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The Power of Co-op Radio

Who will protect what coop radio offers: local heart, soul and brains?

By Bill Metcalfe 28 Jul 2004 | TheTyee.ca
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Today a friend approached me on Baker Street in Nelson in the middle of Streetfest. We watched a group of airborne dancer/climber/insects break out of cocoons two stories above the street, crawl head-first down the side of the Burns Building, then back up again as butterflies.  After we applauded and put money in the hat, my friend turned to a more mundane matter. Referring to the current bitter labour dispute between the City Of Nelson and its unionized employees, she said, "That interview with the union rep the other day really helped me clarify my thoughts about this labour dispute. Thanks."

Later on I wandered in to a Nelson bookstore to escape the Streetfest crowds and heat. I told my friend Catherine behind the counter that I wanted to browse the magazines. "If you're looking for Porch," she said, referring to a new locally-produced magazine, "we sold out of that right after you guys interviewed the editor yesterday morning."

A couple of days earlier, an acquaintance phoned me and said, "Hey, I heard that interview about the economics of happiness. Very interesting. Can I get a tape of it? You should do more of that kind of thing."

The union rep, the editor of Porch, and the happiness economist (all Nelson residents) were all interviewed on Nelson Before Nine, a daily public affairs morning show on Kootenay Co-op Radio (KCR). Such casual and unsolicited references to the show are quite common on the street in Nelson these days.

National excellence award

Nelson Before Nine won this year's $2000 Programming Excellence Award from the National Campus and Community Radio Association. There are about 200 such stations across the country--they range from some quite elaborate operations in big cities to tiny projects in First Nations communities in the North. B.C. has six campus/community stations which receive funding and accommodation from their institutions, and three community stations (Vancouver, Lillooet, and Nelson) which are entirely independent.

I am the founder, the co-coordinator, and one of the hosts of Nelson Before Nine and its predecessor weekly show, The Orange Bridge, which was KCR's first foray into public affairs broadcasting. When we started these shows, we had very little radio experience and no radio journalism experience at all. We've been teaching ourselves this discipline ever since, sometimes systematically, sometimes by trial and error.

Nelson Before Nine has led our station from the margins into the mainstream in Nelson. But it's not quite the same mainstream occupied by the two commercial stations or the CBC. It's deeper and more local.  A couple of years ago, when we started Nelson Before Nine, we often had the uneasy feeling that there was no one out there because the only feedback we got was from our families. That's because in the early days of the station, it was seen by the few people who were even aware of us as a sort of exclusive hippie leftist new-age enclave.

'Paid your dues'

Now we are recognized by most parts of the community as a valuable part of local media. The manager of one of the local commercial stations recently told me he listens to us often. "We respect you because you've paid your dues," he said. Not that we've been out to gain favour with those stations, but it's interesting that they see us that way now.

We often explore issues and views not regularly available here in the mainstream broadcast media. Nelson Before Nine led the charge, for example, in a couple of local environmental issues last year, and we (along with By the People, a KCR show which explores local democracy and politics) have analyzed the current municipal labour dispute in more depth than any other media. We sometimes interview politicians, citizens, or experts elsewhere in the province if the issue is broader than Nelson. We've interviewed several writers about interesting stories they've written for The Tyee.

But we don't stick exclusively to controversial politics. We interviewed the Rotary Club when they contributed money to re-build the playground at Lakeside Park. The playground is not radical, alternative subject matter, but lots of people care about it, and covering such things on Nelson Before Nine invites the community into the station. Because we have done three or four local stories every weekday for three years, a large percentage of Nelson's 10,000 people have been interviewed on the show, or know someone who has been.

Daily scramble

CBC radio is a player here, of course, but their reporter covers the entire southeast part of the province, and there is rarely a mention of Nelson.

Nelson Before Nine runs from 7 to 9 am Monday through Thursday. There is a different host and tech for each day. The coordinators and the hosts collaborate on deciding and arranging stories to cover, and we have a database on the station's website to keep ourselves posted on what each other is doing. We cover politics, social issues, and culture. We do live interviews, phone interviews, pre-produced pieces, panel discussions, and music.

The show has the same format every day, but each day is also different because it takes on the personality of that day's host. Everyone involved with the show is a volunteer. We've had some turnover of hosts--the job is very demanding for people with jobs and families, and we're trying to get more behind-the-scenes help to lighten the load on the on-air people.

Strengthening the alternative

I went to the NCRA's annual conference in Edmonton in June to receive the award and attend workshops and meetings for a week. I hung out with dozens of people doing the same thing I do: providing alternative radio to our communities with few resources other than the expertise and good will of those communities.

At KCR, our only source of funding is individual memberships and local small business sponsorships (we sell sponsor mentions and short sponsor messages that don't sound like commercial ads). We operate with one full-time staff person and about 80 volunteers. And with that we provide more local news, more opportunities for local people to talk to each other, and a greater variety of music than you'll hear anywhere else  (example of music variety:  punk, bluegrass, classical, avant-garde jazz, reggae, and hip-hop all in the same day).

At the Edmonton conference there were discussions about how to collaborate to provide a national alternative radio news network. In the U.S. there are some good alternative news shows, and we run some of them on our station: Democracy Now, Counterspin, Alternative Radio, This Way Out. Sometimes we wonder about running this American programming--must we rely on the Americans even for alternative international news?  But until we can create our own, the American stuff is really good.  And Canadian radio people have begun to produce some good alternative syndicated radio programs: Wings, a show about women, is from Simon Fraser University radio; Native Solidarity News is produced at CKUT radio at McGill. We run both of these weekly on KCR.

Volunteers welcome

On paper, the Canadian Radio and Television Commission (CRTC) considers campus and community radio to be a separate sector, and the commission explicitly states that the mandate of such stations is to be run by volunteers and to provide programming not heard on commercial stations or on the CBC. The implication is that they will support and defend us. What will they have to say about the impending invasion of 200 specialized digital radio stations, mostly from the U.S., available on satellite and cable?

While we wait for that one to play itself out, we need a few more volunteers at Nelson Before Nine to host the show, tech it, do research, follow up on that labour dispute story, and interview those dancer/climber/butterflies when they descend from the air above Baker street.

Nelson Before Nine host Bill Metcalfe will be contributing reports to The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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