“If you feel like phoning,” Ed Blake says into the microphone, “604-684… Ah, man, I can never remember the phone number when I’m on the air.”
“Don’t phone until I come back on the air, and figure out what the phone number is,” he tells his listeners before introducing the next song. Then, he darts out of the small control room to grab a program guide. Welcome to Vancouver Co-operative Radio.
Blake is one of 400 volunteers at the non-commercial, member-owned radio station, which broadcasts out of Vancouver’s poverty-stricken Downtown Eastside as CFRO 102.7 FM. For 29 years, Co-op Radio has provided its listeners with an alternative source of current events, arts, multicultural and multilingual programming free of paid advertisements. In an age of media convergence and repetitive play lists, the station’s more than 2,000 members support an independent media outlet that airs content as diverse as underground hip-hop, poetry readings, Kurdish news, activist interviews and Cantonese music. A glance at the program schedule reveals a veritable patchwork of identities and interests.
A Unique Institution
From the start, Co-op Radio was a unique institution, according to program coordinator Leela Chinniah, one of four part-time, paid staff members. As a “third sector” station, it was established as a co-operative free from corporate or state ownership. Chinniah says she thinks it’s incredible that the station has managed to survive through the financial support of its listeners and programmers. Memberships and donations comprise about 70 per cent of its funding; the rest comes from government and foundation grants, as well as in-kind gifts. “It kind of blows my mind,” says Chinniah, who began volunteering at CFRO in 1998. Many community radio stations are attached to university campuses and have a more stable source of funding, such as a student levy.
Co-op Radio was born in 1975 on the second and third floors of an old bank building at the corner of Hastings and Carrall. The facilities were run-down; there were constant leaks. Mice often interrupted meetings, and it wasn’t uncommon for staff members to find mouse feces on their desks in the morning. In the old days, the transmitter was located on Burnaby Mountain, and the station didn’t have the capability to broadcast live. As the story goes, programmers recorded their shows in the Downtown Eastside, and then bussed their tapes up the mountain. Today, Co-op Radio transmits its signal from Mount Seymour.
In 2001, Co-op Radio moved 220 metres to its current location at Hastings and Columbia. The station now has an annual budget of $180,000, and boasts three control rooms, one studio, four offices and a washroom. “It was really important for us to actually stay in this community–to stay in the community where we started and not to abandon it, and actually be part of its revitalisation ,” Chinniah says.
The staffers work in a non-hierarchical structure; there is no station manager or executive director. Members elect a board of directors composed of seven volunteers at the station’s annual general meeting. They may also contribute to decision-making by sitting on one of six committees.
Hit or Miss Broadcasting
Blake, who’s “older than 20 and younger than 50,” is a music programmer because he’s a music fan. “Music’s kept me young,” he says, after wrapping up his show. Blake has a long history with campus and community radio stations. In 1984, he made a new year’s resolution to get involved with CJAM at the University of Windsor in Ontario. After he moved to Vancouver in 1991, he joined CJSF, as well as an experimental audio art show at Co-op Radio. Blake left that program a year later, but returned to the station to do an overnight show in 1997. He’s stuck with Co-op Radio ever since. “I’m an idealist at heart,” he says. “I can live and work here, and I don’t have that idealism crushed.”
Another CFRO programmer, Kyle Horner, says the monotony of commercial radio drove him to first listen to, and then volunteer at Co-op Radio. “I think it’s easily the most interesting radio,” he says. “It’s hit or miss because it’s run by volunteers, it’s people filling stuff at the last minute, and scrambling for an hour.” Horner, 28, has been involved with the station for one year, and the weekly public affairs show The Rational for several months. He works at an environmental engineering firm.
The Rational (the program’s name parodies the CBC’s The National) used to broadcast news and panel discussions five days a week. Now, it occupies just the 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. slot on Mondays. The show aims to bring a local perspective to current events, and tries to present views that are uncommon or marginalised. “Every week, I learn more about the local community, more about the world, and I hear different perspectives on things that I don’t necessarily get exposed to other places,” says Horner, as the Armenian Variety Show comes together in the control room behind him.
For new or intermittent Co-op Radio listeners, tuning in is a bit like randomly selecting a book off a shelf; you never know what you’re going to get. If you listen to the station for an entire day, you encounter an extraordinary variety of programming. A given show might not even be remotely relevant to the programs that precede or follow it.
Take Monday’s schedule, for example. The day begins at 7 a.m. with Wake Up With Co-op, a two-hour program that presents news, analysis and commentary dealing with current events on a local to international scale. According to the program listings, the show airs interviews and reports “countering disinformation with facts in context.” Two Spanish-language programs follow: the Romantic Tango Show and Ecos de Mi Pueblo (“echoes of my town”). The former is all about love and dancing. The latter highlights the music and writing of Latin America, as well as its peoples’ struggle for human rights. Noon brings The Brown Bagger, which broadcasts lectures, speeches and conferences.
During the afternoon, programs tackle human rights, parenting, women in music, animals and South Asia, followed by The Rational. At 7 p.m., Stark Raven focuses on resistance and repression through news and music. The Aboriginal women’s show Kwum Kwum Slena7y (“strength of women” in Squamish) and Farsi news program Pazhvak (“echoes”) take you to 10 p.m. Next, there’s three hours of blues, gospel, soul, and R&B on Blues in the Dark, Canada’s second longest running blues show. From 1 a.m. onwards, Beats 2 tha Rhyme, “Vancouver’s realest hip-hop show,” plays “dope interviews” and music “uncensored and uncut” to end the day’s schedule.
Unlike the programs on commercial stations, community radio shows appeal to niches. “We’re not broadcasters; we’re narrow-casters,” Blake explains. “Your listenership finds you, and not the other way around.”
Marginal and Activist Voices
The explicit role of Co-op Radio is to provide an opportunity for underrepresented and marginalized voices to be heard. Where else can you hear Aboriginal, Cambodian, Iranian, lesbian, Polish and women of colour programming all in one place? “I like the fact that it’s there,” Horner enthuses. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be a staple of everybody’s radio diet. But the fact that it’s out there and presents an alternative, to me, is one of the greatest parts of Co-op.”
Mordecai Briemberg, 65, a programmer with the Redeye public affairs show, sees Co-op Radio as more than just an alternative media outlet that airs a mosaic of content from marginalized communities. “I see it as alternative,” says Briemberg, who has volunteered at the station for over 20 years, “in terms of challenging the social order.” With the revitalization of social movements over the past several years, he hopes the station’s programming will take an even more active role in the fight for progressive social change. Often social movements seek to get their five-second sound bite played in the mainstream media, Briemberg asserts, and don’t recognize the full value of using alternative media like Co-op Radio to constantly inform and empower a smaller but potentially powerful constituency.
Catherine Murray, an associate professor of communication at Simon Fraser University, says Co-op Radio provides a forum for the emergence of alternative political and cultural ideas. “I think it has an important role to play in leading citizens to alt. media, on the Web as well,” says Murray, who has listened to Co-op Radio for years. She doesn’t see the station as a competitor to corporate media, and believes it deserves public support, perhaps even government subsidies.
“In the private sector, you have a small number of corporate interests that have ownership over a large number of stations,” says Randy Taylor, a broadcast and media communications instructor at the British Columbia Institute of Technology in Burnaby. An occasional Co-op Radio listener, Taylor maintains the grassroots, volunteer- based nature of the station fosters a diversity of programming not available on commercial radio.
For Horner, Co-op Radio is a part of an alternative and independent media community that works to loosen the grasp that corporations have on the airwaves and the press. “I think we’re going to see independent media sources referred to more,” Horner says. “With the decline in quality of commercial media, people are going to be looking for more. As the demand grows, there’s going to be more support for independent media and as a result, we’re going to get more resources and be able to do more.”
This fall, Co-op Radio will initiate celebrations for its thirtieth anniversary, which will culminate in a big bash next year. As the station looks back at all it’s accomplished, it’s also making plans for the future. The new control room, with its advanced technology, is almost ready for use. Web cams have been installed, and the station hopes to begin streaming over the Internet soon. Listeners may already tune in via satellite and cable.
Other than that, Co-op Radio will continue to do what it does best: broadcasting a diverse range of programming day and night. “There’s always voices that don’t have a place to be heard, and that’s what we need to do,” Chinniah says. “We’re continually trying to do outreach to new communities, and get them involved in the station.”
Stephen Hui is a journalist and photographer living in Vancouver. He is the national bureau chief of Canadian University Press, and a founding editor of Seven Oaks (www.sevenoaksmag.com). His work has appeared in the Peak and Xtra West.
Accessing the Airwaves: Community Radio in Canada
As defined by the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission: “A community radio station is owned and controlled by a not-for-profit organization, the structure of which provides for membership, management, operation and programming primarily by members of the community at large. Programming should reflect the diversity of the market that the station is licensed to serve.”
The first community radio stations were established in the 1970s when the CRTC introduced a policy to define and govern them. The rules have changed a lot since then, but their spirit has remained the same, says Barry Rueger of Community-Media.com, a Hamilton-based outfit that helps community radio stations get off the ground. “The CRTC has always believed that aside from commercial radio and the CBC, it is a great benefit to Canadians to have that third sector on the airwaves,” explains Rueger.
Now, there are about 70 community, 40 campus community and 40 Native community radio stations across the country. “It is growing rapidly,” Rueger says. But a persistent obstacle to the growth of community radio is the lack of reliable funding. Most stations, including Co-op Radio, operate with an annual budget of less than $200,000. “In the end, it really hurts stations,” Rueger says. “I can think of a number of stations right now that are in various stages of crisis, and it always comes down to money.”
This article appeared in the July/August 2004 issue of Canadian Dimension .