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Ken Winters, a long-time classical-music broadcaster, in the CBC Radio studio, Oct. 3, 1996. (Fred Lum/Fred Lum / The Globe and Mail)
Ken Winters, a long-time classical-music broadcaster, in the CBC Radio studio, Oct. 3, 1996. (Fred Lum/Fred Lum / The Globe and Mail)

Russell Smith

Who needs CBC Radio now that you can get classical music online? Add to ...

When the CBC changed Radio 2 in 2007, eliminating most of its classical-music programming and provoking some debate, some commentators, particularly younger ones, scorned the whole discussion: “Why are we talking about radio?” they said.

Who listens to radio? Everyone gets their music online now; even in their cars, people plug in their minuscule phones and players. Why should we fund an entire expensive radio station that will cater only to those too old to know how to connect their computers to their stereos?

And, indeed, the CBC promised, at that time, to replace the daily stream of classical music on the radio with an even wider variety of Web offerings.

It has only just got around to doing that, on its English-language side. And as with all things going digital – news, books, movies – there are going to be some pros and cons to the transition. Uninterrupted, un-hosted, 24-hour music on the Web is a fantastic gift to those who already know their tastes. But it narrows your taste too: The presentation of music in niches keeps you listening to what you already know. And it’s not ridiculous to mourn the disappearance of the informed and passionate curator – the voices that we had on music radio.

There is now much more classical music available on the CBC’s music site than there was on the old Radio 2. But it is presented in the way the Internet does things: in niches. So far, there are 10 new classical channels, with titles like Operatic, Baroque, Piano, Modern Masters.

Compare this cataloguing style with that of the classical section at Espace.mu – the French CBC music streaming site, which has been online for some time now. There, music channels are defined by theme: You can select Zen for quiet music, Vitaminé for something light and lively, Tempête for the muscular and serious. I suspect that this is the way most people want to program their music – by atmosphere rather than by instrument or era.

There are wondrous advantages to Web streaming over radio: There is no folksy chatter (listeners of Tempo on Radio 2 will know how destructive that can be to one’s reflective mood), you can switch channels if you don’t like a piece, and if you want to know the details about what is playing, you just look at the screen. And there are more obscure genres than would ever be played on the mainstream CBC – there is even an electronic section with the kind of club dance music that has always terrified and baffled the public broadcaster.

So why would anyone miss radio?

I suppose because one might miss the idea of a person, an educated person, enlightening you in an intimate way, saying: Here is the mood I am in, let me share it with you. Or saying, simply, why the year 1804 was so important and this is why you should listen to this symphony about it, or here’s where you should hear the theme recapitulated. Even in non-classical music: The screen tells you you’re listening to the Swedish House Mafia, but nothing at all about the fact that it’s not really house, it’s trance, or in what circumstances you might hear such a peculiarly repetitive sound.

I miss that idea of a narrative in a musical selection, the idea that the DJ takes you on a journey.

It is true that I am talking about learning from someone knowledgeable, which means I guess I am talking about programming that is in part educational – and that’s a word that makes broadcast executives nervous. It smells of classrooms and chalk, and that wouldn’t be popular.

But gradually this music-delivery system will begin to acquire the more human characteristics of radio: There are plans for the new CBC service to include program notes, which will presumably give us some insight into the curation process and why we should be listening to what the programmers choose.

Like every artistic medium’s transition to digital delivery, this is a big leap and one that is going to slowly find how to do what it does best.

One thing, though: If one of the great advantages of streaming is no talky interruptions, then why are there interruptions, in every one of these channels, in the form of annoying promos for the very station you are listening to? Why on earth try to convince people with ads once they are already tuned in?

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