Published: Radio World International
If the two hundred plus community radio stations in Canada have anything in common, it has to be the name “McCurdy”. It is difficult to walk into a community radio studio and not find at least one thing painted in McCurdy blue – either the “classic” light blue, or the newer dark blue.
Why McCurdy? Usually it comes down to two factors – the old McCurdy products were built like Mack trucks and were able to withstand years of volunteer use and sometimes sketchy maintenance. More importantly though, at the time that community radio in Canada was growing rapidly – throughout the eighties – a lot of large broadcasters were upgrading their studios, and McCurdy consoles, pedestals, and racks could be had for very little money.
Community radio in Canada exists in an environment that is quite different from the U.S. During the decades when the FCC made it impossible for community broadcasters to license a lower power station, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) was actively encouraging new and different forms of non-commercial broadcasting. Since the time when the first community radio broadcasters were licensed in the seventies, the CRTC has consistently considered community radio to be an essential part of the broadcast system, offering a distinct alternative to both commercial radio and the government funded Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).
More recently, at the time when the FCC was struggling with the idea of LPFM and third channel adjacencies, the CRTC was (at the urging of community broadcasters) bringing in “Developmental FM” Licenses. These licenses required a bare minimum of paperwork and equipment, and were designed to allow small communities to launch a community radio station as easily as possible. Developmental FM stations are limited to five watts, but are free of most regulation. The aim is to get new stations established easily and cheaply, and allow them to concentrate on building community support over the first few years.
Five watts does not sound like much, but it is an inexpensive way to get started and will typically cover a small town well enough to build an audience where none existed. At the end of the developmental period – typically four years – the new station is expected to apply for a full community radio license and move up to a higher power level.
Community radio in Canada actually encompasses a number of different kinds of licenses. A standalone station, not affiliated with an educational institution, will be licensed as a “Community” radio station. A station located on a University campus will typically be licensed as “Campus based Community”. “Developmental” licenses can come in either of these flavors.
Native broadcasters have yet another category of license to suit the specific needs of their communities, and there is yet another license type for “Instructional” stations attached to broadcast schools.
The differences between “Community” and “Campus based Community radio stations are less than would be imagined. The primary difference is that “Community” stations are allowed to broadcast more advertising than “Campus based Community” stations. Yes, non-commercial radio stations in Canada are allowed to sell and broadcast advertising, although the number of minutes per hour is limited. During the seventies and eighties stations faced the same sort of underwriting restrictions as American non-commercial broadcasters, but those were eventually dropped.
Unlike the U.S., where “College” radio is distinctly different from “Community” radio, all non-commercial radio stations in Canada have a similar philosophy and style. Both “Community” and Campus based Community” stations are required to open their doors to their local community. It is not considered good form to only allow students access to the airwaves, and in fact the regulations governing Campus based stations are explicit that they serve the entire listening community, not just the campus. It is also required that “Campus based” radio stations have a separate Board of Directors which includes both campus and non-campus representatives.
The other distinct feature of almost every “Community” or “Campus based Community” station is a heavy multicultural component. It is normal for established stations to broadcast in ten or twenty languages to as many cultural or ethnic groups. CKCU Radio in Ottawa for instance has weekly programs for the Jewish, Indian, Filipino, Afghani , Somali, Haitien, African, Persian, and Vietnamese communities. Many of these programs date from the early days of the station and play a critical role in their local communities.
Multicultural programs also play a critical role in the funding of community radio in Canada. Because community radio often offers the only media source in their mother tongue, multicultural communities are often major financial supporters of their local station. Unlike the U.S., where many community broadcasters can access funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) or the PTFP program, there is virtually no funding available to community broadcasters in Canada. The only broadcaster funded by the Canadian government is the CBC.
As a result community broadcasters rely most heavily on two income sources – student levies (for Campus based stations) and listener donations. Despite being allowed to sell advertising, the reality is that ad sales seldom bring in enough income to cover the costs associated with selling and producing spots.
The annual levy that students pay to support Campus based stations ranges from low of 40 cents to a high that approaches thirty dollars. Even though these are a fraction of the amounts that students pay for athletic fees or other “services”, there is always a fear that an incoming student government may choose to turn off the tap.
Although stations like CKCU or Vancouver Co-op Radio have been conducting annual funding drives for a couple of decades, station fund raising is still relatively unsophisticated. There is no equivalent to the Development Exchange Inc. (DEI) in Canada, and there is very little use of direct mail by community broadcasters. Consequently the most successful funding drives in Canada seldom exceed $100,000 annually, even in large cities.
Budgets at Canadian community radio stations are quite a bit smaller than in the U.S., with most stations operating on less than $200,000 a year, and only a couple of stations exceeding $300,000. Capital budgets tend to be very tight, and maintenance of equipment can be less rigorous than anyone would prefer. Equipment is invariably used until it is well past its prime. CD players for instance will typically spend two years in On-Air, then move to the Production studios, then to the music library.
The small budgets also are reflected in the low staffing levels. Many stations have only one or two full time staff, and it is unusual to see stations with the four or five FTE staffing that CPB would require in order to qualify for a Community Service Grant. This, coupled with traditionally low salaries, tends to lead to burnout and a high turnover. The tendency is for community radio staff to be young and inexperienced. Once employees gain skills and knowledge they almost always leave the sector for “real” jobs.
From an engineering standpoint community radio in Canada presents some interesting challenges. The people starting new stations are invariably beginners who are more concerned with serving their community than learning the ins and outs of frequency searches and HAAT. A good deal of our time (and a good deal of the content on our website http://www.community-media.com) is spent explaining basic concepts to community groups and individuals, helping them to understand what equipment they need (as opposed to what the salesman wants to sell them), and helping them to learn enough of the jargon to understand what is happening around them.
We consider ourselves lucky to have a few suppliers who understand that volunteer programmed community radio is not the same as commercial radio, and who will try to suggest equipment and products that are suitable. That means no automation system, no fancy “studio furniture”, and a focus on ease of use and durability.
We also keep close track of consulting Engineers who will work with community broadcasters on ten and fifty watt engineering briefs, and who understand the meager budgets of these stations.
As part of our work we also produce and distribute radio series to these community broadcasters. Once again the lack of a CPB or PTFP means that station facilities are quite limited. Outside of the francophone sector there are no satellite down links, so programming is almost universally distributed on compact disc. Thankfully the use of cassette tape from program distribution is almost dead.
Internet distribution is starting to become more common, but many stations are hampered by old computer equipment, poor Internet connections, or simply the skills and organizational support to take programming from the 'Net to the Control Room. Again, most of these problems a refection of low budgets.
Some will argue that the low budgets help to keep community radio stations focused exclusively on community service. Big egos are discouraged, as are the opportunists who only want to make a buck. The result is an ever growing network of stations that without exception place community service before profit.
Even the major commercial broadcasters seem to understand the role of community radio in Canada. Instead of considering them a threat, companies like Rogers and Standard Broadcasting seem to understand that community broadcasters serve a lot of marginal communities (in dollar terms) that the bigs guys would rather not deal with.
Instead of fighting the community radio sector, the major – and many not so major – broadcasters actively support community radio. Standard Broadcasting for instance has for many years financed the annual Standard Radio Awards of Excellence in community radio broadcasting, and CORUS Entertainment, owner of more than fifty radio stations, as well as cable television properties, has underwritten the Dig Your Roots project, which discovers new bands in Canada and presents live concerts broadcast via the 'Net. Both of these projects are coordinated by the National Campus and Community Radio Association. (NCRA).
Even though stations may struggle with poor funding and aging equipment, it's still fair to say that community radio in Canada plays a vital role, and will continue to see steady growth for many years to come.
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Bio: Barry Rueger has been working in community radio for more than twenty years. His company Community-Media.com offers training and consultation to broadcasters in Canada, the U.S., and abroad.
Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC)