The Voice of Canadian Credit Unions
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Radio active

As longtime underdogs of the airwaves, cooperative radio stations are coming together to support the growth of the sector

co-op radio

In a market dominated by national media conglomerates like Corus Entertainment Inc., Rogers Communications Inc. and Astral Media Inc., some might be surprised to learn that roughly one-third of the 1,200-plus radio and audio services heard in Canada are aired by non-commercial broadcasters.

That’s according to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC ), which says that two-thirds of the 30 new radio stations approved in 2011 were community and other not-for-profit stations — ones whose mandate is to serve communities that are otherwise marginalized by mainstream broadcasters and to fill the gaps in local on-air commercial programming.

“[Community radio] is about various people telling their stories, whether it’s through arts or music or news programming — it’s a core human need,” says Leela Chinniah, director of programming administration at Vancouver Cooperative Radio (CFRO-FM), one of the oldest community radio stations in Canada.

Between 350 and 400 volunteer programmers produce 90 different shows, ranging in content from punk rock and folk music to gay and lesbian issues and First Nations affairs

Between 350 and 400 volunteer programmers produce 90 different shows, ranging in content from punk rock and folk music to gay and lesbian issues and First Nations affairs, with 20 percent of the station’s programming in languages other than English.

Vancouver Cooperative Radio first hit the airwaves in 1975 with an initial member count of about 200. Today, active memberships (which give those pledging $60 minimum each year a vote at the AGM) tally roughly 1,500, says Chinniah, “but the number of people who have bought membership shares over the years is in the tens of thousands.”

Chinniah adds that there are no standard cooperative radio listeners either. “Our support base is so wide and varied, but also so loyal. People believe in supporting non-commercial radio. As the world has become more commercial, the perceived value of these non-commercial spaces has grown.”

Sources of funding

Despite a devoted and growing membership, funding remains a constant challenge and operations are typically what Chinniah describes as “bare bones.”

About half of Vancouver Cooperative Radio’s budget comes from annual membership dues (minimum pledge of $60/year), and the remainder from federal, provincial, municipal and privately funded grants. But when the station was faced with a looming need to replace its transmitter, it found the answer in an unlikely source: another local station.

While the cooperative has only ever broadcast at 5,000 watts, it had been licensed for a much stronger signal and larger broadcast range at 50,000 watts when it made its application to the CRTC in the ’70s. This was back when there were fewer stations using the airwaves and there was more room on the Vancouver dial.

Much like selling real estate that increases in value as demand grows and supply diminishes, Vancouver Cooperative Radio was able to swap its original frequency (102.7 FM) with The Peak (CKPK-FM), a commercial broadcaster that was looking to expand. The Peak is owned by Jim Pattison Broadcast Group, which is part of The Jim Pattison Group — the third-largest private company in Canada.

Although there are just 16 radio cooperatives in Canada, they hold their own alongside their commercial counterparts because competing with commercial stations for listenership isn’t a challenge: these stations cater specifically to a niche market and focus on local content

As part of the swap that happened in September last year, The Peak agreed to pay for the cooperative’s new transmitter plus a monthly stipend in exchange. “It’s been a great opportunity to move forward with the station because we had been at a stalling point,” says Chinniah. “But the deal ends after five years, which is why we’re using the money to invest in projects to make us more sustainable and profitable in the long-term, such as a new membership database and a short-term position that will implement fundraising activities.”

Commercial stations, which may be privately owned or belong to a commercial network, generally have a set format, such as hit music or “all talk,” and are funded primarily through advertising revenue. Community stations (including campus radio stations at colleges and universities) offer a variety of content produced by volunteers and tend to be funded by a mix of advertising and local fundraising and grants. They are community owned, not-for-profit and governed by an elected board of directors.

So far there are just 16 radio cooperatives in Canada, many of which stream online, but they and other community radio stations are holding their own alongside their commercial counterparts because, while they face plenty of challenges in staying on the air, competing with commercial stations for listenership isn’t necessarily one of them. These stations cater specifically to a niche market and focus on local content.

Understanding the audience

The Nostalgia Broadcasting Cooperative (CJNU-FM) in Winnipeg is a prime example of how community radio can serve niche markets too small to support commercial broadcasters.

Catering to an audience primarily aged 60 and over, Nostalgia’s programming is largely easy-listening music from the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. “There are some slight overlaps with other [commercial] stations, but this type of programming isn’t really available on the dial, or at least not with any consistency,” says station manager and COO Bill Stewart.

He points out that seniors are actually an ideal target audience — they are loyal listeners and a growing demographic. “Our generation is one that grew up with radio,” says Stewart, 72. “Younger people today have so many other alternatives — an explosion of media in different formats. But radio has been a lifelong habit for us.”

“Our generation is one that grew up with radio. Younger people today have so many other alternatives, an explosion of media in different formats. But radio has been a lifelong habit for us”

—Bill Stewart, station manager and COO, Nostalgia Broadcasting Cooperative

“>While a market the size of Toronto can sustain a commercial radio station targeted at a mature audience (Zoomer Radio AM740, owned by Moses Znaimer), the 100,000-strong population of seniors in Winnipeg is still too small to be profitable. “One senior-targeted station [in Winnipeg] was licensed commercially for just two years and didn’t make it,” adds Stewart, crediting Nostalgia’s staying power to its cooperative structure.

At the time of Nostalgia’s first broadcast in December 2006, the cooperative had 40 members. Exactly six years later, it was up to more than 1,000 members and had an estimated weekly audience of 20,000 listeners. The station’s annual operating budget is now about $125,000, with operating funds generally covered by the sponsors, while member dues ($40/year) provide working capital.

The role of grants

Most cooperative stations, however, rely heavily on grants to stay on the air. At Kootenay Cooperative Radio (CJLY-FM), a thriving station in Northern B.C. with 1,200 members and 85 volunteer programmers, the annual operating budget averages between $120,000 and $160,000, says founder and sponsorship producer Zoë Creighton. “We try to stick to one-third from membership dues, one-third from sponsorship sales, and one-third from other fundraising, such as grants. But grants only go towards projects, not toward operating costs,” she clarifies.

Most grants come from ongoing and discrete government programs, which support individual radio cooperatives as well as the radio cooperative sector as a whole. The federally funded Innovative Cooperative Projects program is one such example. Unique in Canada and part of the 2009-2013 Cooperative Development Initiative (now closed to new applicants), its purpose was to fund projects that would contribute to testing the cooperative model in new and innovative ways, while strengthening cooperatives.

One of these innovative projects was Sounds Cooperative, an 18-month project between Kootenay Cooperative Radio and the National Campus and Community Radio Association, an Ottawa-based not-for-profit organization that supports community radio across Canada.

Cooperative radio stations and governance

Cooperative radio stations are simply community radio stations established according to the cooperative model governance structure in that:

  • Funding relies in part on annual dues paid by members, each of whom have one vote in the democratic governance of the cooperative.
  • They are governed by an elected board of directors.
  • An AGM to elect a board of directors is held each year.
  • The board hires the manager.
  • The manager or the board hires the staff.
  • Programming is contributed by members who volunteer to do so.

Spearheaded by Creighton, Sounds Cooperative aimed to promote the cooperative model in community radio, and to connect and support radio cooperatives across Canada. This included producing five radio documentaries,hosting four regional conferences and publishing a handbook on how to establish and operate a successful cooperative radio station.

The cooperative radio sector is growing, says Creighton, and Sounds Cooperative is helping. “When Kootenay [Cooperative Radio] started [in 2000], there was only one other in the West and a couple in Quebec. Now there are 16 cooperative radio stations across the country. They’re starting to link with each other, and the Sounds Cooperative project has had a lot to do with that.”

Voice of Canada

While cooperative stations essentially serve the same purpose as other community stations, Creighton points out that cooperatives have the added potential to be the voice of the cooperative sector across Canada. “That opportunity hasn’t necessarily been taken advantage of yet,” she says. Nor does she believe that community radio is at risk of becoming irrelevant. “There is always a vast wealth of people eager to come in and do their programs; we don’t impose a format on them, they bring it to us — so by nature it’s always relevant.”

Certainly credit unions are an obvious partner, but cooperative radio stations can do more than their banking with them. The $167-million Nelson and District Credit Union in B.C. has always been a supporter of Kootenay Cooperative Radio, says Creighton. “We had a show for a while sponsored by them called The Buck and Law Program, answering financial and legal questions from listeners. We also do on-air and, at events, on-site promotions for them.

Certainly credit unions are an obvious partner, but cooperative radio stations can do more than their banking with them. The $167-million Nelson and District Credit Union in B.C. has always been a supporter of Kootenay Cooperative Radio, says Creighton. “We had a show for a while sponsored by them called The Buck and Law Program, answering financial and legal questions from listeners. We also do on-air and, at events, on-site promotions for them.

“The cooperative sector really has its own media sector that can do all its public education for it, but it’s important to make the two sectors recognize their affinities,” Creighton concludes. ◊