Defending campus radio in Ontario

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Defending campus radio in Ontario. Image: Alan Levine/Flickr

Jacky Tuinstra Harrison is the general manager of CJRU 1280 AM, also called The Scope, a relatively new campus radio station affiliated with Ryerson University in Toronto. Barry Rooke is the executive director of the National Campus and Community Radio Association (NCRA), which represents about 110 not-for-profit radio stations of various sorts across the country, including 19 campus stations in Ontario. Scott Neigh interviews them about the Ontario government's attack on campus radio, which is one facet of its broader attack on student organizations, and about what broadcasters and activsts are doing to defend campus radio.

In Canada, radio broadcasting is divided into three categories: commercial broadcasting, public broadcasting and community broadcasting. This last -- which is often further subdivided into campus radio and community radio -- has a mandate to focus on local content and content that is distinct from commercial radio and the CBC.

Campus and community stations often feature a much wider range of music than their commercial counterparts, including lots of local performers. They often provide space for voices and perspectives that are marginalized in commercial and public media. And they actively train and involve volunteers from the community in production, hosting and all aspects of radio work, as part of their mandate to provide community access to the airwaves.

As is true of many other student-driven services, campus radio stations are funded to a significant extent through a student levy -- that is, a fee paid by every student at the institution, which in the case of campus radio stations generally amounts to a few dollars per person per semester. Many campus stations also generate revenue through some mix of fundraising, membership drives and ad sales, but for most stations the student levy accounts for anywhere from 50 per cent to 100 per cent of the money they require to operate.

A student levy can only be instituted after a democratic vote by students in favour of doing so, and it can be removed by the same mechanism. So while it has been to this point mandatory for students to pay these fees, they are things that students themselves have democratically decided upon.

In January of this year, the Conservative provincial government in Ontario announced a new policy undermining the ability of students to make such democratic decisions, which they are calling the Student Choice Initiative. Under this policy, universities will have to allow individual students to opt-out of paying many student levies. The details remain quite unclear, but it seems like universities will have some discretion to declare certain fees mandatory, but that, at least at the moment, does not seem to apply to student media fees.

According to today's guests, if this policy is implemented, its impacts will be devastating. Most campus stations are already pretty lean operations, and would be quite difficult to run on highly variable revenue streams -- much of what stations take in is already committed to pay their quite modest number of staff and for contracts on things like tower rentals. The NCRA projects that upwards of a quarter of campus stations in Ontario could close within a year or two, and a similar number in the following five years. This means that those campuses and their surrounding communities would lose what stations bring in terms of student employment, education and training, campus culture, support for local musicians, opportunities for marginalized communities and access to the airwaves.

In response, stations are mounting a campaign under the hashtag #DefendCampusRadio. The role played by the NCRA has primarily been to facilitate information gathering, communication and coordination, while individual stations have been focused on public education and lobbying. An emergency summit of impacted stations was hosted at Ryerson by CJRU. Stations have been engaged in a social media campaign. They have been mobilizing people to sign petitions, which have been presented in the provincial legislature, and to call the Ministry of Training Colleges and Universities as well as MPPs. All of this is in the context of broader student opposition to the changes in how student levies work, which at least in some places has included mobilizations on the street as well as student walkouts.

While this only impacts stations in Ontario at the moment, the new Conservative government in Alberta has expressed interest in the measure, and other right-wing governments may follow suit.

Image: Alan Levine/Flickr

Theme music: "It Is the Hour (Get Up)" by Snowflake, via CCMixter

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