Whither the Radio Host?
If you live in Canada, somehow, somehow, the news of Jian Ghomeshi’s firing from the CBC Radio show Q has pretty much voided any talk of ebola, last week’s parliament shooting, and the Toronto municipal election. That’s especially the case if your social circle consists of CBC-obsessed freaks, like mine does. (Drinking game for the next party: whoever spells Piya Chattopadhyay wrong does a shot.)
I used to dislike Ghomeshi when I started listening to Q. Being an interviewer and past radio host myself, I disliked the way he managed to make every interview about him and not the interviewee. But he got better and I came around, plus the show is amazing. So he grew on me, and when the “I’m a victim of a jilted ex-girlfriend” confession came out on Sunday, I initially fell for it.
Not so the next day. Seems Ghomeshi is one of those mid-level celebrities who a) cannot be satisfied by the mundane sexual encounter; and b) believes he can wrangle a team of PR experts to spin a story of victimization and benign kinks to win back his audience and job. I’ve come up against enough musicians, music writers, and industry dudes who think they can wield their power in the form of aggressive come-ons, provocative texts, suggestions of violence framed as mutually beneficial fun, and generally lewd behaviour to know that it’s more the rule than the exception. But fame is not a flu shot. No matter who you are, you cannot inoculate yourself against the repercussions of violence against someone. And I’m in no way disinclined to believe the women making the accusations, because they are not made lightly. (I’m disturbed, however, by The Star’s clarification that all the women are “educated and employed”, as though that should somehow lend legitimacy to their claims. Unemployed, uneducated, poor women, please continue to refrain from trying to escape from abusive partners. Fuck.)
Anyway, my post is not about Ghomeshi really, because everyone is writing about him and everyone has an opinion, and it’s not really my place to get involved. What I’d like to consider is the role of the radio host in our a-changin’ times, because this particular scandal shines a light on the very shaky ground on which radio is sitting.
CBC is Canada’s public broadcaster. Funded by taxpayer dollars, and as such, subject to the vagaries of angry citizens wanting to hold onto their cash, and changing governments who either infuse the corporation with funding, or, as has been the case for a very long time now, strip it of resources at every possible turn. Being a public broadcaster, its priority is objectivity, otherwise known as radical left-wing reporting here in North America. The result of that objectivity, though, is pretty good programming, but I think most Canadians would agree that the CBC can be a little staid, hokey, or generally behind the times in much of its offerings.
Enter a hip “young” dude like Ghomeshi (someone told me that the biggest shock in this scandal is that he’s FORTY-SEVEN) with broad appeal and a show that caters to both edgy cultural commentators and retired dads, and the CBC was given a chance to remake itself. I mean, who hasn’t seen the infamous Billy Bob Thornton interview?
Alongside emerging series like Canada Reads and other, beloved shows like DNTO or Day 6 the CBC has found a way to be relevant again – now in a world where mainstream broadcasters are fighting, hard, to get a small piece of the viewer’s/listener’s/reader’s attention. But it’s pretty hard for a big, bureaucratic organization like the Ceebs to awkwardly squish itself into niche media streams. That’s why shows such as Q work, because they’re wide-ranging enough to appeal to a big audience. You need a host like Ghomeshi, though, someone who is charismatic and, like the show’s content, has some universal appeal. Let’s say Q continues, as it has this week, with a different host: will it be as successful? Possibly. (I vote for Brent Bambury.) But maybe not.
How much do we rely on the radio host now? I think most of us would be reluctant to admit we are devotees of Ryan Seacrest or Howard Stern, especially when so few well-known radio hosts are responsible for delivering content otherwise undiscovered by us. Most of them are at the helm of Top 40-esque shows, reinforcing what we’ve already been told we should like. Back in the good old days when we didn’t have nearly so much agency as listeners, we relied on our favourite DJs to tell us how to make our musical choices. Would we have found Elvis without Dewey Phillips? Would we know rock n’ roll by its name if Alan Freed hadn’t popularized it?
Now, even if we have favourite hosts, most of them are chained to the programming decisions made by a station’s management, who are making decisions based on the charts, who are getting their information from manipulated SoundScan figures. In other words, the DJ is no longer the gatekeeper, offering selections based on his or her unique taste; instead the DJ is employee, reading from a list of pre-determined, limited songs.
Radio has also been on its way out, then making its way back in, as changes in technology and listening habits affect it. Am I wrong in thinking most of us aren’t tuning into the local Top-40 station? That we turn to community stations, campus stations, satellite radio, and podcasts before we resort to a commercial broadcaster? Those are the places where the DJ still matters. My favourite programmers are the ones who are indeed still gatekeepers, who bring on guests that I’m curious about, and play tracks from artists I’ve never heard of. But they are few and far between – even on stations like Alberta’s community CKUA, there aren’t too many spots to fill.
The most important outcome about the Ghomeshi scandal won’t be whether a narcissistic host wrangles his contract back under claims of defamation, it might actually be a test as to how much we still want – and depend on – the radio host. If the quality of a show stands up to new or rotating hosts, then perhaps we’ve moved beyond our dependence on a sole personality to tell us what we might like. Extending from there, we might find out how much we are committed to individual shows and stations. In a fragmented media world, is it possible to have a show that bridges divisions in taste, and gives us a sense of community, or national unity? I guess we’ll have to wait and find out.