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My goodbye to CKMS

August 5, 2008

I sent this letter to CKMS, where I’ve done two radio shows for the past 24 years … the place is falling apart and the plans to revive it are being put together by people who really have no idea what campus/community radio is about.  Hey, they might somehow succeed, but if they do, CKMS will be something different … and I’m not particularly interested in what they plan to make it.

=========================

Well,

After 24 years at CKMS, I have done my last show and although I would gladly continue, CKMS is not what it was, and I don’t like where it’s headed (or where it’s been heading for a few years now). My son and daughter, who think of me as a guy who does radio, are quite choked up by the whole thing, but I have promised them that we’ll find a new outlet (the web beckons). I walked up to CKMS in June of 1984 and immediately fell in love with a place where the only expectation was that you be creative, open-minded, different, and thoroughly in love with music on the fringe.

At this point, from my point of view, the direction of CKMS is misguided and quite simply isn’t a good idea. Somewhere in the last few years, the rich history that was always a guide for the place seemed to vanish, and people began to replace a tradition with something that seems to have nothing to do with what it is to be an alternative (before the popularity of the term, CKMS pins read “The Only Alternative” … that meant a lot to us at the time). What CKMS doesn’t have and must obtain is, obviously, funding. Radio stations such as CKMS, however, are not set up (licensing and promise-of-performance -wise) to exist on advertising revenue. The market share is tiny (generally not over 3%) and the CRTC knows this and has constructed the license to reflect that reality. Selling ads with 3% of the market will potentially supplement the budget in a small way, but it will never be more than that. Add in the fact that you plan to pay someone to sell those ads and the math does not work. That person will have to sell a ton of ads to even justify their own salary … even if that person is successful (and manages to sell the maximum of 4 minutes per hour) and manages to pay their own salary, that would be unpopular with local commercial radio, and our license is set up specifically not to compete with commercial radio … the CRTC does care about that. Stations have been punished before by the CRTC for changing format for popularity’s sake … when I was at CHRW in London, Fanshawe’s station experienced just this fate.

It’s also bizarre to suggest that what we need to do now is get more student oriented. It is quite simple to read the promise of performance and understand that campus and community radio is precisely what it sounds like. It is a link between the campus and the community, and it was never intended to appeal to the majority of the students. It was intended to be a link between the university and the community, and to represent all of those things that do not receive attention from commercial outlets. That is, in fact, what has always been beautiful about CKMS (and those like it), and what is rapidly disappearing. It was appreciated as a source of diverse and unusual expression … a place to find what you won’t hear elsewhere. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way people got the idea that they “should get their money’s worth”, which apparently means in this time of crazed self-interest … “it’s not worth it if it doesn’t cater to me”. What was great about the original vision was the idea that I could turn on the radio and hear something that wasn’t meant for me but that I was happy was getting out there … and although I had no idea what (for example) the Turkish show was talking about, I’d tune it in because it was different and I was happy that it was available. Apparently, at this point, when someone tunes in something that doesn’t please them, they consider only themselves … ya see, the word “community” is precisely about the idea of seeing beyond yourself … the original creators of CKMS probably couldn’t even conceive of a time when students wouldn’t be able to understand the idea of it being a good thing to promote a diversity of expression, going against the current of popular watered-down culture. They would have thought “a few bucks to promote such a mission and serve the entire community that is not represented by commercial radio … that sounds like a bargain”. The self-interested and plain selfish people who thought $5.50 could better be spent on a beer should be ashamed of themselves.

Of course, universities in general understand the idea of being a home for diverse and sometimes dangerous views and unpopular ideas. That is what academic freedom is all about, and universities have always supported the idea of experimenting or going out on a limb with a potentially unpopular (but maybe good) idea. Thus, it was likely very clear to them 30 years ago that a voice of diversity that might not appeal to the majority was a fine thing to promote. That it might also be a beacon of tolerance, diversity, experimentation, and unusual voices to the community around the university was also appealing. The fact that this image of campus and community radio has been lost in the tide of “what’s in it for me” is a sad state of affairs.

So, we want to better serve the student audience? They have spoken. It was a small turnout, but it is only reasonable to imagine that it was representative of the population. CKMS serves a very diverse crowd and will not please the majority who want to hear what is on commercial radio (that’s why commercial radio plays that stuff … most people want to hear it). Unfortunately, in our drive to be more pleasing we have driven away our actual core audience. I cannot tell you how many people I have spoken to who used to listen to CKMS faithfully, but have tuned in too many times and wound up hearing what they can hear on commercial radio … and if they want to hear that, they’ll get it from professionals. They feel betrayed that their outlet for unusual music and diverse voices is sounding more and more like the rest of our overly homogenized society.

So who’s left? … not many people. I’ve seen this tried before. I did radio at CHRW at Western when they tried to be more like commercial radio and they tried to program for the student population. People who listened to commercial radio kept on listening to commercial radio, people who wanted an alternative didn’t find it anymore on CHRW …

And this brings us to my actual point. To survive CKMS needs money. Attempting to raise enough from ads isn’t going to work … it isn’t. The only possible way to raise the money is through fund-raising. This has been proven by many similar stations that want to continue to be an alternative to commercial radio, and not only know that an alternative won’t sell ads, but also that people that listen to such stations are trying to escape the ads of commercial radio. Check out WFMU, the greatest alternative station that I know of … entirely listener supported, true to the mission of being diverse, and completely ad-free. They actually were in a similar situation to CKMS a number of years ago, except that they lost funding when their institution just shut down. Rather than trying to survive by finding another bunch of students to support them, they played to their strength, which was providing diverse and unusual programming to an audience who appreciated that. They have been very successful fund-raisers and have wisely focused on expanding their widely dispersed audience via the Internet. Of course, CKMS has now driven away the very audience that would have been its core supporters by heading down the road it has, and by having a station manager that knew zero about music (as well as a music director who knew about only a very narrow range of music). The fund-raising road would be a very tough one, because first the audience would have to be won back. Students are not the place to go … no fund-raiser would ever count on students as they are perpetually looking for ways to spend less money, not places to donate money.

So, I have a long long collection of good memories from my days at CKMS and I’ve done it long enough that I’ve been able to give my daughter a taste of true alternative radio before it vanishes. I’m not going to go on the air and say “Sound FM” … I’m sure you folks thought that was a good idea, but I’ve only seen people wince upon hearing that and it sounds so friggin corny to me that I just can’t do it. I can’t see any future but a slow death for CKMS (or one transmitter repair and an empty bank account). To me, it’s like my family is being thrown out of the house they’ve been in for generations. Perhaps one day (as happened in the past) some students will say “why doesn’t this campus have a radio station?”, and someone else will say, “well, it did, the whole thing is sitting out there on the edge of campus”, and the ball will roll again for some new adventurous people to enjoy. Or maybe radio is a dying medium ….

Doug Horne aka “Wendell”
Fridays 8-10 PM since 1987,
Doing radio from July 1 1984 – July 25, 2008.

P.S. – I’m not looking for a response … I’ve heard your ideas. I also have seen how you deal with communication, and I’m quite sure you won’t be able to avoid being patronizing … I also quite simply doubt that you’ll be able to understand this message.

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2 comments

  1. Ouch! That was quite the goodbye. Looking forward to what your alternative alternative is.


  2. Wendelldoug, that was a great letter and summed up everything I would have said too. I stopped caring a few years ago and although this whole thing tugged at my heartstrings in a big way – my mantra has really been “Let it Die”. CKMS’ time is up, and something else WILL come along, it’s the nature of subculture. Or as Frank Black would say, subbacultcha.

    I really, really really hope that you find your next outlet soon. The world would be a poorer place without your voice on the airwaves/digital highway. Sign me up for your podcast.

    JenB



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