Bouncing Off the Satellites

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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.”







    Listening to Radio 3 on its satellite station at the office, and to the podcast on my couch at home late at night, I’ve discovered bands that I’ve guiltily passed along as my own personal discoveries on mixes that I’ve made for friends. Bands like Novillero, an absurdly hooky, swingy rock outfit from Winnipeg; No Luck Club, a super-intelligent instrumental hip-hop group out of Vancouver; Asthma, a creepy creator of fuzzy-chord melancholy from Calgary; and Airport, an acoustic duo from Halifax who sing about credit-card debt in just about the saddest pitch I’ve ever heard.
    Where were these bands — the vast majority of them Canadian — coming from?
    The answer involves an inspired bit of internet-based collaboration between radio station and musician. Radio 3’s seemingly bottomless source of newfound music springs from the station’s secret weapon: a website they created called newmusiccanada.com, where obscure bands from the Canadian wilderness can upload their music to Radio 3 directly, and pass along the rights to play it in return for exposure to a global audience.
    “Most major label acts have signed up with rights organizations that own their publishing or reproduction rights,” says Steve. “Those organizations then determine what you’re allowed to do with your music. We set up this website, and it’s become a home to independent musicians who own all their own rights. We put up a waiver asking them if they would grant us the right to podcast their music in exchange for exposure. These are artists who are woefully underrepresented on the radio, so there’s really an impact for them after we’ve been playing them.” And for listeners, a relentless stream of undiscovered music.
    In essence, it was Canada’s exceptionally restrictive radio regulations that forced Radio 3 to innovate. By law, Canadian satellite stations are mandated to play eighty-five-percent Canadian content. The law is called CanCon, and it applies to satellite radio specifically, presumably to stem the American-owned satellite radio companies (Sirius and XM) from flooding the Canadian airwaves with red, white and blue.
    The CanCon restrictions essentially forced Radio 3 to mine the backwoods of its own country for original Canadian music rather than default to more established American bands. “In some ways, the restrictions and our response to them created our brand for us,” says Steve. The result is a thousand hidden gems for the station to choose from, with more signing up on their website every day.
    By choice, the weekly Radio 3 podcast is one-hundred percent Canadian music. So is newmusiccanada.com, which is fully public and contains free downloads of songs by approximately 8,000 bands. To help you navigate

“We’re not hiring DJs with fifty-pound testicles named Flip and Buzz,” says station director Steve Pratt.

this sea of music you’ve never heard of, the website offers comparisons to better-known American groups (i.e., “If you like Foo Fighters, you’ll like Sinister Trailerpark Magic.”)
    On the satellite station, instead of segregating into hip-hop shows, indie-rock shows, etc., the station spreads them all throughout the twenty-four-hour spectrum, though music director James Booth tries to gear the time slots toward the individual DJs’ personal preference. For instance, though DJ Lisa Christensen says she’s “quite happy to play anything, I’m a bit of a headbanger. I’m probably the only one in the office. And I’ve found lots of outlets for this without resorting to Dungeonsy-Dragonsy, sex-in-the-back-of-a-car kind of stuff. Bands like Death From Above 1979, Whitey Houston, Priestess out of Montreal . . . ” Accordingly, Booth tries to slant her timeslot toward this type of music. “It’s much more fun to hear a person playing something they like than something that’s not their taste. [The station] really wants the DJ to respond to the music, to tell people, ‘This is an amazing fucking song and you have to get it,’ rather than having a script that tells you to say things like, ‘This track is really cooking things up this week.'”
    It seems to work. With Lisa and the other hosts, I get the sensation that I’m not listening to a DJ so much as a friend with similar musical tastes telling me about a great album they recently unearthed. Their excitement about what they’re playing is palpable: In a single recent podcast, Grant praised a track by The Deadly Snakes as “a swan song of high art,” tossed out the homespun phrase “back-porch album” and noted with deadpan pitch that the latest release from Toronto-based one-man-band Final Fantasy, entitled He Poos Clouds, “has caused a raging debate in music-nerd circles across Canada.” It sometimes feels as if Garrison Keillor moved his show to British Columbia and switched the format to indie rock. Explains Steve, “We’re not hiring DJs with fifty-pound testicles named Flip and Buzz.”

To bring the public control of Radio 3 full-circle, the station is planning to add a feature that will allow listeners to actually create the playlists that are broadcast over the air. Selecting from about 40,000 songs on the website, listeners will be able to create their own song lineups, and look at the lineups of other users as well. James Booth will then choose certain playlists from this pool to be aired.
    “It’ll be a much more interactive way for people to discover music that others are passionate about,” says Steve. “You can share your own playlist, or browse other people’s playlists and see what they’ve found. Once we get that going, we’ll start using the user-generated playlists in the podcast and on the satellite station. We want to allow our audience to have as much ownership over what we’re doing as possible.”

Only a country with free health care for all and unlocked doors on their homes could have produced a radio station so open to the public.

    “Newmusiccanada.com is a site based entirely upon user-generated content,” Steve continues. “It’s all Canadian bands uploading their music. We’ve got over 8,000 musicians already in there, and they’ve been doing it for years. So I feel like, in a way, we were a Web 2.0 early bird. Letting the audience in takes the final step.”
    And as Grant pointed out in one of his recent podcasts, Canadian music is in the midst of a golden age. Bands like the New Pornographers, Wolf Parade, the Hidden Cameras and Broken Social Scene have sparked a rock renaissance north of the border. Radio 3 gives that renaissance a global outlet with a populist spin that’s distinctly Canadian. Only a society with free health care for all of its citizens and unlocked doors on their homes could have produced a radio station so open to the public.
    When his September 22 podcast aired, Grant had just returned from serving as a judge at the first Polaris Music Prize, an award bestowed upon the best Canadian musicians of that year. “It was an honor to be part of the inaugural event,” he said on the air, “but I felt like the country bumpkin — the kid from Deliverance, Nanook of the North — entering that cage-match of Toronto journalists. Let me tell you, they chewed me up and spat me out. By the time it was all over, I think I was quivering in the corner in the fetal position.”
    It was a funny bit, mainly because as listeners of Radio 3 know, it can’t possibly be true. One need only picture the judge from the rising satellite-internet station alongside those reporters of aging Toronto print media and creaky terrestrial radio to imagine who was actually quivering in the corner, and who’s likely to be around for Polaris number twenty.  



©2006 Will Doig and Nerve.com


Will Doig writes for all sorts of fabulous and exciting magazines. He was
raised in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Today he lives in Brooklyn.