By Adrian Morrow
On a Tuesday night, CKLN’s board of directors is kicking its own staff out of their meeting. The board is planning to discuss the hiring of a station manager and the unionization of the campus community radio station’s staff. The workers want to be there for the discussion.
“Is the board accountable to the community and the volunteers or is it accountable only to itself?” volunteer Susy Alvarez asks the board members angrily. They tell her that they’ll be discussing legal issues so they have to meet behind closed doors.
“This is undemocratic,” shouts DJ Don Weitz as he leaves the room.
The staff are accusing the board of shutting them out of key decisions and conducting business in secret. The situation might seem unusually hostile, but CKLN is no stranger to trouble.
Since its birth nearly 30 years ago, Ryerson’s resident radio station has had to deal with recurring financial problems and accusations of not being accessible to Ryerson students. Its workers have no job descriptions, and it hasn’t had a station manager in almost four years.
Despite all this, it’s thriving: one set of ratings pegged its listenership at 150,000, and the station has won a string of awards.
The odds have been stacked against it, but CKLN has improbably risen to become one of the top alternative radio stations in North America.
Started by a bunch of Radio Television Arts students in 1977 with the call letters CRFM, the station was broadcast into the lounges and hallways of the school.
“It was really a hodgepodge of people,” the station’s first manager, Patrick Nagle, recalled some 25 years later. “CKLN had a long way to go before it became a serious radio operation.”
In 1983 it received an FM licence and took to the airwaves of the city. It quickly became known for its alternative programming and left-wing politics.
Norman “Otis” Richmond has been at CKLN since that year. He currently hosts Saturday Morning Live, the station’s main news show.
“I can get away with things here that I couldn’t get away with on mainstream radio,” says Richmond, who regularly plays broadcasts from radio journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, who is currently serving a life sentence for allegedly shooting a police officer. “People call in, we talk about issues. CKLN provides a voice for a lot of people who can’t get on the air in those other places.”
The station evolved from a student product into a community station with a clutch of hardcore fans and an anti-corporate bent.
Journalism student Jeff Semple got involved with the station three years ago. He quickly became acquainted with the station’s alternative content and its devoted listeners.
“One of the very first times I did my show, I played this Our Lady Peace song…the phone rings and a listener says ‘what is this crap? Don’t tell me you’re playing Our Lady Peace on CKLN’,” he says. “I realized that’s how much listeners are dedicated to alternative radio.”
On another occasion, an irate listener crashed the studio after Semple played a Rogers ad on the air, breaking the station’s policy of declining ads from large corporations.
Listeners weren’t the only ones paying attention to what the small station was doing: on three occasions the Toronto Star named CKLN the best radio station in the city and in 2001, Canadian Music Week rated it the best campus community station in the country.
But while CKLN was on the rise in listenership and reputation, it had constant problems.
At one point in the early ‘90s, students irritated by the station’s lack of student involvement started a referendum to cut the station’s funding from the school. The station won the referendum.
By the late 1990s, years of slipshod accounting and borrowing money had saddled the station with an enormous debt.
“CKLN was struggling financially and had taken out a series of loans and advances from RyeSAC,” recalls David Steele, RyeSAC’s president in 1998 when then-station manager Conrad Collaco approached him looking to increase student funding for the station. “They were trying to improve, but every year it kept going in the other direction.”
The station’s request was successful, but it still had a debt of more than $100,000 by 2003. What’s more, CKLN hadn’t paid taxes in two years and they weren’t auditing their financial statements.
Mike Phillips has been a radio engineer for more than 50 years. Within a couple of years of joining the station in 2001, the 66-year-old found himself on the board trying to clean up CKLN’s finances.
“I’ve taken small radio stations through transitions before,” he says. “We had to figure out a solution that would work.”
Luckily, RyeSAC agreed to wipe out CKLN’s debt in exchange for taking control of the station’s finances.
Last year, police raided the studio of Ron Anicich, whose show “Bad Cop, No Donut!” was devoted to discussing police brutality.
A few months later, the station fired hosts Daniel Besharat and Greg Duffell after they criticized the board for redirecting a donation for their show to another one. The duo sued the station in retaliation.
CKLN is still plagued by conflict, with the staff and volunteers angry at the board.
“The board doesn’t really talk to the staff,” says Tien Providence, a staff member and host of CKLN’s jazz program.
He says the board is trying to micromanage the station, not allowing employees or volunteers to make decisions on small issues such as T-shirt designs.
“We think they’re talking about things they don’t want us to know about,” says Tara-Michelle Ziniuk, who’s volunteered with the station for 10 years and currently serves as news director.
As well, the station still hasn’t replaced Collaco since he left the station in 2003 to take a job at the CBC.
Despite the problems, the station continues to thrive. It’s improved its accounting to keep the finances in the black, and, thanks in part to internships and partnerships with campus groups and the Ram in the Rye, more students are getting involved at the station.
The unionization drive was successful and staff hope it will improve their work environment.
“On one hand, the station works very well, on the other hand you wonder ‘where is this going?’ It’s the people at the station and the spirit that keeps it going,” says Providence.
Phillips credits the station’s success to its eclectic programming, which puts everything from hip-hop to politics to jazz on the air.
“We tend to cover a wider range of subjects than most stations ever do,” he says. “If it’s good programming and there’s a value to the community, there’s a place for it with us.”