Turn It Up

Campus radio still has much to offer in an age of ubiquity.

The movie Contact, adapted from the Carl Sagan novel of the same name, opens with a shot of Earth from space, evoking the serene photograph snapped by the Apollo 17 crew. Except this Earth is accompanied by a jarring cacophony of insouciant 1990s pop music, bits of air traffic chatter and yammering talk radio hosts. Suddenly the camera retreats past the Moon, then past Mars, while the music becomes decidedly disco and the dissonance slowly subsides. Past Jupiter you can hear iconic DJ Cousin Brucie spinning Beatles 45s, while approaching Saturn it is early Elvis. The reports of an attack on Pearl Harbor ricochet off the rubble of the Kuiper belt, which marks the outer limits of our solar system. Since the invention of radio, it turns out, we have been unwittingly transmitting our existence and position to ALF and E.T., and our noise pollution facilitates first contact with Mork and his fellow Orkans.

But among all that clamour we are emitting, you will not hear the University of Calgary’s CJSW or Dalhousie’s CKDU from space—you would barely notice them if you were riding the shallowest satellite in orbit, Dr. Strangelove–style. Canadian campus radio was not meant to be among Earth’s ambassadors to other worlds and, according to Brian Fauteux, that is where its value lies. Leave space travel to Richard Branson; Canadian campus radio is all about the local, even in a time when “the local” dwindles from the dial.

Music in Range: The Culture of Canadian Campus Radio is as passionate an academic dissertation as you will ever read. The book is a thorough account of the policy decisions and the cultural, technological and economic history that produced radio as we know it in Canada today, and taking the plunge helps readers sharpen their appreciation for the special place campus radio holds on the FM band. Indeed, Fauteux champions campus radio as an underappreciated site of cultural production and urges us to cherish the stations, tune in more often, donate. Campus radio is, in a sense, a site of first contact: where local Canadian culture is first transmitted to its nascent audiences, before larger media conglomerates pick it up and repackage it for mass reproduction. Without  the local, community-based mandate of the stations, and the infrastructure the licensees built with the CRTC, superstar Canadian indie bands such as Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene and Sloan may never have made the airwaves.

For better or worse, campus radio is married to the promiscuous concept of alternative. The general trend in privately owned media is toward centralization that values mass appeal and homogenization. Campus radio, meanwhile, focuses on local affairs, arts and culture. Since the CBC has fled from many smaller communities, campus stations frequently offer the only local source of news and cultural programming. While the rapid rise of satellite radio has vastly expanded global accessibility and variety, where every station can dedicate itself to a specific genre, it is all made niche and fissiparous. Campus radio, though, offers a different, more rooted diversity by divvying up its airtime to a variety of programming, musical genres and attention to matters that reflect the demographics of its immediate surrounding community.

Today the CRTC has doled out around 55 licences to universities, and around 85 percent are currently broadcasting. The C call letters have been around almost as long as radio in Canada, and were issued occasionally as low-wattage licences to educational institutions under a pedagogical mandate from the 1920s onward. But campus radio culture largely took shape during the 1960s with samizdat broadcast experiments conducted “through community access to the CBC’s low-power radio transmitters.” These were first performed by northern aboriginal communities and later by the beardos, hippies and engineering geeks who unwittingly kicked off a series of policy amendments that would affect how the separate branches of radio, and media more generally, cooperated in the country.

Full disclosure here: my father was among the, uh, avant garde of these pirate broadcasts. He was a student at Mount Allison in Sackville, New Brunswick—a backwater even then, beyond the range of the nearest FM stations—when he and a group of engineering students began enforcing their music tastes on the university’s dorms, transmitting their record collections by “wire running through the campus’s heating tunnels.” (His weekly show was called “The Uncle Meat and Uncle Animal Hour,” and he and his co-host inflicted Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart on their innocent classmates.) From there, students at Mount A and other universities, and underserved communities, began testing small FM transmitters, which the incipient CRTC promptly nixed.

This underground energy, though, proved tough to smother, so the CRTC began in the mid 1970s to regulate campus broadcasts and, by extension, legitimize them. The CRTC granted two FM licences in 1975 to campus stations, and allocated AM licences to others. Two fruitful outcomes came from the CRTC’s stipulations. First, by granting licences on commercial bands, stations such as CHMA in Sackville were no longer bound to the campus, and instead broadcast to the wider community. So the CRTC mandated that the stations serve their respective, wider communities and, by only granting low-wattage allowances, firmly rooted them in place, effectively adding community radio alongside commercial and public radio to Canada’s broadcast system. Second, the stipulations also made campus radio more inclusive and accessible, paving the routes for communities to develop their own music scenes. While commercial radio tends to repetitively play the same American-approved megastars (Avril Lavigne, Shania Twain) to meet their requirements of 35 percent Canadian content of music, artists, performance and lyrics, campus radio rarely struggled, and each station aspired to showcase and develop local content.

In its most ideal form, campus radio marks a perfect conjunction of local knowledge, inclusivity and subcultural capital: staffers and volunteers are often “involved in multiple facets of local musical activity” beyond programming, helping with concert and venue promotion, festival organizing, recording songs and albums, “supporting both artists from [home] and those touring … from elsewhere.” But it has not always worked well. As any members of a subculture can attest, there is a threshold of hipness and other forms of capital—education, expertise—and the borders tend to be rigidly policed.

Is campus radio’s moment over? The sector is certainly feeling the same squeeze affecting its counterparts: a decline in listenership, a serial lack of funding that precludes paying substantial royalties, an attendant reluctance to spend on new technologies. Also, blogs and free music sites such as Pitchfork have cornered the indie market and curtailed campus stations’ curatorial role. But Fauteux and his interviewees are optimistic. “Campus radio stations, because of their close ties to music scenes and emerging cultural practices, generally have inventive ideas for sustaining relevance in a changing landscape,” he notes. Likewise, musician and journalist Nardwuar the Human Serviette notes that the libraries and resources that stations have accumulated provide an advantage over YouTubers and podcasters, which they should leverage to revive their declining relevance.

The dial is still very much in flux, and the fates of all three major sectors in Canadian radio are vague. A history such as Fauteux’s, with its sharp appreciation of a supremely under-investigated mode of Canadian cultural production and transmission, can only help in determining a way forward. Hopefully, the strength of the stations’ -community-based mandates will keep people tuning in. Besides, what better way to contemplate the cosmos than accompanied by the soundtrack of that up-and-coming psychedelic-indie–electronica-chill-wave group rehearsing in a garage down your street?