The Lifeblood of a Small Town
Bringing people together to help make independent radio home
written by ANDREA BENNINGTON
After 18 years in a basement, Saskatoon’s community radio station CFCR has been relocated in a beautifully maintained heritage building from the early 1900s.
“We just moved into a new space,” Neil Bergen, the station’s manager, says. “Now we’re on the third floor of an old heritage building... It is really the support of the community that has allowed that to happen.”
While private radio is thriving in Canada’s five largest cities, it has a harder time making it on the turbulent airways of small town Canada. According to Statistics Canada in 2006, private stations boasted a profit margin of 26.9 per cent in the country’s urban centres.
However, small market stations are getting by at less than 14 per cent profits according to Statistics Canada. The gap is partly due to media conglomeration and the gestation period needed to generate long-term profit.
On the FM dial seven out of 10 stations made a profit in 2006, with stations that started up in 2006 losing a total of $4.9 million before interest and taxes. However, some small stations have found creative ways to make ends meet.
CFCR 90.5FM, which is also a registered charity, operates largely through donations, advertising and bingo proftis Bergen says. The station requires about a quarter of a million every year to sustain the operating costs.
Over previous years they have consistently raised $50,000 through two on-air fundraising drives of two-weeks in length, with $60,000 raised this past year from listeners alone.
Bergen relies on volunteers to span the financial gap between themselves and larger corporate radio stations.
“Without the volunteers there is no radio station, it’s as simple as that . . . everyone on the air is a volunteer. We have people on the air from 6 a.m. to 1-2 a.m. every day,” he says. The station is a labour of love made up of one part-time and three full-time paid staff as well as more than 100 volunteers.
“No one is getting paid what they should be getting paid.” Bergen says CFCR also provides ”a voice for a lot of people who would not necessarily have a voice on the public airways.
“Radio can be with you,” he says, “It can be on all the time and you can still do what you need to do.”
Listener Kirstin Prescott who grew up north of Saskatoon in Martensville agrees.
“I used to listen to CFCR Saturday afternoons when I was driving home from work. They had a Spanish program on then and the music was the perfect end to my day.”
On one particular Friday night, “[CFCR] were playing an all-female big band from the WWI time period, Tiny Davis and Her Big Band. It was great!” says Prescott.
She adds that on another evening, “there was a song sung by a woman and the line has always stuck with me: ‘When you’re with me you won’t criticize, because there’s lightning in these thunder thighs.’ “
Colin Farnas hosts a monthly radio show on CFCR. He is busy putting together the 18th Annual Ness Creek Music Festival at the Ness Creek Cultural and Recreational Society which highlights musicians featured at the festival.
“We’ve been partnering with [CFCR] for a long time . . . almost eight years,” Farnas says.
The partnership has been mutually beneficial. Farnas says it has also been great for the musicians he hires. He has arranged interviews at CFCR with the Weber Brothers, T.O.F.U. and is currently working on one for Hawksley Workman.
“We pay for our advertising, but having the musicians come on and do their interviews and live stuff that’s all free promotion for us... you can’t buy better promotion than that,” Farnas says.
When it comes to advertising for the festival, Farnas says CFCR matches any amount the society spends.
“If we decide we want to spend $100 on advertising, they’ll match it and give us $200 worth of advertising.”
Farnas says that CFCR benefits from a creative station manager who has helped him find bands for the festival through the station.
He discovered CFCR when he moved to Saskatoon and the station was featured on the city’s community access television. “It was the only place where people could play independent and alternative music.”
“We’re the alternative to any other media in town. We only play indie music, alternative music . . . We also have 18 multicultural programs that we run every week. We do a lot of things no one else does,” Farnas says, adding that this is a reason why the community has been so supportive.”
“It is totally different than commercial radio or any other form for that matter... It has a certain ‘real’ quality to it that I think people can identify with.”
And CFCR’s move is more than just an improvement for the station. Its new home is also an integral part of the revitalization of downtown Saskatoon.
Janis Cousyns who owns the building with her husband Remi approached the station in 2006 about renting a space in their building.
The Cousyns’ business ventures have involved restoring heritage buildings in Saskatoon and a successful restaurant business. As avid listeners, they were looking for tenants whose investments in the community mirrored their own.
“I am really pleased that [CFCR] is there to be a presence in that area,” she says.
CFCR’s successes can be attributed in part to the partnerships it has founded with community members including the Ness Creek Cultural and Recreational Society, its core listeners and people like the Cousyns, who see value in the programming it produces.
Radio, although inexpensive to produce compared to other media, is still heavily reliant on cash flow to maintain service – especially for independent stations says Terry Brennan of Kootenay Co-op Radio in Nelson, B.C (population: 10,000).
He agrees that although funding for independent radio can be difficult to attain it is still a viable medium.
Brennan says that “the model of a community radio where people do it because they love to produce radio... I think that model has great direction and will continue.”
And Kootenay Co-op Radio has gone through its fair share of struggles to stay afloat.
“It was touch and go for a number of years, a real do-it-yourself philosophy, we made do with what we had,” Brennan says.
The community was continuously supportive through sponsorships and co-op memberships. After more than 10 years, they seem to have proved their legitimacy in the eyes of the community.
“In the face of increasing globalization,” Brennan says, “the local becomes harder to find. People still want to know what is going on in their own backyards. The community radio station provides that, especially here in Nelson.”
Brennan says radio supplies the immediacy that new media has not found a way to replicate or replace, “having listeners listening and responding to it in real time.”
Bergen, like Brennan, says the future for community radio is really bright.
“Individuality – which was the thing that radio has always had – I think that really comes across.”