Francophones tuning out local station

Local radio station, CKRH Radio Halifax struggles to be heard by the francophone community it caters to.

By Mick Côté

Ever since it began three years ago, CKRH Radio Halifax Metro has been shouting to be heard by the francophone community it caters to. Donations helped establish the station, but it cannot buy the support of the community. How long can it survive?

Vicky Van-Aelst, CKRH's station manager welcomes new listeners, but only a few tune in at a time. (Mick Côté photo)

By Mick Côté

If you pull into the Cogswell Street parking lot of Z103.5 “The Beat of Halifax,” you might not guess that there’s another radio station hidden in the basement of the station’s two-storey broadcast building. But go to a door on the side, and you might be able to find the entrance to that other station, tucked away below the graffiti, beside where the homeless people sometimes seek shelter.

The rusty door boasts no doorbell, but a paper sign says “to contact CKRH 98.5FM, please use the doorbell on your left.” If you miss the bell, stuck in the middle of the wall, the staff at Z103.5 are pretty used to redirecting people downstairs.

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When you finally find them, you discover that Radio Halifax Metro’s three-room office suite is about the size of a small apartment. The space, shared by two full-time salaried staff and many volunteers, resonates with the sound of Acadian music. But according to the station’s manager, Vicky Van-Aelst finding the station’s listeners can be almost as difficult as finding the studio.

“I have to go out and pick our listeners one-by-one or two-by-two. It’s exhausting but many people don’t know we exist. We need to get the word out,” she said.

CKRH is a three-year-old community radio station set up to serve the region’s francophone population. Usually known as Radio Halifax Metro, the station has struggled from the start, first to set up permanent quarters, and lately to stay on the air. It seems many in the francophone community don’t share the founders’ passion for the operation.

Things have been so tough for CKRH that even the $1,000 monthly rent for these modest digs has been daunting at times. “Community stations benefit from grants to implement themselves, but once launched, they belong in the same market as commercial stations,” said Serge Desjardins, the founder and current president of the cooperative’s board. “They don’t have the means to hang in there.”

Desjardins’s idea for a francophone community station came from an observation he made of the French community of Halifax. “It was dispersed and divided,” he said. “I told myself that something was needed to unite this community.”

“I told myself that something was needed to unite this community.”
–Serge Desjardins

The francophone community centre had already begun research to determine if a French-language station would be welcomed in Halifax, so Desjardins hopped on board.

“The reason why I put so much energy in this station is because I believe it is an essential part of this community and allows it to grow. It allows people to communicate and discover themselves,” he said.

Finding the funds

The Canadian Radio Television and Telecommunications Commission granted the station a license in 2007. According to the CRTC application, the station was to have part-time employees in charge of sales and programming, along with funds to provide for a full-time manager. Only two actually made it onto the payroll, Van-Aelst and Jean-François Dufour. Both do far more than is called for in their job descriptions.

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Van-Aelst finds it frustrating and limiting in terms of what she can accomplish. “I’m tired of filing requests for funding that are as thick as dictionaries and getting nothing back or just funds for temporary projects,” she said. “I’m not about to give my audience a trained journalist for the noon-hour news if I have to take her away after six months because of a lack of funding or a project expiry,” she added.

The financial problems seem rooted in a decided lack of interest from the community the station is supposed to serve. Although CKRH doesn’t have the money to pay for listener surveys, it estimates a combined on-air and online audience for its morning show of between 3,000 and 5,000. The station had anticipated 5,700 listeners for the first year and a growth to nearly 9,500 listeners in the next few years.

Desjardins thinks part of the problem is that when the station was established, there was no community-wide funding drive, even though the CRTC required that a quarter of the startup money come from the community. Instead of a drive that would have raised awareness of the station, CKRH got all of the “community” funds from one donor, Pierre Dupuy, a fellow board member.

“He bought us the equipment (and) this money counted as community funds,” Desjardins said. “By doing this, we never had to look in the community to raise our funds. We showed up in the community with a station and said ‘there you go,’ but we had never polled the people to see if they were interested or if they’d be supporting it financially down the road.”

Dupuy, now vice-president of the administration council, said he has given more than just money, including time, as well as equipment and repairs. “Many community stations receive a lot more money to get started. Because we were a little frugal, all I did was make it possible for them to get the license. That’s all.” Dupuy didn’t want to talk further about his donations.

The problem of a limited fundraising base has continued, Desjardins said. Although small donations are slowly increasing, large givers still predominate.

“When looking at the amount of people donating money during the Radiothons, and the big amounts given, you generally know it comes from certain people,” said Desjardins.

Host not fan-favourite

With limited community support and a lack of funding from government agencies, some people find themselves putting in a lot more effort than they might have expected. Even with a dozen volunteers who contribute and dedicate their time to produce shows, the full-time staffers often take on the bulk of the work.

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CKRH music director, Jean François Dufour, sacrificed a lot to host his own radio show. (Mick Côté photo)

Dufour is one of them.

The one-man powerhouse from Quebec runs the studio. A high-energy, talkative man, he’s more than your usual radio announcer.

Dufour wears a range of hats, including music director, morning man, program coordinator and advertising manager. To compare, Z103.5 upstairs has five different employees to perform these functions.

With nearly 18 years of experience in radio, Dufour, now 41, gave up most of his time and devoted his life to Radio Halifax Metro before he even took the position.

“Having my own show was made possible by coming here. Let’s face it; large Quebec stations are hard to get into. You’re appreciated for what you do in this community,” he said. “I took a 30 to 40 per cent drop in salary by coming here; it was all deeply considered.”

Dufour and his girlfriend, who managed a garage repair shop, moved to Halifax because of the opportunity CKRH was promising him. Eight months after settling in town, his nine-year long relationship crumbled.

“My girlfriend, my salary and Quebec. I left it all behind to live my dream here because there’s no price on having to wake up in the morning and being excited to go to work, a little sadness on Friday and a growing nervousness on Sunday, knowing I’ll be back on the mic by Monday.”

But when Monday comes, who listens?

Not Malou Déry, a teacher at École du Carrefour, says she rarely, if ever, listens to CKRH even if some of her colleagues volunteer for the station. “I just don’t relate with what airs on the channel,” said Déry. “I find the programming to be a tad dated for me. I prefer News 97.5 FM or (Truro’s) Big Dog 100.9 FM.”

Déry is not the only one turning her back on CKRH. Jean-Pierre Galois, owner of pastry shop Gourmandise Avenue, says he listens to the French-language service of the CBC Radio-Canada, because he “had a hard time changing his habits once CKRH came on air about three years ago.”

Josée Deschênes, secretary for the Conseil Scolaire Acadien Provinciale (The French school board), is another non-listener. “I listen to Radio-Canada because I don’t like CKRH. I don’t like the host (Dufour), I don’t like how he’s boisterous in the morning, how he plays English music and how he speaks. He knows that, I’ve told him,” she said.

“It takes at least $10,000 to make it in a month. With just a little more, we could intensify our programming.”
–Vicky Van-Aelst

Still, thanks to its volunteers, the station still manages to fill its schedule every week. Radio Halifax Metro’s program day is loaded with local content. From Franco-African culture to South Shore Acadian dialect, the station touches on an array of traditions deeply rooted in the diverse francophone community.

Perseverance is key

The problem, though, is always money. “As a whole, it takes at least $10,000 to make it in a month. With just a little more, we could intensify our programming. It’s not like $120,000 is a lot in a year for a station like this,” said Van-Aelst.

She’d like to start operating the station more as a business, rather than as a non-profit.

“I find it unfortunate considering the fact that the government will give large amounts of money to introduce a station to the public and give it a lot of hope,” said Dufour, explaining how governmental agencies fail to show continued support. “We have to sell to live. It’s hard to be in competition against other radio stations and make businesses understand that we can advertise (on CKRH) as well as on Z103,” he added.

The main door to CKRH 98.5 FM opens to a slew of graffiti and tall grass. (Mick Côté photo)

Nay Saadé, the station’s former manager, sees potential in CKRH, even though she accepted an offer made by Radio-Canada to work in its television-broadcast centre in New Brunswick.

“I can only suggest to them to keep working like crazy and give it their all,” she said. “There’s big potential there, and I truly believe in this station. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have given it my all for two years.”

With such efforts, the tiny station in the basement of Z103 might just make it into the hearts of the area’s francophone community.

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