Community radio and the frequency of struggle

By Sharmeen Khan

June/July 2007

Illustration by Aimee van Drimmelen

Whether through a political affairs show, an indy-rock program or a cultural program dedicated to immigrant communities, community radio has long played an integral part in social change and activism in Canada. Community radio has a rich history of challenging dominant discourses in mainstream media, airing alternative music, and perhaps most importantly, amplifying the voices of people who do not otherwise have access to media production. What sets community radio apart from corporate radio or the CBC is how it relies on listeners to also be broadcasters. Community radio broadcasters take seriously the old slogan, “Don’t hate the media, become the media” volunteering their time to produce media that would otherwise not be possible.

Appreciating the importance of, and opportunities for, community radio in Canada requires an understanding of the trends shaping media more generally “” particularly the epidemic of consolidation that has swept the industry over the past decade.

Although Canada once prohibited the cross-ownership of broadcasting, newspapers and telecommunications, the CRTC removed those conditions in 1996, paving the way for large media companies to buy out and consolidate different forms of media. In 2000, three major deals changed Canada’s mediascape dramatically: the purchases of the Globe and Mail by BCE/CTV (now known as CTV Globalmedia), the National Post (Southam) by Canwest Global, and Videotron by Quebecor. Media giants such as Rogers, CanWest Global and CHUM then began to consolidate radio under their corporate umbrellas. Although the CRTC prohibits the ownership of three or more radio stations in a single market, ongoing media consolidation continues to impact radio broadcasting with the most recent $1.7 billion sale of CHUM to rival CTV Globalmedia, a deal which at press time still awaits CRTC approval. Canada now has one of the most consolidated media systems in the world, with 84 percent of commercial media now owned by only five corporations.

This trend has had a drastic effect on the quality and relevance of Canadian media. From downsized operations to staff lay-offs, increasingly centralized editorial control and homogenization of news and culture, the uniqueness, diversity, and independence of Canadian media are suffering.

The push for deregulation has even impacted the publicly-owned CBC, where more than a decade of government cutbacks and neglect have forced a marked reduction in local programming. According to the Canadian Media Guild, there were 15,000 fewer hours of local news and cultural programming on CBC radio and TV in 2004 than there were in 1989.

One of the few remaining counter-forces in Canadian broadcasting is the community radio sector. Operating with elected boards, volunteer programmers and non-profit mandates, community radio seeks to provide community-based and democratic alternatives within the broadcasting sector. “We are the voice of the community” says Jacky Tuinstra-Harrison of CHRY 105.5 FM in North York, Ontario. “We offer broadcast training to youth, students, working people, women “” all of whom contribute to music and culture.”

As long as it remains healthy and strong, community radio will continue to act as a model of community-based, public-interest media. But this model faces many barriers, and its long-term health is by no means assured.

“As corporate radio’s model of short sound bites of national news interspersed with Avril Lavigne and Nickelback goes increasingly stale, many feel that the government needs to create a buffer from the impacts of ongoing consolidation.”

A short history of community radio in Canada

More so than in other parts of the world, community radio in Canada has historically enjoyed relative comfort. Since the emergence of experimental licenses offered to Aboriginal communities and campuses in the early 1970s, leading to the inclusion of community radio into the Broadcasting Act in 1991, community radio is now legally recognized as an integral form of broadcasting. Canada has even been recognized internationally by UNESCO as having one of the best models of community radio (along with Colombia, Australia and South Africa).

Canada currently has over 200 community, campus and First Nations stations. All of these stations are run as independent non-profit organizations with elected boards and committees. Some radio stations are located on university campuses and supported by student levies. Others, such as Vancouver’s CFRO 102.7 Co-Op Radio, are completely dependent on membership sales and donations from listeners. The programming is volunteer-based, drawing heavily on the skills and experiences of the surrounding community.

Across the board, community radio stations operate with limited advertising allowances in order to remain accountable first and foremost to the community. For that reason, many rely on fundraising drives, student levies and grants to cover their overhead costs and fund their outreach and skills-building efforts.

Lydia Masemola has been active in community radio since 1991. Starting out as an activist and volunteer for Vancouver Co-Op Radio, she soon left to help build community radio stations and train broadcasters in post-Apartheid South Africa. As the current station manager at the University of British Columbia’s CiTR 101.9 FM, she has seen some significant changes to the sector in recent years.

“The biggest challenge for campus-community radio is funding” she states. “Radio stations have met their ceiling in community support and fundraising. It is difficult for campus stations to increase levies, so some stations operate for decades with the same levy amount.” She says that over the years, with cuts to government grants and the need for constant and innovative fundraising drives, the lack of resources has hurt the quality and long-term viability of community radio.

“Without funding, it is difficult for community radio stations to do capacity building and long-term development. This impacts the people involved in the stations. While we are still seen as progressive sites of media, women continue to be grossly underrepresented in the sector. We could do better with marginalized communities having access to the station. We are still doing better than public or commercial radio, but without the funds, we continue to work with archaic technology and are unable to compete with new developments around digital technology.”

Despite such barriers, Masemola points to the immense achievements of the sector, particularly around Canadian talent. “Campus-community radio has really contributed to the development of Canadian artists. If it wasn’t for campus radio, Cancon (Canadian content) wouldn’t have taken a hold even in commercial radio. Campus radio stations deserve to be recognized for developing that independent music scene.”

For Masemola, these achievements are in direct opposition to the effects of media consolidation. “Commercial radio in Canada has become awful” she complains. “A few decades ago, there were still unique commercial radio stations that reflected the community. You didn’t feel you were being this fed this corporate, over-packaged, repetitive music with annoying sound bites.”

Community radio, activism and social change

For media activists working in community radio, the overarching goal is to improve community access and foster media democracy. These activists believe that in exchange for being given access to the public airwaves, radio stations should not only remain accountable to the community, but should also serve as community resources for education and social change.

According to Masemola, community radio is a vital tool for movements fighting racism and sexism. “I saw campus-community radio as an important vehicle to address fundamental issues that we were bringing up in the feminist movements and anti-racist movements” she says. “By creating a woman-of-colour collective show at Co-Op Radio, we provided space for women of colour to talk about their experiences and highlight issues to other women of colour and other communities.”

Masemola sees community radio as a forum that hosts “voices not heard anywhere else in broadcasting.” And for her, community radio needs to be taken more seriously by the Canadian government as an essential service fostering citizen engagement and media awareness. As media consolidation continues, communities are expecting more local and unique programming from community radio. In response to the merger of CTV Globalmedia and CHUM, the National Campus and Community Radio Association argued that, “For many communities “” including rural communities under-served by commercial media, new Canadians, minority language communities, cultural communities, the economically disadvantaged, and youth “” community radio is the primary provider of local news, information, and cultural content. Community radio serves a much different niche in a much different way than does commercial radio.”

That Canadian radio waves are public property is entrenched in law by the Broadcasting Act, which also defines Canadian broadcasting as “a public service essential to the maintenance and enhancement of national identity and cultural sovereignty.” In addition, the Act declares that information carried on Canadian airwaves should “be varied and comprehensive” “include educational and community programs” and “provide a reasonable opportunity for the public to be exposed to the expression of differing views on matters of public concern.”

Despite these guarantees, commercial radio across Canada increasingly resembles other business franchises like McDonald’s or Starbucks. Every city has its own Jack FM or Flow with the same format and the same playlist. In their book Remaking Media, Robert Hackett and William Carroll observe a growing “Wal-martization” of radio leading to homogeneity of content, which compromises local news and culture. Run as capitalist enterprises, radio stations become nothing more than cheap cookie cutter replicas selling audiences to advertisers.

Community stations band together

In the struggle to improve their marginal status, many campus and community radio stations have joined the National Campus and Community Radio Association (NCRA) to address the neglect of community radio in government policy. While the NCRA has been working on projects such as the national news program Groundwire and a study researching barriers for women in community broadcasting, the organization also focuses its attention on publicizing the impact of media mergers and government policy on community radio. The NCRA believes that every community should have direct, participatory access to the public airwaves.

As National Coordinator Melissa Kaestner comments, “As media concentration grows and commercial media becomes less and less diverse, the role campus/community radio plays will become more important. Because no matter what happens in commercial radio or the CBC, campus/community radio is the voice of the community. We will be the diversity. Yet, our voice is not as loud as the voices with more resources. The people who can afford to meet with policy makers and have staff dedicated to lobbying have the largest impact with government.”

For activists such as Masemola, greater government support is crucial to the long-term health of community radio. “I honestly think that if campus and community radio stations were better funded with some type of model like Australia or the UK, where those governments see community radio as an essential service, then we would go a long way in capacity building. We would be able to recruit more volunteers, improve structures and be a stronger voice in our various communities.”

The NCRA, which meets yearly to draft new policies and organize campaigns, recently developed a funding strategy called the Community Radio Fund of Canada, which they proposed to the CRTC in 2006. The recommendation was for a regulated community radio levy from commercial broadcasters, to be administered by an autonomous board, which would provide ongoing financial support to community radio from within the industry. The fund would also administer funds received through donations, grants and other forms of fundraising, and would provide grants to non-commercial, community-based radio stations to improve operational sustainability. With the proposed structure, the NCRA predicted an annual investment of $18 million, of which $5 million would come from commercial radio.

In December of 2006, the CRTC finally opened the door for commercial radio to include the Community Radio Fund as a potential recipient for voluntary financial contributions. While Kaestner admits this move doesn’t go far enough (as it is voluntary rather than mandatory), she is hopeful since this is the first time that such a fund appears in Canadian government policy.

As corporate radio’s model of short sound bites of national news interspersed with Avril Lavigne and Nickelback goes increasingly stale, many feel that the government needs to create a buffer from the impacts of ongoing consolidation. Government support for community radio would not only ensure a multiplicity of voices and views on our public airwaves, but would help to carve out a space for non-profit media that fosters the talents and reports on the issues of local communities. State-mandated funding for community radio already exists in Ireland, Australia, France, the Netherlands, New Zealand and the UK.

If community radio in Canada were given more funding to promote local talent and foster community access to media, activists like Masemola believe more vibrant, diverse and inclusive communities would be the result.

Sharmeen Khan is a graduate student in Communications and Culture at York University who has worked in community radio in Victoria, Vancouver and Toronto.

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