The Discreet Charm of the CBC

Article excerpt

The CBC's contribution to classical music in Canada remains enormous, and there are now few areas in this immense country that do not receive Radio Two's transmission--with CD reviews, live concert broadcasts, and programs focusing on young Canadian talent, international stars, and local music festivals. Often embattled by budget cutters, or accused of cultural elitism, the voice of Radio Two nonetheless continues to stake out a small classical corner in Canada's airwaves, albeit surrounded on all sides by Britney, Slim Shady, and Shania.

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THIS is an article about the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Specifically, it's about the CBC's Radio Two; and, more specifically, it's about the classical music programming on this network. To some, this may seem like a small focus of concern: English-language Radio (both Radio Two and the talk-oriented Radio One network) consumes just 11 percent of the whole CBC's $1.5 billion annual budget, and only about 3 percent of Canadians listen to Radio Two on weekdays. But for those Canadians who love classical music, the network provides the most abundant--and, in many parts of the country, the only--source of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms on radio. And for our classical performers and composers, the CBC is crucial, offering these musicians their first, last, and only hope for national exposure over the airwaves.

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Those who do tune in probably have a general idea of what Radio Two (formerly known as CBC Stereo) is all about. It's not as classical as it was a decade or more ago: nowadays, rock, jazz, folk, world music, and other genres are also represented. But during daytime and the prime-time evening hours, the lion's share of the schedule is still given over to more than a dozen different classical (or partly classical) shows, each with its own specific format. Indeed, Radio Two's clearly delineated programming, running the gamut from full-length concert and opera broadcasts to short selections from compact discs, seems designed to cultivate both distinctiveness and familiarity. If Music and Company is broadcasting its weekly "In the Shadow" feature about lesser-known composers, it must be Thursday.

BEYOND RADIO TWO'S weekly schedule, there are many ways in which the CBC supports classical music that many listeners may not realize. That's something that Mark Steinmetz, the director of CBC Radio Music--the department that produces most of Radio Two's content, and also some Radio One shows--would like to change. "We're out there recording concerts across the country," he told me when I visited the CBC's Toronto headquarters, "and many people sitting in the audience at these concerts may not know we're there. On the whole, I think people don't know how much effort goes into recording concerts, turning them around and putting them on air."

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Steinmetz went on to explain that concert broadcasting is just the tip of the Radio Music iceberg. He mentioned the CBC's competitions for young performers, young composers, and choirs that foster Canadian talent; and he pointed out that Radio Music runs the Vancouver-based CBC Radio Orchestra--the only remaining radio orchestra in North America--and also the On Stage concert series at Toronto's Glenn Gould Studio. And closely allied to Radio Music's activities are CBC Records, which issues about two dozen CDs a year featuring Canadian performers and composers, and CBC Galaxie, which offers 45 channels of music programming via cable television services.

As well, he told me about a new Radio Two weekday afternoon program, currently in development, which will be broadcast from the CBC's Ottawa studios, debuting on October 4. Veteran broadcaster Eric Friesen will host "a mostly classical format," in which "musicians will be able to play and talk." Finally, Steinmetz gave me some documents, including one entitled "Canadian Music Organizations with whom CBC Network Radio Music has an Enduring Relationship. …