Situated in the heart of one of Canada’s most-challenged urban communities is one of the country’s most successful community radio stations, Vancouver’s Co-op Radio.
Started in 1975 by a group of people with roots in the local activist community, CFRO-FM was initially at 102.7 before a 2012 frequency swap with the Jim Pattison Broadcast Group that saw the station move up the dial to 100.5.
“Our roots are very much in the activist communities, but also from multicultural arts and culture, and youth culture, and different outsider arts and music genres. So at the very beginning, it was a lot of folk music and the protest music of that era, and people also from the jazz, pushing creative music to different limits that just weren’t getting any airplay on any of the commercial stations,” explains Co-op Radio’s executive director Bryan McKinnon.
A mosaic of 90 different radio shows and with a mandate to broadcast in 12 languages, McKinnon says part of the station’s success can be credited to its continued commitment to serve as a platform for voices that go underrepresented in mainstream media. Much of its programming also continues to be rooted in social justice and reflective of its location at Columbia and Hastings in the city’s Downtown Eastside.
“Indigenous issues like the Sixties Scoop or residential schools..we go indepth with it. We bring in survivors and the children of survivors who can talk about that issue and keep talking about as it enters the mainstream news cycle in smaller blips. The idea is that mainstream [media] will pick up on an idea, do it for a little while, drop it and never talk about it again or maybe they’ll talk about as key points as legislation comes up. Community radio is able to keep the conversation alive and is able help participants in the movement really hone their voice and get their messaging proper, but also diving deep. It’s almost long term investigative journalism that doesn’t exist in very many places anymore.”
Allowing space for creativity
The station offers full training to its hosts and volunteers, which can number five to 15 to produce each hour of programming, from how to use a microphone to operating a board to promoting your show. McKinnon says engaging people at their own level and allowing them to have a voice and exercise their creativity is becoming increasingly vital as some commercial stations shift to out of market personalities and syndicated programming.
“The experiments that we’re able to get on because people come up with ideas that just wouldn’t fly in a focus group or in creativity by committee. We have an Indigenous program run by Indigenous youth called Late Night With Savages. The name itself is shocking…but it was named intentionally by the community to express a strong, emotional response to the feelings that youth have growing up in an urbanized environment as Indigenous youth,” cites McKinnon.
“Talk Recovery Radio is basically an NA or AA meeting live on the air with music. It’s fantastic and you hear people’s real stories that are incredibly complex, full of all the mistakes that human beings can make and laid out there in this way that has complete empathy and a deeper understanding of what’s actually happening across the city of Vancouver and all the communities across B.C. around the fetanyl crisis, around opioid addictions, alcohol addictions and the violence that happens…these are things that don’t play well on commercial radio but there’s a space here that allows that to happen.”
According to a National Campus and Community Radio Association study, community and college radio reaches on average 2% of the population at any given time in Canada. McKinnon says Co-op Radio has been able to enjoy up to a 5% share of the market based partly on the station’s longevity.
Its longest running program is Friday morning show Rock Talk with record collector Michael Willmore. The first music show to air at station launch, it relies on Willmore’s deep knowledge of rock n’ roll history, and deep cuts from the Canadian rock n’ roll scene of the 1950s and 60s. West Coast Classics, hosted by Kerry Regier, has also been running for more than 30 years. Well-connected internationally, Regier is known for playing obscure recordings, capturing the best orchestras and conductors at the peak of their careers.
Podcasting rejuvenating volunteer base
McKinnon says the secret to Co-op Radio’s sustained talent base is the station’s continual effort to work with different non-profits, groups, and associations, in addition to the general public, to provide a space to get their message out to people in a way that’s not filtered through a commercial lens.
Podcasting has also rejuvenated volunteer outreach, particularly with youth. With affordability issues in Vancouver pushing more people to other areas of the Lower Mainland and Fraser Valley, McKinnon says podcasting has proven to be a good outlet for those who can’t commit to a weekly radio show, but have ideas, want to learn, and can produce a podcast on their own schedule.
Right now, every hour of content Co-op Radio produces is uploaded to the web with about 20 shows put into podcast format and uploaded to the Spreaker podcast platform. Co-op Radio has also opened its studios to young musicians, matching them with mentors and giving them the opportunity to work in a studio environment where they can produce a professional eight track recording.
“Our goal is to have two projects every month and partner with different performance spaces around town and showcase emerging artists. They’ll retain the rights and it’s completely free of charge. It’s different form other community recording studios that exist in the city in that we’re actually providing everything for free,” said McKinnon.
One of the stations newest volunteers is broadcasting veteran Don Shafer, the former CEO of Roundhouse Radio (CIRH-FM) Vancouver, the independent, commercial upstart that closed its doors last May after just under two years of operation.
Shafer is about to launch new show The Conversation Lab next month that will explore the not-for-profit sector. Part of Shafer’s inspiration for Roundhouse Radio, an urban talk station, was based on the Co-op Radio model.
“The idea that voices had shrunk, that less of the community was being heard, seemed more important than ever for Roundhouse, but it’s certainly a model that goes back a long time ago when local radio stations were local and we don’t have that anymore,” said Shafer. “It’s nice to see a revival if you like, or more attention being spent on community radio.”
McKinnon says Co-op Radio is proof that a radical, grassroots, community activist can actually be a “financially-viable, 45-years running station” but it has to be an “independent operation, that is really free of corporate interests in order to survive in that activist way.”
“There has to be a space for this type of voice and community radio is really one of the last places where it exists,” said McKinnon.
Bryan McKinnon and Don Shafer were guests on Broadcast Dialogue – The Podcast. Listen here:
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