Bouncing Off The Satellites

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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.

"There are thousands of people listening to the podcast," says Grant, "but it's the most intimate DJing I've ever done."

    "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."



Commentarium (7 Comments)

Oct 11 06 - 9:16am

I immediately downloaded the last four podcasts and subscribed. How many reasons does Canada have to give us to expatriate before we just do it?

Oct 12 06 - 2:46pm

"The result is a thouand hidden gems for the station to choose from"


Oct 12 06 - 5:09pm

turned on channel 94 and already love it, nice shout out.

Oct 21 06 - 4:38pm

This story reminds me of my favorite station, radio1190.org, a small, independent AM and webcast station broadcast from a basement room of the University Memorial Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Check it out!

Nov 14 06 - 2:03pm

"By law, Canadian satellite stations are mandated to play eighty-five-percent Canadian content. The law is called CanCon"

I think you are being unclear here. The law is that if a station wants to call itself a "Canadian channel" then it needs to play at least 85% Canadian music. Satellite radio is required to have a certain number of "Canadian channels". But this doesn't prevent, say, the All Elvis channel.

Regular radio is not required to play eighty-five-percent Canadian content, but instead 35%.

More information: http://www.thismagazine.ca/issues/2005/09/media_cancon.php

Jan 23 07 - 9:27am

i fell love with the cbc again with Radio 3, when it put out the award-winning [now defunct] arts and culture Flash webzine[@archive.cbcradio3.com]; plus innovative radio programming. Like the demise of the publication, the CBC will have R3 take off terrestrial radio sometime in March. This makes me angry because I don't have satellite radio and I don't have any future plans to get it. Sure, I can still grab their podcasts but I am really disappointed that they pulled it entirely... for me it is the BEST THING on radio, the other radio station formats just don't compare.

(and also the web magazine was the best publication I've ever read, bar none).

Feb 02 07 - 11:04pm

At the risk of splitting hairs, although I am a proud Canadian, a longtime Vancouverite, and a big fan of the CBC radios, I must take issue with the notion that we of the Great White North have unlocked doors. That idea comes from - or was at least re-enforced by - a scene in Michael Moore's 'Bowling for Columbine'. It was laughable filmic hyperbole. This is a great city that's growing quickly and trying hard to get things right but we have our fair share of crime, pollution, and other ills common to settlements large and small all over the world. Not to rain on anyone's parade though. Loved the article. Keep up the good work.