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The History of Community Radio

Local and Community Information

  by Michel Sénécal




Local and Community Information


Community radio, student radio, Native radio – all share at least one main characteristic. All these different forms of local radio have the goal of offering their respective collectivities a place where local information and matters of concern to the community can be given priority and will receive all the attention that the other media seem persistently unwilling to give it. This means that the community itself may become the main source of news and content on the radio, especially through socially active groups and organizations in all of the sectors that make up the community, at both local and regional levels.


Most community radio initiatives in Québec came into being in response to local and regional gaps in broadcasting. Most of the time, the people who created the stations saw them as tools for social, economic and cultural development. Their goals were to use local information, to respond to local issues, to offer a public hearing to groups and individuals and to support togetherness and training.  


Beyond the great diversity they encompass, community radio stations share a vision of the role of radio and of the media in general that is different from the one that drives the rest of the media in the public and private sectors. In some community stations, this distinction is manifest even in the “sound,” which is clearly identifiable as soon as one tunes in. In other stations—and this is particularly the case for first radio services—the difference is to be found in the organizational structure and in a refusal of the profit motive as the primary reason to start a media service. Thus, by contrast in particular with private radio, community radio is preoccupied with community development before market development. By contrast with public stations, the focus is on the local community rather than the national one.


The addition of the community sector to the public and private sectors in Canada’s Broadcasting Act (1991) 1, is a result of the historic contribution community radio has made in defending the diversity of information sources and their accessibility to the people of Quebec.


There are two types of licences for community radio in Canada. To use the terms employed by the CRTC (Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission), these are “Type A,” or  "First radio service", where the station broadcasting to a community is essentially the only station receivable. Located in isolated regions, first radio stations meet a critical need for local and regional information. “Type B” refers to regional or urban radio. This designation is given to community stations that exist alongside other local broadcasters, private or not, in a single market. These stations also respond to local needs and cover several districts within a large urban area, or an entire municipality and its region. In conformity with the “laws” of the marketplace in the radio business, the second category tends to equate with geographical areas where the population density makes private broadcasting profitable, that is, in large or medium-sized cities. Hence the intense competition that urban community radio has to contend with, in particular in the greater Montreal area.


Whatever type a radio station is and whatever its environment, community radio has a responsibility to further the development of the community that engendered it and to which it broadcasts. Community stations are also sites for apprenticeship and training, where many people every year learn about the medium of radio.


The content of local or regional news and information and how there are treated are thus necessarily conditioned by the medium itself and its location. The news gathering and reporting done by a “first radio service” in an area is different in scope and importance from that of urban or regional radio that is in constant interaction and even competition with other media. This is the case for news and it is also true where music is concerned.


Community radio has always had a tendency to be eclectic, with the result that it is characterized by a wide diversity and great freedom of choice in its programming. The news that is broadcast is largely local and regional. It fulfils its educational role by informing people about health, work, social rights, the environment, women’s issues, etc. Community radio in Quebec is highly committed to culture and open to material produced by artists in different sectors. It features local artists, original creations and innovative productions, and gives them an audience. Increasingly, it defines itself as an ardent supporter and a venue of choice for broadcasting vocal music in French, thereby making a significant contribution to promoting and developing French-language vocal music from Quebec and elsewhere.



 Broadcasting Act (1991)

The Broadcasting Act, adopted in 1991, is the first law officially to recognize community radio as a sector alongside the public and private. The law was a response to one of the recommendations of the Caplan-Sauvageau report (1985), that recognized the original and essential contribution made by community television and radio to the Canadian broadcasting system, through the commitment of these media to socially-committed, local radio. Following all the previous federal laws that had cleared the path for developing radio broadcasting Canada, this law reiterates the view that the radio broadcasting system as a whole should have a public vocation. Irrespective of the sector or of the specific interests of the media concerned, these media should contribute to offering a national and universal service to the people of Canada. Hence the existence of regulatory norms, in particular the one defining Canadian content quotas and more specifically quotas for French-language vocal and other music programming.

 Community Radio in Montreal (MENU)

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