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Profile: CBC Radio 3

BREAKING INDIE BANDS WITH DIGITAL MEDIA OPTIONS 10/01/2008 8:00 AM Eastern

CBC lead engineer Ron Skinner at the Euphonix System 5. Musicians at right: Amy Millan and band live at Radio 3.

When broadcast technician Charles Ketchabaw started working for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.'s Internet radio station Radio 3 in fall 2004, the station was just beginning to find its voice. But today, thanks to the CBC programmers' consistent ability to find bands on the verge of breaking — as well as direct iTunes linking — the network has become a vital Internet portal for up-and-coming indie bands in Canada. Radio 3's influence also extends to an international audience, as “tens of thousands of people from all over the world download our podcasts every week,” explains Ketchabaw.

An Honest Mix

The rise of Radio 3 has heightened production demands, starting with recording bands “live off the floor,” says Ketchabaw, noting “the great explosion of indie bands” featured on the network like The Stars, Broken Social Scene, Arcade Fire, Feist and Tokyo Police Club. According to CBC lead engineer Ron Skinner, the philosophy for Radio 3 sessions is that the bands perform live and are “allowed to record as many takes as they like. But we don't overdub or do any punch-ins to hide mistakes.”

With interest level in Radio 3 cranked up as high as the volume, Ketchabaw adds that the network's Euphonix System 5 console is just what the engineer ordered to record the show's content at CBC Studio 211 in Toronto.

“We have the same model Euphonix in our mobile truck,” Ketchabaw explains. “That allows us to come back to create the mix — again, on the same board — for the podcasts in the next room [Studio 210].” As for the truck, Radio 3 offers some live-to-air broadcasts, sometimes recording the same bands from the studio in live settings, such as the recent North By Northeast Festival in Toronto, as well as local mainstays the Horseshoe Tavern or the El Mocambo Club.

Skinner notes the importance of an all-digital console: “We need to be able to recall sessions at a moment's notice and do a mixdown quickly. A band may spend a month mixing a 10-song album, but we may have to do up to eight in a day.”

In the Clutch

Skinner certainly knows the benefits of using the System 5 in tight situations. One example occurred during a recent recording session for Arcade Fire.

“At that point, Studio 211 had been set up for an orchestral recording,” he says, “and the client didn't want to change the setup. So the band set up in Studio 210 and we were able to use the remote mic preamps from the Euphonix to record the group in 211 — though they were performing live for our radio broadcast next door.”

Skinner also appreciates the console's ergonomic layout. “It lets me work under the time constraints inherent in recording live music, especially in the radio industry,” he explains.

Riding the Digital Airwaves

Steve Pratt, the CBC's director of digital programming and Radio 3, says that between the Radio 3 Web station, its Sirius satellite radio counterpart and iTunes, 4 million podcasts were downloaded in 2007, bringing the total to 10 million since the station began podcasting in June 2005.

“What sets us apart and serves as our ‘secret weapon’ is the part of our Website called New Music Canada,” says Pratt. “It's like MySpace because any artist that wants to can uplink their music so audiences can hear it. That gives us a lot of power to raise awareness of the artists.”

Today, Pratt says, the New Music Canada site boasts a whopping 65,000 tracks that can be streamed on demand. Listeners can make their own playlists, and many of the artists have posted “buy” links.

All told, Ketchabaw says the network is about showcasing the quality level of Studios 211 and 210, and the mobile unit, which underscores the CBC's commitment to Canadian artists.

“The difference between breaking a new band in the U.S. and Canada has become, simply, geography,” he says. “In most of the U.S., the big cities are two or three hours apart instead of eight like they are here. And Canadian artists have had a tough time getting to the outlying northern regions simply due to the country's topography.

“But in relying on the convergence of digital media, as opposed to the traditional terrestrial radio waves, those barriers have come down,” Ketchabaw concludes. “That's great for us as our tagline is ‘Breaking new sound.’”


Mark R. Smith is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area.