As Student Choice Initiative threatens campus radio, CFRC pledges fight

Longstanding campus radio station planning donor campaign, alumni committee in fight for relevance and a future on campus

Dinah Jansen, station manager at CFRC since 2017, sits in the station's basement studio underneath Carruthers Hall. The station—seeking to boost its relevance as the Student Choice Initiative sets in—has made a recent push towards podcasting.

Dinah Jansen remembers the first time she broadcast music over the airwaves at CFRC. It was Christmas Day, 2006, and in an unusual turn of events, she’d been asked by a friend to cover a music program in the empty basement studio underneath Carruthers Hall.

“Nobody’s here,” she recalled thinking. “I’m just going to play whatever I feel like.”

At the time, Jansen was an undergraduate student and volunteer at the station. “Call me on the request line,” she asked listeners, expecting silence.

To her surprise, the phone began to ring.

Years later, she didn’t expect to be leading a fight for the station’s future.

After working on and off with CFRC while completing her master’s degree at Carleton University and her PhD at Queen’s, Jansen had a homecoming at the station.

Since 2017, she’s served as station manager. According to Jansen, the empty studio she occupied on Christmas Day all those years ago hasn’t changed much.

Eager to celebrate CFRC’s upcoming centennial in 2022, the station is faced with the consequences of the Student Choice Initiative. The policy, recently announced by the provincial government, makes most student fees non-essential and gives students the freedom to opt out of them.

As a result, student-run organizations and services across the province are uncertain of what the future holds. The AMS, Queen’s undergraduate student government, estimates up to 50 per cent of students will opt out of some once-mandatory fees.

CFRC, which relies on a $7.50 ancillary fee for 70 per cent of its budget, is set to lose a critical portion of its revenue as a result. Jansen said she’s been in contact with the 18 other campus radio stations in Ontario facing a similar situation.

“What happens if we lose our money? Who’s going to do the work to run the station? It’s not cool. It’s very scary.”

Though she still regularly hosts programs on the air, Jansen now works primarily to steer the station with Dave Cunningham, the president of Radio Queen’s University (RQU) and chair of its board.

Cunningham’s experience with the station stretches back to 1969, when he was a second-year student completing his undergraduate degree at Queen’s and volunteering at CFRC. He returned to the station after retiring in 2015 to get involved again.

Dave Cunningham at Master Control, 1972. Cunningham returned to CFRC after a decades-long career in commercial radio. He now chairs the station’s board of directors.
(Credit: CFRC online archive)

“For me, it was coming full circle, because I was coming back to where I had begun,” Cunningham said in an interview with The Journal. “I like the idea of participating in radio, I enjoy doing interviews on the radio, and that was one of the catalysts to get back on the air.”

Like campus services across the board, the two now face a challenge that’s difficult to plan for.

“The problem is, all of us, including The Journal, are looking at October and going, ‘Well, how much money are we going to have to play with?’ And we don’t know that until the cheque comes into the office,” Cunningham said.

To combat the deficit, Jansen and Cunningham plan to work with the University’s Office of Advancement to organize a campaign to raise funds from alumni and other donors.

Though the station’s student fee has provided substantial support, Jansen said the age of the equipment in Carruthers Hall reflects some stagnation. “We’ve been running on a shoe-string budget for a very long time,” she said.

Even as the Student Choice Initiative is set to reduce one of the station’s main sources of revenue, Jansen and Cunningham want to keep pressing forward.


 

 

 “We also need to get a little bit ahead,” Jansen said. “We need to do some upgrading and updating, so we can provide the services and the skills-teaching in order for us to stay relevant.”

Together over the next year, the two plan to make their case to alumni in hopes of receiving support.

“If we keep falling behind, it’s going to be that much harder to stay afloat, let alone get ahead again,” Jansen said.

‘A long time in the saddle’

According to Dr. Arthur E. Zimmerman—who wrote a history of radio broadcasting at Queen’s called “In the Shadow of the Shield”—CFRC has one of the longest radio histories in the world, surpassed only by the Marconi companies.

The station’s history is also documented at length in an online exhibit created by Queen’s archives.

According to Zimmerman, CFRC’s origins as a campus media outlet began in the spring of 1922, when Douglas Jemmett (M.A. 1911, B.Sc. 1913) and Robert Davis (M.A. 1921) built an experimental AM radio station in Fleming Hall.

In the decade that followed, CFRC was on the air for a few hours a week during the academic year, broadcasting sports events, studio concerts, convocations, and lectures.

The station took off in the late 1950s after Margaret Angus, who had broadcasting experience at CBC, came on as the Director of Radio at Queen’s. Between 1958 and 1960, CFRC was upgraded and moved from its birthplace in Fleming Hall to the basement of Carruthers Hall, where it sits today.

In January, 1968, Queen’s graduate Andrew Marshall took over the station from Angus. Shortly after, in a report to the University, he argued for the inclusion of rock and pop music. 

Marshall also secured a $50,000 pledge from then-Principal John Deutsch to upgrade the station’s equipment.

When CFRC reached its 50th anniversary in 1972, Marshall penned an article in The Journal titled “Fifty Years in the Saddle is a Long Time.” Lorne Greene, an alumnus of the station and honourary degree recipient, recorded messages from the article congratulating CFRC, which were recorded by Queen’s archives.

 

Cunningham—who volunteered at the CFRC as a student between 1969 and 1972 and is set to see both the station’s 50th and 100th anniversaries within his lifetime—said CFRC hasn’t seen volunteers like it did at its height under Marshall and later, Steve Cutway.

“When we look back, it’s a double-edged sword. There are some people who look back to the old days and say, ‘We can never recover the old days and apply them to today.’”

“When I was a volunteer member as a student, we had the volunteer squad that played a larger role in the running of the station than the staff,” he said. “Now, we certainly have a lot of dedicated volunteers who participate, but not in the same way that the volunteers did back in my day.”

At the time, CFRC enjoyed significant support from the student body, picking up a $0.25 sports broadcasting student fee in 1975 and an increase to $0.40 in 1977 through campus-wide referenda.

The same year, Kathleen Ryan (Arts '26) made a $35,000 donation to the station in the memory of her husband, a dedicated former CFRC staffer. Ryan’s donation went towards CFRC’s transition to stereo broadcasting.

CFRC staff at Frosh Week in 1974. The station is approaching its centennial in 2022 and hopes to weather the impending damage of the Student Choice Initiative. (Credit: CFRC online archive)

 
After facing several hurdles throughout the 1980s and a nearly two-decades-long push to raise enough money, CFRC-FM began stereo broadcasting at 101.9MHz on Feb. 3, 1990.
 
In 2001, the station began broadcasting 24/7 and, in 2004, launched an online streaming platform. On CFRC’s 90th anniversary, in 2012, it split from the AMS and transitioned into an independent not-for-profit corporation under Radio Queen’s University. 
 
In recent years, however, the station hasn’t been immune to the decline in student engagement across campus. Cunningham said both student and community engagement from volunteers has seen a “marked decline” over the past few years.
 
“We need to take the core of people we have with us now and encourage them to be more outgoing ambassadors for the station,” Cunningham said.
 

Staying relevant in the information age 

In recent years, CFRC has ventured into podcasting as a way of making its programming more relevant and accessible to listeners who might not tune into the radio.

The station’s podcast network, which provides low-cost community podcast hosting, has been distributed on Apple, Google Play, and Spotify since June of 2018.

It now hosts nearly two dozen podcasts, including those from groups on campus like Queen’s International Affairs Association and Golden Words.

Both Jansen and Cunningham think supporting more student podcasts and finding a renewed focus on current campus events and news will help the station boost its relevance among students.

The two are also preparing for the station’s centennial in 2022 by organizing a committee of alumni to plan the celebrations.

Jansen hopes that by renewing alumni interest in the station, they can build broader support for the uncertainty ahead.

“In the spirit of the station, we’re here to be part of this community, we’re here to help build the community, we’re here to help bring the community together,” she said. 

“Folks who have been invested in CFRC are very much still a part of that process and we’re very proud of that.”

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