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The History of Community Radio


  by Roger Fritz Rhéaume

CIBL, Montreal's French-language community radio




Once of CIBL’s trademarks is that it is a resolutely Francophone community radio station. It is not the only one to broadcast in French, since Radio Centre-Ville, Montreal’s first community radio station, broadcasts a good part of its material in French. Nonetheless, RCV became known more particularly for broadcasting in several languages and it is known above all as a multi-ethnic community station. CIBL FM on the other hand has truly made French language programming its trademark. We shall attempt to explain this in the text through the history of this highly original station.



Just as Radio Centre-Ville had done not long before, the supporters and pioneers of CIBL FM adopted a statement of principles in 1977. This document too highlighted the station’s will to serve the people in the East end of Montreal and to provide it with a tool for electronic communications. Promoters maintained that the commercial and public networks were presenting “information that is deformed by the interests that these networks defend.”  It was also mentioned that these networks’ programming and content did not take into account the cultural identity of the people of Montreal’s East end. Further, they stated that the groups “dedicated to promoting the interests of the people did not usually have access to broadcast media.”


CIBL wanted not only to make a broadcast medium available to people and grassroots organizations in East Montreal, they also wanted to hand control of the tool over to the people. Supporters of CIBL believed that the people had a right to analytical information and that community radio had to represent the interests of the people by being a vehicle for the expression of popular culture. The station was clear that it needed autonomy over how it operated and what it wanted to accomplish. In short, this was a typical urban community radio adventure of the 1970s, an activist station. 

Incorporation as a non-profit organization followed in 1978, and in 1979, the CRTC granted the station a licence. On April 26, 1980, at 10 a.m.. , Montreal’s airwaves welcomed a new player: CIBL FM was born, broadcasting from premises in the Pavillon d’éducation communautaire in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve.


Among the station pioneers were a number communications students from UQAM and activists from community organizations in Montreal’s East end. The broadcast area was limited to Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, Rosemont, Centre-Sud and the Plateau Mont-Royal. Since the station only used 16 watts, its power certainly did not allow it to broadcast beyond these borders.



A station in search of itself


From the outset, the station resolutely aligned itself with the activist movement both in the area of community information and for more traditional journalistic news. It was characterized by its choice of subjects, by the way it treated information and by its assumption that events would be read and understood from a leftist perspective. Community news broadcasts and thematic shows dealing for example with tenants’ rights were on the menu. Very soon however, this type of show played alongside highly original and sometimes hard-hitting cultural material. Pride of place was given to shows featuring jazz, blues, world and new age music, “musique actuelle” and French-language music from here and elsewhere. The station was beginning to become known first and foremost for this type of show and the arrival of Rock et Belles Oreilles speeded up the process. CIBL was valued for its engagement in community development, for its local information through community information magazines such as Accès-CIBL and for its exhaustive coverage of local issues, for example the Angus shops in 1984. Nonetheless, it was its cultural programming that attracted the most attention from the audience and from media observers.

Questions of direction, existential in resonance, arose a few years later when it became clear that the audience did not really have the profile that station pioneers had sought. Pioneering actor Pierre Fortin put it very well: “We were expecting that Jane and John Q. Public would be there, sharing their musical tastes, sort of in the way that ladies at a sewing workshop gather to share their interest in knitting. In fact, however, the station attracted more educated people who tended to share cultural interests.”

At the same time, the station was experiencing financial difficulties. With only 16 watts, the feeling was that things were tight. In 1985, an application to increase the station’s power was lodged with the CRTC. Despite unanimous approval from the National Assembly, and from all of Montreal’s municipal councillors, along with hundreds of testimonials in support from neighbourhood groups, the CRTC refused for the first time in 1987 and then (finally!) granted in 1990 permission to broadcast to Montreal’s French-speaking neighbourhoods. The increase, on the order of 225 watts of effective radiated power, was critical for finances since it enabled an increase in audience, which in turn improved the station’s ability to generate revenue thanks to the sale of advertising and to fundraising activities.



Programming in French


A turning point was marked when the station obtained a new frequency, 101.5. Already changes within the station and its programming were underway, which would, over the years, confirm its status as a resolutely Francophone community station, especially where music was concerned.


Some shows had long taken up the cause of French-language song and were considered as driving forces. These shows were seen to be able to generate audiences and increase ratings. Since 1984, the volunteer hosts on a Sunday morning show, (Café crème), had become the promoters of French-language song both old and new. Further, the radiothons at CIBL FM became occasions for benefit shows where well-known singer/songwriters such Richard Desjardins, Michel Rivard, Plume Latraverse, Gerry Boulet, etc., helped promote the station. Their participation was intended as an appreciation of CIBL FM’s efforts to promote French-language song, particularly material from Quebec.


In the 1990s, programming was less focused on social issues and community development. These preoccupations did not, of course, disappear, since the station’s news service remained active and conscientiously covered political and social events in the French-speaking neighbourhoods of the Montreal area, especially municipal news. Still, cultural content had an important place in programming and in the affection that the audience had for its “free” community radio.


Programming that involved French-language songs was not restricted to special shows but extended to all of the station’s musical offerings. The CIBL community took up the cause for its vocal artists. Whether at CRTC public hearings, or when they were renewing their licence or in meetings discussing musical programming for French-language stations across Canada, CIBL representatives declared out loud their will to broadcast and promote French song. It is therefore not surprising that Quebec’s vocal artists were faithful fans of the station. The same held true for the Quebec government, for whom CIBL FM was a prime channel for spreading French-language Quebec culture.



The pendulum swings


CIBL’s success, following on the increase in its broadcasting power, has not faltered over the years since 1990. The audience has grown from 30,000 listeners to over 100,000. The budget also increased, from $180,000 to over $400,000 since long-modest advertising revenues followed the same rising curve as the ratings and the station’s popularity. The station may not be rich, but with advertising revenues of close to $200,000, CIBL’s performance is enviable, compared to other urban community stations in Quebec.


With the help of its new success, CIBL became the darling of the performers, of the record industry and of the cultural industry more generally. The station had no trouble finding Honorary Presidents for its radiothons and lobbying, always important for vulnerable organizations like CIBL, became even easier. In short, things were going rather well, but …


In 1995, CIBL FM organised “la Quinzaine de la radio,” two weeks of special programming to celebrate radio creativity. Despite its success in radio terms and the approval of connoisseurs, revenues from the event remained modest. Once again the station attempted to obtain an increase in its broadcast frequency. Unfortunately, competition was strong, since Radio-Canada had applied for the same frequency. Despite a lot of support for CIBL, Radio-Canada was granted the 95.1 FM  frequency and CIBL was left in the lurch.


After this setback, and reminiscent of the period in 1987 following another CRTC refusal, the station experienced difficult times, both internally and externally. The situation had changed over the airwaves in Montreal. In addition to CIBL, there were now four other non-commercial stations on the media map of the city: Radio Centre-Ville (CINQ FM), CISM, university radio at the Université de Montréal, CKUT FM, McGill’s university radio station, and Radio Ville-Marie, a religious station. Many of the so-called alternative media offered a product that seemed quite similar, but CIBL continued to stand out in the area of Quebec vocal music in French. However, all of these stations were soliciting the same sources of revenue, whether they were commercial or public; it became increasingly difficult to operate in such a competitive market.


Internally, some producers were less and less in agreement with the turn to cultural programming and above all with the turn towards the commercial. True, the commercial dimension was modest, since advertising revenue was far less significant than people were suggesting. After all, advertising revenues of over $250,000 are normal for community stations outside the large urban centres. In this as in all things, relativity is important. In spite of everything, conflicts between producers and the board of directors became more bitter. There were changes in the station management and the situation degenerated, especially in the financial sphere.



An uncertain future


A strategic analysis and plan of action were adopted in 2002, but the situation did not improve according to plan. Despite a design to get it back on its feet, CIBL today finds itself in a double bind, an ideological impasse that should be offered to Montreal’s Francophone community, and a financial impasse. The latter is very serious. Troubling rumours about the station’s future have been making the rounds.  The community, along with the members of the station, will have to pull together if they want to restore harmony before a point of no return is reached. For the moment, unity within the station remains a work in progress.


The disappearance of CIBL FM, Montreal’s free radio, the French-language community radio, would be a loss to the city and to the world of radio more generally. Let us hope that lovers of radio, whether or not they are CIBL members, will find the means and the energy to continue the adventure and to renew one of the finest community radio initiatives ever seen in Quebec.



Long live CIBL !



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Last update June 7,  2004

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