Rogue airwaves

Dalhousie University’s campus/community radio station CKDU is getting a new frequency—88.1 on your FM dial—and, more importantly and most surprisingly, more power.

illustration Kate sinclair

Michael Catano’s voice starts to fade on the car radio just before Portuguese Cove. Static overtakes the CKDU-FM station coordinator’s cheery read of more than a dozen names of listeners who support Moxieland, an eclectic cartoon/pop program. Host Stephen Cooke, a Chronicle-Herald reporter who started his CKDU show in the late 1980s, is inching the station $400 closer to its $50,000 fundraising goal—and better reception for CKDU listeners in HRM by the end of November.

Catano insists that a long-touted rumour that the 35-watt campus and community radio station—which is celebrating its 20th year as FM—is finally going high power is true. That is, if you consider 3,700-watts “high power.”

“We’ve been saving to go high power for 20 years,” says Catano over the phone. Like Cooke, the musician, of State Champs and North of America fame, is also a CKDU veteran: Catano began volunteering at the Dalhousie University-based station in 1992, and only started working there as a paid staff member in January.

Since 1985, the station’s by-laws mandated that it invest at least $5,000 in a capital replacement fund annually, he says—this year accumulating a total of $90,000.

“It’s still not quite enough money”—to finance high power—“but we’re going for it anyway,” boasts Catano, who says the station is currently negotiating with the Dalhousie Student Union (DSU) to borrow an additional $20,000 for contingencies. As a requirement of that loan, the DSU also wants CKDU to have broadcast insurance.

But CKDU’s membership disagrees, says Catano, especially because of the high cost of insurance. While acknowledging its utility—broadcast insurance would cover the station’s legal costs if it was sued for slander, for example—Catano says the $15,000 price tag would blow a good deal of the loan, far more than the station has been able to sock away each year. And broadcast insurance is not a condition of licence.

“We’re talking with other stations in the NCRA”—the National Campus and Community Radio Association—“about getting a group rate,” says Catano.

“CKDU is challenging, interesting radio,” he says. “Our programmers are also fully trained to comply with the broadcast standards. And just because not everyone agrees with what they hear, it doesn’t mean that we’re doing something wrong.”

The integrity of CKDU’s programming has been hard won: in the mid-1990s, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), the regulating body for all Canadian broadcasters, imposed controversial restrictions on the station’s licence, preventing programmers from playing “sexually explicit material” during the day. The NCRA and queer radio activists across Canada galvanized in protest, calling the restrictions unjust and homophobic. But CKDU was forced to comply.

In the past year, only one complaint about CKDU’s programming went as high as the CRTC, says Catano—and the programmer was disciplined, which satisfied the CRTC. CKDU recently received a new restriction-free licence until 2012.

CKDU is still a volunteer-driven entity where decisions are made by programmers who have been trained—rigorously, according to CKDU staff—but who are not professional broadcasters.

Catano points to the station’s technical coordinator, Stephen Kelly, as key to unlocking the technical doors that some people thought were pushed open back in 2000 when the CRTC granted CKDU permission to increase its output.

Kelly, a soft-spoken radiophile who moves calmly between showing volunteers how to answer the funding drive phone and running to the prize room for more CDs and gift vouchers, deflects any credit: “We all felt we had to make sure that the station was healthy first.”

Kelly describes how, over the past five years, he replaced the reel-to-reel logger tape system with a hard drive that interfaces with CKDU’s on-line database; the 8-track-type cart machiness—cast-offs from public and commercial radio stations—with networked computers where programmers now record their show promos and the heavy on-air mixing board with a console half its size.

On the programming side, he says, all-nighters have become increasingly automated—save the weekends—either re-broadcasts or pre-recorded local and syndicated programming.

Kelly points to the station’s dedicated membership and to a vigilant long-term planning committee for plotting the move to high power, and cites as indispensable the contribution of both the university’s facilities management department and local broadcast engineer Kenny Lewis.

Lewis did Kelly’s job for much of the 1990s, but he laughs at the idea that he affects CKDU today. He’s just pleased that people will be able to hear a clear signal downtown. “If it means people won’t have to do crazy things with their clock radio,” he says, “then that’s a good thing.”

Although CKDU has online listeners worldwide, Kelly contends that the internet is still not widely accessible. Nor does it sound as good, especially for dial-up users. “It’s not like your home radio or your Walkman,” he says, emphasizing that high power is about CKDU being more accessible locally.

CKDU will also broadcast at a new frequency after the the all-new transmitter and antenna are installed: 88.1 sits left of much that currently fills the airwaves in HRM.

Kelly points to the outlined area on a broadcast map: “Our signal will be clear as far south as Portuguese Cove and as far east as Cole Harbour. Which is how far we reach now, but not very well.

“We’re going bigger, yes. But the more important thing is that we’re going to be better—what we’re saying is that if you get the station now, you’re only going to be getting it better.”

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