CBC Radio’s “Irrelevant Show” is recorded live in front of a paying audience. Credit: Rob Swyrd/CBC OTTAWA — For many listeners, the Golden Age of radio was also the Golden Age of radio comedy. Before TV forced radio into a music-and-talk ghetto, the wireless was a laugh-packed medium dominated by comedy legends such as Jack Benny and “The Goon Show.”
It is true that most comedy programming is now found on TV. But radio comedy still endures and even thrives on the world’s airwaves, if you know where to look.
In fact, it could be said that comedy is actually breaking new ground in radio, especially for broadcasters wondering what to do with their declining AM/MW stations.
Canadian radio listeners are fortunate. Publicly owned CBC Radio One produces lots of live comedy for their enjoyment, and airs many original shows every week. Moreover, CBC Radio’s comedy lineup is diverse. It includes “The Irrelevant Show” (sketch comedy), “This Is That” (satirical parody), “Laugh Out Loud” (recorded standup comedy) and “The Debaters” (comics debating everyday issues in a humorous way).
CBC Radio’s “This is That” with Pat Kelly and Peter Oldring covers untrue stories like “Ontario prison replaces 25-foot high concrete wall with large hedge” and “Man emerges from bunker 14 years after Y2K scare.” Credit: CBC “Comedy and humor have been important components of CBC Radio One programming for many years,” said Chris Straw, CBC Radio’s senior director of Network Talk. “From the early days of radio variety programming, to ‘Max Ferguson,’ ‘The Air Farce,’ ‘Double Exposure’ and right up to today’s offerings such as ‘The Debaters,’ ‘This Is That’ and ‘The Irrelevant Show,’ and others, CBC comedy programs have done very well it terms of popularity and strong audience numbers.”
CBC Radio One airs its comedy programs on Saturdays. “In recent years we have found we can also get additional listening by replaying these shows on weekdays,” said Straw. “We are also starting to see success with comedy online. Some of CBC Radio’s biggest spikes in online audience traffic have come from ‘This Is That’ stories.” These shows are available through www.cbc.ca.
Compared to other forms of programming, CBC Radio does find comedy to be expensive. “The costs vary program to program, but it is true that much of our comedy programming budgets go to writers and performers and the production and editing time can be somewhat labor intensive,” Straw said. “We have been able to offset some of those cost by selling tickets to live performances.”
The logo of CBC Radio’s “The Debaters,” which pits comics speaking for and against serious debate topics in very silly ways. Credit: CBC In addition, “Because of the ‘evergreen’ nature of some of our comedy programming, we are able to maximize our investment by replaying the shows in our summer season and at other times throughout the year,” said Straw. “Overall, we feel that our comedy programs are worth the cost for what they provide to our schedule and based on the size of the audiences they deliver.”
Smart, well-executed political comedy is usually popular. But managing to keep a political comedy — on radio no less – running for 27 years and amassing an unbelievable 5,675 episodes in the process. That’s the astounding achievement of “How Green Was My Cactus” (Cactus for short), a privately funded Australian syndicated political radio comedy. It is available online at www.cactus.com.au.
Visitors to the home page for Australia’s long-running radio comedy, “How Green Was My Cactus” are invited to click on a nose. Credit: Triffique Productions. Featuring both Australian and global political figures with thinly disguised names, “How Green Was My Cactus” (a play on the classic film title, “How Green Was My Valley” currently heard on about 30 stations nationwide, and online by payable download at www.cactus.com.au.
Internationally recognizable characters include United States President Barack Oh-Bummer — “My fellow Americans. I am here to announce that our economy is no longer a basket case. Because we had to sell the basket.” — and Osama Bin Liner: “I like to watch ‘60 Minutes.’ I like the ticking.”
“How Green Was My Cactus” is produced by Triffique Productions’ director and head writer Doug Edwards, and stars Keith Scott and Robyn Moore as the male and female characters respectively. It is distributed by Grace Gibson Productions.
“We record weekly at Bill Dowling’s TSD Studios in Crows Nest, Sydney,” said Bruce Ferrier, owner of Grace Gibson. “No one has seen the scripts prior to arrival and they do one rehearsal of each script before recording each of the five tracks for the following week. I think the immediacy of all this keeps everyone on their toes — when they’re not falling over with laughter — and it’s a great credit to the professionalism of Keith Scott and Robyn Moore that they can do this. At the end of the record, Bill edits and mixes the tracks, then we send them out to affiliates that afternoon as an MP3 download.”
Why has Cactus kept going for 27 years; especially given that it was initially only planned for a three month run? “It cuts down ‘tall poppies,’ which Aussie audiences love, is very sharply written, utilizing a lot of wry, sarcastic wit, intermingled with some excellent use of imagery,” Ferrier said. (In Australia, a ‘tall poppy’ is an unpopular successful/powerful person who needs to be cut down to size.)
“And it’s a bit like a radio version of the political cartoon that appears in newspapers, which can condense the day’s major news into a humorous, and often highly pertinent, comment. There’s many a truth said in jest.”
ALL COMEDY RADIO
London, Ontario’s CKSL is typical of many Canadian AM stations. Once a fan favorite for its top 40 music format, CKSL(AM)’s young audience abandoned it for FM rock in the 1970s and 1980s. The station subsequently tried news/talk and “oldies” music formats — again like other Canadian AMs — but just couldn’t keep its position in the market. Eventually, CKSL fell to the ratings basement of London’s 10-station market.
In 2012, CKSL owner Astral (since bought by Bell Media) took a gamble and signed up CKSL for the “24/7 comedy” format being offered by Clear Channel’s Premiere Networks in the U.S. The station was rebranded as “Funny 1410,” and the ratings improved: “We went from 10th place in one ratings book, to fifth place in the next one six months later,” said Al Smith, operations director at Bell Media London.
Funny 1410’s Home Page Credit: Funny 1410 The success of Funny 1410’s comedy format, which is skewed 70/30 male/female, is based on it “being programmed in a top 40 style,” said Smith. This means that popular comedians like Jerry Seinfeld and Sarah Silverman are heard frequently in 1–2-minute “comedy breaks,” mixed in with “oldies” such as George Carlin and local content produced by Bell Media. The program schedule is managed like any top 40 music rotation, with popular comics being heard more often. The difference is that Funny 1410 has “hundreds of comedy breaks to choose from for each comic,” he said, so there’s little danger of unfunny repeats.
The 24/7 comedy format has proven to be a winner for CKSL. This is why two more Bell Media stations have been converted to all-comedy formats: Funny 820 (formerly 820 CHAM country in Hamilton, Ontario), and Funny 1060 (formerly AM 1060 country in Calgary, Alberta).
“FM radio is still dominant in the Canadian marketplace,” said Al Smith. “But the all-comedy format is a definite alternative to the traditional AM formats of oldies and talk.”
James Careless reports on the industry for Radio World from Ottawa, Ontario.