Dan Misener likes the radio

Among other things, Dan is a public radio producer.

Friday, November 05, 2004

Can satellite CBC Radio still be CBC Radio?

I've been thinking a lot about the proposed CBC/Standard/Sirius subscription-based satellite radio service lately. The CRTC public hearings started this week, and details have surfaced about the CBC's programming contributions. According to Broadcasting Notice of Public Hearing CRTC 2004-6:
The proposed service would initially offer 78 channels, four of which would be produced in Canada by the CBC. The applicant proposes to charge a basic monthly fee of $12.95.
And via Tod Maffin this week:
The first English channel will air a CBC Radio One stream (the Ottawa feed) and the second English channel will air content provided by CBC Radio 3 (cultural, youth, new media) and complimentary CBC Radio 2 content (arts and classical/world music).
Even though this proposed service will address some problems the CBC has always had (particularly coverage in remote areas), it also creates new problems. Here's what I'm trying to figure out:
  • Is satellite radio the future distribution model for public radio?
  • Will standard terrestrial broadcast be replaced?
  • If so, how do you reconcile Sirius's subscription model with the CBC's mandate?
The Canadian Broadcasting Act says that the CBC should (among other things), "reflect Canada and its regions to national and regional audiences, while serving the special needs of those regions" and "be made available throughout Canada by the most appropriate and efficient means and as resources become available for the purpose." CBC Radio and Television are, right now, freely available over the airwaves, in accordance with the Broadcasting Act's declaration that "a range of broadcasting services in English and in French shall be extended to all Canadians as resources become available." All Canadians. A Canadian satellite would be great, because it could cover the whole country, including areas that aren't currently served by over-the-air CBC signals. Were it free, CBC programming would be available to all Canadians. But I see two problems here. One, it's not free. It's $12.95 per month. Which is fine now, because my regular old clock radio still works fine. But what happens when they shut off the terrestrial transmitters and sell the frequencies to cell phone companies? I'll have to pay the fee or not receive CBC Radio, which my tax dollars are paying for. Or perhaps this is a transitional strategy -- run both satellite and terrestial broadcasts for a few years, then shut down the towers and make the satellite CBC channels free. That's a little better, but I'll still have to go buy a new radio. The second problem is regionality. How is the CBC supposed to reflect Canada and its regions with a single Radio One channel (coming out of Ottawa, no less)? Satellite radio doesn't really work for regional content. Where is my local news, sports, weather? I don't care about the traffic in Ottawa. So, how can the CBC do exclusively satellite radio and still be the CBC? To my mind, they'd have to fly their own bird, provide digital equivalents for all their existing local channels, not charge a subscription fee, and if the price hasn't dropped considerably, subsidize the purchase of new receivers. It'll be interesting to see how this all plays out. So far, I've not found any documents dealing with the CBC's long-term satellite radio strategy (if one exists). I've just downloaded Sirius's CRTC filings, and plan on taking a look soon.


  • At 11/06/2004 01:02:00 AM, Blogger Tod Maffin said…

    Hi Dan,

    Great article. Obviously, I've got lots of opinions on this topic, very few of which I'd be able to say since I work for the CBC! :)

    But here's a thought to add to the dialogue you've started. The CBC's mandate is, you're right, to reach as many Canadians as possible. You state that there are many rural areas where CBC's signal is not heard. You may be surprised at how few those areas are. I've heard that as long as a community has more than 30 residents (that's not a lot!) that the Broadcasting Act mandates that we have a (CBC Radio One) transmitter be able to reach them. (Again, I'm not quoting anything official; just passing on a rumour I've heard from technicians in the building a couple of times.)

    Also, remember that the more rural an area, the fewer physical objects like buildings get in the way of the signal. So a transmitter footprint (especially an AM transmitter) can reach a surprisingly large area. (I can often pick up Los Angeles radio stations here in Vancouver on AM in the evenings.)

    In other words, most of Canada is already within the range of a CBC Radio signal. (Now, whether or not they tune in is another matter! :) )

    The CBC already has some revenue services which supplement this "essential service" such as Galaxie, the digital music channels. How can the CBC get away with indirectly charging for its music channels? Because that content is already available for free on our terrestrial networks, specifically Radio Two.

    I'd guess that the Sirius application falls into the same kind of category. It's a value-added service, not a service that would replace the existing radio networks. Nor should it.

    There's more I'd like to say, but I'm a little too close to the topic. ;-)

    Your t-shirt is on its way, btw.

  • At 11/06/2004 12:01:00 PM, Blogger Sorcha said…

    I just have a question...If the CBC does start broadcasting via satellite, then, provided I pay the subscription, will I be able to listen from America, Ireland, or any other place I happen to be visiting/living?

  • At 11/06/2004 03:46:00 PM, Blogger Dan Misener said…


    Good questions. There is a lot of talk about bringing American programming to Canada, but very little about bringing Canadian programming to America. I looked around, and according to Sirius Canada site, "American audiences will have access to a further perspective on Canada and Canadian values through the insightful news and public affairs programming of CBC Radio One and Première Chaîne de Radio-Canada."

    Right now, Canada has a satellite radio grey market, where Canadians with access to US post office boxes sign up for the US Sirius service, and use American receivers north of the border. Apparently the coverage is OK. Provided the Canadian satellites have the same spillover, I don't see any technical reason why you couldn't sign up for the Canadian service, then take a road trip to say, New Hampshire.

    As for Ireland, I'm pretty sure that's a no-go, barring any new international distribution deals. The satellites are geosynchronous, as far as I know. But, there's always short wave Radio Canada International.


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