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Do commercial radio stations owe Canadians diversity?

Do commercial radio stations owe Canadians diversity?

Written by
Chaka V. Grier
May 28th, 2019
Do commercial radio stations owe Canadians diversity?

Photo: Milivoj Kuhar

It was one of those car rides when we’d forgotten the Bluetooth speaker — a shocking discovery that occurred too late for us to turn back home to get it. Now we had hours ahead of us in the car and conversation would only carry us so far. I turned on the radio, but after nearly two hours none of us could stand it anymore. Three stations playing the same Maroon 5 song at once, various Ariana Grande and Demi Lovato tracks melding into one. And Drake, God bless him, being played on a single station at least three times within an hour. Those hours were as jam-packed with commercials as they were with paint by numbers pop music. It confirmed the reason why I rarely listened to radio. In desperation, we found a store en route and bought a Bluetooth speaker that mercifully provided us with Spotify for the rest of the trip.

We reached for Spotify, but many don’t. Despite the rising popularity of streaming services, according to a 2017 article in Media in Canada entitled “Streaming is on the rise, but radio remains king,” radio continues to be a very powerful platform that Canadian listeners opt into every day, spending “37 per cent of their music-listening time on radio, compared to 19 per cent on a digital music library and 12 per cent on physical copies of music (vinyl and CDs).” In 2018 Nielsen reported an increase in streaming by teens and millennials, primarily for the consumption of playlists. But radio remained strong — both groups were moving between platforms, paying for services as well as tuning into the radio.

For me, streaming opened the musical floodgates, but so did becoming a music journalist in 2013, and, more importantly, a Polaris Music Prize juror in 2016. Via Polaris, I became exposed to a rich, deep body of Canadian music that transformed the stereotypical ideas I had developed, pre-music journalism, in regard to the “Canadian sound.” It changed my focus as a journalist and expanded what I personally listen to. This revelation made me start to wonder why Canadian commercial radio was not better reflecting the many dynamic voices I heard, such as A Tribe Called Red, Maylee Todd, Sate, HanHan, Bonjay and FoxTrott, to name a few that were, and are, making fantastic, exciting music.

“Commercial radio is almost exclusively a showcase for music's ‘one-per centers’ — the Drakes, the Ariana Grandes, the Coldplays,” explains Johan Hultqvist, publicist for JUNO-winning artists like Kobo Town, Kiran Ahluwalia and Jayme Stone. “If that's what you listen to, you'll never know what 99 per cent of the actual music scene looks and sounds like. The culinary equivalent would be living in Toronto or New York and eating at McDonald's every day.”

Derek Andrews, concert organizer and founder of music conference Mundial Montreal, which has showcased artists from A Tribe Called Red to Mélissa Laveaux, agrees. He says that when it comes to helping artists find spaces for their music, he gave up on commercial radio long ago.

“Commercial radio is not a useful resource for my work,” he says. “It is dominated by the American playlist and isn’t connected to community.” Andrews looks to outlets such as CBC Radio, particularly Radio One’s Fresh Air and the drive shows that announce concerts with a track from the artist involved. “I also sample specialty feeds like G98 and [106.5] ELMNT.FM,” he adds. “Campus and community radio remain relevant to my work, whether it be the University of Toronto’s CIUT or the Alberta-wide CKUA.”

Is it a stretch to feel that commercial radio stations should be required to do more to reflect Canadian voices, and not just leave it to CBC Radio to carry the weight of exposing listeners to all that Canada has to offer?

But why are Canadian commercial radio stations so dismissive of Canadian voices beyond regulars like Rush, Drake and Shawn Mendes? Is it a stretch to feel that they should be required to do more to reflect Canadian voices, not just leave it to CBC Radio to carry the weight of exposing listeners to all that Canada has to offer musically? I asked program director Josie Fenech of Flow 93.5 to explain why it remains a challenge for so many stations to do so.

“We’re a contemporary radio station [owned by Stingray], which means we play music that is new now,” Fenech says. “And since we are a commercial radio station, we have to make sure that we are appeasing a somewhat broad audience, because of course we want people tuning into our station. We need to make sure our revenue is strong, or else there is no radio station. It’s a business at the end of the day.”

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But is it the dog wagging the tail or the tail wagging the dog? Is it the audience’s desires and demands that are creating this monotonous expectation, or the station owner’s? Why can Drake get played numerous times throughout the day, while a Juno-nominated rap duo like Snotty Nose Rez Kids never gets played? And while it’s notable that Flow follows CanCon regulations and plays 36 per cent Canadian artists, shouldn't its lineup extend past Drake and the Weeknd? Shouldn’t most stations play a majority of Canadian voices making great music in that genre, whether they are superstars or not? They are Canadian stations. And isn’t exposure what helps create superstars?

By introducing listeners to the plethora of Canadian music, you enhance their awareness of and thus their desire for that music.

Fenech explains that listeners want to hear the hits, the songs that they can sing along to, and commercial stations need to make sure that whenever they do tune in, that’s what they hear. But she points out that Flow has built a space for new local voices, the “Made in Toronto Takeover” program. But while it’s something to be proud of, it’s also an example of why commercial stations have a challenge supporting lesser-known Canadian voices.

“We play local Toronto hip hop, and that does not garner us any ratings,” she says. “It’s a very low-rated program because people want to hear the artists and songs they know and love. That’s not saying there’s not an audience that wants to be turned on to this new music, but it is very small. If we programmed our entire radio station that way, it wouldn’t be as successful."

Flow’s experience is nothing new. Canadians often celebrate American musicians and big-name Canadian artists, while being less enthused about the lesser-known artists making equally important and vibrant music in our own backyard. It’s one reason why the CRTC implemented Canadian content regulations in the first place. If it were not for those rules, we may never have had the major successes of artists like Bryan Adams, Celine Dion, Avril Lavigne and Drake that have helped put Canadian voices on the international sound map in gigantic ways. And that is why I believe that the CRTC must again place Canadian identity over commerce and raise the Cancon requirements. As Hultqvist says, by introducing listeners to the plethora of Canadian music, you enhance their awareness of and thus their desire for that music.

Advertisers may balk, at least the current ones. But over time radio may not only remain strong but compete with streaming services by tapping into a greater body of artists.

Canadian radio stations owe listeners diversity, and that needs to be built into their mandate. Whether public or private, tapping deeper into Canadian voices, all Canadian voices, will create future generations who love and support Canadian musicians, not just the one per cent that become pop stars. It is time commercial radio ups its game.