The CBC is running a series of ads these days in celebration of its 50th anniversary, or at least of the 50th anniversary of some part of itself.
One of the ads has a CBC luminary whose name escapes me talking about how one of the Big Missions of the CBC is Public Service. He cites as an example of this the recent Manitoba election when CBC Television was the only outlet in that province to offer live wall-to-wall coverage of the election.
That’s a Good Thing. And I think the CBC does a lot of Good Things, especially when it does things that you couldn’t really make money at if you tried. That’s what Public Service is all about, on one level, isn’t it?
But here’s what bothers me: the CBC’s approach to public service on the web is entirely derived from the kind of public service they’re used to offering on television and radio.
Here’s an example: every now and again, on a seemingly random schedule, various experts participate in the Maritime Noon phone in program (disclosure: I’ve been one of these experts myself, for my own little corner of e-expertise, on an even more random schedule).
The phone-in format is fine if you’re working within the limitations of radio: limited time, limited callers, audio-only. But considering that it’s unlikely that on the day my furnace breaks down their guest will be the furnace guy, and that even if this did happen, I would probably not get through as a caller, the radio phone in is of limited practical usefulness.
So here we have, in the Maritime Noon Phone-in, something that at one time in the distant past was exciting and revolutionary — hearing experts in Halifax speak about furnaces from the comfort of my living room in Charlottetown — but that is now mostly irrelevant given the changing informationscape around it.
Radio is ephemeral, there’s no way around that, and Maritime Noon is working on the radio within the boundaries of that medium as best it can.
Now, back to Public Service.
Presumably the CBC considers part of its Public Service role to be to provide consumers, citizens, listeners with practical everyday useful information delivered by people who know what they’re talking about. And to do so in an environment where education and enlightenment, not sales and profit, are the goals. That’s why they have a Maritime Noon phone-in.
The web is not ephemeral. Or at least it’s not as ephemeral as radio. The canvas of the web isn’t limited in the way that radio is, where you only have so much time to deliver information. And on the web you can not only include audio, but also video and text and pictures and moving rocketships.
So you would think that the web would provide the CBC with a way of expanding and enhancing and even perhaps replacing the Public Service consumer education mission it now handles with the Maritime Noon phone-in. My furnace breaks, so I go to the CBC website and find the furnace section, and there I can listen to and watch useful information about my furnace, read of others’ furnace experiences, email some furnace experts, and so on.
Because the CBC is a trusted source, this information is more valuable to me than, say, the website of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy which is funded by Private Companies and Their Associations.
But, alas, this is not the case. What I can do is get a list of upcoming Maritime Noon phone-in guests. An index of the ephemeral, in other words.
I’m the first to understand that the reason for this is probably in large part due to limited resources. I’m sure the Maritime Noon budget is stretched right now just trying to produce two hours of radio five days a week and there simply aren’t the staff and resources required to move in this direction or to even consider the possibilities.
It’s frustrating, in this light, to see that when the CBC does try and do new “web only” things, it does them in such an overblown, graphically intensive, non-standard, closed, proprietary fashion as to render the resources essentially useless. Need examples? ArtsCanada, Infomatrix, CBC Radio 3 are all examples of this insanity.
If the CBC is going to embrace the web as another conduit for informing Canadians, joining television and radio to form an info-triumvirate, then they’re going to have to engage the web on its own terms, and not simply see it as a brochure for what’s coming up on the radio, or some sort of wonky freakmedia where you do things you would never do on the air.
To do this is going to mean not only funding new media initiatives, but also educating journalists and producers, and taking the web seriously enough to devote serious creative energies towards it.
If the CBC sees as part of its mission to help me when my furnace dies, the web is just sitting there waiting for them to start using it.