Community radio enjoying resurgence as campus stations face uncertainty

Luke Smith, Learning and Development Officer, with the National Campus and Community Radio Association (NCRA). (Connie Thiessen/Broadcast Dialogue)

While community radio in Canada is finding a new niche audience, campus radio is facing increasing uncertainty, says Luke Smith, Learning and Development Officer, at the National Campus and Community Radio Association (NCRA).

The NCRA held its annual summit of station managers in Vancouver this past weekend just days after the Ontario government announcement that it intends to make post-secondary tuition framework changes that would allow college and university students to opt out of non-essential tuition fees. Right now, those fees fund campus radio, student newspapers and other organizations.

Smith said about 18 campus stations in Ontario would be affected by the changes. The impact of the loss of the student levy, which varies from $3 to $12 per student depending on the school, would make a considerable dent in many of those stations’ bottom lines, according to Smith.

“It’s hard to say because the number varies from station to station, but from my experience…it would lead to difficult decisions around staffing and capacity if we didn’t receive that funding,” said Smith.

Community radio finding new audience

Guaranteeing stable funding for campus and community radio is the focus of the NCRA’s submission to the Broadcasting and Telecommunications Legislative Review Panel.

Sixty per cent of the association’s members are now from the not-for-profit community sector, which is carving out an unexpected niche filling the void created by the rise of syndicated voices on many small market, commercial stations. In 2016, of the 15 new radio licences issued by the CRTC, 11 were awarded to non-commercial entities.

“As the commercial industry is pulling out of certain markets, we’re seeing communities come together and look to launch their own alternatives at the ground level,” said Smith, who added that community station advertising revenues remain relatively stable. “We have seen a five-year decline in advertising, but it’s nowhere near as bad as what the commercial sector has seen in terms of the loss in advertising.”

In an increasingly crowded audio landscape, Smith said it’s community radio’s connection to community that’s propelling the medium to defy listening trends.

“I think what makes the bread and butter of our community stations is that your Aunt Jo down the street or your cousin has a program there. CFUV-FM Victoria changed the way they do their funding drive, because they realized one of the biggest things people support is the people involved. It’s the volunteers, it’s the friends and families, it’s local businesses that want to support other businesses and really give to that local, on the ground feeling. That’s really where community radio is excelling.”

Challenges ahead

This June, the NCRA will host one of the biggest gatherings of not-for-profit radio on record with 60 stations and 150 people expected to attend its National Community Radio Conference in Toronto. Sessions will touch on a range of topics from monetizing podcasts to engaging communities, including conversations around advertising, diversifying revenue sources, and effective grant writing.

Smith said many of the challenges ahead for community radio are the same as those the commercial industry faces. That includes enacting a culture-shift, helping bring stations into the digital era, including encouraging more podcasting content. An NCRA survey of 20 stations revealed that right now of the 700 hours of original content those stations generate weekly, just four per cent is being turned around into podcasts.

“One of the biggest challenges and focus is what is the future of community radio going to look like? What are we going to look like five years down the line? What are we going to look like under potential changes to the Broadcast Act and how do we prepare ourselves collectively for what that change may be?”

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