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First Listen: Maple Music Café Radio

Maple Music Cafe Sean Ross On RadioInside the radio panel rooms at Canadian Music Week, Canadian content regulations were at issue. In an opening session, radio observer James Cridland showed a picture of CRTC headquarters and jibed that more than the broadcast regulator’s building was “stuck in 1978.” Soon thereafter, a focus group respondent in a panel on radio and smart speakers rebuffed any notion that broadcast radio was back on equal footing in his home, because “they play all these ads, and this Canadian music.”

Canadian broadcasters are usually reluctant to research the audience’s thoughts on Cancon. It’s an immutable fact of life, and they don’t expect the audience to have a considered opinion on the topic, or even know which songs qualify. Researcher Jeff Vidler, who moderated the smart speaker session, later noted that it was the first time a respondent had brought up the topic. But listeners who can hear the world more easily than ever are starting to notice what songs and artists they don’t hear elsewhere.

Now, broadcasters have asked the CRTC to review Canada’s radio rules again. Broadcasters hope the regulator will rethink the 35-40% Canadian music requirements, taking into account the number of unregulated streaming competitors, and Sirius XM, which offers all its North American subscribers Canadian-only channels, but has no such minimum on its other offerings. It is also Canadian broadcasters’ expectation that the music industry will push for 40% across the board (as opposed to the handful of stations that chose to offer 40% during a spate of competitive license hearings in the late ‘90s/early ‘00s).

Directly outside the panel room was a booth for Canada’s music licensing body, SOCAN—one of the stakeholders that would typically push for increased Cancon. Directly across an aisle in the lobby/exhibit hall was a booth for Maple Music Café, an all-Canadian online radio station launched on New Year’s Eve. It was a sales staffer on duty at the booth when I visited, but the channel’s founder is industry veteran Joey Cee, whose first music director job in Toronto top 40 goes back to the ‘60s, before the regulations. The station was unhosted when I heard it on Monday morning, but there is an on-air staff containing a number of respected Canadian music writers (and some friends of this column).

During the smart speaker panel Q&A. Vidler’s focus group respondent clarified his comments. “I’m a big supporter of Canadian music,” he said, but the choices were repetitive. In the hour monitored, Maple Music Café was definitely steering away from those songs in the typical Cancon canon. Only two songs I heard were staples of mainstream Canadian radio and those two songs were actually different versions from those usually played by most stations. Only one was an American hit (and that one was mostly lost from the radio in both countries).

Maple Music Café covers Canadian music “from be-bop to Hip-hop”; (this week’s feature album was “And the Legacy Begins” by the Dream Warriors). That’s a lot to negotiate for any programmer, especially one tasked with representing more than music. Seventy years of Canadian music could easily be a whole suite of channels.

The stretch I heard recalled the early versions of KQMT (the Mountain) Denver or WDRV (the Drive) Chicago—a mellower version of first-generation Classic Rock. I grew up with a very different set of Canadian music on CKLW Detroit, CKOC Hamilton, and other AM Top 40s heard in the Northeastern U.S., but this version was certainly enjoyable, and Cee emphasizes that the channel is still a work in progress.

Here’s what I heard on Maple Music Café around 9 a.m. on May 13:

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