Culture  Integration on the airwaves

New third-language radio stations for Montreal communities

What purpose does radio serve in your life? Does radio keep you up to date with the latest top 40 hits and pop culture trends? Or, like many in our generation, has it been years since you have even thought about touching a dial?

Canada’s vast, varied ethnic landscape has often lead to the marginalization of certain groups. For this reason, Phillip Koneswaran and Jenoshan Balasingam of AGNI Communications Inc. filed an application earlier this year for a low-power FM station – 102.9 – which plans to feature 100 per cent ‘ethnic’ programming – no French or English at all. About half the programming would be in Tamil, a dialect spoken in Southern India and parts of Sri Lanka; the rest of the programming would be in many languages – from Somali to Nepalese. The station would consist of a variety of programming, but for the most part, the goal is to help ethnic groups integrate into the mainstream Montreal community.

This project raises questions about the relevancy of radio in the age of the internet, and whether this broadcast platform will be successfully help integrate ethnic youth into the Canada’s francophone community.

The need for a Canadian presence on the airwaves arose during the 1920s as a way to protect Canadian culture from American influence. Today, crown corporations such as the CBC aim to define and preserve Canadian culture through a wide variety of daily programming. The CBC radio’s program “Q” with Jian Ghomeshi debates compelling cultural trends in Canadian life and has garnered the largest audience, in its morning time slot, of any cultural affairs program in Canadian history. Radio is not dead, and Canadians across the country feel that it is essential to critically explore our diverse Canadian cultural landscape.

Koneswaran and Balasingam hope to provide a unique type of programming with a view that will capture the attention of a younger ethnic demographic. Although there are currently several stations that provide a mixture of foreign-language and bilingual English-French programming, such as CKUT 90.3FM, a Montreal campus/community station, there are none that currently cater to young Tamil, Sinhalese, Nepalese, Somali, Ethiopian, or Malay speakers. “We have done our research and found that these communities have been neglected due to their small size,” says Koneswaran, who filed the application. According to him, the existing foreign-language stations in Montreal do not provide programming to any of these communities at the commercial level.

Despite radio’s gradual decline in popularity amongst a younger demographic, Koneswaran is positive that young generations will tune in. “Although there may be a cultural and linguistic barrier that exists between the younger generation of ethnic communities, most of these people still listen to music in their native languages,” he said.

The proposed station will provide a variety of programming including hit music, which they hope will attract ethnic youth, a large number of whom live within the proposed parameter for the low-power station. Koneswaran is hopeful that the local FM station, which will also be streamed online, would be able to compete with the online content that already exists in these languages. “We plan to accomplish a distinguishing factor by programming the proposed service with a high degree of local content,” he said.

The inauguration of such a radio station is especially pertinent within francophone Canada.  According to Koneswaran, “the integration of ethnic communities in Montreal is much slower than in other parts of Canada.” This is most likely because immigrant and second-generation communities face the challenge of integrating not only into the larger Canadian context, but also into the francophone community. Koneswaran believes that such ethnic groups in Montreal should integrate into Quebecois society. The new radio station aims to facilitate this process. Since the station will target younger generations within these ethnic groups, there is a greater possibility for smoother cultural integration, as youth learn and grow while preserving their cultural heritage within the French-Canadian context.

Despite strategically targeting the next generation within these communities, the efficacy of such ethnic radio programming as a mechanism of cultural integration, given that the programming is exclusively in a third-language, is questionable. While there is an undeniable need for third-language radio programming to serve immigrant communities, it’s unclear how this would fulfill the goal of reducing barriers to full participation in Quebec society.

Program developers are confident that the application for the ir100 per cent ethnic radio station will be approved. Montreal is an ethnically diverse city containing language groups that are currently underserved, or not served, by existing radio stations. This new station plans to fill the cultural gaps experienced by these communities and provide them with a reservoir in which they can maintain and develop their languages and cultures within the context of the French-speaking Canadian community. Our own Canadian history is proof that despite recent leaps in social technology, the merit of radio as a medium of propagating culture cannot be denied. Once approved, the station is expected to be on-air within six months.