By Joe Friesen
Caitlin Gaudet came to Toronto dreaming of a career in radio. Ryerson, a university with a renowned broadcast journalism program and an award-winning campus radio station, seemed the ideal place for her. Six months later, Gaudet has a hard time convincing herself she made the right choice.
Ryerson’s campus radio station is tucked away in the bowels of Jorgenson Hall, hidden in the dark recesses behind CopyRite. Located at the margins of the FM dial, 88.1 CKLN FM is mandated to give a voice to those outside the mainstream of society. In the 20 years since it became Toronto’s first licensed campus radio station, CKLN has been a venue for underground music, political dissidence and innovative community programming. It even won the 2000 campus radio station of the year award.
But it has not always been welcoming to Ryerson students.
Gaudet, 23, is in the first year of the graduate journalism program. Last year she had her own show on Queen’s campus radio. Despite her knowledge and experience, Gaudet’s hopes of working for Ryerson radio were crushed last September during a volunteer orientation tour given by a CKLN staff member.
“He said, ‘Any of you who want your own radio shows are out of luck. You might have one in a couple of years,’” said Gaudet.
Undaunted, Gaudet signed up as a volunteer. She said she was willing to answer phones or stuff envelopes to assist with FundFest, CKLN’s 10-day fundraising drive.
She dropped by their office twice. She left her phone number. She phones them. No one from CKLN ever contacted her.
“It was really discouraging. I was really upset,” she said.
CKLN station manager Conrad Collaco was surprised by Gaudet’s story.
“Based on the feedback I’ve received this year and in general I don’t think this student’s experience is typical,” said Collaco.
CKLN receives about $95,000 from Ryerson students every year, with each student contributing $8. 70 to staff salaries and station maintenance. The station’s rent, heat, security and electricity costs are also covered by the university.
Still, some say the station should do more to honour that arrangement by accommodating the interests of Ryerson students.
Lori Beckstead, a professor in the Radio and Television Arts program, said her students don’t derive much benefit from their campus radio station.
“There are very few RTA students who get involved at CKLN,” she said. “There’s one or two every year, and we have 400 students in our program, so it’s a pretty negligible percentage.”
Before the RTA program created their own digital radio station, SPIRITlive, Beckstead said her students were sometimes frustrated by the fact that they could not get involved with CKLN, the station their fees were subsidizing.
“In my experience, “said Beckstead, “CKLN is not interested in having RTA students participate.”
That is due in part, she said, to the high standard of programming at CKLN and also to a gulf in taste, maturity and outlook which separates station management from most students.
Collaco, whose station reaches 150,000 listeners, said that no professor from RTA has ever contacted him about this matter.
“We’ve been very open to RTA students and students in general,” he said. “We’ve had people talk about our news programming in RTA classes.”
Suanne Kelman, head of the broadcasting division in the Ryerson school of journalism, said that fewer journalism students are involved with CKLN than one might think.
“It’s partly our responsibility, in that as a broadcast division we haven’t approached them,” said Kelman. “I am surprised, however, that they’ve never approached us for volunteers or looked into what we do in our classes in terms of content they could broadcast.”
Gaudet, who may now host a show on University of Toronto campus radio, said the problem with CKLN is that it’s being run for a community radio audience and not for Ryerson students.
“It seems that everyone who works there is not a student,” said Gaudet. “They’re all in their 30s.”
Collaco, 33, is one of the station’s paid staff. He said there are perhaps 250 volunteers who contribute thousands of hours to the station’s operations. Although he couldn’t specify precisely, he said many of those volunteers are students.
Despite the fact that many of CKLN’s programs are produced by people who are not Ryerson students, Collaco said the station’s volunteer program is working.
“It’s really open to anyone who wants to put the time in, and that’s something our listeners can sense,” said Collaco. “That’s why they sense community here. They know they can come in and be a part of the broadcasting experience.”
Carlos Flores, a former CKLN volunteer and future RyeSAC vice-president education, has had an entirely positive experience at the radio station. He said most students would be similarly welcome, but that perhaps his politics views made him a good fit.
“I think in some ways you need people who are of the same frame of mind to be able to work in tandem. I think for me the fact that I was involved in that kind of progressive scenario and CKLN itself is progressive, we’ve kind of bonded in that way,” said Flores.
Gaudet also thinks of herself as politically progressive. But she was surprised that CKLN asked her to define her political views when she wanted to volunteer.
“The first thing they said was, ‘What are your politics? We’re really left-wing around here,’” said Gaudet. “It was clear they wouldn’t take you unless you had left-wing politics.”
Collaco said this was not part of the station’s official message to students.
“If a volunteer orientation host would say something like that to a student I would be very surprised and disappointed. And I will inquire as to whether or not this is actually the message that is being delivered to students,” he said.
Odelia Bay, 24, will be graduating from the journalism program this June.
She got involved with CKLN in 1997, before she had even started her degree at Ryerson.
Bay said station staff and volunteers couldn’t have been more welcoming, and she volunteered behind the scenes for about a year before being given her first production work.
She recommends that new students pick certain programming events to get involved with, such as this week’s 100 hours of women-focused programming for International Women’s Day, if they want a chance to do hands-on program making.
“CKLN is a different voice that you wouldn’t hear in the mainstream media,” said Bay. “Also the experience of being able to be a part of community radio is important to me. It’s just so much fun.”
RyeSAC President Darren Cooney said he is aware that some barriers exist for students who would like to work in campus radio, but said the issue has not been a subject of discussion at RyeSAC this year.
“A lot of people feel it’s more community focused and I think any shift towards a student focus would be beneficial for Ryerson students and for the station as a whole,” said Cooney.
Cooney said that, as an organization independent of Ryerson government, CKLN is entitled to do as it sees fit, but that student government would step in if students demanded it.
In 1999, RyeSAC created an ad-hoc committee to examine CKLN’s operations. In addition to making several recommendations related to what the committee describes as CKLN’s failure to provide adequate campus programming and opportunities for student involvement and training, the committee raised some questions about CKLN’s finances.
CKLN receives about $75,000 from its annual fundraising drive, and that, combined with student fees, pays for the bulk of the station’s operating costs. Advertising revenue, usually in the region of $60,000, is the next largest revenue stream.
CKLN chooses to reject advertising from large corporations, particularly those deemed to have poor labour standards or political histories. The 1999 RyeSAC committee report, however, recommended that CKLN “capitalize on its maximum available advertising space” and that a “political balance must be realized between ensuring the integrity of the station and placing additional financial burdens on students.”
“Compared to mainstream radio we do have restrictions around advertising that are stringent,” said Collaco.” We aren’t a place for advertisers who are connected to the military-industrial complex.”
At the University of Toronto’s campus radio station, CIUT, station manager Brian Burchell scoffs at the idea of an embargo on big business advertisers.
“In campus radio the revenue from advertising is too small to begin with,” he said. “If you want to start shrinking the already too-small pie because you think you’re making a difference in the world, then you’re working against yourself.”
Collaco produced thick binders of listener surveys to prove that the CKLN audience appreciated the absence of slick corporate advertising which offends them.
CKLN has been paying off its debt consistently for the past several years.
At present, the station owes between $50,000 and $60,000 on two outstanding bank loans and repayments are proceeding on schedule.
Three years ago, when Brian Burchell started work at CIUT, the station was in much worse financial trouble.
“When I arrived here in 1999 there was a blacklist of companies that couldn’t advertise because of a policy, and it was quite broad,” he said.
By the end of last year, CIUT had paid off $147,000 of its $150,000, in part by selling its overnight airtime to an internet radio company. Collaco said there are no plans for a change in advertising policy at CKLN.
He said CKLN is committed to a political stance which will serve the interests of students.
“We are the loudest and strongest voice for Ryerson students and students in general on the airwaves,” said Collaco. “We’re a station that pushes the student agenda, like lower tuition fees, more money for education, better education facilities.”
For Caitlin Gaudet, none of this seems of much use.
“They see themselves as being an alternative voice for a certain kind of politics,” she said. “I just don’t think that if you’re going to call yourself a student radio station you should exclude students.”