The decline and fall of community radio

By David Parkinson


"Fields of people; there's no such thing as a weed."

In a previous post, I tried to capture some of my thoughts about community development and how we are all in that business (whether we like it or not). And recent events are making me think more and more about the importance of local media in building a truly workable and democratic community.

It looks as though we are going to lose our community radio station, CJMP FM (also known as JUMP FM). The organization which holds the broadcasting license and which has housed the station since it went on the air in early 2003 has decided that it can no longer support the expense of running a radio station. So far this year there have been a few meetings and discussions aimed at finding a way to transfer the license to some new non-profit group, but unfortunately we have recently learned that the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) does not allow a community radio license to be transferred. The closest thing to transferring the license would be for the current license-holder to apply to have their license revoked while at the same time endorsing the license application put forward by some new non-profit group. It’s not clear to me that there is enough energy in the community to put together a new license application. So we might lose one possible outlet for the voice of the community. It’s a little bit like losing a species from the web of life.

I was involved in this radio station for a few months after I came to Powell River. I stopped being involved because I felt that the management of the radio station did not accommodate diversity of opinion and did not encourage direct community involvement. As far as I can tell, this radio station has struggled for a long time to find and keep volunteers, although there have been a few stalwart programmers producing some very good shows. It failed to bring in enough money from advertisers, partly because the signal does not reach the whole region and partly because no one knew who was listening and when.

The station is still broadcasting as I write this, although the programming is entirely automated. There are no more human voices coming across the local airwaves. For all we know, this is the end: one day soon, there will be nothing but static at 90.1 FM.

I’ve thought a lot about why this happened. Last week I attended a workshop in Vancouver about making community-development projects more sustainable. Kylie Hutchinson, who led this workshop, gave us a list of 34 factors promoting the sustainability of community initiatives. I won’t run through them all, but some of the ones which really stuck out for me were:

  • Program idea originates from the community: I don’t know enough about the prehistory of CJMP to be sure about this, but it’s my understanding that the application for a radio license did not come from a broad-based grassroots organizing effort. And if a project does not come from the community, then the sponsoring organization needs to work extra-hard to enlist and keep the support of the community once the project is up and running.
  • Strong and diverse forms of community participation and support: I am not aware of any focused effort to recruit more volunteers to the radio station in the two-and-a-half years since I have been in Powell River. Likewise, I don’t know of any funding drive or other effort to raise public awareness (except for a few ads and the publication of the broadcast schedule a few times). I believe that much more could have been done to give people in the community a feeling of commitment to the station.
  • Strong base of committed volunteers: There were some very committed volunteers. There could have been many more. But the organization hosting the radio station did not appear to have the capacity for recruiting, training, and supporting many volunteers. And so volunteers came and went, and in the end more went than came.
  • Diverse sources of funding: To the best of my knowledge, most of the funding came from advertisers and corporate sponsorships. There were relatively few listener members. Usually, listener members and their membership dollars are one of the main sources of funding for a community radio station.
  • Program mission aligns with host agency: I feel as though this is the foundation on which the success of an initiative rests. And in this case, the non-profit organization holding the broadcasting license and hosting the radio station has a mandate which is not about community radio. So there was always some tension between the central goals of the organization and the community’s desire to participate in community radio. And when push comes to shove, when there are only enough hours in the day and many projects to manage, it’s the ones which lie outside the primary mandate that will fall by the wayside.

It’s sad to lose an outlet for the creativity of the community. Maybe we’ll get some kind of eleventh-hour reprieve. But at the very least, we should be trying to learn from this situation and finding ways to create community projects with as high a chance of success as possible.

I believe that there can never be too many venues for the expression of different points of view. Here in Powell River we have one weekly newspaper, a few monthly arts, culture, or business publications, some newsletters of specialized interest, and that’s about it. There is not much local content on the radio and television stations we can pick up here. I felt that there were many things not being said in the existing local media, things which are important to me and maybe to other people. And so rather than complain about the shortcomings of the existing media, the logical thing to do is create more sources of information. It’s like complaining that your potato bed is producing only potatoes. Well, go plant some spinach or carrots or something! Don’t blame the potatoes; they’re just doing what they know, which is how to be potatoes.

Bottom line: we need more local media, and not just in written form. There are so many interesting things to hear, to hear about, and to see. We need videos and audio recordings, opportunities for storytelling and just talking. We need more people telling more stories, reporting on the world around them, saying what they need to say without fear of treading on toes. There is too much creativity being bottled up, and we need to let it go.

So, in the continuation of this article (next week, insha’allah), I’ll expand on this and lay out some of my thoughts about creating a more diverse and resilient local media scene. Until we meet again…


3 Responses to “The decline and fall of community radio”

  1. 1 Like the phoenix coming back from the ashes « Slow Coast Trackback on April 6, 2009 at 21:54
  2. 2 Producerism « Slow Coast Trackback on April 27, 2009 at 22:50
  3. 3 Another kick at the can « Slow Coast Trackback on October 12, 2010 at 18:07
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