17 April 2011

there's worse things than dead air

I heard the news this morning that CKLN is off the air — again. As I write this, the radio station's web site says that there will be a statement Monday, and that the fight with the CRTC (and within CKLN itself, really) isn't over yet.

I'm glad there are people out there fighting the good fight, but I'm worried that there are not enough people seeing the big picture. This is not the first time this sort of conflict has happened, and not just at Ryerson University, CKLN's physical home and the sponsor that makes them "campus/community radio".

In 1992-93, I finished up two degrees at the University of Western Ontario while working as a volunteer at CHRW, their campus/community radio station*. Western was always a weird fit with the campus/community radio paradigm. The university is notoriously conservative and known for not interacting with the city it is situated in. It sits on the top of its hill, supposedly once a golf course, with a big black metal fence around most of the main campus. The fence is supposed to keep would-be rapists out, but as a day-to-day architectural feature, it felt more like it was keeping the public out when they wanted in and the students in when they wanted to explore the larger community.

It was almost twenty years ago and would take a long time to explain, so I'm not going to go into all the details here, but it happened like this at CHRW: a group of station volunteers felt that the then-new station management was barely following the letter of the station's Promise of Performance (the "contract" of content the station must fulfill to remain on air), and certainly not the spirit of it. Management said that as volunteers, we had no say in the matter and should shut up and follow orders. Volunteers spoke out against changes at meetings. Management retaliated by summarily removing volunteers from shows, and by threatening volunteers with suspensions or expulsions if they continued to speak up. There were several incidents of a volunteer showing up to work their shift, only to discover that the timeslot had been given to a completely different show without their prior knowledge. Typically the new announcer didn't even know the shift hadn't been designated vacant.

Then management told the concerned volunteers that they wouldn't speak to us unless we had a group name, so some people made one up for the purposes of communicating. But when we went to the university ombudsperson and the CRTC to follow due process, they said they couldn't help us because the channels we were using were for individual students and citizens, respectively, and since we were now an "official" group we didn't have the right to follow those processes.

It ended with the station finally banning everyone they could name from the station for life, including me. It was supposed to be in retaliation for a peaceful demonstration that had been held to protest the management changes. I never attended or took part in planning the demonstration. I wasn't even in the city of London, Ontario when it happened — I was working a five-week teaching contract in Toronto.

The part that still hurts, besides the "guilt by association" summary dismissal, is that there was at least one time where station management argued that I shouldn't be allowed to attend the volunteer meetings and ask questions because I wasn't a volunteer. This despite the fact that I had paid my dues, filled out the paperwork,  was listed on the volunteer roster, and had my station ID badge photo taken by the station manager himself. But I was the (then) girlfriend of an announcer with a long-running show, and somehow that meant that I wasn't a person in my own right in the sphere of station politics. That attitude was present and obvious long before the dispute started, even amongst people who prided themselves on being left-wing and feminist. Maybe that explains why I decided to fight management.

Afterwards, a lot of the people who had been fired from their volunteer positions over the dispute discussed alternative ways they could reach their audiences, often joking wryly about the need for an alternative to a supposedly alternative radio station. Using very low-wattage transmitters, the kind that real estate agents use to broadcast information about houses as you drive or walk by them, was considered, but ultimately not tried because of practical considerations. Internet radio was experimented with a bit (yes Virginia, even in the mid-90s there was internet radio — it was just a much bigger pain to create, transmit, and listen to). Ultimately most of the "concerned volunteers" went on to other community-based projects where their skills could be put to good use. For the first few years after the firings, there were several ironic incidents where a new volunteer from CHRW would call a former volunteer about a project they were working on and request an interview, only to be told that the former volunteer could not accept in good conscience because of the lifetime ban.

We also discussed going back on air after enough time had elapsed for forgetting (we didn't expect forgiveness), but there didn't seem to be any point.

The dispute was given some coverage on CBC radio. At the time we were disappointed that coverage of the CHRW situation was being truncated, but the sad thing was we lost coverage because there were other, similar disputes happening at other campus/community stations throughout Canada. From where I'm sitting, CKLN's latest news is another episode in an ongoing saga.

There are two things about it I find particularly troublesome:

  1. Many of the people with power at campus/community stations — the power to take on and fire volunteers, the power to set content policy — don't know the CRTC regulations about such stations, or don't understand why those regulations are in place. There seems to be this idea that campus/community stations should be just like commercial radio, except "belonging to the students", who are encouraged to think of them as a public-broadcast version of last.fm (Don't get me wrong — I love last.fm. But it ain't campus/community radio, and it's not supposed to be.)
  2. This has been going on for over twenty years (CHRW was hardly the first), but it only seems to make the news when a station is threatened with being reprimanded for CRTC infractions. I've been told that's because the mainstream media sees campus/community stations as competition. If so, they're being beyond ridiculous. Campus/community radio stations don't have the broadcasting wattage, the resources, or the advertising enticements of commercial radio by design.
There's more to consider, like accessibility, community representation, and other considerations, but this post is going long. I'll finish by noting one thing: see that black-and-white logo on CHRW's web site, up at the top of the home page? I was surprised to see that they were still using it — it came in around 1991. The original, which used a sans serif font, was created by a volunteer who did graphics for television. But he became one of the concerned volunteers, so the Times New Roman version you can still see on the station web site was created. That way management could claim that they had made the logo themselves, and not accepted it from a volunteer they then summarily dismissed.

* And no, I never had my own show, although I did guest sometimes when an announcer couldn't make their shift because of vacation or illness. I actually volunteered to learn how to work a mixing board and other radio engineering tasks — but what happened with that is a blog post for another day.

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