The spirit of (local) radio: How one tiny Ontario station keeps listeners tuning in

At Amherst Island’s CJAI 92.1 FM, volunteers host shows, work the mixing board, and woo advertisers — it’s just one of many small local radio stations across the province trying to do more with less
By David Rockne Corrigan - Published on February 1, 2019
a building that houses a community radio station in eastern Ontario
Since it was founded in 2006, the station has made its home in Dayle Gowan’s milk house. (David Rockne Corrigan)

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AMHERST ISLAND — Radio host Brian Little takes a quick break from playing hit songs from 1975 on his weekly Friday Morning Show to throw to Keith Miller and the CJAI traffic chopper.

“Thanks, Brian!” Miller yells over the sound of swooshing blades. “Your traffic update for Amherst Island: There are four cars in the ferry lineup. A few cars stopped at Concession Road 2 taking pictures of the snowy owls. This concludes your traffic update!”

Miller, an 78-year-old former dairy farmer, gives Little a satisfied grin as he pulls away from the microphone and puts down an oscillating fan with “CJAI Chopper” written on it in black Sharpie. It’s clearly one of Miller’s favourite gags.

CJAI 92.1 FM, a community radio station on Amherst Island, about 30 kilometres west of Kingston, in Lake Ontario, was created in 2006 by a group of residents — including veteran broadcaster Peter Trueman, who had retired to the island — to promote local content and community events. It now reaches roughly 10,000 listeners from Picton to the western edge of Kingston and airs more than 40 hours a week of live shows: Jazz Jim’s Vault (jazz classics and history), Saturday Night Barn Burner (lesser-known artists with a focus on rock), Sally’s Books (readings from selected books), and Birding (birding), to name just a few.

Like most of Ontario’s 54 campus and community radio stations, it relies on a team of dedicated volunteers to keep it running and is fighting to survive in a rapidly changing media landscape. And CJAI’s fight for survival has only gotten tougher since it learned that it may lose Dayle Gowan’s milk house — the building that’s been its home since the station’s inception.

“When they first started, they basically had no money, and this old milk house just had some junk, so I said, ‘Do you want to use it?’” says Gowan.

In 2010, Gowan also became the station manager. At 77 years old, however, he’s now finally trying to “untangle” himself from CJAI.

“I’m not going to live forever, and my heirs may not want to have a radio station on this property,” he says.

The eviction would be an amicable affair, but the prospect is forcing the station to plan for a future in which the rent will no longer be free. It did receive a $25,000 Trillium grant in 2008, but that was for one year only. According to CJAI president Eric Tremblay, the station will have go through a restructuring and double its revenue — currently, it’s making do on less than $20,000 a year.

Part of the restructuring has involved efforts to boost advertising revenue. Tremblay believes that, until recently, CJAI had the cheapest rates in the province “by a country mile.” Now, they’re 10 times higher (although, Tremblay notes, they’re still cheaper than those of commercial radio) — and the station is starting to see a payoff. It’s also building local partnerships: the most recent led to a new name for its headquarters — the Spearhead Brewing Studio.

“The approach has to be a lot more professional,” says Tremblay, who works full-time in the engineering faculty at Queen’s University and is part of a growing group of non-islanders that volunteer at the station. "We have to transform ourselves from a bunch of people that like each other and think it’s cool to be a little WKRP in Cincinnati floating in Lake Ontario — to transform that into a business.”

CJAI isn’t the only community radio station feeling the pressure to increase revenue.

“More stations are showing a loss in the past year,” says Barry Rooke, executive director of the National Campus and Community Radio Association, noting that revenues are dropping, while expenses, such as equipment upgrades and rent, are increasing. “In 2019,” he says, “stations will need to do more with less.” Between 10 to 15 stations in Canada, he adds, manage on less than $20,000 a year.

Despite the financial challenges involved — not to mention the rise of podcasts and streaming services such as Spotify — Rooke says that community radio is “actively growing.” In 2002, there were approximately 90 community and campus radio stations in Canada, he says. There are now more than 180. In a January submission to the Broadcasting and Telecommunications Legislative Review Panel, the NCRA estimated that community radio employs more than 700 Canadians, is supported by 10,000 volunteers, and produces more than 1 million hours of local programming each year.

“Local content has bottomed out in a lot of places,” says Rooke. “These areas are not profitable when it comes to commercial endeavours, and the CBC can’t cover the entire local perspective. So it’s left to community radio stations to fill the gap.”

CJAI, he says — where “you have to walk past the cows to get to the station” — is a perfect example of that dynamic at work.

Sally Bowen, who hosts Sally’s Books (when she’s not helping operate a sheep farm down the road) says that volunteering at the radio station allows her to give back to the island.

“I’ve had Lyme disease for 22 years. I’m fairly handicapped,” says Bowen, who pre-records her shows from home. “But I love reading, and I really like contributing to the community. Being able to do this from my bed enabled me to do that.”

“She’s our Oprah Winfrey,” says Dave Wreggitt, the station’s vice-president and host of Funraising.

“Not bloody likely,” Bowen replies.

Wreggitt says it’s the ability to be his true self on the air that keeps him coming back every week —  for others, it’s the thrill of live broadcasting or a passion for music (or books, or cheese) that inspires them to volunteer.

For Miller, the former dairy farmer who hosts a history show and works part-time at the island’s landfill, it’s the social factor. He loves to chat with other islanders about the latest news and gossip.

“The two social hubs on the island are the radio station and the dump,” he jokes. “The radio station smells a bit better, though.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting eastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Queen’s University.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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