When the CBC launched its new music service last week, replete with a mobile app, the reaction was unusual for the public broadcaster: people actually seemed quite impressed. For an institution that often inspires either antipathy or apathy, that is no small feat.
At least part of the buzz was because homegrown new media apps are far and few between. Canadians are so used to waiting for services like Netflix — or simply never getting ones like Hulu or Spotify — that a domestic streaming app that was neither terrible nor especially lacking in selection seemed something of a refreshing novelty.
Yet the very surprise itself raises an intriguing question: if the CBC has a particular mandate to express and promote Canadian culture, what is its role in an era of ubiquitous media and a globalized Internet?
It’s a question more complicated than it initially appears. In recent memory, the CBC has become a place to defend an ideal of what Canadiana looks like in the ever-present shadow of our American neighbours. But unlike, say, the well-funded and nearly ubiquitous BBC in the U.K., the CBC rarely manages to strike the simultaneously populist yet creatively daring balance it needs to become a more forceful cultural presence. So the broadcaster has always been stuck in this tug of war between a demand it be more “mainstream” and a need to resist how Canadians define the idea of mainstream at all.
The trouble, though, is that the question of “defending” Canadian culture has been made vastly more complicated by the web. It has massively expanded the ease with which we get culture and the range from where it comes. But more to the point, the web has also changed the model of consumption for media. We seem to have shifted towards a far more promiscuous approach to entertainment in terms of source and the pace at which we move from one thing to the next. So, our public broadcaster, which has always struggled with resisting our desire for more Americana, now has to contend with the whole world. If it once aimed to be a dominant voice among a few others, it now has to be one voice among thousands. So what its role now?
The new CBC Music service seems to provide an answer. The app, which is visually quite bare bones, but very functional, breaks down music in categories–classical, hip hop, rock, what-have-you–and selecting each elicits instant playback. But interestingly, though the categorical break down seems anachronistic–who, after all, listens to individual genres these day?–it belies what the app does best. By filtering down content and, particularly on the website itself, often using playlists hand-picked by experts, it performs the function that radio once did: it helps us find good stuff, and a lot of it is from Canada.
It’s an interesting little twist. If most media apps are about the ceaseless flood of choice, the CBC Music app moves slightly more in the direction of curation, limiting the range of content in order to focus in on a smaller, but still diverse selection. Rather than trying to compete to streaming services like Rdio, the service instead tries to be something like a guidebook–or a smart radio DJ.
Certainly, that’s a slightly metaphorical, symbolic take on the new app, and in order for it to really work, the impressive editorial bent of the website needs to transfer over to the app. As it stands, the app is efficient, but carries little of the curatory bent of the website. But taken as a whole, it does suggest a new role for the CBC: not as creator of and proslyetizer for Canadian content, but instead, almost like an editor. In the face of limitless choice, the role of public broadcaster is now less about broadcasting, and more about carefully choosing, and then presenting a variety of options.
It suggests that the abundance of the web, far from making the CBC irrelevant, will simply force it to do different work. And if the small step of a decent music app is any indication, it seems the Ceeb is heading in the right direction.