This past Saturday, May 24th, 2008 saw a significant protest against the dumbing down of CBC Radio II on the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery. The event saw many musical performances, as well as many speeches by som eof Canada's most important classical music figures. One of the most eloquent and thoughtful speeches was given by VSO conductor Bramwell Tovey reprinted below:
To whom it may concern:
I write to you as the longest-serving music director of a major Canadian orchestra, having served in that position with the Winnipeg Symphony (from 1989 to 2001)and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestras (from 2000 onwards.) Additionally, I was principal guest conductor of the Calgary Philharmonic from 1995-1998 and co-founder of the Winnipeg New Music Festival. I am also Principal Guest Conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl and Founder and Conductor (since 2004) of the New York Philharmonic’s annual Summertime Classics festival at Lincoln Centre in New York.
CBC Radio 2 is in dire straits. Loyal listeners are abandoning ship. On Easter Sunday a performance of J.S.Bach’s B minor Mass by a European ensemble was followed by a song from Johnny Cash. Such a lurch of programming would guarantee failure at any box office in the real world. This style of programming forms the core of the new schedules on CBC Radio 2 and is the result of a surfeit of management consultants.
Protesting financial problems, the CBC has abandoned its own 70 year old radio orchestra, an institution born of the need to promote Canadian talent and new music. Exactly a week later the network managed to find the cash to print a self-congratulatory full page ad in the Globe and Mail, extolling itself in partnership with major record companies, none of whom in fact, contribute one cent to the corporation.
Distinguished hosts have been dismissed without regard for the long standing relationships they enjoyed with listeners across the country. Great broadcasters like Manitoba born Eric Friesen who was poached by CBC from a public radio station in the US, and Howard Dyck, distinguished host of Saturday Afternoon at the Opera for 20 years.
These are broadcasters whose knowledge base and dulcet tones guaranteed a welcome into Canadian homes across the country. They were unceremoniously ditched with announcements laced in Orwellian doublespeak about ‘new pursuits’ and ‘tremendous service’. Canadians do not enjoy being treated like fools and everyone knows what’s going on. An ageist agenda that allegedly favours 35-50 year olds is being pursued. CBC became a laughing stock within the music business as it emerged that all kinds of inappropriate people were being pursued by the corporation to take over Saturday Afternoon At The Opera from Howard Dyck.
Lifting management-consultant speak, CBC Radio managers have talked of ‘phase one’, and with no realization of irony, ‘phase two’ as if such unexplained jargon could placate the increasingly disgruntled public. Constantly interrupting programmes (four times an hour in some cases) with self-promoting advertisements, the network mantra is chanted “Everywhere music takes you”. As a distinguished opera singer said to me recently, “It takes me to the off button.”
The changes on the network have amounted to a dereliction of duty on the part of the CBC. It is as if the CRTC, the House of Commons and above all, the Canadian public were not owed deference in what amounts to a wholescale change of emphasis in the way public money is spent. New policy was decided unilaterally by a handful of bureacrats at CBC Radio 2 after a derisory set of focus groups and ‘consultations’.
In seeking to control the debate about Radio 2 programming the network has ruthlessly censored its own blogsites. In May 2007 I submitted a comment to a blog about changes at Saturday Afternoon at the Opera. I received numerous telephone calls and then an email from a senior CBC manager:
“Let’s talk further about what we’re trying to achieve. I’d still be more than happy to post most of what you wrote, but do need to edit out one line, and want your approval to do that before I get Jowi [the supposed editor of the blog] to post. We’re not trying to censor you.” (sic)
Various websites, including on Facebook have blossomed since it was more widely realized that CBC was incapable of listening to criticism.
CBC is a public broacaster with obligations to Canadians that are clearly laid out in the corporation’s mandate. The lack of public debate has been appalling. I am delighted that the Heritage Committee has decided to hold hearings across Canada. I have accepted the invitation to speak next Thursday.
Given the present government’s significant commitment to young artist training that was announced today, the CBC’s decision to programme classical music between 10 am and 3 pm seems particularly churlish. The VSO, for example, performs to 50,000 children every year and is about to open a state of the art music school in downtown Vancouver. Yet none of these children will hear any classical music on Radio 2 since classical music will only be on the airwaves between 10am and 3pm.
Perhaps CBC Radio needs more airwaves on FM to fulfil its national obligations. CBC Radio certainly needs new direction with an ear to public opinion and a vision that does not discard its traditional powerbase. Classical music is very healthy in our country and CBC simply isn’t aware of this.
My youngest daughter is 7 years old. She has been learning the cello at the Vancouver Academy of Music for two years. A little while ago she played “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” at a family party. Her tiny hands pressed gallantly on the strings as her bow found the sounding point on the instrument and she entered the world of self-expression afforded by the language of music. She dreams of playing in our local youth orchestra. As things currently stand, CBC Radio 2 couldn’t care less about her.
Bramwell Tovey O.M., LLD, FRAM, FRCMT