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OPINION: Subscription Radio Hearings: Where do we go from here?
by David Bray

Companies in this story
Hennessy & Bray
Articles in related categories
Satellite/Subscription Radio
SONGS IN SEARCH OF AN AUDIENCE will find one with subscription radio

The closest I'll ever come to the upper crust is the stale loaf in the back of my top cupboard. All you'll find in common between Bill Gates' bank account and mine are the zeros. Still, I consider myself very fortunate. I've had the opportunity to be exposed to a good deal of great music and work with some outstanding artists. Like many of those people who share my passion for radio, it all started with a love of music.

Money was never the motivator. Had Bill Gates concentrated on radio instead of computers, his bank account might more look like mine.

Canada has undeniably produced some of the world's great musicians and songwriters. The quality of artists that this country has produced is disproportionate to our size. And radio has, for the most part, served them well in the past. But the nature of the record business has changed dramatically. Very few new artists are being signed by major labels. At the same time, the formatic reality of most mainstream stations has made it exponentially more difficult to break new music. Where do we go from here?

I can't say I agree with those who complain about the complacency and lack of originality in the programming of mainstream stations. The charge is that these stations aren't challenging listeners in the way they should. It is true that the programmers are very careful not to give loyal listeners unfamiliar music. Still, those stations do an excellent job of giving their core listeners what they want in a well researched, polished and professional fashion.

It would be arrogant to suggest that listeners aren't bright enough to know what they should want to hear. At the same time, this does prompt a dilemma. The number of CHR stations is diminishing, giving way to more gold-based formats such as Jack, Dave, Bob, etc. Per capita hours tuned for teens as reported by BBM have declined dramatically over the last four years. Many young adults and older listeners who favour niche formats are disenfranchised.

We must always remember that garnering sufficient ad revenue is the determining factor in programming mainstream radio. Remember, too, that teen targets account for well under 1% of all ad spending. Similarly, broadcasters must develop broad reach stations in order to remain viable to advertisers. Hence, the number of adult contemporary stations targeting women 25-54 with a very conservative music mix.

Canadian content on these stations, while meeting the regulatory requirements, does very little to assist new or niche artists. Innumerable formats are left without voices. The primary result is having the likes of Celine Dion or Avril Lavigne move into ever higher rotation. It also benefits gold artists like the Guess Who. Still, in their current incarnation, the Cancon regulations do little to assist up and coming artists needing a break. That, after all, was one of primary reasons for their existence in the first place.

While all of this is taking place, the record industry is in dire straits as it tries to reinvent itself. Without any airplay, many new artists have little hope of CD/download sales or drawing significant audiences to live performances.

The answer would seem to be fairly clear: The three satellite/subscription applications being heard by the CRTC in early November have generated enthusiasm, excitement and groundbreaking opportunities unlike anything we have seen in decades. Their goal is not to supplant mainstream radio, but to supply a cultural alternative which doesn't have to rely on the dictates of advertisers.

Both listeners and musicians would be the beneficiaries of a reinvigorated playing field. Folk, alt, country, comedy, roots, electronica, blues, bluegrass, opera, jazz, singer-songwriter and a good deal more will now have the opportunity for a look and listen. Since these new stations would be driven by subscription revenue, the need to be all things to all people vanishes. Instead, the stations, or channels, can strive to exist on their own terms, offering listeners something truly unique.

One of the most exciting opportunities which satellite brings about is the opportunity for Canadian artists to be broadcast to the lucrative U.S. market and ultimately, the entire globe. I think back to the golden days of influential CKLW which was credited with breaking Canadian artists in the U.S. The new satellite applicants are both programming all-Canadian stations as well as producing Canadian programming for the existing U.S. based stations. Never before have we had an opportunity like this.

If playing Cancon to Canadians is beneficial, then playing it to the world is a windfall. Cultural exports will afford our artists significantly increased touring opportunities and CD sales.

Most importantly, artists with absolutely no chance of mainstream airplay will now have vehicles in Canada and beyond. Listeners who crave a wider selection of formats will be rewarded. A much broader mix of cultures will be represented.

My counter to those dissatisfied with the status quo is that the answer doesn't lie in trying to re-format or re-think existing mainstream stations. Instead, the solution seems to lie with broadening our horizons both formatically and geographically. I may not have much money but I, for one, find the wealth of these new musical options more rewarding than anything I have heard in years.

David Bray is senior vice-president of Hennessy & Bray Communications. (416)431-5792; fax: (416)431-0168;;
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Broadcaster Poll
When it comes to the three subscription radio applications to be heard by the CRTC November (see this site for stories explaining it), should the Commission:
Approve all three?  
Approve the CHUM "Canadian" option?  
Approve one or both of the satellite options?  
Approve none?