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The History of Community Radio

The Origins of Community Radio in Montreal

  by Roger Fritz Rhéaume


Community Radio in Montreal (1)




The world of community radio in Montreal can boast of having two stations that reflect the city’s cultural diversity. Radio Centre-Ville (CINQ FM) is multi-ethnic radio, but a good part of its programming is in French;  CIBL FM, Montreal’s French-language community station broadcasts in French, of course, as well as being a vehicle for Montreal’s Haitian community for the past many years.


These two stations have made their mark on the world of community radio in Quebec, but more particularly on Radio Centre-Ville since it considers itself one of the pioneers of community radio, not only in Quebec but also throughout Canada.


If it is true that Quebec has served as an example to many radiophiles, we must remain modest here, as in other domains. The phenomenon of community, or non-commercial, radio dates back close to a half century and appeared first in the United States. Our two Montreal stations could be seen as having emerged from this movement.



An American phenomenon


Starting in 1950, the Pacifica Foundation set up a number of FM radio stations. Pacifica’s core idea is one of freedom. It wants to prove that freedom comes by way of communication. Further, it wants to gather and disseminate information about the reasons for conflicts between groups and beyond this to promote the study both of economic and political problems and of the causes of religious, philosophical and racial antagonisms. 1


In 1970, 45,000 persons were subscribers to the four different Pacifica stations, located in New-York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Houston. The formula used here was subscription while the one adopted later in Quebec as well as in the rest of Canada, would be that of membership. The distinction is worth noting; Quebec’s community radio pioneers shared this concept of membership where the members have their hands on the levers of power within the organizations.


A common characteristic of the two experiences, both for the U.S. version and the Quebec one, was financing. Each station was financed individually from within its own community. Similarities existed as well in the area of programming, more particularly with respect to urban community radio. From the beginning, the Pacifica stations were known for their daring programming and for their very clear intention to change and develop community interests.

The idea of Pacific served as an inspiration to many activists. Not just a case of Utopian thinking, community radio quickly showed itself to be an original alternative to traditional, monotonous and too often timid radio.



An Urban Phenomenon

To begin with, Quebec community radio was essentially an urban phenomenon. A first station, CKRL FM, was born in Quebec over thirty years ago. On February 15 at 5 p.m., CKRL 89.1 FM, the community radio station for the Quebec region began broadcasting. This project was developed over a two-year period by five Laval University students. When it was launched, it marked the first non-government-sponsored French-language radio in North America! It was to be a non-commercial radio station, offering information and original music. This meant that the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission had accepted the idea of experimental university radio. This constituted a first for the Canadian radio broadcasting system, which up until then included only private commercial radio and public radio (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation).  


The pressures exerted by this group of students, together with those brought to bear by other promoters and activists in Montreal, bore fruit. In the 1970s,  Radio Centre-Ville developed in a heavily urbanized, multi-ethnic environment and one which was in the midst of exceptional community effervescence. The wish to find a broadcast medium through which to share information among community groups was intense. These groups could not be heard on the commercial radio waves and public radio showed very little interest for local neighbourhood news and even less for the cultural communities. In short, the observations Hyman Glustein had made to the CRTC representatives proved accurate, and particularly pertinent in the urban environment.




Financing Community Radio


It is the conventional wisdom in some uninformed circles to speak of community radio and more specifically urban community radio as though these organizations were highly subsidized by the different levels of government. This is incorrect. In fact only the government of Quebec, through a support program, is involved in financing community radio in Quebec. Financial support from the government accounts for approximately 20% of the total revenues from community radio. The municipalities, including Montréal, do not as a rule have programs specifically for the media. The federal government becomes involved through employment programs to which community radio, just like any other non-profit or for-profit organization, may apply.


As for operating budgets, these differ from one station to another and of course depend on the market the station is operating within. For example, an urban radio station like Radio Centre-Ville would have an annual budget, in good years or in bad, of around $400,000. A station operating in a medium-sized regional market could have a budget of over half a million. But in this case as well, it is important to remember that budgets can vary considerably from one station to another.




(1) cf. H. HOFFMAN. Pacifica and the idea of freedom, New-York, November 1965.


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