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It's 2020. Why do we need community radio stations?

It's 2020. Why do we need community radio stations?

Written by
Kimit Sekhon
February 17th, 2020

Kimit Sekhon discusses why we need to keep supporting community radio stations, which provide crucial connections, diverse perspectives, free expression and technical training.

It's 2020. Why do we need community radio stations?

Programmer Gunargie O'Sullivan and board operator Laurence Gatinel at work in Control Room Arbutus at Vancouver Co-op Radio.

What is the purpose of a community radio station in 2020? Every piece of information you could ever want is at the tip of your fingers, from breaking news updates to podcasts on every niche topic imaginable. Working at Vancouver Co-op Radio over the past two years has shown me that purpose: the sense of connection and the platform for free expression that community radio can provide for its programmers and listeners.

The world of community radio has been in a strange free fall in comparison to our campus and corporate counterparts. Where some campus stations can count on a steady stream of income in the form of student fees, community stations like Co-op rely entirely on memberships, donations and grant money. This can lead to an uncertainty around funding that can make you feel like you are just barely making ends meet. Yet somehow, month after month, for over 40 years, our station has managed to weather the storm and flourish.

The most striking aspect of the station is the sheer variety of programming it offers. Our music selection spans every genre imaginable, from metal to bluegrass. Did I mention the dedicated accordion program? Beyond music, community radio can tackle the tough topics that an everyday station would shy away from—stories from the perspectives of substance users, disabled persons and neuro diverse individuals, and topics such as LGBTQ2S+ issues, unions, animal activism, waste reduction and prison justice. Our station has the most Indigenous programming in Vancouver with shows around Métis culture, Indigenous news, youth perspectives and storytelling.

Community radio is where people can empower themselves to speak their truths and gain the skills they need to do so.

Our station is a hub for the community across different cultures. We broadcast programming in Spanish, Vietnamese, Mandarin, Tagalog, Amharic, Polish, Romanian, Armenian, French and more. One thing that stays constant amid the great variety of programming that a community station provides is the passion of the volunteers involved. Over 300 programmers participate in creating over 140 hours of original programming a week at Co-op Radio.

Community radio is a place where people can empower themselves to speak their truths and gain the skills they need to do so. Every year we see hundreds of hours of training take place, often involving one volunteer training another. At a community station like Co-op it’s possible for volunteers to build their skills in audio editing, podcasting, digital marketing, music creation and more in addition to regular broadcasting skills. A particular highlight for me was a synthesizer workshop we held recently. We had everything from a MIDI squeezebox to micro drum machines. The participants were just as diverse, ranging from children to adults.

One of the most refreshing aspects of tuning into a community station is the unfiltered energy and ear-to-the-ground citizen journalism. Community stations will present undiscovered artists on the grind well before they achieve wider recognition in a few years. You can hear interviews with community members and peers, everyone from local actors to environmental activists.

Co-op Radio has had to grow and adapt to stay relevant in the ever-morphing media landscape that’s now littered with content. In the past few years we have embraced the podcasting culture, and many of our programs are now available on the podcatcher of your choice for easy digestion or via our website archives.

Youth can access mentorship, studio facilities, technical help and digital promotion for their musical ideas.

We have renewed our focus on increasing youth engagement and added new multicultural programming to our schedule. In the past year we have created a new community recording studio project where youth can access mentorship, studio facilities, technical help and digital promotion for their musical ideas. We’ve increased the frequency of in-station events, giving local artists a place to host performances free of charge while supplying a sound system and a platform to promote their ideas. Even our sonic makeup has morphed with the times. Since I’ve been working at Co-op Radio, we have gained two new hip-hop-oriented shows, two electronic music shows and a variety of programs that dive deep into experimental rock music with amazing Canadian content.

We’ve also brought back some of the magic of radio of years past, with more live on-location remote broadcasts. Whether we are broadcasting live from Fortune Sound Club or the Vancouver International Film Fest, we love to push ourselves to produce engaging content. It’s fun to think that when we started, the story wasn’t so different. Thankfully we don’t need to cart the reel to reel recording from the blues club downtown to the transmitter on Burnaby mountain anymore.

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As time moves forward, the question remains: what is the purpose of a community radio station? Community stations provide just that, a sense of community. A place for people to connect, find their inner voices, and share their stories with each other. A place for culture to emerge from a grassroots place, somewhat removed from the ever-looming influence of marketing and money. A place for the truths that are too uncomfortable to admit anywhere else. A place where people can come regardless of their background and amplify voices which are often silenced.

This is my perspective on my experience at Co-op Radio. After sharing conversations with people who have volunteered at other stations across the country, it seems that there is a certain feeling that links all of these community stations, a sense that the truth still exists somewhere, and that we can connect over our passions together on air.

If you are a person who enjoys community or campus radio, please consider supporting your local station. With ever shrinking grant budgets, increasing property taxes and shifting media sources, your support can ensure the stories of the people, from their own perspectives, can be preserved.

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