Friday, October 28, 2011

CBC Radio 3

My cover story for this week's WE: an oral history of CBC Radio 3

Radio 3 sing it: (from left) host Lisa Christiansen, senior producer Andrea Gin, blog editor James Paolozzi and host Grant Lawrence.
Radio 3 sing it: (from left) host Lisa Christiansen, senior producer Andrea Gin, blog editor James Paolozzi and host Grant Lawrence.
Credit: Doug Shanks

Radio friendly

Sure, everyone knows Canada’s major export is lumber, but our biggest cultural export? Indie rock. And from Arcade Fire to Dan Mangan, it’s been CBC Radio 3 that’s provided the platform — a combination of satellite radio, podcasting and massive online community — launching our country’s best bands as they become international superstars. The magic happens right here in Vancouver, from the bright blue walls of the basement studio at 700 Hamilton. Welcome to the (condensed) oral history of Radio 3.

Steve Pratt, Radio 3 executive director
I believe the original proposal for Radio 3 was a national FM network targeted at youth, kind of similar to JJJ in Australia. It would have news and culture and current affairs and all those sorts of things, but basically a youth-driven national FM service, similar to Radio 1 and Radio 2. [It was deemed too expensive] so they pitched it as a digital-only property which did get approved. They went off into almost like a bunker at CBC Vancouver that was hived off from everything else. They had their own infrastructure, IT systems; they didn’t brand any of the first product with even a CBC logo out of the gate, and starting in 2000 they launched, over the next couple years, a series of websites.,,, lead to the CBC Radio 3 flash magazine, the first thing to be officially branded Radio 3. Saturday nights on Radio 2 became associated with Radio 3. In 2004, Pratt was hired to turn Radio 3 into a music service and get Radio 3 its own 24/7 radio station with Sirius satellite radio, in which CBC owned a stake.

The goal was to merge all the websites into a single website. It would take me 10 minutes just to tell you what CBC Radio 3 was, because there were so many different pieces and nobody really knew all the parts of it and the websites didn’t really talk to each other. Unfortunately, because the budget would not permit us to do all the things we did before, it meant shutting down the flash magazine in March, 2005, which — I certainly did not enjoy being part of the group that shut that down. Budget-wise it had to be either/or, it couldn’t be an and.

Thanks to some foresight and its rich database of Canadian music (bands can make pages and upload their music), Radio 3 was also an early-adopter of podcasting technology. They put out the first Radio 3 podcast in 2005 with host Grant Lawrence. Six years later, it’s still going strong.

Grant Lawrence, writer/musician/Radio 3 host
I had no idea what a podcast was. I had a busy week already, and Steve Pratt comes to me with this podcast thing. It was 2005, I’d never heard of a podcast, didn’t want to do it. He convinced me to just sit down, “It’s just like hosting a show, you’re talkin’ about songs.” So okay, fine. I did it, one, then two, then three, and then iTunes picked it up, put it on their page, promoted it and it became this huge podcast. Spin called it Canada’s #1 podcast. It went gangbusters and it became the biggest entity at CBC that I had ever done before, and I had hosted a national show on Radio 2 for years! But way more people were listening to this new piece of technology called a podcast.

Thanks to Radio 3, the stodgy-seeming CBC became an unlikely leader in digital technology, and constantly working to stay ahead of the curve.

John Paolozzi, Radio 3 blog editor/community manager
Now we’re coming to terms with: is podcasting possibly on its way out? And the reason we’re thinking that, it’s just bubbling to surface for us, is as mobile computing becomes more pervasive and data plans become cheaper, which they should, is podcasting virtually obsolete? There won’t be any changes in the immediate future, but it’s definitely something we’re looking at. And, since 2005, we’ve gone through two website designs. We’re always working on the new design. Our current website seems, to us, very primitive, so we’re very excited about new stuff coming down the pipe. Can’t really talk about that, but when it launches it’s going to be great. It’s going to more or less blow the existing website out of the water. But, that said, once that’s finished, you start working on the next website. You’re already working with something that’s vaguely obsolete upon launch and you have to look at what you’re going to build nex

Radio 3’s online community is changing every day. As of Oct. 12, there were 26,985 artists registered on the website, with 125,000 tracks. And companies everywhere are anxious to replicate Radio 3’s main success: a thriving, fiercely loyal online community, which currently numbers 158,800 registered members. That doesn’t include Sirius listeners, podcast downloads, Facebook fans or Twitter followers.

Grant Lawrence
The Radio 3 blog has become a strong and close-knit community where everybody knows everything about everyone else. They know where they’re from, their real name, kids, what they like, where they go. What I love is all these people have come in as individuals and they’ve ended up forming incredible friendships with each other and then the friendships start networking all over North America and then they start having fan meetups, some two or three people, some 50 people.

Lana Gay, Radio 3 host
As a kid, I was a radio superfan. I would call in to win contests and I would be on hold for 30 minutes trying to request a song and that’s kind of the thing [about our site]: the communication... I know who certain blog users are and their usernames and their personalities. You create a different conversation. It’s not just a phone call; everyone has their own profile, they have their own playlist and can comment on whatever they fancy. There are friendships and even relationships that have formed. It’s amazing! One of our listeners in California took the train across Canada and was put up by fellow listeners and went to shows with everybody. There’s a group in Vancouver called the YVR3 who hang out and go to shows together.

But what everyone comes to Radio 3 for is the music. Everyone behind the scenes is a self-described music nerd of one variety or another who loves music and wants to champion Canadian bands, such as Vancouver indie-pop outfit Said the Whale.

Andrea Gin, Radio 3 senior producer
Grant was basically the guy who listened to Said the Whale’s first recording, loved it and started playing it, and promoted it by talking about them to his friends. He was a really integral part to getting Said the Whale talked about in Radio 3, but also in all the other circles he travels in because he was just so passionate about the band from the minute it started.

Lisa Christiansen, Radio 3 host
When we launched as the radio station in 2005, we spent the day discussing mission statements and stuff like that, and we came up with it then: Breaking New Sounds. It was this idea that you’d be able to come here and hear something new. Our music director curates, but there’s a music committee that listens and makes decisions about what to play. There’s no record executives pushing anything. And I think that’s really exciting for artists to know. You will be given as much attention as Feist, who, when we started playing was not ‘Feist!,’ she was like, ‘oh, didn’t she used to play with Peaches or something?’ Everyone’s a rock star to us.

Local acts Dan Mangan and Said the Whale are reaping the rewards of that attitude, and are grateful for that support.

Dan Mangan, singer/songwriter
R3 Has been a huge blessing to me. I’m told quite often at concerts that people first heard of me on Radio 3, or that they’d been listening to the album(s) there. Especially overseas — there’s a big demographic of ex-pats who keep in touch with the Canadian music scene via CBC3. I’ve been fortunate enough to get serious attention from R3, but my appreciation for them goes beyond my own perpetuation — I deeply take in to account the service that they’re providing both for musicians and listeners. I believe it to be invaluable. Radio 3 is a glowing example of forward-thinking, and the type of institution that will ensure long-lasting cultural vibrancy in our country. Canadian music has never been stronger. We can’t entirely give R3 the credit for such strength, but it is certainly a crucial part of the movement.

Tyler Bancroft, Said the Whale bandmember
We first met Grant Lawrence at the North By Northeast conference in Toronto in 2007 — we gave him our CD and the following week he put us on the Radio3 podcast. Since then they’ve been instrumental in promoting our new albums and tours... not to mention the tremendous support we’ve received from the R3 listening community. Internationally, it’s a point of pride for fans of Canadian independent music. It may sound a bit dramatic, but I think Radio3 provides an avenue through which fans can perpetuate their pride. I think the excitement about Canadian bands can be contagious and listeners almost feel a sense of ownership over certain bands that they may have supported for a long time, so to see them succeed at an international level is reason enough to do their best to spread the word.
Examining Canadian indie rock’s transition from obscure to ubiquitous, it’s impossible not to see Radio 3’s influence along the way — sometimes in the most surprising  places.

James Booth, Radio 3 music director
Black Mountain — at the time they were still called Jerk With a Bomb — had kind of expanded the lineup of the band and changed the direction of their sound. We did this session in Studio One here; there was an audience that came in to see them. It was one of those moments where I was standing in the room and thinking, ‘Wow, this is really amazing.’ We gave them a copy of the recording, which they passed on to this friend of theirs in the States and he loved the recording so much, he basically turned around and started a record label, Jagjaguwar, so he could release Black Mountain records. To actually be a part of that and promote these bands and have a real influence — the weird thing is that I didn’t know that for years and years. Just recently there was an article on the label and it was in there and I’m reading this article, like, ‘Wow, that was the recording that I did with them!’ For me it was very exciting. Black Mountain are such an incredible band. It’s pretty wild.

All the way along there have been these little signposts, where you see something happen, whether it’s Caribou or Crystal Castles. We can run through the list of bands where I think we found them very, very early on. Even, say, the Arcade Fire. We were playing them right from their first EP, this little indie EP they put out and distributed themselves and we just heard it and went, ‘Wow, this is really cool, really nice.’ To actually see those bands breaking other places — but, you know, to me it’s not about being first. You’re rewarded in that other people are picking up on something you thought was really, really good. I’m not sitting around expecting to be patted on the back for it. It really is a case of I love the music, I love the bands and there are so many really great bands in this country.

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