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On the drive north through British Columbia, the scenery changes from thick coniferous forest to impeccably maintained suburban lawnscapes before finally revealing Vancouver over a gentle rise. The "City of Glass," as resident Douglas Coupland described it in his 2003 ode to the city, looks as if it were built ten years from now: modern, efficient, green, engineered for happier, more intelligent living.
This is the home of CBC Radio 3. Less than a year old as a twenty-four-hour entity, Radio 3 is broadcast across Sirius Satellite Radio from an underground studio in downtown Vancouver. And much like the city it emanates from, it seems to have one foot planted firmly in the future.
A musician friend of mine turned me on to Radio 3 nearly a year ago. I became a loyal listener simply because they played music I'd never heard before. Good music. Improbable music. Intellectual sugar-pop. Homoerotic hip-hop. Punk bands from the stormy wilds of Nova Scotia singing about love. And a whole bunch of just-plain indie rock, the freshest I'd ever heard.
Their methods for finding such exceptional undiscovered content turn out to be both simple and innovative: By allowing their bands and listeners an exceptional degree of influence over the music that ends up on the air, Radio 3 has created something very close to the theoretical ideal of true public broadcasting: turn control of the station over to the musicians and the listeners.
This seems like a natural fit for radio. Unlike with television and film, more cooks seem to only enrich the broth in radio — it's a medium where the content is the star, not the on-air personalities. And satellite, which can free itself of payola and major-label demands, is able to let the public in to an unprecedented degree, if it wants to. Podcasting is even more accessible — anyone with a microphone and an internet connection can create one. What was once a dying medium could be placed among the dominant media of the twenty-first century via satellite and podcasting. Radio 3 has come tantalizingly close to realizing that future.
Grant Lawrence became one of the station's first employees by repeatedly drunk-dialing the Canadian Broadcast Corporation in the middle of the night while touring across Canada with his band, the Smugglers.
"They liked my energy from those calls," he says. "When we were touring in the early '90s, I used to call into a couple of programs. The calls would be sort of wild because of the time difference, and it would usually be after one of our shows, and I'd be drunk or whatever — all sorts of crazy shit was going on. And when I got back from touring, the band took a year off, and CBC asked if I would come down there and do this research gig, which was basically researching and interviewing bands." Grant took the job with the CBC, which has two main channels: CBC 1 (news and talk), and CBC 2 (classical music). Both broadcast on traditional terrestrial radio.
Meanwhile, a small group of people were pitching the CBC on the idea for a third station: Radio 3, which would play under-the-radar pop, rock and hip-hop to draw younger listeners into the public broadcasting audience. The CBC decided they didn't have the cash for an entire third station, so they carved out an eight-hour slot of time on CBC 2 for a weekly pop-music show called Radio 3. Grant became the host. "They said, 'You'll just have to reinvent yourself,'" he remembers, "so we did, and we've been reinventing ourselves ever since."
For four years, this eight-hour show played on CBC 2 for eight hours every Saturday night, a brief weekly reprieve from that station's otherwise classical format. Then, last year, the CBC partnered with Sirius Satellite Radio to create Sirius Canada, and the weekly Radio 3 show was finally granted its own round-the-clock station on satellite. Since last December, Radio 3 has been broadcasting twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, on Sirius Channel 94.
"The intent was always to try to get back to the original plan of having a national network," says Steve Pratt, station director at Radio 3. "When satellite radio came along, it gave us the chance to fulfill that original vision."
In addition to their satellite network, Radio 3 sends out a weekly podcast — when it premiered in June of last year, it was one of the first legal all-music podcasts in the world. Being ahead of the game paid off: Weeks after their podcast debut, Apple launched its podcast generator on iTunes, sparking an instant podcast craze.
"That first week of iTunes was nuts," says Steve. "Our servers were hammered for days."
For many Radio 3 listeners, including myself, the weekly podcast came to define the station. It's free for anyone with an internet connection, and the email requests come from Australia, Africa, Japan — all over the world. "There are thousands of people listening to the podcast," Grant says (they just celebrated their three-millionth download), "but it's a different listening experience. It's one person listening to one other person. I find the podcast is the most intimate DJing I've ever done."