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CIUT technician Steve Birek
Steve Birek. Photo by Derek Shapton

On the Air

After 20 years of broadcasts, CIUT is still taking chances

It’s 8:20 a.m. on Monday, Oct. 2, and inside 91 St. George Street, Andy Frank is assembling his staff for their first live broadcast of a new show on the University of Toronto’s radio station, CIUT 89.5 FM. Frank is the senior producer of Take 5, CIUT’s new morning show, and only 10 short minutes remain until his team goes on the air. “We had an excellent dry run last week,” says Frank, hastily typing a sports report on the football team’s latest defeat. “We’re hoping to minimize the number of disasters that loom.”

At the next desk over, Keisha Barrett and Chris Berube, a second-year student, are prepping their traffic reports by checking websites that track road volume across Toronto. “No major incidents; it’s pretty light today,” says Barrett, with a hint of disappointment. Senai Iman, a fourth-year student, and Rebecca Penty, the director of Take 5, hurriedly write the news report that Iman will deliver. Frank announces to whoever happens to be listening that there’s coffee in the hallway, but for their first live show, most staff members are already buzzing on adrenaline.

Frank offers a last bit of advice to the assembled reporters, telling them not to start talking before they’ve heard the short musical clips that introduce each section. “One thing that’s very important today is to watch your throws, and wait for your stingers,” says Frank. “Other than that, just pretend we’re not on the air.”

CIUT operates out of a creaking three-storey Victorian mansion sandwiched between the Rotman School of Management and the Newman Centre. The U of T Sexual Education Centre occupies the ground floor, but the rest of the building is a warren of rooms housing the station’s operations. Everything that isn’t a broadcast studio or a cramped office is given over to storage space for CIUT’s collection of 15,000 vinyl records – which the DJs still play with remarkable frequency – and more than 40,000 CDs. The station’s 15,000-watt signal comes from a transmitter atop First Canadian Place, and can be heard clearly all the way from Barrie, Ontario, to Buffalo, New York.

Run almost entirely by volunteers, CIUT exhibits the rough edges and deliberate rawness one expects from amateur enthusiasts: silences last a little too long, ahs and ums creep in. These small imperfections are what give CIUT its affable, comfortable sound – the kind that has long since vanished from the corporate- controlled airwaves. Yet despite its do-it-yourself demeanour, CIUT has helped launch some of Canada’s best-known musicians. Loreena McKennitt and Ron Sexsmith performed live at CIUT early in their careers. The Barenaked Ladies played there when they were still street-busking. The station may not make careers overnight, but listeners often hear artists perform months or years before they enjoy mainstream recognition.

Although the station is located at U of T’s downtown campus, many of CIUT’s listeners live in the suburban belt that rings Toronto. Under its broadcast licence, CIUT is officially a “campus-based community radio station,” intended to serve both students and the general public, though how general is open to question. Many of its shows – one concerns animal rights, for example; another new poetry – cater to audiences too niche for commercial radio. “One of the neat things about CIUT is the enormous variety,” says Ian Angus (MA 1972), who helms a blues show called Let the Good Times Roll and also serves as chair of the board. “If you ever listen to commercial radio, it sounds the same 24 hours a day. CIUT provides a home for the kind of broadcasting that you simply cannot get anywhere else on the dial.”

The mishmash of unusual shows that make up the station’s weekly broadcast schedule draw a small but dedicated listenership. CIUT can’t afford to subscribe to a commercial ratings measurement service, but one indication of audience commitment is the station’s biannual pledge drive. CIUT relies on a student levy to operate and it also sells advertising, but about a quarter of its annual $500,000 budget comes straight from its listeners. Gospel Music Machine, a Sunday morning show hosted by Courtney Williams that’s been a CIUT institution almost from the beginning, is consistently one of the station’s top fundraisers. “Gospel in Toronto is a very big audience,” says Williams. “Our listeners are very dedicated to ensuring that we stay on the air.”

For many years before receiving its FM licence, the station – which has gone by many different names, including Radio Varsity, Input Radio, UTR and CJUT, before settling finally on CIUT – was “pretty much a glorified PA system,” in the words of one alumnus and former volunteer. Delivered by closed-circuit wiring to speakers in residence common rooms and some academic buildings, volunteers produced about 80 hours a week of music and spoken-word programs. Despite the closed-circuit system’s limited broadcast range, the volunteers considered it a rehearsal for the day they would, inevitably it seemed, make the leap to FM. It wasn’t quite that easy. An ambitious FM proposal in 1976 was rejected by the CRTC as “financially weak” and “a bit too hopeful.” It took 10 years to regroup and establish a base of support among U of T students, who in 1985 agreed to fund the station with a $5-a-year levy.

Dave Trafford (BA 1983 St. Michael’s) chaired CIUT’s board as it prepared to make its case to the CRTC. It was a long, arduous process, but the CRTC was impressed by the plan, praising CIUT’s “excellent presentation” and “obvious grasp of FM policy.” On March 20, 1986, the CRTC phoned to say it had accepted the application and that FM broadcasts could begin within the year.

The station made its first broadcast on January 15, 1987. And almost right away, things started to go wrong.

Like many organizations that rely on a large base of volunteers, the station is at times chaotic, and occasionally downright anarchic. For many years it was wracked by infighting and teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. “We’re celebrating all that we are” on the station’s 20th anniversary, says station manager Brian Burchell (BSc 1987), “but we’re also celebrating that we’ve survived this long, through very difficult times.”

CIUT faced financial disaster for the first time less than a year after its initial broadcast. Startup costs had been higher than expected, and advertisers were scarce. With the station already more than $300,000 in debt, staff were laid off and others quit, and an emergency fundraising drive was needed. Less than a year later, U of T students bailed the station out again with a special one-time levy. But the stress of keeping the station afloat took its toll: in its first 13 years, CIUT had 13 station managers.

Trafford, who had overseen CIUT’s FM application, served briefly as the second station manager. “Here’s a bunch of students trying to run a fairly significant 24-hour broadcasting operation,” he says. “None of them are experienced in it, they’re all working crazy hours and some of them had other jobs on top of that. Managing a radio station takes a good deal of experience to do it well on a good day without losing money. When you’re new to it, that just compounds the problems.” Trafford resigned as station manager after just a few months in the role, citing conflict with the board of directors.

The station lurched along, scraping by financially and enduring conflicts among the staff, volunteers and directors. But in 1999, as one staffer explained, “It all went kablooie.”

“We ran out of money,” says Angus. “As a result, the whole staff wasn’t paid and they quit or were laid off, then the board quit. So we found ourselves with no management and no governing body.” With the CRTC threatening to revoke its broadcast licence, the end of CIUT was a very real possibility. “It had spiralled downward by 1999,” acknowledges Burchell. “It was akin to a forest fire, which is damaging but sometimes necessary. 1999 was our forest fire.”

U of T and the Students’ Administrative Council (SAC) stepped in and petitioned the CRTC to give the powers formerly held by the board to Burchell, a former SAC executive who had helped CIUT with its FM application, but hadn’t been involved during the years of infighting. “I wasn’t part of any of the factions,” he says.

With updated bylaws and clearer distinctions drawn among the roles of board, staff and volunteers, CIUT emerged stronger. Volunteers who had left out of disappointment or frustration returned to do their shows; some difficult but much-needed financial cutbacks were made; and the CRTC gave the station a conditional 30-month licence renewal, providing it with time to regroup.

It worked: seven years later, CIUT is still on the air – and Burchell is still its station manager. Turning things around first meant financial discipline, Burchell says, but it also took a change in the station’s culture. Whereas CIUT had long worn its leftist politics on its sleeve, the reborn station is, if not exactly apolitical, more subdued. “CIUT is not a political party, and it’s not an advocate,” says Burchell. “It’s in the business of making broadcasting.” Under his management, the emphasis of the station might be summed up as “more medium, less message.” While hosts can – and frequently do – advance opinions or promote causes, the station itself no longer takes sides, and the rollicking political quarrels that characterized CIUT for many years are now mostly absent. “It was definitely a Jekyll and Hyde place,” recalls Karen Parsons, who worked on the show Caffeine Free in the late 1980s and is now news director at 660 News in Calgary. “It was fun and funky and delightful and a pain all rolled into one.”

Leaving the bully pulpit behind has allowed the staff to focus more on the station’s day-to-day operations, clean up its finances, develop new talent and raise more money. Today CIUT is financially stable, has paid off its substantial debts and even runs a small surplus.

Naturally, it was time to do something crazy.

IN 2005, during the eight-week labour dispute at the CBC, CIUT found itself thrust into the national spotlight when a group of locked-out CBC staff came calling. Andy Barrie, host of Radio One’s Metro Morning, had floated the idea of producing a show on CIUT using CBC staffers who had nothing to do but walk the picket line.

For three weeks in September 2005, Barrie and dozens of other CBC radio personalities and producers broadcast Toronto Unlocked, a three-hour morning radio show from 91 St. George that brought local news, weather, traffic and sports to Toronto listeners who could no longer hear it on the CBC. “For us, it was an opportunity to bring other listeners’ attention to CIUT as a frequency,” says Burchell. “But we also had CIUT volunteers immersed in the whole thing. And CBC staff remembered what drew them to radio to begin with.” The broadcasts were remarkably popular, drawing in curious CBC listeners and reaching people as far away as Russia over the Web.

The Toronto Unlocked experience was such a success, Burchell says, that CIUT decided to launch its own magazine-style morning show and that show is Take 5. Since the lockout, the Canadian Media Guild has founded a Broadcaster in Residence program at the station to pair CBC staff with CIUT volunteers. That base of experience is one of the things that makes an ambitious new show such as Take 5 possible.

After years of fighting simply to survive, CIUT is looking ahead, trying to plan for an uncertain future. Its transmitter is aging, and will be expensive to replace. Internet audio, portable MP3 players and satellite services are all changing the way listeners consume radio, and CIUT is racing to keep up, building a new website and preparing to offer podcasts of nearly all its shows. Burchell says that CIUT is actually well positioned to compete in a fragmenting media landscape, since it already caters to a collection of niche audiences.

Take 5 showcases CIUT’s evolving technique and growing confidence. Five days a week for an hour and a half starting at 8:30 a.m., host Lisa Marshall will lead a daily rotation of CIUT volunteers delivering entertainment, sports, interviews, documentaries, traffic, weather and news. By focusing on Toronto issues, Take 5 provides an alternative for CBC listeners in search of local content after the local CBC morning show ends. And Take 5 will draw on U of T’s ranks of professors and researchers for interviews, commentary and expertise, a resource that Burchell says the station hasn’t adequately tapped in the past. Marshall, who spent the last 10 years doing a morning show for CJMO FM in Moncton, New Brunswick, is an old hand at the game, making her a centre of calm in the buzzing newsroom on this particular Monday, minutes before Take 5 debuts.

“It’ll be a fun morning,” she says. “I think we have a really great show.” Just before going into the studio to sign on, she calls out, “Let’s show the CBC what we can do!” The red “on-air” light flicks on, the familiar jazz strains of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” fill the studio and U of T’s newest crop of volunteer broadcasters take their places at the microphones. CIUT is on the air.

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  1. One Response to “ On the Air ”

  2. Andrew Brooks says:

    I was often a guest host on "Caffeine Free," a morning news and political analysis show that aired on CIUT in the mid-90s. My friend Andrew van Velzen was its driving force. The program was hosted by different people on different days and thus developed its own unique character.

    I was disappointed to read that the station toned down its commentary. In his tenure at the station, Andrew drew in political and social analysis through interviews (often live) with university academics and experts, as well as eminent voices from beyond the university community, such as Noam Chomsky, Gabriel Kolko, Edward Said. This should not be forgotten.