Background to Toronto’s “Black” Radio Station Blues


BLACK RADIO BATTERED BY BAD NEWS                 By Clifton Joseph      summer 2011

CKLN off the air Feb 12; CHUM fires FLOW’s “Black” staff; CBC blocks CARN Radio

The Black Radio Industry in Toronto has been hit with a barrage of bad news for Black History Month, that has left its supporters stunned and reeling from the body blows that threathen to roll back three decades of Black progress on the airwaves. The first, and most devastating blow, came from the CRTC, Canada’s broadcast watchdog, when it announced that it was revoking CKLN’s broadcasting license, ordering the popular, longstanding Ryerson University radio station off the air no later than the end of the day on February 12.

The next set of news that followed was like a punch in the gut when CTV Bell Media subsidiary CHUM, which had bought FLOW, Toronto’s first “Black” mainstream radio station last July, announced that it was cleaning house and firing practically all of its “urban” staff, including all of its Black on/air talents and moving to new offices in its CITY TV building on Queen St. West.

This bruising one-two/punch of black-eye/producing bad news was followed by word that the CBC had CARN Radio on/the/ropes in its quest to get its Caribbean and African radio station on/air at 98.7 FM, leading CARN head Fitzroy Gordon to call the CBC “liars” and prompting Immigration Minister Jason Kenney to accuse the CBC of badmindedly blocking the Black station from launching.

After a more than year-long investigation, in which it said it received numerous complaints about the station’s ability to stay on the air, the soundness of its management team and programming, the Canadian Radio-television And Communications Commission (CRTC) has revoked Ryerson University’s community radio station CKLN-FM’s license, ordering it to cease broadcasting at the end of the day on February 12, after more than twenty-seven years of being Toronto’s “sound of the Underground”. In explaining its decision, by majority vote to revoke the license and pull/the/plug on CKLN, the CRTC catalogued a compendium of complaints and    lack of compliance, concluding that it was, essentially, at/the/end/of/its/rope.

“The Commission has considered all regulatory measures available to it, including the issuance of mandatory orders as well as the suspension or the revocation of the broadcasting license for CKLN-FM. Given the seriousness of the non-compliance and its continuous nature, the inability of CKLN Radio to institute the measures necessary to ensure ongoing compliance, and the lack of confidence on the part of the Commission that such measures could or would be instituted within a reasonable amount of time, the Commission finds that revocation is the only appropriate measure in this case.”

CKLN’s lawyers have launched an appeal and the station is asking its supporters to call their political representatives and to write letters to the station and the CRTC and point people to their website at www.ckln.fm.

In her dissenting opinion, Commissioner Louise Poirier came to CKLN’s defense calling the decision unfair, disproportionate and unprecedented, saying that,

“Revoking CKLN-FM’s license at this time creates a precedent that I cannot endorse. The regulatory measure that has been adopted is disproportionate to the fault. It would have been more transparent and more consistent with the Commission’s usual practices to issue a mandatory order accompanied by close monitoring of the licensee. This would have constituted fair treatment for CKLN-FM Toronto, which has served its community with credibility and passion since 1983 and which has always had its license renewed for full terms, thus leading to the conclusion that the Commission has never been significantly concerned with the licensee’s compliance with its regulatory obligations. At the hearing, the licensee clearly stated its firm intention to comply.

Hastily revoking a campus radio station license in Toronto, Canada’s biggest market, will not send a positive signal to the campus radio community, which consists of organizations comprised mainly of volunteers, who unstintingly contribute time and energy to give their community a voice. This decision is consistent neither with the Commission’s usual practice nor with the spirit of Circular 444. In my opinion, based on the evidence before us, the decision to revoke the license at this time is premature, disproportionate and inequitable.”

CKLN’s internal struggled came to a boiling point in early 2008, when a small group fronted by DJ Tony Barnes staged a coup of sorts, scuttling staff efforts to unionize, fired and laid-off staff, locked out scores of the station’s most popular and powerful programmers and put wall-to-wall looped music and taped shows on the airwaves, for which the CRTC charged non-compliance due to lack of community involvement or oversight by the station.

CKLN was plunged into chaos and split with two contending Boards of Directors leading to a funding stop and a series of counter meetings feuds and other wrangling.

Last summer, however, the Board representing the ousted programmers was able to win back the station and was given a reprieve by the CRTC, with strict stipulations including providing monthly reports and radio logs. The CRTC says that once CKLN began broadcasting again, it “lacked any significant quality-control mechanism for its programming and there was little involvement from the Ryerson University student body despite its status as a campus radio station.” According to the CRTC the station also failed to submit program logs, on-air/tapes, annual reports and other records required by its license.
The CRTC further decided to hold public hearings on December 8 and 9 last year for CKLN to explain its actions. It is now evident from the CRTC decision, that CKLN failed to make its case with the Commission. The station, which moved a few years to the more amenable student centre after more than two decades in the crowded, cavernous basement of Ryerson, was the first campus/community station and led the way for others like CIUT and CHRY. It blazed a trail for 27 years. It held the torch high. Station officials implore supporters to hold/the/faith, pointing to the hope of the appeal. Shelly Robinson, the executive director of the National Campus Community Radio Association, acknowledged that CKLN had problems but was adamant that it was dealing with them; and that she was astonished by the severity of the decision,

“In 2009 the station faced governance issues that led to it not meeting all its regulatory requirements. The station took these problems seriously: creating new processes, responding to all public complaints, re-training new and old volunteers, and filing                                                               all the necessary paperwork. Now operating with more than 150 volunteers, CKLN recently held a funding drive that raised more than $50,000 and sought to hire a new station manager. “We need places where people can speak for themselves, to their own communities.  This is as important in big cities with crowded spectrum as it is in small towns with no other local radio.” “This is a huge loss not just for the city of Toronto, but also for community media across the country”, she ended.

With CKLN down for the count came news that other Black radio jobs were about to go south when CHUM FM, the new owners who bought FLOW for $27 million, announced sweeping changes including the firing of all of its “Black” staff.

Former FLOW morning co-host Mike Strong blogged that, “The only   on-air personalities to remain with the station going forward are Melanie, Jeni, Scott Boogie and Starting From Scratch.  J-Wyze, Devo Brown, Chris Mikes, Jus Red, Dr. Jay, Spex, OTA Live, The Real Frequency, all mix show DJ’s, sales staff, promotions, production crew and even Program Director Wayne Williams will no longer be part of this journey.”

But this wasn’t all, y’all. While CHUM Radio President Chris Gordon would only tell media that he’s committed to “rhythmic” radio, Strong went on to speculate that,

“As for the actual journey, the rumor has it that not only is Flow changing the studios to the Queen St. location, but the format and the name as well, possibly to a top 40 sound and the name of Bounce 93.5 has been floating around as a new moniker. Did I mention Mastermind (formerly PD of the Vibe in Calgary) is in town?”

From the-get/go, though, FLOW flipped/flopped even on its “Black” philosophy, and always seemed to have been hedging its bet, like B.E.T., and tailor-making its identity to satisfy whatever credibility necessary to acquire the license from the CRTC. Flow’s Grand/Poohbar Denham Jolly, shepherded his backers, passionately, with $400,000 of their money, through three different grinding CRTC applications over 11 years, to eventually making history as the first Black person in Canada to get a radio license. Jolly’s Milestone Communications success was largely due to their strategy of  soliticiting and solidifying the “Black” community’s support and “politicizing” and “public-cising” their “private” corporate/business interests, framed in “Blackness” and “Black” identity and vilifying, oftentimes, justifiably, the CRTC, CBC, then Heritage Minister Sheila Copps, and Everybody who got in their way of getting   their, possibly, lucrative, radio frequency.

But from early, for those who wanted to see, evidently, there were already ample shadings        of Jim Screechee: Milestone kept on shifting, and in some eyes, “watering/down”, its stated identity from “ (black) world music”, initially, then to the slogan “Black Music for Everyone” and eventually to “urban”.  Nonetheless, for many, Jolly had made history and there would now be a wide range of “Black” music and culture on a mainstream radio frequency!

Jolly is shrewd, tenacious, focused, full of gravitas and stick-to-it-ism, with the requisite driven personality.  And, no doubt, the brother is business savvy. The former Forest Hill Collegiate math teacher made the bulk of his money in the Nursing Home industry with his Tyndal Nursing Home, bought Contrast, the Toronto Black weekly newspaper in the eighties, and shrewdly transformed it into the closest thing we have ever come to a “NATIONAL BLACK MEDIA” in Canada, by opening bureaus across the country, including Hamilton, Montreal, Nova Scotia and Alberta. Through Contrast, Jolly supported numerous community efforts, initiatives and organizations, including, most controversially, the Black Action Defense Committee (BAD/C!), when nobody wanted to touch its leader Dudley!

Ten years into the radio business and Jolly and his financial backers are laughing/all/the/way/to/the/BANK, as it were, having parlayed their initial $400,000 investment into the $27 million they got for selling FLOW to CTV/CHUM Ltd.                                                    This brings to a sad end the saga of the long rise and sudden fall of Canada’s first “Black” radio station. While it promised its Black supporters the world of Black music, FLOW, in its decade on the dial, delivered  a diminishing playlist that just three months into its tenure, was already feeling the tremors of dissent from its earlier “Black” supporters. There were complaints that FLOW had veered from Milestone’s “promise of performance” to the CRTC to program a “modern-day reflection of the rich musical traditions of black musicians and black-influenced music” and instead presented a narrowly-focused hip/hop sound. In its decade on the dial, FLOW has disappointed its die-hard supporters in the Black community through its playlists. It started being heavily hip/hop, other “Black” music shows and some talk shows; then they ditched the talk shows and had a mini-purge and changed their tune to “Dance” music; and onwards to Rhythmic CHR (Contemporary Hits Radio) and most recently to the “New FLOW”.

This constant dilly-dallying and diluting of its identity has caused a lot in the Black community to tune/out FLOW, considering it increasingly irrelevant. Respected promoter and CKLN radio personality Allan Jones encapsulated that sentiment when he told the Toronto Star that,

“Flow catered more to the below 30, the hip-hop kind of North American vibe, so it alienated a lot of us. People felt it sold out a long time ago, so the sale of Flow means nothing really. What was missing then is still missing now. What we needed was a mainstream voice that reflected our culture, our music, our thought leaders.”

And that is exactly what many are hoping that Fitzroy Gordon will deliver. Gordon’s CARN was awarded a broadcast license to operate a radio station catering to the GTA’s African and Caribbean and African-Canadian community at 98.7 FM, pending resolution of concerns by the CBC that the new station would interfere with its 99.1 frequency. Last summer for a few weeks, and again in November for a few days, CARN broadcast looped music emphasizing its sound, but more importantly so that technicians could check the veracity of the CBC’s claims of frequency interference. Recently, and ironically, on CKLN, Gordon explained that their tests revealed that everything was cool with the west end of the GTA but that there some signal glitches in the in the East, but not enough to be a game-changer. He also said that if things went right he expects to be on the air by late spring or early summer. Then just last week, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney set off a war of words between him, the CBC and Carn’s Gordon in the wake of last week’s announcement from Industry Canada that its testing has shown that the two signals would not interfere with one another. Kenney lashed out at the CBC for its attempt to block the launching of the Black radio station out of its own “narrow corporate interests”.

CBC responded with a statement including that “CBC offered CARN assistance, advice and even surplus equipment”, which CARN’s Gordon said was not true. “It’s a blatant lie”, Gordon said, “I’ve asked them “What equipment they offered me?” “I think the CBC should apologize to the Black community in Toronto for trying to block their station from going on air”, Kenney added defiantly to the CBC.

So as things stand, CKLN has been ordered off the air and is scheduled to cease operation on February 12; CHUM, new owners of “the New FLOW 93.5”, has fired its “Black” staff, moving to the CHUM building and maybe a new format; and the launch of CARN’s African and Caribbean radio station is still being blocked by the CBC, but may finally be on air in the next couple of months.

Yes, indeed, for the time being, Black radio’s got the Blues.

Stay Tuned…..

Background to Toronto’s “Black” Radio Station Blues

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