Elissa Matthews has come to expect an incredulous response when she tells people her radio station is gunning for a spot on the AM dial.
As program manager of Ryerson’s student-run campus station The Scope, Matthews knows a thing or two about AM radio. Along with the rest of The Scope’s staff and volunteer team, she has spent the past year spearheading the station’s application for an AM broadcasting licence. But she’s the first to admit that the group’s new vision requires some explanation. “I’m used to people saying, ‘Oh, why aren’t you doing FM?’”
Matthews has been fielding that question since The Scope was formed in April 2013, but it doesn’t faze her. “It’s exciting to think about how it could be different,” she says. “It’s a project that I believe in.”
While AM stations like Newstalk 1010 and 680News remain heavy-hitters in Toronto’s radio scene, the dial has been losing listeners for decades. The FM dial’s better sound quality, wider listenership and greater advertising appeal have made it the darling of commercial radio since the 1970s. And while half of all radio listeners in the United States still tuned into AM in 1978, that number had dropped to 15 per cent by 2011.
Those waning numbers have not done AM radio’s reputation any favours. In 2013, The American Spectator went so far as to declare it dead. But The Scope believes the dial could be a viable launching point for a new age of radio at Ryerson, whose presence on the airwaves has been null for the past three years.
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission will determine the fate of the application at a hearing on Sept. 25. While the decision won’t likely be announced until the end of the year, the station’s staff is optimistic. If their current application is successful, The Scope will finally get the chance to demonstrate that the radio community at Ryerson is not yet dead, and neither is AM radio.
Radio Ryerson Inc. didn’t initially set out to secure a spot on the AM bandwidth. When the corporation was established by a group of Ryerson students and staff in September 2011, its raison d’être was a coveted spot on the FM dial.
The frequency, 88.1 FM, was the last spot available on the GTA’s crowded spectrum. For 28 years, it had been home to CKLN-FM, Ryerson University’s first independent student-run campus station. But that station disappeared in a haze of smoke when non-compliance and infighting spurred the CRTC to revoke its licence in January 2011.
Among other complaints, CKLN failed to file three years’ annual returns and was not meeting the requirements for musical diversity programming. Police had been called to the campus station on numerous occasions to deal with conflicts among the station’s operators, several of whom had launched lawsuits against each other.
When the 88.1 frequency went back on the market in September 2011, Radio Ryerson was ready. Backed by a board of Ryerson University representatives, students and community members, the newly minted corporation worked round-the-clock to put together an application and reclaim the FM frequency. But the group was up against 21 other applicants, many of whom had far greater resources. In September 2012, Radio Ryerson’s bid for 88.1 FM was rejected in favour of the commercial station Indie88.
Jacky Tuinstra Harrison, who helped organize that application before taking on her current role as The Scope’s general manager, remembers the heartbreak that accompanied that decision. “We were really disappointed,” she recalls. “We put forward a really strong performance, and worked as hard as we could on an extremely short timeline.”
With a return to the FM dial off the table, the Radio Ryerson board had to make some tough decisions. The weeks and months that followed were filled with board meetings, phone calls and numerous studies. Harrison and her colleagues considered giving up on terrestrial broadcasting altogether. But in the end, they couldn’t let it go. The board voted in favour of pursuing a spot on the AM dial, and in April 2013 The Scope was born.
For Harrison, getting Ryerson’s community radio station on the air is a matter of civic debate, regardless of which dial they end up on. She’s quick to point out that while the airwaves are a public resource, Toronto has fewer community broadcasters than most Canadian cities. “Toronto has impoverished itself of this civic dialogue, and it would be greatly enriched by more community dialogue and community broadcasting.”
Podcasts and digital programming are transforming the radio landscape, but Harrison is convinced that the traditional terrestrial format is far from dead. As industry regulators begin to address the changes, she wants Ryerson faculty and students to be part of the conversation.
“It’s important that we are a player. It only makes sense,” she says. “Because we don’t have a licence, we don’t have a seat at that table. We’re not a stakeholder in some of the biggest decisions about how we’re going to look at media in this country … If we have a broadcasting licence, we have more credibility.”
Same but different
At its heart, campus community radio exists to foster debate and give voice to those who aren’t represented by commercial or public broadcasters. Harrison and Matthews are adamant that they will be able to do just that on the AM frequency.
A spot on the dial would make The Scope more accessible to marginalized communities by ensuring that their programs could be reached by anybody with a cheap AM/FM receiver – not just those with an Internet connection.
Of course, that doesn’t mean the AM dial is the be-all and end-all for The Scope. While an AM licence will ensure that the station has a strong, accessible voice in the community, Harrison has every intention to continue to develop The Scope’s digital operations.
“This is a trans-media model,” says Harrison. “It’s really important in this day and age, and it’s really fun. We’re on the cusp of something new … we’re not living in 1970. And yes, traditional media is a piece of the pie – it’s kind of like the hook we hang it on.”
Still, the shift away from the FM dial will inevitably change the nature of The Scope’s programming. Unlike their FM counterparts, AM radio waves become muffled and distorted in downtown urban areas where densely packed buildings block transmission. That gives the dial a sometimes grating static undertone that can be abrasive to those used to high-fidelity sound.
As improved sound quality prompted commercial music stations to cross over to the FM band, AM radio began to focus more on spoken word programming: news, talk shows, and sports commentary. Those trends are reflected in The Scope’s plans for its future broadcasts.
“The content we’re proposing is different than what we proposed in the FM application,” says Harrison. “There are more live events, and there’s more long-format talk — almost a curatorial programming approach.”
Recent radio trends suggest that this approach may be popular with The Scope’s target audience. In recent years, programs like This American Life and Radiolab have created a wave of new interest in a very distinctive form of long-format spoken word programming.
Across the city at the University of Toronto’s campus radio station CIUT, station manager Ken Stowar has seen a huge increase in the number of students looking to get involved as volunteers. He attributes it in large part to the rise of these new show formats. “A lot of people have come to me because they listen to This American Life and shows like that. They’ve been very influential.”
That may bode well for stations on the AM dial. After all, it’s exactly the sort of programming that AM radio is suited for. Whereas the crackly AM waves may not give listeners the sound quality they have come to expect for music broadcasts, they have long been known as a dependable source of quality talk-based programming.
Campus radio, community airwaves
Unlike FM, whose financial appeal has made it a dedicated hub for mainstream, commercial content, the AM dial is populated with hyper-local content that serves audiences the FM dial tends to ignore.
“It seems to me the natural sort of ‘poor cousin’ if you will,” says Lori Beckstead, an associate professor with Ryerson’s RTA school of media. “It’s kind of natural that the AM dial would be a really interesting place, because it doesn’t have the same demands for mainstream commercial programming.”
That could make AM the perfect home for a station like The Scope. In fact, Harrison sees the dial as a viable alternative for a new age of artistic community radio, both at Ryerson and beyond.
“Commercial broadcasters aren’t seeking the AM dial because they simply can’t make enough money off of it,” says Harrison. “That leaves a wide-open space for people to use it for what they call artisanal radio … I think you’ll see more creative use of the AM band as smaller groups say, ‘Hey, this is something that we can now actually afford to pursue.’”
If The Scope is looking for proof that there is high potential for success on the AM dial, then it need look no further than Montreal’s CJLO, a wildly successful campus radio station out of Concordia University.
The station aims to promote local, independent and underground acts from across Canada — playing everything from Norwegian death metal to Calypso, according to station manager Matthieu Barrot. In addition to providing extensive musical programming, CJLO runs various talk-oriented programs, from politics to comedy and shows about video games.
If the AM dial’s sound quality is affecting the music, Barrot hasn’t noticed. At any rate, it certainly hasn’t hurt the station’s popularity. Since gaining its broadcast licence six years ago, the station made the Huffington Post’s 2010 list of top 10 college radio stations in North America. It has also won numerous awards, including a nomination on Sept. 15 for Station of the Year in the College Music Journal’s annual College Radio Awards.
Barrot is a champion of the AM dial. “There’s something great about being on AM,” he says. “It’s that old-school feel, you know?”
He believes it’s only a matter of time until other community stations catch on and decide to take advantage of the resources available on the AM band.
“I think the AM dial will grow,” he says. “I think it will get a lot more popular. People are for the most part pretty sick of being spoon-fed their music … eventually, they’re going to switch that FM dial over to AM, and they’re going to see that there’s a lot more resources out there.”
Regardless of whether or not other stations follow suit, Matthews has no qualms about The Scope’s decision to take on the AM frequency. “People who want to hear alternative will seek it out,” she says. “Campus community radio, you know, it’s often lower-powered. It’s often a little bit harder to get. And if you want it, you will find it.”
Over at CIUT, Ken Stowar agrees. “AM (stations), I think a lot of people are ready to write them off,” he says. “But I don’t care what you’re broadcasting on. What it boils down to is content. If you are delivering interesting, powerful, compelling radio, you’ll have listeners. It doesn’t matter.”
This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on Sept. 24, 2014.