I have something a little bit unusual to share this week – instead of a music pick, I am putting forth what some may call A Rant. Nicole’s post about the situation at CKLN has got me thinking about community radio. It’s still not totally clear to me exactly what’s going on at the Ryerson station, but what is obvious not just there but everywhere is that the relevance of community radio is being questioned, mostly by students at universities, who are the ones who most often provide crucial funding to these stations.
Here’s how it works: Universities give campus/community radio stations a big chunk of the money they need to operate, and some (or all) of that money is gathered by charging students a fee – usually around $4 a semester – which in exchange gives the students membership privileges at the station, meaning they can use its resources and become volunteer hosts and programmers. Some universities have been giving students the option to opt out of these fees, and it seems like many students are keen to save a few bucks by withholding money from a service which they feel isn’t relevant, useful, or interesting. In a world where you can carry around 80,000 songs in your back pocket, get newsfeeds from the most reliable (or most obscure) sources around the world, and read highly entertaining, informative blogs, why would you bother tuning into a bunch of amateurs who are just learning when to press the On Air button, or even more so, why would you want to become one of them?
Okay, I too have been a broke student. I’ve re-used teabags, felt overjoyed at finding a nice pen on the sidewalk, gotten friends to cut my hair, and worn sweaters until they were more hole than clothing. I know saving bucks is important, and no one wants to feel like they’re throwing them down the (radio) tubes. I’ve also been a volunteer at a community radio station for close to ten years now, and I think I come from a pretty good position to talk about why community radio is worth supporting. So without further ado, here are my REASONS WHY COMMUNITY RADIO IS WORTH ONE LESS LATTE A SEMESTER.
1) Community radio creates a space for community and media engagement, not a product to be sold.
This is, I think, the most crucial point, and the one that’s most often forgotten. The main argument students have against community radio is that its programming doesn’t always appeal directly to them. One piece in a campus paper wondered “Should students really take comfort in the fact that they’re paying for 30-something beatniks to listen to radio? The station should tailor to students or not exist at all.”
First let me state up-front that this line of thinking makes me craaaaaazy. Here’s why: Campus/community radio is not meant to cater to students, or beatniks, or 23-year-old Haitian metrosexuals. It’s not meant to cater at all. That’s for commerical radio. Commerical radio does market research, finds out what programming will get the most listeners and therefore make its advertisers happy, and tells it programmers what to talk about and what to play. It creates a product that people want to consume.
Community media, on the other hand, conceives of the public, including students, as something other than consumers. It addresses the public as producers, citizens, whatever you want to call it – as people with opinions and experiences that are worth being heard. It assumes that everyone, not just media professionals, has something interesting and important to say. Sometimes this means the programming it produces is rougher and yes, sometimes less easily digested than the kind that mainstream media offers; even I have to turn off CKUT occasionally because I can’t stomach an hour of guitar drone first thing in the morning. But I’m still delighted that someone is in the studio doing it. The freedom to express oneself is, I think, usually more important than the thing being expressed.
2) Local colour brightens everything
Well, you say, all this media democracy is very nice, but perhaps you’ve heard of something called The Internet? Where anyone can post anything and participate in any discussion and tell their own story that then becomes accessible to the entire world? To which I reply yes, the worldwideweb is a truly wondrous thing and has great democratic potential, but it also has its limitations. When we say “anyone” can make a podcast or video, what we really mean is people with a certain degree of technical savvy, disposible income, and lots of free time. Which can exclude poor people, recent immigrants, elderly people, kids, single moms, people with mental handicaps, full-time workers, and so on – all of whom have a much easier time accessing the airwaves through a community radio station, where there is already infrastructure in place to help them do what they want. The addition of a variety of people to the media landscape makes for a very rich tapestry indeed.
Community radio also provides a real physical space in which people can meet, express themselves, share knowledge and experience, get technical training (for free!), and make a badass radio show. Can your iPod do that? Didn’t think so.
Community radio reflects what’s going in your backyard. Local news, local musicians and artists, local issues, local events. Once we can fully upload our consciousness to the internet like in The Matrix, we can ignore our local scenes, neighbourhoods, businesses, and cities, and let them crumble to dust. Until then, it’s worthwhile to have a handle on what’s happening around us. Listening to community radio, or getting involved, is one way to do that.
3) There is really nothing to soothe your soul like a dedicated and loving DJ.
I’m serious. As a newly minted iPod owner, I do appreciate Shuffle. Certainly. It’s fun to hear Sleater-Kinney, Kanye West, and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins all in a row. It’s like having a potluck in your ears. But you know what? Sometimes I don’t want to have couscous, sushi, and lasagna all in the same meal. Sometimes I want a meal prepared for me by someone who just freakin’ loves to cook, who wants to combine the ingredients and the dishes in the perfect way, who wants to create something I’ve never tried before and won’t find anywhere else. That’s what community radio hosts are – people who do what they do for love, and the thrill of experimentation.
There are so many more things I could say, but I am running out of time. For now, here’s a closing thought for any university students who might be reading. Don’t think of fees as a drag. Think of them as a privilege. You, humble student, get to participate in the creation and maintenance of one of the most potentially revolutionary, life-altering, influencial forces there is: THE MEDIA. Your dollars help it stay alive, and your participation makes it strong. If you feel your university is putting you in the poorhouse, get activated: lobby for tuition freezes, improve working conditions for students, whatever. But don’t take necessary support away from one of the only institutions that actually believes you have the right (and will help you) to decide on the conditions of your own life. It’s just not worth the savings.
Anyone else have experiences with community radio? For or against? Let’s hear ‘em.