Culture  Your neighbourhood frequency

Brendan Lewis dials-in on campus community radio

Does checking your Facebook profile a little too often leave you feeling digitally dazed?  Yearning for an analog alternative?  Everyone wants a little taste of nostalgia these days, to reclaim a past that was lost with… Wait right there!  MTV may want you to believe that the radio star was killed long ago, but the folks at Montreal’s own CKUT have been keepin’ the airwaves bumpin’ on the FM dial since November 1987, and the station’s AM precedents got the party started way back in 1966.

The starving student lifestyle sometimes leaves one feeling short on stimulation, craving something more than our mundane and flavorless t surroundings.  I remember moving into my apartment last August, before I had acquired my crappy Swedish furniture, before I had signed a contract in blood with my internet service provider, before I had even a single crumb of food, and my only companion was an alarm clock radio.  Lamenting my boredom, I fiddled with the dial, listening to Mr. Radio’s many split personalities vying for my attention.  My friend was truly at his finest – and most sane – when he stopped speaking in tongues, shouting corporate advertisements and replaying the trashy Top 40 tracks that you know he hated anyway, and broke my austere isolation with sexy soca rhythms, funky jams, underplayed alternative artists, and undiluted political discussions.  In short, when he landed on 90.3 FM.

Though social media may be the darling of popular culture these days, community and campus radio has a long history of demonstrable positive influence. Shelley Robinson, executive director of the Ottawa based National Campus and Community Radio Association (NCRA), an advisory and advocacy group, opines “I appreciate the role of social media, but I feel like community radio is the original social media.”

CKUT sustained this mission through the Ante-Zuckerburgian dark ages, and as it asserts on its website, “Our call for volunteers reads the same as it did twenty years ago….‘no experience necessary, only innovative ideas, enthusiasm, and a keen desire to increase the breadth of broadcasting in the city.’”  It’s as egalitarian as any social media site — though Facebook statuses and Twitter posts carry no caveat for innovation or enthusiasm.

However unique, CKUT is certainly not a singular organization; Canada plays host to a great many campus-community radio stations of excellent quality, including Concordia’s CJLO, University of Alberta’s CJSR, UBC’s CiTR, and the University of Toronto’s CIUT – to name but a few.  The value of these stations transcends the quality of their programming, and rests more centrally in their overwhelmingly positive effect on the individuals, groups, and larger communities receiving their signals. Explains Robinson; “I have always loved the idea that in community radio, there is a bumping-up against each other, so when you listen at different times you’ll hear such totally different, diverse things… These shows might have nothing to do with the kind of music you like, the kind of arts content you like, the kind of news and information that you access, nothing!  So you meet people and hear perspectives that you would not hear otherwise.”

This dynamism is integral to the character of community radio. Ken Stowar, station manager and program director at CIUT told The Daily, “What I feel is very important is moving forward and constantly evolving, and adjusting, and tweaking what we do to ensure that we are doing what we’re all here for—appealing to listeners and potential listeners.”

Yet the obstacles that these stations face in maintaining their mere existence, let alone improving or expanding themselves, cannot be underestimated.  As Louise Burns, head of sales and administration at CKUT explained, the station’s ongoing challenges with regard to online opt-outs “sort of put you in a referendum every term, because you’re always defending your fees.” But online opt-outs are not, in fact, the standard, and stations like CIUT Toronto don’t have any opt-outs at all.  Station Manager for CiTR, Brenda Grunau, elaborated on the nature of their newly-implemented opt-out system: “We just got opt-outs last year, which was a mechanism introduced because we had a funding increase… We have had support from student council, so that the opt-outs have to be done in person, so I think how the opt-out are delivered makes a huge difference.”

With political manoeuvers hanging their funding so delicately in the balance, the future of independent radio, yet remains uncertain.  Most recently, Ryerson University’s student union withheld funds from the now-defunct radio CKLN following issues of internal conflict at the station.  This led the CRTC (the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Committee) to revoke their license in January 2011, reducing the likelihood of the station’s eventual return to the airwaves.

Efforts to protect and promote these stations are hardly dead, however.  Robinson describes one of the NCRA’s latest initiatives called Reclaim Your Radio.  “For instance, in communities like Montreal, there’s no spectrum left on the FM dial.  So what that means is that if a new station wants to start up, there’s no place for them.  It often has an impact if you’re talking about a rural area and that is close enough to the city – a good example is in the GTA.  It’s really hard for small communities outside Toronto to get a license [to produce community radio].”  Though urban areas are the primary locus of independent radio efforts, such peripheral areas surely deserve more than peripheral representation in the existing, metropolitan-minded programming. “What we want is to run a campaign with MPs so that eventually every community across the country has at least one reserved frequency for a campus or community radio applicant.”