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Alternative to What? Finding a Better Definition for Community Radio

We’re always interested in hearing from our readers and recently received an email from Myke Atkinson, the Station Manager of University of Calgary-based community radio station CJSW-FM in Calgary, Canada. He had written a piece about community radio for the National Campus/Community Radio Association’s email list and thought that it would be of interest to Radio Survivor readers. We couldn’t agree more. In discussing community radio in Canada, Atkinson asks whether it’s helpful anymore to view community radio as “alternative.” – Jennifer Waits, Radio Survivor

Alternative to What? Finding a Better Definition for Community Radio

by Myke Atkinson, Station Manager CJSW

A couple months ago I was down at CKXU in Lethbridge to help them kick off their FunDrive (which increased by over 30% this year to $21,575!) and as I was preparing for my talk I came to a bit of a realization about how we as community radio stations position ourselves to our listeners and the public at large.

I was sitting on the train in Calgary looking around at all the various folks. There was a couple sitting across from me speaking a language I will never understand, a new mom with her baby and stroller at the front of the car, and sitting in front of me was a leather-jacketed punk who was doing some serious damage to his ears with headphones. I realized that the train car I was sitting on embodied what we are as stations: a big mix of people from all walks of life coming together to bring their perspectives, knowledge and passion to make something great despite the differences between us. That’s the definition of a great community, and that is what we embody.

However, all of these thoughts on community made me think of something. Currently, we call ourselves an “alternative,” providing a space on the radio for music, ideas and voices not heard elsewhere on the dial. We define ourselves based on what we’re not (commercial radio, public radio) rather than what we are. I realize there’s a reason for this: we’re the new kids on the block in the radio game relative to the more traditional forms.

Commercial radio broadcasting in Canada has its roots in the late 1920s, while the advent of public radio (CBC) came a couple years later. Meanwhile, the only community radio station licensed around the same time was CFRC in Kingston, Ontario, and it wasn’t until forty years later that another community station was given a broadcast license. The real birth of community radio in Canada came even later (starting around 1975), therefore putting it almost a half-century behind its traditional counterparts. All of this said, the question that kept coming to my mind was “if commercial, public and community radio had all started at the same time, how would we define ourselves?”

I feel as though we would view ourselves (and be viewed by the communities we serve) as radio stations for people by people. I think we would lose all language of us versus them, the underdog versus the establishment, the Pepsi to their Coke. Instead we would view ourselves for the strengths of what we provide. If anything, the limited segments of the population served by traditional broadcasters would be viewed as the outlier where as we would be considered the radio of the people.

In order to take the next steps forward in our position within the radio space we need to stop defining ourselves in the shadow of those that came before us. We need to stop considering ourselves as the “alternative,” the gap-filler and catch-all for everything traditional media is not. It’s time to redefine ourselves by the thing that makes us the best: real radio made by real people in our communities.


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3 Responses to Alternative to What? Finding a Better Definition for Community Radio

  1. Matthew Lasar July 29, 2015 at 1:09 pm #

    Amen to every word of this. Thanks.

  2. Jerry Drawhorn July 31, 2015 at 12:56 am #

    Well I guess I’ll give a counterpoint.

    “if commercial, public and community radio had all started at the same time, how would we define ourselves?” My understanding was that it did start at the same time. There were University radio stations, community owned stations, amateur stations, and commercial stations at the dawn of the Radio age. At the time the FRC decided that centralized, powerful stations served the “public interest” (presumably the “people’s interest”) more than thousands of small stations did, some run by communities, or owned by locals.

    “radio stations for people by people.” While pleasant sounding this is simply amorphous. Certainly commercial radio are run by people…they aren’t owned and operated by aliens, or robots. And the commercial radio owners constantly make the argument that they ARE “for people” – they respond to the market…listenership.

    ” I think we would lose all language of us versus them, the underdog versus the establishment, the Pepsi to their Coke. Instead we would view ourselves for the strengths of what we provide. If anything, the limited segments of the population served by traditional broadcasters would be viewed as the outlier where as we would be considered the radio of the people.”

    This seems like some revisionism – are the audiences “served by traditional broadcasters” (do you mean commercial broadcasters?) really smaller than non-commercial, community broadcasters??? Now it might be asserted that these broadcasters serve a limited segment because they aren’t “really serving them”. But non-commercial or community radio doesn’t really have listenership’s that even approach commercial broadcasters/media, does it.

    I don’t really know what “the radio for the people” actually means. It sounds like a slogan. I recall Pacifica used something like that a few years back for their stations.

    Does it relate to ownership, governance, programming control, access, service reach, the DJ’s/programmers that play on the station? Does it mean that everyone in the community votes on programs? That everyone helps fund it? That a popularly elected board surveys the community and carefully allots programming to the diffuse tastes in the community? Even when the community responds that they want more Top-40 classic rock” or “popular music” when there are 4 stations that already plays that? Does it include college radio stations that have restrictions on the number and programming slots of community members? Or bars them completely?

    At the same time defining ourselves by what we are NOT isn’t all that bad when the “NOT” is deplorably bad. I agree that “alternative” is equally vague, and that word was somewhat hijacked by a musical genre (where it’s equally vague when used there). There are Entercom stations out there that are Alternative Rock stations.

  3. Kevin Erickson July 31, 2015 at 11:07 am #

    So, it may be entirely accidental, but the title here references a classic essay by Thomas Frank which everyone should read: http://www.thebaffler.com/salvos/alternative-to-what some parts of which has aged better than other parts.

    The problem with “alternative” is that it connotes that whatever it describes is secondary or marginal. I agree with Myke that it’s important to contest that: to make the case that thing we’re doing is the real populism.

    But I think this is also a time when broad conciousness of the fundamental problems associated with corporate control and mass-audience media doesn’t exist. And so it’s important to continue to articulate and rearticulate the fundamental critique of power that independent media represents.

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