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The History of Community Radio


  by Roger Fritz Rhéaume  



In this section we present the testimony of nine pioneers of community radio in Montreal. The large majority devoted at least a decade to their passion and two of them were the initiators of their respective radio stations. We asked each of them to identify the objectives they started with and how these developed over time.


Radio Centre-Ville (CINQ FM), Montreal's Multi-ethnic Radio

In the very early 1970s, Hyman Glustein and a group of his friends developed the idea for a multi-ethnic community radio station. There were no models to follow and nobody had any relevant expertise. The goal was to create a low power station to serve the district of Saint-Louis, hence the name: Radio Centre-Ville Saint-Louis. There was a desire to create a station that would be Francophone and that would also have a place for the languages that were spoken the most in the district, Greek Portuguese and Spanish. A few years later Haitian and Chinese broadcasts would be added.



“First of all we wanted to communicate a kind of information that people did not have access to, explains Suzanne Perron, one of the active members of the founding team. We could for example give a voice to a Tenants’ Rights  group or the local Women’s Centre. Whatever we did, we were the first to do it. No community organisation had gone before the CRTC or started a radio station.”


The members of the founding team soon became aware of the complexity of their adventure. “The Francophones and Anglophones were not expected to represent the whole of their communities but this was not the case for the other teams” Hyman Glustein observed. The constraints differed so much from one team to another. For example, the news source in French was the Agence de presse libre du Québec, well known for its sovereignist positions, while the source for English information was the  Liberation News Service. The Hispanics proposed political information ideologically in line with certain left-wing governments like Chile or Cuba, while for the Greeks, whose country was under the rule of the “Colonels”, news became a gesture of resistance.


The producers from each community would stick together and each team tended to become a universe unto itself. “Communication between the teams could have been better” explains  Kevin Cohalan, another pioneer who was involved from the beginning. Marked by counter-culture values in French and in English, the station offered a political alternative in the other languages. At the end of the 1970s, following a period of conflict, the station adopted a position respecting different points of view and remaining open to pluralism.


The station was managed initially by six or seven permanent employees who produced the shows. After that, teams of volunteers were formed. Starting in the 1980s, the members of the board of directors wanted to make the station more accessible to the community.

“We released the permanent employees from production work so that they could guide and support the volunteers, who then became the producers,” explains Mikhaïl Kapellas, who was twice president of Radio Centre-Ville. Further, we tried to introduce more structure into each of the teams, with team meetings and an elected coordinating committee to organize, plan and follow team activities”

 As far as news is concerned, the policy is that local news and international news have priority. According to Mikhaïl Kapellas, the core of this policy is “to give listeners not just the ‘what’ of events but also the ‘why’”. Evan Kapetanakis, the current chair of the board of directors offers the following thoughts about the concept of activist radio: “Community radio should not be just informative and entertaining. I find, for example, that some of the programming in French is not socially engaged enough, even though it contains its share of gems. This is no doubt due to the influence of the other stations.”


Everyone agrees that the problem could be solved by training. At the beginning of the 1980s, a lot of emphasis was placed on training permanent employees but the situation has changed: “Now we want to systematize the training of volunteers as soon as they arrive. We will explain the particularities of our station, how it is different from other stations and even, from other community radio stations” explains Evan Kapetanakis.


And how do the pioneers see the station’s development? “Today I can see that the station is a true community” says Hyman Glustein. “When I was there, there were only minority groups within the community. We couldn’t go further than that in those days.” Mikhaïl Kapellas thinks that the station has made significant progress but that the core objective of creating one unified radio station and not seven-in-one has not yet been achieved. “It takes a long time for the linguistic barriers to completely disappear. But I have a good deal of hope that we will get there because the young people who are involved today are born here and all speak French. This makes communication easier.”  


 “If I had it to do over again, I would take a very well-structured approach from the very beginning,” says Kevin Cohalan. I would opt for a more coherent programming vision and a more directive management style. This way, we would no doubt have succeeded in having more impact. To begin with, we want the radio to become a vehicle for the whole community, not just the artists, thinkers and philosophers of the Carré Saint-Louis. I still think it’s important for the radio to open its doors to everyone.”


Suzanne Perron wonders whether Radio Centre-Ville still offers easy access to small groups: “If a young people’s association wanted to put together a series of six broadcasts, could they do it?” she asks. This said, she maintains that it is not a problem if the original objectives have changed, as we should not require the station to remain in every way the same as it was in the beginning.

“When we founded the radio station, I had no idea what would remain of it thirty years later,” recalls founder Hyman Glustein. In the early 1970s, we assumed the separation of Quebec from the rest of Canada and we were already aiming for what people called a post-separatist philosophy. We asked ourselves how would everybody best be able to live together. I think that in general our experience was a success, since the communities were able to define themselves by working together, we had made very few rules.  One day, a CRTC commissioner asked me how I went about finding out what was being broadcast in Greek. I told them that I had faith in the team. This was the approach that we took.”



CIBL FM, Montreal’s French language community radio

The CIBL adventure began in 1977 as part of a communications course at the Université du Québec à Montréal. Pierre Fortin was doing research on community radio at the time. Inspired by the Pacifica network in the States and the free radio movement France, Quebec had begun its own, embryonic, initiative. “The idea was for citizens to appropriate a means of communication and thereby have access to speech in the public arena” Fortin explains. People spoke of the new radio as an electronic town hall. The neighbourhood was overflowing with community organizations and we wanted to create a marketplace managed by the people and groups themselves, with an authentically democratic structure, not infiltrated by any party or group.”


The original project was confined to Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, which explains the first call letters CHRM (for Radio Maisonneuve). Still, we quickly realized that in spite of the traditional boundaries of the district, a large number of its sociological and economic characteristics were shared by the southern part of Rosemont and a part of Centre-Sud. Jacques Primeau was involved for a total of fifteen years, three of them as president of the board of directors. He comments “This wasn’t radio for UQAM, or for the intellectuals, it was popular radio in an era when people cared about what was happening in Montreal’s neighbourhoods.”


The station went on the air on April 26, 1980. “It was a wake-up call” remembers  Pierre Fortin, “since we were expecting that Jane and John Q. Public would be there, sharing their musical tastes, sort of in the way that ladies at a sewing workshop gather to share their interest in knitting. But in fact, the station attracted more educated people who tended to have cultural interests in common. The project quickly became about community services and cultural broadcasts rather than being an electronic town hall.  In the area of news, we wanted to seek out the voices of people living in the neighbourhood, their point of view, in addition to that of community workers.”


In the early 1980s, in the wake of a public consultation process, the station chose to change direction. It proposed to the CRTC that it extend its broadcast range to the entire city of Montréal. “I believed in community radio for the East end up until the time I realized it was not financially viable, comments Jacques Primeau. We did our homework based in the East-end neighbourhoods. After that we could, without betraying our original objectives, broaden our approach to include all the neighbourhoods. I thought we were the forerunners and that we could find our niche in both municipal and cultural news and information.”


Yves Bernard coordinated the submission to the CRTC and was part of the whole adventure for 22 years: “We had the firm intention of making our mark, even of revolutionizing the history of radio in Montreal. We were constantly seeking a balance between local radio and alternative radio, between social and cultural news and information and between an informative medium and a creative one. That balance was not easy to find. We also wanted to change CRTC policy with respect to urban community radio since that organization refused to give us a city-wide vocation. All of these efforts led eventually to our being considered a model for urban radio by the CRTC and even to seek unanimous support from the legislature of the Government of Quebec for our project.” 


At the end of the 1980s, the station strengthened its role as catalyst for alternative culture in Montreal. One personality was to have an important impact on the following years: Bertrand Roux. “I was more a container than a content guy, more impressionist than a hard news reporter. I believed in creative radio as part of public radio, which is what in fact we were.”


After first being refused by the CRTC, CIBL was finally awarded a new licence that allowed it to broadcast throughout the city. But was it enough? “With the arrival of CKUT, then of CISM and Radio Ville-Marie, the radio landscape had already changed,” observes Jacques Primeau. Promoters of the station had to be content with 101.5 as consolation prize, a frequency nobody wanted. “But the new frequency nonetheless moved us ahead,” says Bertrand Roux. “We were able to get back on our feet financially and to create a terrific event with our annual radiothon. The radiothon that followed the station’s entrance onto the city-wide airwaves, with Richard Desjardins as Honorary President, marked a high point in the heyday of CIBL’s history.”


In 1997, a few years later, the station requested a new frequency, 95.1, but the CRTC turned it down in favour of Radio Canada’s  Première Chaîne. CIBL encountered problems in the years that followed. “In the wake of anti-globalization and as a kind of swing of the pendulum back again, I noticed a desire to go back to the roots of social radio on the part of a number of producers at CIBL,” comments Yves Bernard. “This went together with an internal restructuring.” Further, the station experienced serious financial problems.


“In recent years we have been aware that the station has been sending out cries of alarm and this does not make us happy” comment Jacques Primeau and Bertrand Roux in unison. But Roux remains optimistic: “I can feel the balance tipping. We have always worked on a six-year cycle. I hope that we will very soon be on our way up again.”


“The solution will come from outside,” maintains Yves Bernard. According to him, it is essential to build or to rebuild partnerships with the community, as much in the area of programming as in financing. “Generating new projects, connecting with existing networks, developing an equilibrium between internal and external, opening ourselves more to the environment … without these things, there will be no salvation!”

Jacques Primeau goes even further: “The solution for community urban radio lies with the government, which is the last of our missed opportunities, the two others being the labour movement, which never understood the importance of an outlet like CIBL, and the cooperative movement, which is no longer what it once was. We could call the project Radio Québec. We are talking about a radio network along the lines of TV’s Télé-Québec, but with a mixed financing formula involving both the government and the community. With this network, we guarantee an effective structure both administratively  and in the area of news services with correspondents in all the regions. The majority of programming would have to remain accessible to the bulk of the volunteers. We envision a structure involving community participation.”   

Which solution will be chosen? Let us bet and let us hope that we have not seen the last of CIBL, Montreal’s French-language community radio!



What they are doing now

Radio Centre-Ville


Hyman Glustein is a communications consultant and a communications advisor to the Grand Council of the Crees of Quebec (actually called the Grand Council of the Crees Eeyou Istchee).

Kevin Cohalan is Director of the Montreal Volunteer Bureau. He has also worked for a community organization called Jonction Saint-Louis (in the district of Saint-Louis).

Suzanne Perron works for the Quebec Department of Justice.

Evan Kapetanakis is still active at Radio Centre-Ville; he is currently chair of the board of directors.

Mikhaïl Kapellas is still active at Radio Centre-Ville; he is currently employed at Hydro-Québec. He has worked as a computer consultant to industry and as a community worker. He has also been involved with a Greek theatre troupe called Le théâtre populaire de l'avenue du Parc. He has collaborated in the production of two radio plays, in 1973-1974.





Pierre Fortin is in charge of communications for the Old Port of Montreal Corporation.

Jacques Primeau is artist manager and president of ADISQ.

Yves Bernard is a journalist specializing in world music.

Bertrand Roux works in the department of Regulatory Affairs at the Société Radio-Canada.


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