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The History of Community Radio

University Radio

  by Michel Sénécal


Community radio on campus


One thing stands out in considering campus or student radio stations across Canada. While French-language, Quebec and Acadian community radio is mostly associated with community stations, community radio in English-speaking Canada is primarily campus-based. Is this another expression of the distinct society or is it rather due to Quebec government policy in this area?  One way or the other, student radio has a long history in Quebec, dating back to the 1970s, when Radio Centre-Ville in its beginnings shared the same cable channel as Radio McGill. A similar situation prevailed in Quebec City, where  CKRL, Laval University’s campus radio station, was granted the status of experimental radio at about the same time, a label given to community radio before 1975.


The first community radio stations in English-speaking Canada were Wired World (1973) and Vancouver Co-op Radio (1974). The movement they launched soon moved to the university campuses, where English-language community radio developed a model aimed as much – some would say more – at the neighbouring communities as at the student body. This movement, headed by NCCRA, the National Campus and Community Radio Association was organized mainly around social configurations of young people, radicals, the marginalized, the avant-garde, in short the protest movements that were already present at the birth of community radio in the 1960s and 1970s.


In Quebec, the CRTC granted licences to the student stations CKUT (1987) and CISM (1991), the one associated with McGill University, the other with the University of Montreal.


Since they are associated with universities, these stations are usually found in urban and regional contexts. They enjoy a certain amount of independence with respect to public and commercial structures because, as campus stations, they are financed directly from student fees. This arrangement also brings with it obligations, of course. With a staff that is not always representative of the student body, even though it may include a large number of students, the typical campus-community station is constantly caught between the needs and interests of campus life, with its many extra-curricular activities, and those of the diverse communities it serves. The latter are not particularly interested in the details of university life. The administrative structure of campus radio includes members of the university community, as is required by the CRTC.


Campus radio was initially conceived as a teaching and training activity, having taken its first steps within different university departments such as engineering, communications, etc. The opening to the community followed. It was only later that these stations, broadcast initially over cable, found enthusiastic users and promoters among the activists. The subsequent evolution of campus radio stations would bring them closer and closer to the community movement.


The campus-community model is characterized by a network of institutions and practices distinct from those typical of French-language community radio. This is true in particular for financing, where university fees replace subsidies from government aid programs.


With so few obligations towards the government or the corporations,  campus-community radio has a “sound”, so they say, even more eclectic than its urban community cousins. The campus-community stations give pride of place to access to the means of communications, reasoning that this access will in itself take care of programming, since volunteers will be part of the production process. In a model like this, the whole debate about “quality” programming is put aside, since the responsibility for programming falls first and foremost on the volunteers who produce it. In fact, volunteers produce almost all of the programming and a vast array of communities find themselves represented this way. 

With all of these characteristics, it is clear that campus-community radio in no way resembles public or private stations. While French-language community stations are proud to be among the first to discover a little-known musician, before she becomes the darling of the private stations, campus-community radio is proud instead of playing music that is not heard and will never be heard on the private airwaves. 

There remains nonetheless a degree of interest in professionalism or at least an interest in the profession within this model since, as in the case of French-language community radio, “graduates” of campus-community stations may be found on the radio and in other media, both government and private.



Community Radio in Montreal (MENU)



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