Campus & Community stations innovate to stay afloat during pandemic

In March 2020, the pandemic was gripping the country and Canadians were being told to stay home. Community and campus stations across the country closed their doors. In Guelph, ON, Jenny Mitchell, CRFU-FM’s Mobile Studio Coordinator decided that the station needed to stay on the air for its listeners. So, like thousands of others in the broadcasting industry, volunteer or paid, she expanded her work for the community and Bridging The Social Distance – a weekly showcase connecting people through the power of radio – was born.

Jenny Mitchell

The show became a portal to the world for many listeners who were largely confined to their homes for the last year and a half, providing everything from senior-focused programming to critical analysis of the pandemic, health news, conspiracy theories, etc. Jenny has now produced more than 150 shows highlighting the ups and downs of the pandemic, connecting those isolated or less fortunate with the wider community. I was lucky enough to be the first guest on the show, which has since featured many more community activists, health care professionals, artists and musicians.

Jenny is only one of the 700 staff and 10,000 volunteers who help keep over 180 licensed campus and community stations (and dozens of online-only stations) on the air, providing emergency news, information and entertainment all with a local focus. Often these stations are the source of local news and information in small and/and rural communities.

Community-based broadcasters have survived for decades on shoestring budgets with little to no support from the federal government. And every day the broadcasting environment gets harder and harder. The pandemic has closed so many small and medium-sized businesses and with them, the advertising that stations rely on. In Ontario, the province’s student choice initiative will take a 30% bite out of the revenue of stations such as CHRY-FM (Vibe 105) Toronto or CHUO-FM Ottawa.

But stations innovate and keep their local community in focus for all that they do. CFRC-FM in Kingston, ON moved its in-person trivia night online, growing their audience 500% in just a few weeks, and when CIVL-FM in Abbotsford, BC had to cancel an entire summer festival series, they decided to donate over $10,000 in prizes to local musicians through their virtual Fraser Valley Music Awards.

Some station staff, like volunteer station manager Peter Benner from CHCR-FM in Killaloe, ON, even moved into the station to live for the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic just to make sure that his community continued to have access to local news and information. Stations all across the country innovated, and program hosts and station staff turned their living rooms, kitchens, bathroom and closets into recording studios, while organizations like the Community Radio Fund of Canada and the Government of Canada provided emergency funding to purchase equipment and provide training on how radio could be made in a new way.

Local radio is as important as ever. As commercial stations close, the CBC focuses more and more on the big cities, and newsrooms disappear, critical funding programs like the Local Journalism Initiative help to bring reporters to areas where there is no news coverage. New stations are starting up, too; the National Campus and Community Radio Association has inquiries from groups wanting to start a new station every other week. The campus and community radio sector has grown by almost 15% since 2014, as communities understand the value of having a local broadcaster, traditionally broadcasting on FM or now online via podcasts or streaming.

There may be dark clouds in the distance – what will happen with Bill C-10 and changes to the Broadcasting Act is extremely uncertain and could bring great opportunities or great challenges. Changes to Canadian content could negatively impact the music and broadcasting industries and youth listening habits are challenging traditional content sharing processes. Does this worry Jenny (and myself)? Absolutely, but we both know it will be a long time before radio stops being relevant. Community radio will try to have an umbrella handy just in case those storm clouds open up.