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The History of Community Radio

Community groups find a voice

  by Michel Sénécal


Community and grassroots groups find a voice 

It has taken time for public participation to become the watchword for a greater democratization of our society and the institutions dedicated to managing public affairs. For the community radio movement, however, citizen involvement has been a priority from the outset. Community stations are organized on an egalitarian basis and a democratic ethic is essential to the way they function. It is also an unavoidable condition of their opening onto their communities and the stronger social ties that they are able to create. The different social groups that make up the community need community radio to find a voice and to get their point of view across. In return, the radio station must rely on volunteers for management, for program production and even the for financial survival of the organization.  Giving a platform to people, to ordinary citizens, demystifying the news, making the radio station a true medium of communication, all became major objectives in blazing the path of creating and developing community radio in Quebec.


Community radio stations would become a pivotal forum for democratizing the media by becoming a hands-on communication medium that gave a platform to those who had little or no voice. They also became a model for new kinds of democratic functioning by bringing democratic values and practices into the public sphere and giving these values an important place in the way they carried out their activities.


According to the established model, radio characteristically attracted people by creating its own “community of listeners,” what in the industry is commonly called the audience. This audience is quantified using ratings and market share. Community models of communication tried to reverse this commercial relationship by postulating the existence of already-formed communities, to whom the media were obliged to adapt and not the reverse. This is due in large measure to the fact that community media see their publics first as groups of citizens with particular communications needs and not as consumers whose percentage of listening time is sold to advertisers. The non-profit character of community practices is reflected both in the legal form of their organization and also in the “anti-commercial” way they understood their public.


It comes as no surprise that community communication in Canada and Quebec had its beginnings among the radical, protest movements in the activist social climate of the 1960s and 1970s. The idea that the community should collectively appropriate the media was championed in word and deed by social actors who did not have access to the control and use of the media.


The participatory approach favoured by community radio, along with other practices developed through activist film and video, resulted in a focus on the role of the community in owning stations, producing programs and managing the organization. Hence the emphasis on training volunteers and the key the assembly of members, who were the democratic backbone of the media, played in management and production.


The concrete expression of these principles was the legal existence of an independent non-profit organization, collectively owned, with a board of directors elected by the assembly of its members. The board managed the budget, handled public relations, ensured that CRTC norms were respected, and so on. The paid staff was responsible for supporting the community in its involvement with programming, for listener services, for local and regional news and for the internal management of the organization. The procedure for becoming a member varied from station to station. Usually it involved the purchase of a membership card and sometimes a minimum number of hours of volunteering each year.


It was part of the mandate of a community radio station that the majority of its “employees” be volunteers. There was usually agreement that having a volunteer-run station was an important way to involve the community. However, some of the permanent staff felt that it was sometimes necessary to professionalize activities to enable grassroots and community groups to find a voice. Nonetheless, it remained important that community radio not “over –professionalize,” as this would have reduced access to the airwaves. Between the two ends of the spectrum there appears to be an equilibrium that, fragile as it may be, must be found if the station is going to endure.



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