Another kick at the can

By David Parkinson

Late-bearing golden raspberry enjoying the sunshine before the recent cold wet weather.

The problem with monocultures is that you eventually forget that alternatives exist. They begin by taking something well-adapted and useful, proceed to apply it to all situations as the only solution, and end by erasing the possibility of competition. Finally the monoculture becomes so all-encompassing that no small pocket of resistance can easily take hold — until the forces holding the monoculture in place shift or weaken. Sometimes counterforces make it possible to hold open a small space for alternatives to exist, often at the very edge of survival.

All of this is on my mind this week as our community radio station CJMP FM undergoes another period of crisis and once again teeters on the brink of dissolution. Last time, back in the spring of 2009, the non-profit which had been hosting and supporting the radio station decided to get out of the community radio game. After much back and forth, a new not-for-profit society formed, applied for another radio license, and spent over a year waiting for the CRTC to approve their license application.

On October 1, 2010 this society (the Powell River Community Radio Society or PRCRS) held their first Annual General Meeting, at which those of us who attended learned that most of the original board intend to step down and not seek re-election. Since the society had not signed up any members except for the board, if the board went so would go the society. And with it would go our community radio license, which is a precious asset that would be hard to replace. Since there were members of the community who did not want to lose our chance at having a viable community radio station, the Annual General Meeting was adjourned to a day and time two weeks later.

As I write this, several people in the community are considering whether they want to sign up as members and stand for election to the board. This will entail a considerable commitment of time and energy, since many of the problems that a community radio station faces are difficult and ongoing: the need for funding and volunteers, the purchase and maintenance of equipment, rent for the studio space and offices, utilities, and so on.

In a sense, though, the highest hurdle that community radio faces relates to the monoculture problem: commercial radio and commercial media in general are so widespread and popular that it is difficult, even impossible, for most people to imagine what the alternative would sound like. There is an almost irresistible pressure to make the alternative like a down-home and underfunded approximation of the commercial variety. CJMP FM has always taken this approach, and in my opinion it’s a mistake to try to make community radio compete head-to-head against commercial radio. Until the community is genuinely involved, though, we can’t easily know what community radio should sound like — in this community.

In its 2000 Community Radio Policy document, the CRTC defines community radio as follows:

The Commission’s primary objective for the community radio sector is that it provide a local programming service that differs in style and substance from that provided by commercial stations and the CBC. The programming should be relevant to the communities served, including official language minorities. The Commission considers that community stations should add diversity to the broadcasting system by increasing program choice in both music and spoken word. They should contribute to diversity at three levels:

  • Community stations should offer programming that is different from and complements the programming of other stations in their market. Their not-for-profit nature and community access policies should assist them in contributing to the achievement of this objective.
  • Community stations should be different from other elements of the broadcasting system, including commercial stations and stations operated by the CBC.
  • The programming broadcast by individual community stations should be varied and provide a wide diversity of music and spoken word.

What would happen if we kept the community radio license and involved the community as much as possible? What would that sound like?

For one thing, it would sound diverse; as diverse as the community. In the standard model of community radio, the type of programming often changes, sometimes drastically, from one hour to the next, encompassing music, spoken word programming, news, public affairs, and so on. With proper advertising, the reach of such a station is huge, since it can appeal to almost everyone within broadcast range, if only for a few hours per week. People who tune in regularly to hear a specific show are very passionate about that show and about the station that produces that show. Listeners like these will be very happy to find an alternative, to find a station that is playing something that they love, as opposed to the same old middle-of-the-road rock music that is available everywhere else up and down the radio dial.

For another thing, it would sound local. The one thing that no commercial radio station can produce, nor can our beloved CBC, is the sound of the community, its concerns, the things that people are talking about, what’s really going on out there. There is simply no public venue for an ongoing conversation about us. We have one weekly newspaper, a couple of monthly magazines, a cable TV station, numerous blogs, and other bits and pieces of local media; but we do not have any media which readily supports a high level of public participation in real time and at relatively low cost. The technology is simple. The rest is logistics.

In the region of the 50-Mile Eat-Local Challenge, it seems like a no-brainer to have 50-Mile Radio.

It’s baffling to me that community radio seems to be such a hard sell here. In many other places throughout Canada, the community radio station is the place to hear what’s going on in the region, to find out what your friends and neighbours are thinking and doing, and to connect with the place you live in with all its idiosyncrasies and special character. I find it hard to believe that people really want to hear the same old music, the same old stories, the same voices (all sounding so professional and manicured) that you can hear in any place. It’s another aspect of the monocultural approach to creating the world that drops the same damn chain stores and crappy food in every town: many people find that comforting, but many do not. For those who do not, we need to keep the alternatives alive and thriving. Constant resistance to homogeneity and repetition is necessary.

The Canadian government in its finite wisdom has made resistance possible by creating and maintaining the category of community radio licenses which exist to let a community hear its own voice. As long as we have this tool for resisting monocultural media, we have the responsibility to use it. As we begin to enter the era of relocalization during which decisions made at the regional and neighbourhood level will take on increasing importance, we need as many media channels as we can possibly create and support.

If you are interested in helping keep our community radio license, please attend the continuation of the Annual General Meeting of the Powell River Radio Community Society on Friday October 15, 2010, 4:00 PM at the Life Cycle Common Room, 4949 Ontario Ave. in Powell River (at the dead end north of Alberni St.). I will attend, and I hope to bring back good news about the future of local media in this region.

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