CBC, Public Service, Technology and my Furnace

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.

Comments

Alan's picture
Alan on July 6, 2002 - 12:17

While I agree on your unhappiness with CBC and the web, I don’t think your analysis of Maritime Noon is correct. Like you, I have been on it, won the spring bulbs and had my cranky e-mails read. It gives me great pleasure as it provides information in a way that other media cannot. There are different classes on inquiry in life and one of the differences is the immediacy of the need for the information. One of the drawbacks of the web is that is implies that all information is important now. Most is not. Much of the information stress those who are connected to a variety of media suffer is based on the inability of information to advise those subject to it of its relative importance: The fax rings as loudly for a restaurant flier as a legal demand. Good radio fits between the intranet and the newspaper. News you need sometime today or, if not, maybe later in the week —  NPR’s Car Guys. The Maritime Noon phone-in is not for the need of someone in the middle of a crisis like a broken pipe but for idle daydreaming and weekend planning. It is for reflection not instruction. The intranet is too much like staring at the daffodills. Good radio is like laying on the sofa later and thinking about what was seen.

Andrew's picture
Andrew on July 6, 2002 - 13:25

Maybe a little off topic but I miss the 1 hour compass. We now have 10 — 14 minutes of news, short weather update, 10 seconds of a live eye camera, 2 national headlines and an 8-10 minute interview followed by the weather. And if something happens on Saturday or Sunday we don’t really get to hear about it on CBC Charlottetown.

I few months ago I emailed the folks at CBC asking them to implement a weekend report into the last 10 minutes of Monday broadcasts but I was never emailed back. Do you guys think there is any way we could lobby for our 1 hour compass back?



We have one main news source on PEI and it tells us jack squat.

Jevon's picture
Jevon on July 6, 2002 - 14:18

Andrew: When I do watch an episode of Compass, I can’t help but think about how much better of a National and International news segment we have now. I much prefer a national desk taking the lead on national stories rather than have the local CBC office paste together reports from other regional CBCs. I prefer the current config. for Compass myself.

Steven Garrity's picture
Steven Garrity on July 6, 2002 - 14:42

Generally, I agree with you here Peter. However, there are few odd CBC web shinannagins that I find genuinly worthwhile and interesting.

I’m the last person who would go for a flashy high-bandwith media site over a simple strong content site. That said, both 120seconds.com and JustConcerts.com are interesting and well-done. Too flashy (literally and figuretively), but interesting content. Particularly JustConcerts — here, they are using the web exactly as they should, augmenting and complimenting the radio service by providing and archive of full-length, high-quality concerts that have aired on CBC radio.

christopher's picture
christopher on July 6, 2002 - 16:59

Interesting take, Peter. When television started, what they did was make radio visual — same shows, same studios, same audiences. They did the same broadcasting theatre: took the old medium and replicated it using the new one. Most newspapers, radio stations and TV stations have done the same with the Web. “Repurposing”, I have heard it called, and it really underutilises the capabilities of the Web. But from TV to newspapers, telcos to the music industry, they want the low cost brochure/mail order value of the Web, but not the bits which challenge or threaten their existing production, distribution and business models.

A lot of people have discovered they aren’t at all in the business they thought they were. The music industry makes its money producing and selling CDs, not music. Show them a technology which reduces distribution costs to zero and they panic, then make half the lawyers in the US rich. I won’t dwell on the telcoheads :-) Most touching to me was when Novell offered the Internet a directory structure, in partnership with BT. Yep, I’ll rush right into that one. :-)

Amazing how a business model assumes its own life, totally divorced from the reality of developments in the market.

christopher's picture
christopher on July 6, 2002 - 18:03

Interesting take, Peter. When television started, what they did was make radio visual — same shows, same studios, same audiences. They did the same broadcasting theatre: took the old medium and replicated it using the new one. Most newspapers, radio stations and TV stations have done the same with the Web. “Repurposing”, I have heard it called, and it really underutilises the capabilities of the Web. But from TV to newspapers, telcos to the music industry, they want the low cost brochure/mail order value of the Web, but not the bits which challenge or threaten their existing production, distribution and business models.

A lot of people have discovered they aren’t at all in the business they thought they were. The music industry makes its money producing and selling CDs, not music. Show them a technology which reduces distribution costs to zero and they panic, then make half the lawyers in the US rich. I won’t dwell on the telcoheads :-) Most touching to me was when Novell offered the Internet a directory structure, in partnership with BT. Yep, I’ll rush right into that one. :-)

Amazing how a business model assumes its own life, totally divorced from the reality of developments in the market.

Rob MacD's picture
Rob MacD on July 8, 2002 - 01:51

Alan and Christopher have summed up my thoughts on your problem, Peter. Seems to me that it’s still too early in this organism called ‘web’ to expect such an orderly and grand mixing of mediums. It’ll happen, though, in time, I’m sure.
But, more importantly, I must mention the large quantity of television stations that are available for viewing. Why, just yesterday, I was watching channel EleventySeven and… (sorry, that last bit was for another frequent visitor to this site who apparently believes I’m television obsessed :)

Ann's picture
Ann on July 8, 2002 - 12:14

I think Christopher came closest to the point when he said ” A lot of people have discovered they aren’t at all in the business they thought they were.” I know the CBC is full of self-important pronouncements about public service …but really, they’re in the entertainment business like everyone else. It may be high minded entertainment…but that’s what it is.
It would be wonderful to have a “dial an expert” site somewhere…but I don’t think the CBC should be the one to provide it. The information they offer is a mile wide and an inch deep in order to enteratin as many as possible — and to keep as many listening as possible…that really isn’t going to be much of a help to you when your furnace cacks.
On the other hand, a dial an expert TV show on channel EleventySeven might be just the ticket.

Steve Rukavina's picture
Steve Rukavina on July 8, 2002 - 19:49

As a radio reporter for CBC Saskatchewan, I regularly contribute itmes to our sask.cbc.ca website. I can tell you that we have struggled with our web identity, but I think slowly we are sort of getting the picture.



For the news portion of our website, we have traditionally just recycled our radio scripts and added a headlin and a few pictures. Recently I’ve been trained to file my own stories to the web, and have also been encouraged to experiment with links and “value-added” content that goes beyond what I might do on the radio. As a small example, I recently did a story on bird strikes at the Saskatoon airport. In my story for the interent I was able to add a web-exclusive timeline of historically significant bird/airplane collisions. Or last week for a story about “deet” being the most effective mosquito deterrent I was able to link directly to the New England Journal of Medicine site page that outlined the research.

Broadcast journalism is by nature a general medium. We have limited amounts of time to tell complex stories. I view our website as a place to add the details that don’t make it to air. We’re getting between at this, particularly at a local level in Saskatchewan. A first step was to recently hire someone to work exclusively on our website full-time. Before that it was managed largely part-time by people already doing other jobs in a very hodge-podge fashion. I’ll forward your comments to our web producer.



cheers,


steve

steve's picture
steve on July 8, 2002 - 19:54

Just looking over my previous post, realize that I could use a copy editor. sorry.

Phil Saunders's picture
Phil Saunders on July 8, 2002 - 20:38

As a producer of Web content for CBC’s Saskatchewan site, I agree with many of the comments you make on the CBC’s limitations. Unfortunately the CBC is an organization in the throws of a massive transition. This is not an excuse, it’s just the reality of a very old organization that is struggling with it’s own identity and mortality in the face of cost-cutting and a culture of justification for all things budgetary.

Your comments on the role of CBC as a public trust are extremely relevant in this context. It has been proven over and over that the Web has a very limited revenue potential in the private sphere, especially when is comes to content. Jesse Hersh, a young Web activist who graduated from U of T’s McLuhan Centre to become a consultant and advocate of a not-for-profit Internet world, has said as much…and the CBC is beginning to recognize this opportunity.

Unfortunately the competition for funding within the CBC has also become very intense. Since both “traditional media” have been cut to the bone in the last decade, there is a culture of defensiveness among the various departments when it comes to getting the resources needed to maintain the status quo, nevermind actually develop new initiatives.

The good news is the many of the issues of unwieldy content-laden Web projects has been heard and we have discussed and engaged in heated debates among the developers at CBC. The battle will continue to rage on…and eventually, and I do mean eventually, an equilibrium will be reached. Until then, the best way is to vote with your mouse…traffic is the ultimate judge of value and utility.

As far as addressing regional concerns we are on the cusp of making some major changes in this regard. The Regional Developers are coming together in August to look at how we can improve regional Web coverage. The new policies, and hopefully resources, should be forthcoming by the end of this year.

I hope my comments will shed a small amount of optimism. Thank-you for creating this very important dialogue.

Cheers,

Phil Saunders

Associate Producer, New Media
CBC Saskatchewan

stephen's picture
stephen on July 8, 2002 - 22:44

I jumped to Artscanada as per your link and I was happy to be able to listen to Stuart Maclean talk about verandas — but what I watched was a dog with a cut and paste tail wagging back and forth through the whole monologue — it was irritating. Why not take the extra effort and grab a cottage home movie to go along with the monologue? Why have this over-the-top entrance and then use 5 cent graphics when you actually get to something. and just for my own curiousity, why does the cbc have this compulsion to constantly re-invent itself. stop the hype and do what you do well — from what i’ve witnessed, cbc radio at its worst is still better than NPR at its best (Prarie Home Companion excepted, of course). instead of finding a good host to replace Gzowski they have to perform some kind of weird hari kari on top of the radio tower. cross country checkup is great, as it happens is still amazing, why this whole thing with being The Information Station or whatever they call themselves. just do what you do, cbc and stop pandering to politicians and demographics.

Alan's picture
Alan on July 8, 2002 - 23:26

cbc radio at its worst is still better than NPR at its best”

Hooey! I can’t prove it and neither can the opposite point of view but that statement is still nothing but bald nationalistic hooey! NPR “All Things Considered” is serious news radio magazine, something the CBC has lacked for some time — “As It Happens” has used the Reading joke 1,246 times too often and “This Morning” died with the Velveta interview Enwright was embarrassed by having to do. Sadly, CBC (including radio) has been “in transition” for about 15 years and shows no promise of getting out of its funk so that good folk doing good stuff will be overwhelmed by the banal and the Toronto “Juliette” “star” syndrome. Glad to see that the rest of the nation got to hear Weekend Mornings on the last two holiday mondays. Shows what unique entertainment is possible with the medium.

Kevin's picture
Kevin on July 10, 2002 - 17:00

Two thoughts: First, Ann, if the CBC is a “mile wide and an inch deep” where does that leave the commercial media (I’m thining radio here)? Their gossamer is not just vapor-thin but it’s as narrow as a piece of brain-floss.


The other of course is my belief that both radio and TV will be unrecognizable in another ten or twenty years and that the web (or whatever replaces it) will be so intertwined with other broadcast media that we’ll have a hard time remembering what it was like “back then”. Digital wireless, GPS sensitive databases, purpose broadcasting (demographic / location sensitive), and a few other “advancements” are possible right now. All it will take is another Ted Turner to prove it can be done and it will be the standard operating procedure for all broadcasters who wish to have a future.

Kevin's picture
Kevin on July 10, 2002 - 17:01

Woops,’I’m “thinking” radio here’ it should have read…

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