illustration by Jennifer Sorichetti
Campus-community radio used to be the ultimate arbiter of underground culture and taste. But in an era of torrents and podcasts, things have changed.
by Ian Gormely
Laura Kelly was enamoured with radio. As a 16-year-old Kingston, Ontario high-school student, she loved to explore the dial while cleaning her room. That’s how she discovered CFRC 101.9 FM. CFRC is one of Canada’s longest running stations, running since 1922. When Kelly stumbled upon it, the campus-community broadcaster was housed in the basement of Carruthers Hall at Queen’s University.“It was so personal, so real and unlike anything else you’d hear on the radio,” she recalls, citing programmer Tuan Bui’s “The Sweet Hearafter”, which spun Canadian indie rock.
When Kelly heard a call for new volunteers, she worked up the courage to apply. To her surprise, they accepted her and she quickly became a fully trained, on-air personality, spinning the latest in Canadian indie and alt-rock. “It was a total game-changer in my life. I was so young and had never been in such a non-ageist environment where people encouraged me and gave me equal access to equipment and ultimately let me have complete freedom,” she recalls. Kelly was only in Grade 10 when she started programming; when the station found out, they asked her to wait a couple more years until she fulfilled the minimum age requirement. Kelly ended up spending 11 cumulative years with the station as a volunteer, programmer and occasional employee.
Kelly’s story is pretty typical in the world of campus-community radio. As a beacon of counterculture on the margins of the dial, it draws in devotees for life. Where commercial stations use the public airwaves for private profit, campus and community stations seek out the unheard and underrepresented. On a campus-community radio channel, it’s par for the course to hear a Ghanaian pop program transition to gospel music, or an Italian culture program bookended by a feminist spoken word show. These stations offer critical independent discourse, and provide a connection between student culture and non-student local programmers from the area. Historically, campus-community radio has played a huge role in nurturing underground cultures like punk, indie rock, hip-hop and electronic music before they rose into the mainstream. And it’s where future media personalities like CBC’s Matt Galloway and Rich Terfry (Buck 65) cut their teeth, while Nardwuar the Human Serviette, the personification of the campus radio aesthetic, has run his show on CiTR at the University of British Columbia since 1987.
“Community radio was the first social media,” says Shelley Robinson, outgoing executive director of the National Campus and Community Radio Association. “I could get involved. People were telling me local things that were relevant to them. People called up to make requests and you’d be talking to the DJ.”
Forty years since the Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) granted its first campus-community license, those tenets still hold true. But over the past decade, changes to the sector have affected the way these stations are run and, ultimately, the kind of content that makes it onto the air.
Like every media format, the internet upended campus radio’s world. Access to stations’ massive physical music libraries (CDs, tapes, vinyl and even eight-track) was once a huge draw for volunteers. Other than the local record store, campus radio was the only place adventurous listeners were likely to hear non-mainstream music. That’s no longer the case. “Campus radio was a lot more important in the distribution chain 20 or 30 years ago,” says Brenda Grunau, CITR’s station manager and a former executive director of the National Campus and Community Radio Association. “We’ve definitely lost some of that importance.” Ken Stowar, station manager and program director at the University of Toronto’s CIUT, agrees: “25 years ago, campus-community radio was the place you went to hear new music and different perspectives.”
Streaming and downloading gives fans direct and immediate access to the music they want, when they want it. Meanwhile, the proliferation of music blogs and sites ensures that no release, contemporary or otherwise, goes unheard. And in big cities like Vancouver and Toronto, commercial radio is increasingly expanding into genres like jazz, hip hop, indie rock, reggae, over which campus stations once had sole reign.
“We have seen underground culture commodified and professionalized over the last couple of decades,” says Vish Khanna, station manager at University of Guelph’s CFRU, and a former on-air host at CBC Radio 3. It’s an atmosphere that challenges the “charmingly amateur” (as one station manager described it) nature of campus radio.
Complicating matters is the growing apathy on university campuses towards the stations. Stations housed on campuses often receive funding in the form of a levy built into student tuition. The mandates of the stations—with their focus on Canadian content and non-commercial programming —often directly contravene the tastes of the students providing the funding, resulting in a crucial disconnect. “Campus stations have an additional requirement to not play more than 10% hits,” says Grunau. “Students were pressuring us to play more mainstream music, and stations asked the CRTC to add that requirement.” Levies are challenged at some schools on a near-annual basis, including Queen’s and the University of Waterloo. Other stations, like CKDU at Dalhousie University, are currently fighting to raise the levy for the first time in decades.
The sector has responded to these challenges in a few different ways, including what Robinson calls “the rise of staff” in an industry notorious for its turnover. This involves streamlining processes behind the scenes, in addition to tackling more concrete projects such as digitizing music libraries and audio archives.
Campus-community radio has a fiercely independent, anti-establishment bent, which often results in diffused power structures, forcing the handful of campus station staff members to adopt a reactive approach to management. Today, faced with the threat of being defunded by student union, or even losing their license (a fate met by Ryerson’s campus station, CKLN, after years of missing paperwork and duelling boards of directors) many station managers and program directors are looking for ways to ensure permanent longevity. Often, this has resulted in the removal of long-serving permanent staff in efforts to boost student involvement. In 1999, the percentage of University of Toronto’s CIUT’s student volunteers dipped below 5 percent. It shut its doors, only to be saved from the brink by the school’s dean. The station’s board of directors let go of the station’s long-serving program and music directors and brought on more students to run the station. At the time, only seven programmers were students; today there are 35. “There was a new philosophy introduced into the culture and part of that was it is a privilege, not a right to be a volunteer,” says Stowar.
While staying true to their alternative roots, stations today are organized, smarter with their resources, and have improved engagement with students and the community. “Before, there were no rules,” says Kelly. “It was like, here’s a bunch of incredible equipment and access to the best stuff. Just do what you want with it.”
“The sector is becoming more professional,” says Grunau. “I don’t mean less grassroots or community oriented, I mean better-run and better managed.”
Not everyone is pleased with the way these changes have affected the final on-air product. While college radio figured out how to sustain itself over the long term, some argue that change has come at the expense of the spontaneity and risk-taking that carried the sector to this point. The decline of college radio’s ability to break new artists, coupled with the rise of podcasts, has many stations shifting their focus to news and spoken word programming, often with a social justice bent.
“What we cover is something that we rarely hear in media,” says Rhea Abrahan Gamana, a community organizer and programmer at CHRY at York University who also co-hosts Radyo Migrante, a spoken-word program that shares stories from the Filipino diaspora. She says the program is a lifeline for her community. “These are the people on the ground. We get to know the people, what their issues and opinions are, not just in Toronto but in the Philippines.”
(Note: After this story was published in print, CHRY announced they’d be rebranding itself as VIBE 105 as of May 2015, scrapping their entire grid and most volunteers. The station is still campus-community licensed, but they’re reformatting into an “urban alternative” station.)
For Khanna, who was involved at CFRU in the early 2000s and recently returned, the blocks of spoken word programming create a stark contrast between decades, making the on-air atmosphere “more interesting but also less fun. There used to be music shows during the day and some of them were fun and funny, but there’s just a humourlessness … that I did not anticipate and that could be because of the way music is consumed or utilized,” he says. “So many of these programs I hear, it’s an hour of a very significant and troubling issue. When you get deluged by that, I feel personally beaten down.”
Campus radio is an unwieldy beast, subject to the same differences of opinion, financial and regulatory threats that hang over many other independent creative industries. It might not look or sound like the scrappy sector from the ‘90s, but things haven’t completely changed. Despite diminishing clout, passionate volunteers like Kelly are still drawn in by the chance to play their favorite music to the masses while gaining media experience in the process. Meanwhile, the rise of podcasts like Serial, brings more aspiring journalists through station doors. College radio was “the best thing I could have done at that time in my life,” Kelly says.
“I feel awesome that we survived,” says Robinson. “What you get out of community radio for what you put in is crazy. It’s an awesome making machine.”
Ian Gormely gratefully acknowledges the support of the Ontario Arts Council Writer’s Reserve Program.