The CRTC made a statement by giving the 88.1 FM frequency left vacant by CKLN's infamous meltdown to Indie Toronto, a rock-focussed station pitched by a small operator who runs a couple stations in Barrie, rather than going with a bigger company or a less niche-specific format. I was all ready to crank out a post about how this new addition to the dial might get people like me listening to the airwaves again, but then I stumbled across Moses Znaimer's bizarre rant over at industry website Cartt.ca and was thrown for such a loop that I had to reconsider my approach.
"Appalling. It was stunningly insensitive and entirely inappropriate," is how Znaimer describes the decision. That seems heavy handed and weird enough, but it gets way stranger. He would have preferred if his own application to move one of his boomer-specific stations from the AM dial to FM had won.
Znaimer explains that Indie Toronto will be aimed at the same demographic as the rest of the rock stations, which perfectly illustrates how far his head is up his generation's ass. What "rock" stations is he talking about? The closest we can see to Indie Toronto's format are CBC Radio 2 and the Edge, both of which have pretty distinct identities in comparison to what is being proposed here. I guess to him, the top 40 stations aimed at teens and the soft pop ones aimed at office workers are also "rock" stations?
He goes on to say that he'd presented evidence proving that, despite baby boomers being the largest population demographic in Canada, most of the radio stations are aimed at younger listeners. But then he adds that the younger demographic doesn't listen to radio anymore. If that's so, why are there so many channels catering to younger listeners? This is a business, after all.
He calls this a "stunning case of age discrimination", but then also rages that the CRTC panel turned their backs on their own generation, since they're all boomers themselves. Sounds more like they just aren't quite as entitled as Znaimer, and quite rightly realize that the medium is essentially finished, unless younger demographics can be convinced to start believing in radio again.
Talking with Indie Toronto program director David Carr over email, I found myself feeling nostalgic about the days when I still listened to the radio regularly, and also remembering why I stopped. In the consolidation craze of the 90s, most stations were bought up by an increasingly small pool of corporations, and started relying on ultra-repetitive, conservative and nearly-identical playlists. DJs no longer expressed their own personality in their selections, and the airwaves became the last place you'd go to hear new music.
Nevertheless, there remains considerable doubt about whether a small station devoted to a niche market will actually last in Toronto. There's been an unfortunate history of smaller operators with good intentions selling their stations to larger players who immediately changed format to top 40. However, Carr claims that's not in the cards for Indie Toronto's future.
"[Owner] Doug Bingley has no intention of selling. Radio is his love. It's who he is, and he'll give everything he has to make it work. Doug has been at it for 24 years, and it's obvious to me that if he just wanted money, he would have sold out long ago. We've been working to bring this format to reality since our Vancouver application five years ago. We believe this could become one of the most important stations in Canada, and have worked too hard to give it up. Unlike the big chains, we're not limited by quarterly results. This allows us to take a patient long term view towards building success."
It's that last part that stands out to me. As we've seen across the media landscape (and the economy in general), that pressure to provide consistent gains doesn't lend itself to long term thinking, and is one of the factors behind why larger corporations seldom have good luck keeping smaller outlets afloat after they buy them up.
As Alan Cross (who was also involved in a competing application) points out, there are some advantages to being small. Before it became the Edge, 102.1 FM was one of the most adventurous stations in North America, which was really only possible without the pressure to consistently bring in big numbers.
"Indie Toronto might have a chance to be to the city what the old CFNY was back in the late 70s and early 80s. Its transmitter signal was hideous but that didn't stop people from discovering the station and evangelizing about it. (See Rush's "Spirit of Radio," which was written about the old CFNY.)
By giving the license to Indie, the Commission looks very good by offering a newcomer a space on the crowded Toronto dial."
Carr seems to appreciate why some are making that comparison, but insists that Indie Toronto has its own destiny.
"There are some people that miss the pre-Edge days, but I'm sure just as many who like the Edge the way it is today. It's not our intention to be what they were in the past. Our goal is to be Toronto's first indie station. There's plenty of room for both of us."
Part of me wonders if maybe Moses Znaimer is partially right. Maybe the post-boomer generations will never embrace radio again in the same way. We don't buy cars in similar numbers (and that is where most people listen), and we also don't relate to monocultures in the same way, making it hard to program for them. The economics of the medium make it rough for niche stations to stay afloat, even if they can attract extremely dedicated audiences.
Nevertheless, I can't help but dream of a future when digital has displaced radio so much that all the stations are quirky low-budget labours of love. Maybe at that point corporate interest will be sidelined enough to let the magic back in.