The smell of fresh paint still lingers in the CJRU headquarters. Volunteers hustle around the office at the Ryerson Student Centre in Toronto, frantically assembling desks and programming the new equipment. Spirits are high at CJRU (where, full disclosure, I host a show) and I struggle to hear my own words amidst the intermingling conversations about station launch parties, sudden cold calls from perspective hosts, funding and grant opportunities, and plans for advertising.
I notice the office’s inherited painting of “watermelon steaks” as CJRU’s station manager Jacky Tuinstra Harrison and I step aside into a quieter room to discuss CJRU’s upcoming launch back onto the AM dial. “It is flying," she says. "Our online metrics have more than tripled over the last month. It’s really intense."
Ryerson University's campus radio station has been off broadcast frequency for five years since the former CKLN imploded, but today it goes live on the AM dial as CJRU 1280 AM.
While this is a cause for celebration at CJRU (and they will tonight at Smiling Buddha, in a launch party featuring The Airplane Boys and other acts), it comes at a time when a difficult question is being asked at universities all over the country: does campus radio still matter?
For 94.9 CHRW, Western University’s 35-year-old campus station, it is a sigh of relief not to have to answer that question… yet. While CHRW recently managed to avoid a campus-wide vote over its budget, its future hangs in the balance. If the station cannot prove to the University Student Council that it can cut its reliance on mandatory student fees by at least 25% and get students more involved by next January, a referendum might be held determining whether or not they will continue to receive student funding.
This comes three years after a $130,000 in renovations was sunk into CHRW to provide a better opportunity for Western students.
While CJRU’s focus right now is on preparation for the launch and the training of new volunteers, if they want to avoid facing the same criticisms as CHRW they’ll have to show what is at stake if campus radio is defunded. They’ll have to answer that important question: does campus radio still matter?
For students at Western, the fate of CHRW has become a fevered topic of debate.
Condemnation began when a provocative online essay on Medium brought to light a serious concern: students are being charged a mandatory $13.15 student fee to fund CHRW, yet there seems to be an apparent lack of student value in the station’s activities.
At the same time this essay was circulating, a private member’s motion brought forward before the University Student Council at Western University requested a campus-wide vote over whether students should continue to fund the station.
Though their concerns were related, neither the author of the essay, Nico DiPlacido, nor the USC councillor who filed the private member’s bill, Mark Farfan, were aware of each other’s activities.
What mutually spurred Farfan and DiPlacido to action was the discovery that 60% of CHRW’s $383,000 budget goes towards paying three full-time positions, that 97% of their budget comes from students, and that only a 170 students (out of 28,908 full-time students) are involved with the station. A further blow: CHRW doesn’t even keep track of listenership.
Both Farfan and DiPlacido say they see the value in campus radio, but that if it continues this way then it is going to be hard to justify funding.
“I’m not against this radio station," says DiPlacido. "[I’m] looking into [which] students are interested in this, what students are willing to continue paying $400,000 to this, because I believe it is flying under the radar every single year and there are tons of ways to use student money.”
For those who don’t see the broader picture of the benefits that campus radio can have (outside of training volunteers to run a show), Harrison says that the station can actually bring in revenue for students and can be looked at as a student-run business.
“Even if a student has never listened to the campus-radio station and has never volunteered for the campus-radio station, it can still be benefiting their campus life through the revenue generation and the enhanced marketing opportunities it brings.”
Campus stations can also be a place where students are hired to help produce radio programs. “When we get a grant, we employ students to carry out that grant.”
But there’s more at stake than even just student life. “Open society is at stake! If folks no longer pay attention to the structure of media ownership then you won't own any... It protects open society because you have a measure of what the voices of your neighbors are actually talking about unfiltered through a corporate lens,” says Harrison.
It's likely no coincidence that these questions are being raised at two different schools at the same time. While the value of campus radio was once undeniable, new opportunities exist online for amateur and beginner broadcasters both in and out of the academy.
But while Ryerson's CJRU was previously an exclusive internet streaming service, Harrison believes that airing over a broadcast frequency has its benefits.
“Open society is at stake! If folks no longer pay attention to the structure of media ownership then you won't own any.
Harrison believes that covering both internet streaming and frequency broadcasting allows stations to reach a much larger audience, which makes the station more valuable to student life. If a station only streams online and no one is listening, it is much less valuable to a student community than if it is being heard and having an impact.
“I don’t know anywhere else where people would argue that owning a broadcast license isn’t a good investment," says Harrison. "88.1 [Ryerson’s former broadcast frequency] had like 24 applicants, all with millions of dollars falling out of their pockets, because radio is a good business investment.”
Yet, focusing exclusively on internet-only programming would allow stations to avoid having to pay for broadcast licensing and avoid strict CRTC regulations, which would mean lower student fees and less pressure on the station. Ryerson is familiar with these pressures after having previously lost its broadcasting licensing when it did not comply with CRTC regulations. The station's former signal now belongs to Indie 88 Toronto.
You could argue that there's actually more interest in broadcasting from people starting out because of the internet, as the barrier to entry for podcasts is little more than a microphone.
The competition between internet-streaming and podcasts cannot be avoided, but, as demonstrated by the University of Toronto’s campus station, CIUT, it can be worked into the fold.
“I found a lot [of student volunteers] could not uphold being here as a board tech every week or hosting a show every week,” says CIUT station manager Ken Stowar.
In order to help balance this, Stowar created an exclusive undergraduate podcast section at CIUT that allows students to gain the experience of radio production but works around their schedule.
But it isn’t enough just to adapt to current technology. The far greater issue is reflecting the student and surrounding communities.
At a CIUT orientation session in January, Stowar spoke of the power of radio, specifically community radio, and how it can give a voice to those who wouldn’t typically be able to speak on commercial radio. In particular, he speculated that community radio can be a good opportunity for those with more eclectic opinions than those propagated by commercial radio DJs, and also for those who don’t have what may be considered a “radio voice.”
CIUT's staffing sits at 45%-50% student representation, a huge increase from 5% in 2003. Similarly, the team at CHRW is comprised half from student volunteers and the other half, volunteers from the broader community.
Community member involvement is not unusual for campus-radio stations, with both CIUT and Ryerson allowing community members to volunteer. The problem, as Farfan and DiPlacido pointed out, is when community members make up half (or more) of volunteers. When student representation is this low, a station turns away from reflecting the student community and in turn reflects the surrounding community.
If CHRW has the majority of its funding coming from students yet half of its volunteers are non-students, which community is it benefiting?
The problem becomes even more troublesome when students front 97% of the bill.
At CIUT, student fees cover about 40% of the cost, while sponsorship, SCMO, donors, and grants cover the other 60%. While CJRU is committed to using pledges in the future to help fund the station, it will be relying on grants, advertising, and student fees in its first year on air.
So, once more: does campus radio matter?
To Harrison, the answer is an obvious yes. It provides an open platform for students and the surrounding community for their voices to be heard. It also allows people to avoid paying tuition, while still gaining the experience of radio production and running a business.
CIUT has an influx of volunteers and a good portion of its budget comes from outside of student fees. CHRW, however, isn’t coping quite as well.
What it looks like is that campus radio matters as much as those involved make it matter, and that its worth may also depend on how well stations serve their respective communities.
We have to rethink what we deliver and how we deliver it. Radio has reinvented itself countless times over the decades, and I think it is in the position of proactively working towards reinventing itself, or we will see stations fall by the wayside.
If CHRW wants to prove itself valuable to Western, and avoid what happened to the University of Waterloo’s campus station (which was forced off-air after losing a referendum in 2009 for financial support from its students), then it is going to have to show that it reflects students’ best interests. Whether this involves downsizing, merging with other campus media, or turning exclusively to internet streaming is still to be seen. There are options.
Whatever the case is, no one has questioned the value of a campus radio voice, only that it might be time to take a harder look at how it operates.
As Harrison says, “If you are looking at your campus radio and you say it’s sucking money, and is not a good investment, it’s not radio's fault. You’re running it wrong. The business is being run wrong. Everybody else fights over radio frequencies because they are good investment.”