Freedom of the Airwaves

Hornby Island’s own FM radio station reflects the community’s laid back, eclectic style.

A visit to the Hornby Island radio station takes me to what appears to be a nondescript outbuilding next to Hornby’s Joe King Ballpark.  The 500-or-so-square-foot concrete rectangle sits on the edge of the forest, and has no signage or any indication that it is in fact the headquarters of CHFR, Hornby Free Radio, 96.5 FM.

Well, I think, this is Hornby Island—laid back.  Mellow.  Of course, the radio station would reflect this.

But I know, because I’ve tuned into CHFR, that it also reflects another side of the Island.  This is, after all, a place renowned for being home to a huge amount of artists of all kinds—painters and potters, singers and songwriters, poets and performers.  It’s a place where most people define themselves (and set their daily schedules) not so much by their careers but rather by their creative pursuits, their community engagement, and the status of their garden.

A place where, astonishingly, a population of a little more than 1,000 can sustain a totally volunteer radio station that offers almost 100 hours a week of programming.  From 8:00 am each morning till anytime up to midnight, the airwaves at 96.5 FM are hopping.  Almost every musical style has a show—jazz, reggae, classical, blues, Latin, country, biker rock, heavy metal, world, 80s music, African music and more.  And there’s a variety of talk radio ranging from radio plays to local issues to American politics to readings of Harry Potter (in a faux-British accent, no less).

All of this happens on an annual budget of less than $4,000, and with a minimum of fuss—while meeting the national standards of the CRTC and Industry Canada.

I’m at the station to talk to Phil Bailey and Maggie May about how CHFR came to be and how it remains so viable, and about the joys and challenges of setting up and running an independent radio station.

We sit in the bigger front room of the station, probably, I’m thinking, the office.  The walls are covered with tacked-up notices, to-do lists, newspaper clippings, old album covers, and music posters.  The studio is just behind a glass door.  A man comes out to talk to May and Bailey about scheduling.  They introduce him as Daniel Wiseman, co-host of the Classical Hornby Island Show.

“Oh, I hope you have the sound on out here so you can hear the show,” says Wiseman.  “I’m going to be playing some great stuff.”  Once he is reassured that the show is indeed playing in the office, he goes back to the studio.

May and Bailey were both deeply involved in founding the station and currently sit on its seven-person board of directors (as well as, of course, hosting their own weekly shows).   May is passionate and leans forward in her chair to emphasize her points; Bailey is low-key and leans back, and the two of them seem to work together seamlessly.

Their involvement in local radio on Hornby goes back some 12 years, to what might be called CHFR’s predecessor—a pirate radio station that operated for about a year, sequestered in the home of a Hornby Island resident.

Pirate stations are illegal because they operate without a licence—essentially, squatting the airwaves.  However, they often manage to escape detection and keep functioning for some time.  The Hornby station was going strong until someone from Industry Canada got a phone call from a member of the public, asking if the station had a licence.  As a result, an official was soon knocking at the door of the station’s host, and that was the end of that.

But of course it wasn’t.  A group of radio enthusiasts, most of them from the original station, reformed and decided to go legal.

“This way we would know we’re secure,” says Bailey.

“And it allowed us to bring it forward more in the community.  We’re run by a board and have a mandate to serve the community,” adds May.

The pirate station closed in 2001, and it took almost 10 years to get CHFR launched.  Setting up and managing a non-profit society tends to be a slow business anyway, but the group had the added challenge of getting the radio infrastructure in place.

“All the shows in their own way reflect the community in some way,” says Maggie May, outside the radio station building.

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

“The transmitter was really expensive, and we needed to build the station,” Bailey explains. That meant raising funds, agreeing on a design, dealing with Islands Trust bylaws, and all the challenges of construction—as well as the sometimes challenging work of getting a group of passionate people to agree on both big and little decisions.

“There were clashes at times,” says Bailey with a smile.  “I was against building anything.  I wanted to be in a trailer.”  Clearly he, like the others, was able to accept compromise gracefully and keep moving.  There was, after all, plenty to move through.

“The tower was another challenge; putting the guide-wires and anchors in was very expensive and really is quite a technical feat,” says Bailey.  “And there’s a long checklist of things to satisfy Industry Canada, like wheelchair access.”

Momentum waxed and waned for several years, but eventually everything was ready to go.

“A guy from Industry Canada came to check it out, and everything was good.  On Monday, December 6, 2010, we went live,” Bailey says.

CHFR has a five-year “developmental licence”—kind of like a “learner’s” or “novice” vehicle licence.  If, after the five-year period, everything has been going well, it will “graduate” to a more permanent licence, which will allow it to have a higher wattage.

Radio in Canada has to fulfill the requirement of two different bodies.  Industry Canada governs technical issues like the building, the wattage and the frequency. The CRTC has rules about content.  For instance, 30 per cent should be Canadian and 25 per cent should be spoken.

This is not a big challenge on Hornby, where many of the show hosts like to play local musicians and talk about local and global issues. Responsibility for making sure the station meets these requirements rests with the seven-member board, with the cooperation of approximately 45 volunteer radio hosts.

Bailey gestures toward a note on the wall saying, “Everyone—please clean up your dishes!” and explains with a chuckle, “We have to make sure they read the 42 pages of CRTC rules, and that they remember to clean up the coffee cups.”

Each board member takes one day a week to be station manager, training new show hosts, trouble-shooting technical glitches, and filling in if someone can’t do their show.  And they too clean up the coffee cups.

It’s a big commitment.  Clearly, these people believe in community radio.

I ask May and Bailey what need the radio fulfills.  Apparently, it’s the wrong question.

“It’s not about need.  It’s about want.  We want to do this,” says May, passionately.  “It’s an art form.”

Bailey agrees.  “Doing a radio show is a form of musical and personal expression.  People just love playing tunes.”

As if on cue, Wiseman pops out of the studio again.

“Sorry to disturb you. I just want to encourage you to listen to this next piece.  It’s an amazing collaboration—a jazz saxophonist from Norway teaming up with the early music quintet, The Hilliard Ensemble.  They got together in a monastery and recorded these devotional chants.  It’s just wonderful.  I think you’ll like it.”  And he heads back into the studio.

Clearly, playing tunes is one of the main raisons d’être of the station.  But there is more to it than that.  A small independent radio station on a remote island plays an important social and political role in the community.

“This is community radio,” says Bailey.  “We talk about community issues, and this community does have issues.  Right now it is smart meters, and the [proposed new] cable ferry.”

May agrees.  “All the shows in their own way reflect the community in some way.  If there is something heavy going down, it shows up,” she says.

Bailey picks up the train of thought.  “There are certain community functions live radio is good at.  For instance, [local resident] Trevor died a few weeks ago and there was a memorial service a few days later.  People heard about it through word of mouth, but it was also spread really effectively by the radio.”

May steps in again: “Other radio stations are out there.  We are here.  Community radio keeps things real.”

May points out that their totally grassroots, small-is-beautiful radio station provides a valuable counterweight to mainstream media, which is almost exclusively controlled by large corporations.  “This isn’t some subsidiary of the Pattison Group.”

Both May and Bailey are resistant to suggestions that they put CHFR out on the internet.

“For one thing,” says Bailey, “FM radio is completely free to receive.  Don’t forget that people have to pay for internet.  And not everyone has internet.”

Also, he points out, with internet radio, because there is so much choice, people browse around and listen only to what they already know they like.  With a local FM station, listeners tend to stay tuned in and hear music and talk radio that might bring them something new or unexpected.

“Almost all our shows are live,” adds May.  “We are into what is really happening right now.  And we are keeping the art and the knowledge of radio going.  Back when I was a kid I knew people whose dad did radio in their basement.  Well, this is our basement radio.”

The internet is above all a global medium, where “the local” has little value, if it can even be said to exist at all.  To May and Bailey, that makes it an inappropriate medium for their project.

“We all came to Hornby to get away from the rest of the world.  We want things to be different,” Bailey says.

“Well…” begins May, thinking this over… “The main thing is we accept that it’s different here. Things happen… funkier.”

The two friends acknowledge that other board members have differing opinions.  The internet question, they say, is one of a handful of contentious issues that spark lively discussions among board members.  Other hot topics are the pros and cons of having paid advertising and sponsorships, and whether or not to have a paid staff person.

These are the issues that any non-commercial radio would face, and May and Bailey know that these discussions are an essential part of the project.

In the meantime, they know that much of Hornby Island is tuning into CHFR.

“Feedback is almost all really positive,” says Bailey.  “Everyone is amazed that we do this.”

As we finish our interview, Daniel Wiseman slides open the studio door again.  “Wait for this next song.  Please.  It’s coming on in a minute.  It’s a guy named Djivan Gasparyan and he’s playing a traditional Armenian woodwind instrument, the Duduk, and it’s exquisite,” he says.

Unable to resist such heartfelt enthusiasm, I sit back and listen. The Duduk is moody, mournful, and emotional.  The song speaks to me of ancient times and far-away places, and it moves me into a completely new mood—inward, contemplative, timeless.

Wiseman sticks his head out.  “Do you like it?” he asks eagerly.  Oh yes, yes, I say, pulling myself reluctantly back to the here and now.  Wiseman beams.  At that moment, CHFR is very clearly fulfilling its mission.