listener identifies that news, and its relevance at any given time. Further, it shaves extra time off of the content, however negligible. While that time is just enough to identify any given reporter, or barely sufficient to sandwich in a few more words, every word counts.

This gets even worse when one considers the regional newscasts during the daytime. Those come in at the half-hour, and top out at ninety seconds. There is no time to go through the rigamarole involved with the extra identification layer and to use the standard seven-note newscast theme. As a result, they're using what we already know. CBC Radio One has gone through the trouble to have us identify "incoming CBC news" with this mnemonic, only not to use it for a subset of newscasts.

I don't mean to be the sort of listener who bitches when things change at Radio One. I'm pretty screwed up by that standard. I like Promo Girl a lot. I found valuable the national morning split between current and cultural affairs. I'd rather see a beloved personality well applied elsewhere (e.g. Bill Richardson filling in for Shelagh Rogers during her recuperation; Peter Gzowski's Some Of The Best Minds Of Our Time) than have an institution-level show artificially sustained without that personality (e.g. The Roundup at the end of Tetsuro Shigematsu's tenure, much as I enjoyed Shigematsu himself). And I think Brent Banbury's pretty bloody nifty.

That said, those changes which have worked with listeners have followed structure to some extent, and worked best when phased in gradually. Weekday/daytime shows make good examples. Freestyle is pop-culture banter and mosaic-format music; it covers the content expectations that The Roundup maintained to a certain extent, just as both versions of The Roundup maintained some level of the interviews which were Vicki Gabereau's mainstay in that timeslot. The Current triggered the full-on split from one national current/cultural affairs morning show to two, but did so as Shelagh Rogers' cultural half transitioned from This Morning (which acted much like Morningside in very may ways) to Sounds Like Canada (which failed horribly in its outre, cacophanous anthology format, then reverted to something closer to This Morning). Even This Morning floundered until it shed its worldly, jaded slickness and backslid partway into the warm Morningside nature.

(Let's not even get into the extent to which comedy shows hold domain in legacy weekend timeslots, or how programs like Go or -- if not so much -- Simply Sean serve the same function as Basic Black did.)

In other words, changes to CBC Radio One -- which often functions best in the background and the rhythm of a Canadian's daily life -- tend to soak in best when they accomodate extant underpinnings. The segues need to be fluid, even in a microcosm. Keep that fluidity up and you can phase in pretty much anything, but you need to get there in the first place.

The news mnemonic is not fluid. It comes from television, it reflects television branding, and it assumes a unified experience that not everyone getting their news from the CBC is going to have. The mnemonic has a visual equivalent on television; I'm guessing that one is meant to have something of a ghosted synaesthesic experience moving from television to radio. One hears the mnemonic, one sees the associated animation in one's head, one thinks, "this is the CBC News." It's not a complete branding experience, but they haven't figured out touch, smell or taste yet.

Now, I actually have a mild form of synaesthesia. (No, I have no idea why. I'm not sure that it matters.) Mostly, this manifests with sound. Some of it's visual (colours and patterns at the edge of vision), and some of it's tactile (lots of pokes and jabs, mostly). It doesn't interfere with my day-to-day life, but it does underscore points like these on occasion. Not counting the misplaced human voice, instead of seven taps at the top of the hour, I have thirteen, and they're in really weird places all of a sudden.

And they're way too slow to signal, "Hey, sit up and listen to me now;" I've usually experienced hourly news report themes as rapid shoulder-pokes. "HEY! LOOKIT! NEWS NOW! NOW!" That music's supposed to get your attention. This audio gets your attention, then tries to do so at least two more times. It's a bit disorienting -- in fact, it's not unlike having a kid keep tugging at your sleeve (or, in my case, sharply poking my upper back) after you've acknowledged him. Suddenly, the news is all out of order. (Also, it's in a funny key, but you get used to that.)

The pacing's all off. It doesn't work. It's as off-paced as the announcers getting used to it.

"Impact...! IMPACT!"

"Oh. You mean Impact." Clang.

Polehugging.

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[The pole.]The pole in question, not unlike the one depicted here, is a piece of Canadian timekeeping and radio history.

Ten years before the CBC picked up the official time signal -- still the longest-running program on CBC Radio -- astronomer J.P. Henderson broadcast it himself, from his own property. The antenna lived upon this pole.

This was in the 1920s, and this is also how CHU got started.

Over the years, the signal wouldn't change much. A whistle, then a whistle-like beep. The announcement would remain relatively static (varying only by time zone and, in certain places, date). I've posted about the signal before; it's a beloved and entrenched thing, something oddly sentimentalized for all of its pragmatic nature. When the CBC lockout was on, the use of a time-delayed time signal succinctly illustrated matters: management went through the motions, but the motions just weren't right.

Nowadays, a radio-based time signal to set your watch by can seem kind of pointless -- if you need something precise, you sync a networked device with an atomic clock; otherwise, you go by television or what your neighbour's watch says or something. That's a fairly recent development. Disconnected from one another, communities tend to set their own clocks, more or less. But how do you write a railway schedule, say, to accommodate everyone's variations?

You don't. You standardize, and others follow suit. Radio's a pretty good way to make sure people in remote areas have something to go on.

The signal has long since been broadcast elsewhere. We don't need the pole anymore, but that doesn't make it any less important of a symbol. The pole is where it started. The pole should continue to exist. Unfortunately, there's a move to have the pole taken down for safety concerns.

There is also a campaign to save the pole -- to move it someplace else, preserved as is. (Prior to this, there had been an offer to make the pole into benches; this seems to somehow miss the point.) Given that the signal's changed hands several times over the years, without ever disappearing or significantly changing shape, this would make some kind of sense. The pole doesn't have to live where it's always lived.

It just has to live.

Little Moments of Victory

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I'm not sure what really convinced me that things were trending back to normal at CBC Radio One. Bob MacGregor reading early morning news was an initial sign, but I was kind of missing Judy Maddren. The choice of Bernard St. Laurent to cover Tuesday's Transition Morning show was inspired; more people probably hear him as a fill-in host for prominent national shows than listen to C'est la vie, so he carries the authority of a reliable substitute. When he's on in that capacity, you know things are still a little out of sorts, but he'll do an admirable job of making you forget that that's the case. If one remembers the role he played in migrating the circus-like Sounds Like Canada to a renamed This Morning, the shadows clearly remain.

(Which is not to say that C'est la vie isn't worthwhile, solid and engaging in its own right, but I digress.)

Mostly, that said, I think it was the voice of the apology shifting which clinched it for me. At first, it had been the same manager we'd heard, over and over, handling continuity during the lockouts. Same general words every time, little changing save the show description. And it kept on being those words, and that manager.

The words didn't change right off, but the voice became perky at some point down the line. And female.

Shauna MacDonald.

Promo Girl.

I've never quite understood the acrimony towards Promo Girl (the embarrassing Promo Girl and the Mystery Of... summer contest, thankfully aborted by the lockouts, was another matter). I won't go into it here, save for this: like St. Laurent, or any particularly iconic CBC personality, Promo Girl represents a certain state of affairs just by existing. Any spot she's in radiates "CBC Radio's working hard to reach a younger audience with shiny chrome," a situation which has left wildly variable results scattered around Radio One like beads these past few years. Not everyone is happy with the changes she both represents and, to some extent, perpetuates.

This week, though, she didn't need to play character (she wouldn't do that until, I think, today); she just needed to tell you what was happening to make the point. Her tone of voice conveyed what a day's worth of morning show host interstitials didn't quite hit, at least for me: We're getting back to normal, and we're doing it faster than you'd think.

There have been moments of clearer triumph in the past forty-eight hours. Anna Maria Tremonti proudly declaring, "Welcome back to the real CBC," then dropping straight into hard content about the Pakistani quake. The first strains of World Report's theme in god knows how long. The National Research Council's official time signal moving back to one o'clock, Eastern time, not one o'clock everywhere you turn. It's been those little details which have really worked to communicate the readjustment to me, not extended speeches, not the occasional bits of (admittedly effecctive) self-parody, not the announcements of plans already in motion. Don't get me wrong. Those are useful, and valuable, and heartening. Just differently so.

It's just that I know what I missed most about Radio One's absence.

Details.

Welcome back, guys. We missed you.

Last night, CBC management and the Canadian Media Guild finally came to an agreement in principle. There's still a ratification vote to be had, and the return to work still needs to be hammered out, but real CBC content should be back underway sometime within the next few weeks. There'll still be picketing for a little while, but the worst is pretty much over.

Since the last big ranty thing, content from the locked-out workers has become much more engaging from the perspective of the casual listener. Toronto's Metro Morning team took over community station CIUT's early AM slot for a while; the resultant shows were more engaging than Metro Morning itself had been in a long time. (They also had killer theme music, and I would die to find out what the song's called.) Shelagh Rogers drove across Canada with a small group, podcasting and blogging the whole way. (Grab the Jean Ghomeshi song and read the account of the Stephenville floods, if nothing else.) Journalists banded together to offer up as much news as possible via the CBC Unlocked service, which is a hell of a lot more useful than management's kitten photos.

If you're in as much Radio One withdrawl as I am, though, going through the archived CBC Unplugged podcasts (via iTunes or Odeo) might help. Mind, if you're in as much Radio One withdrawl as I am, you probably kept up with every single one of them, too, and have resorted to watching Frank Peretti's children's show.

The Longest Dash of All

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One of several DIY T-shirt designs available to CBC lockout supporters.Eventually, as with everything else, the time signals were corrected. Only not quite.

The National Research Council's official time signal is a venerable institution at CBC Radio One. It's been there ever since Radio One was just plain old CBC Radio (as opposed to CBC Stereo). It's probably older than I am. It's the one thing which was always guaranteed to work the same way forever (one of my most comforting memories is of my dad coming back from an NRC research trip, telling me he'd seen the time signal computer). Across Canada, at the same absolute time every day (with the announcement adjusted according to region, of course), the sound of the long dash following ten seconds of silence would indicate one o'clock, Eastern time. Ten o'clock, Pacific. Two thirty, Newfoundland. Your life would go to pieces, but the time signal would remain. The world might crumble, the oceans might rise, and the bombs might fall, but the National Research Council's official time signal would always follow up ten seconds of silence at the same time every day. Archaeologists would discover it, still ticking. Alien archaeologists. From another universe.

Not now. Now, it's one. One everywhere. Except Newfoundland, where it's one thirty. The last time I wrote about this, it was one thirty in Newfoundland several times a day -- the feed, shifted across time zones, was identical for everyone in Canada save for news reports. This, among other things, was a sign that the center simply couldn't hold at Toronto's broadcast centre; it was a rough, jagged edge.

It was the work of management, doing a job it was never meant to do.

The lockout of CMG-affiliated employees at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, as I write this, is about to enter its fifteenth day. Management is prepared to settle in and do the work of producers, technicians, journalists and announcers for as long as it takes (just not very well), no matter the effect it has on public relations.

And they already have ensconsed themselves for the long haul. Radio One now isn't dissimilar to a relatively well-polished student station. The nasal, whining apology has become an almost pleasant, customized continuity voice between shows. The news reports are competent enough for people who don't do this sort of thing for a living; sometimes, the tapes run in the wrong places, or the announcers stumble, or the style guide seems to be an afterthought at best, but it's not egregious. It's not overwhelming. An iPod playlist shuffles through Cancon music for over twelve hours a day. Susan Marjetti and Rob Renaud, though lacking in significant chemistry or rapport, are at least technically comfortable behind the morning show controls at this point.

Put it this way: it's good enough for a random local station just trying to get by. The problem is, we're talking about the CBC here. "Good enough" simply doesn't fly. It doesn't work. It doesn't count.

The best example of this, so far, actually comes from television. Already, a CFL match has aired on CBC Television with no commentary whatsoever, just ambient stadium noise and a score counter in the corner. This didn't really impress the football fans.

Or the CFL.

And there have been more gaffes than that.

Even as Radio One (bafflingly!) dropped the Radio Overnight programming segments, all of which are sourced from overseas public radio services, they replaced World at Six with news from the BBC World Service. A similar move took place on CBC Television and Newsworld. The BBC's unions weren't particularly thrilled by this move -- the BBC itself didn't wish to be seen as taking a side, and the unions, if anything, sympathized with the CMG's desire not to have permanent positions largely superseded by casual contracts.

Much of Radio One's programming now consists of slightly aged reruns, which is fine from the casual listener perspective, but probably not long-term workable. In the afternoons, in place of Tetsuro Shigematsu's version of the Roundup, we're hearing 2003 editions of Richardson's Roundup. This didn't impress Bill Richardson, who stated his piece eloquently and succinctly in a Studio Zero podcast. He's angry -- "pissed off," actually -- that they've retroactively made him, the other people who worked on the Roundup, and those involved in other rerun CBC shows, into scabs. (To be fair, he does concede that the CBC is well within its rights to rerun these shows, since it owns them. But even so.)

And goodness only knows what Shelagh Rogers thinks of the Sounds Like Canada reruns. Probably not much; CBC Unplugged reports that Rogers is about to start her own podcast, touring Canada much as she did in the first incarnation of SLC. Difference being, this time, she's not simply talking to regular Canadians -- she's also going to the picket lines.

The podcasts from the picket lines have been one of the most remarkable aspects of this lockout. While Rogers may arguably be releasing the first of these to truly be accessible to casual listeners (others will undoubtedly follow), CMG workers across Canada have been hard at work getting their side of the story out and available this way. The CBC Unplugged feed is the second most popular one at Canada's iTunes Music Store (right behind CBC Radio 3, amusingly enough), and this is the best way to keep up with as much as possible if you only have so many hours in a day. While much of the podcast content has been preaching a bit much to the choir, that's fine at first; the troops need to support one another, and the early adopters from the outside are inevitably going to be those of us who are firmly behind the CMG's cause. There's been some argument that CMG workers shouldn't be putting their energies towards creating programming independently of the CBC, of course. I disagree; if these people can show us, show the CBC, show Canada, and show the world how brightly they can shine without the public broadcaster's support, I think they'll do a much better job of capturing the population's hearts.

And, really, it's not the devoted among us the CMG needs to captivate; we're already reading the blogs, scrutinizing Ouimet's entries, writing essays, writing letters, co-producing podcasts, and ironing things onto shirts. It is the casual listener, the alienated listener, the disillusioned listener, that they need; the satellite radio convert, the commercial television aficionado. They need Joe out in the middle of nowhere, who might not have cared for the CBC, but that's all his region's got.

They need everyone.

'Cause the CBC, the way it is right now? This just isn't going to work.

EDIT: Above and beyond the podcasts, Toronto's Metro Morning staff is moving to a community radio station. Meanwhile, negotiations resume on Wednesday.

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