By Nicole Cohen
Denise Benson runs down a stairwell in Jorgenson Hall lugging a black backpack full of records that’s almost bigger than she is.
She bursts into CKLN’s basement studio and dumps her stuff on the desk amid a flurry of CDs and notes.
Then, without even looking, she flips a switch on the mixing board and jazzy beats fill the room.
Benson’s body relaxes and starts moving to the music.
She’s in the zone, ready for another edition of Mental Chatter, the show she has been hosting on 88.1 FM for the past 13 years.
She brings a giant collection of CDs and records — her own personal library of dub and deep house music — that she spreads around the studio to spin during the three-hour show.
“It’s probably a bad idea to bring this much stuff in,” she says, “but I’m just a little music-addicted.”
Benson is addicted to what she calls “nu jazz,” a modern take on dub and house music with a jazz influence.
It’s this addiction that fuels her desire to host Mental Chatter each week. Benson is a popular DJ on the Toronto airwaves and she could probably get a job at a mainstream station, but CKLN gives her the freedom to play the music she loves.
“It’s flexible,” she says. “They give me room to follow my passions, which essentially is the antithesis of commercial radio.”
At 11 a.m., Benson fires up the turntables to cue a record and puts her headphones on. She’s ready to roll.
Her radio voice is low and calm, never letting listeners know the studio is a hectic place.
She plays 45 minutes of solid music followed by three ads, one for Salad King, a nearby Thai restaurant, and two promotions for upcoming CKLN-sponsored events. The ads were made in the station’s own production booth.
CKLN’s studio is humble, with a “make the best with what you’ve got” feel to it. The green door is plastered with band stickers and the blue walls are lined with CDs and tapes. There are two turntables, a CD player and a mixer.
While Benson works, the studio door is wide open. A friend drops by to bring her coffee and a record label publicist bringers her a record that hasn’t been released yet.
She loves getting new music before it hits the shelves. Her face lights up and she puts the LP on.
The campus station thrives because of its diversity and independence. It focuses on music, opinions and ideas that are underrepresented on commercial airwaves.
CKLN’s lineup includes such a programs as “Please Kill Me,” a punk show that starts at 2 a.m., “Renegade Radio,” an evening show about First Nations culture, and “Satan Takes a Holiday,” which spins five hours of early-morning deathcore funk.
All of the shows are targeted to audiences that can’t find the music they want anywhere else on the dial.
“People who listen to mainstream radio can’t wrap their heads around that,” says Benson. “I can’t listen to corporate radio with two minutes of commercials between every song.”
Commercials are few and far between on CKLN. The Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission allows CKLN to have corporate advertisers, but the station chooses not to.
While the music is playing, Benson is busy filling out paperwork, preparing for her next interview and answering the studio’s phone.
She measures Mental Chatter’s success by the audience’s response. Today the phone lines are ringing off the hook.
People call to ask about a track she just played or to compliment her on the show. She is always cheerful and thanks callers for listening.
“The phone calls keep me going. It feels very fresh giving something to people.”
Upstairs in CKLN’s cramped office, located behind CopyRite, station manager Conrad Collaco works an average of 60 hours a week keeping the music playing and unpaid DJs like Benson on the air.
CKLN has only seven paid staff members, two full-time and five part-time. The rest of the work is done by more than 150 volunteers.
Most people are not there for the money. “It’s about working in an environment that is meaningful,” Collaco says.
“There is great energy and creative expression. It is easy to spend a lot of time here for not great pay.”
The office is tiny, cluttered and buzzing with activity. Volunteers are on the phone organizing sponsors and advertisers, DJs are filling CDs in an alphabetized cabinet and everyone is talking shop.
The newest conversation piece in the office is the framed gold record hanging proudly on the wall. It’s the campus station of the year award CKLN received at the Canadian Music Awards last March.
The Toronto Star and Details magazine have called CKLN the most innovative radio station in North America.
Collaco says it’s on the cutting edge. Among the bands that got their start on CKLN are the Barenaked Ladies, Blue Rodeo, Maestro and the Cowboy Junkies.
“In five years mainstream radio will pick up what we’re playing now. They’ll market it when the music can sell potato chips.”
Keeping that edge takes money though.
The CKLN library, a room tucked away in the basement studio, looks like a vinyl collector’s wet dreams. Squished into a corner among thousands of records, volunteers sit at a small table answering telephones.
They’re feverishly working on the fundFEST campaign, the only 10 days of the year when CKLN solicits financial support from listeners. By Sunday at 9 p.m., the station hopes to raise $125,000, which is more than half its $220,000 operating budget.
A neon green chart on the wall above the volunteers tracks their progress. After three days, they have raised $30,000.
“fundFEST is a great time at the station,” Collaco says. “We’re told by listeners how much they appreciate us.”
During Benson’s show on Monday, the phones keep ringing and donations pour in to the 10 volunteers.
Handmade signs on the wall remind DJs to tell their listeners why it’s important to donate. “Fiercely Independent,” says one, and “CKLN gives you what other stations can’t.”
It’s nearing 2 p.m. and Benson’s three hours on the air are almost up. She has played a taped interview from Austria with DJ Dorfmeister, spun as much new music as her time has allowed, and plugged events such as Chicksdigit, an all-female DJ night she pins at every Wednesday.
Soon she signs off, packs up her equipment and rushes out of the studio, back to her other jobs as a columnist for the Eye and Exclaim magazines and as a resident DJ at events across Toronto.
“It’s exhausting, intense and incredibly rewarding,” she says. “I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t get immense satisfaction out of it.”