Monday, March 1, 2010

Media: Forward is Backward

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Today was the official hand-off of the host position on CBC Radio One Toronto's Metro Morning show from Andy Barrie to Matt Galloway. I have little to add to the accolades for Barrie except to say that I agree with virtually all of them. That a deserter from the United States military could go on to be one of Canada's foremost media figures makes for an inspiring story for any immigrant, but what this morning's hand-off show left me with more than the stories of Barrie's or Galloway's lives or how they conducted themselves off-air was the lesson of how the morning show in Toronto has changed in my lifetime.

I wasn't here to hear it, obviously, but the CBC morning show in Toronto in the early 1970's likely varied a lot less from its commercial competitors, at least on the AM dial, than it does now. For one thing, it ran commercials until 1975. I suppose I had read that somewhere, but I had completely forgotten that fact until it came up on the show. In the past 35 years, CBC radio has racked up such a record as a public, commercial-free broadcaster that it seems almost inconceivable that it once aired "spots."

Yet, it was one of the things that dropping commercials allowed the CBC to do that most surprised me. In the show this morning, former CBC manager and director Margaret Lyons pointed out that the time freed up by not airing commercials could be put to use playing music, which had not previously been done on the morning show. Previously, it had all been spoken word, or as we call it today, "Newstalk." The CBC had once sounded more like today's CFRB (er, Newstalk 1010) morning show, or any number of such news-driven talk shows around the continent, than today's Metro Morning.

I've lived through an opposite trend on commercial radio in my life. I distinctly remember the last time I heard an entire song played on KIRO in Seattle. Though I don't recall the date, it must have been about 1985. A guest had canceled on mid-day host Jim French, and to fill the time, he and his producer chose to play Harold Faltermeyer's instrumental song "Axel F" from the "Beverly Hills Cop" movie soundtrack, which was still relatively popular at the time. I never heard a complete song played for the sake of playing music on 710 AM in Seattle again, as it held assiduously to its "Newsradio" format. If I wanted music and news, I had to tune to KOMO AM 1000, which remained a "full-service" radio station until it went to a Talk format in 1995 after years of inching that direction. I lamented the loss of the full-service radio stations on this blog a year ago.

For some reason, I had assumed that CBC Radio One in Toronto, once CBL 740 AM and since 1999 CBLA-FM 99.1, had always been "full-service" in that sense and had never stopped playing music. Instead, music had been gone from morning drive, and was re-introduced to help "re-connect with culture of the city." In the small doses (usually two songs per hour) that do now air on Metro Morning, that's exactly what it does.

So, the CBC saw the power of going forward, better serving their community, by going backward in terms of format, re-introducing music. Maybe there's some hope for the return of full-service radio somewhere by following the same logic--successful in Toronto--elsewhere.

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