When I lived in Durham, North Carolina, from 1994 to 99, I could tune in several black-owned or black-oriented radio stations serving the state capital of Raleigh or much smaller Durham, whose population was 30 per cent black.
Having grown up in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where black music played either as top 40 entries on the pop charts or as underground stirrings from student-operated stations, I found it sweet black music to my ears to finally be able to access classic soul, bebop and hip-hop whenever I liked.
Not only that, but the news came with a community focus that also had a slightly radical edge. And there were constant reminders of African-American history.
Upon moving to Toronto in 1999, I found the black radio situation little changed from what it had been when I had first visited and lived here in the late 1970s and early 80s: there was none. No black-owned or black-oriented radio stations anywhere in Canada. True.
For Toronto to go without was galling, for the largest black population in the country is concentrated here.
From the 70s to the 90s, the closest thing to a black music station in Toronto was WBLK 93.7 FM, "the People's Station," serving Buffalo, New York.
For roughly 30 years, black Torontonians - descendants of Underground Railroad-transported ex-slaves, British West Indian "new Canadians," a few fugitive "Scotians" and Cold War-exile or Vietnam War-refugee Afro-Americans - had nowhere to turn but WBLK to hear a steady beat of Motown R&B, Atlantic gospel and Stax soul.
So popular was the station among black Torontonians that back in the day many thought the call letters "BLK" stood for "black." They don't. They're actually a shout-out to one of the station's first backers, Benjamin L. Kulek. WBLK appreciated its Canadian audience and enjoyed profitable revenue imparted by savvy Toronto-based advertisers.
As refreshing as it was for black Torontonians to tune into a station that paraded African-American hits, slow jams, dance grooves and even the occasional consciousness-raising song, WBLK could not speak to the diversity of the black community here, which is a mix of distinct identities and preferences ranging across every taste, from rap to reggae to old-school R&B.
In 1990, Milestone Radio applied to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) for a licence to operate an "urban music station" but was rejected in favour of a country music station. That rejection was repeated in 1997, when Milestone lost out to a competing bid from CBC Radio.
Some African Canadians saw these two rejections as reflecting a racial bias, a refusal by the CRTC to recognize that the black demographic may desire a distinct set of sounds, accents and songs. It seemed that black Torontonians would have to attune themselves solely to classical, country and classic rock, for these were the primary local offerings, or keep their dials pointed south to WBLK.
On its third try, however, in 2000, Milestone Radio succeeded in obtaining a licence and began broadcasting as CFXJ, or Flow 93.5, on March 1, 2001.
Flow's arrival had the instant effect of displacing 93.7 (WBLK). But that was fine, for Flow 93.5 was especially welcomed by those hungry for a station that would reflect Toronto's black diversity, our Afro-multiculturalism, and provide a forum for community debate.
Indeed, Flow performed the awesome task of helping to introduce and back African-Canadian recording artists Jully Black, Deborah Cox, Kardinal Offishall and many more, enabling them to become recording stars.
But the playlist gelled into what Flow's Wikipedia entry describes as "rhythmic top 40 and classic urban formats," and as of August 2011, "hip-hop and R&B." Black music, yes, but essentially generic pop and dance and (African-)American.
Flow's "urban" identity seems fluid, too, due perhaps to its sale to CHUM Radio and eventually to Bell. If it began as a black-community-oriented station, it became more and more difficult to describe Flow 93.5 as such by the end of the last decade.
This fact opened the door to the arrival of CKFG-FM in October 2011. G 98.7 declares unhesitatingly that it is "targeted to the local Caribbean and African communities."
A radio station with an explicitly black orientation is what black Torontonians have been craving for decades: in other words, a bit more Hot Chocolate, a little less Vanilla Ice.
Named after its owner, Fitzroy Gordon, CKFG ("The G Spot," it proudly calls itself on air) broadcasts to the diversity of Toronto's black communities (the plural is essential). It is a godsend.
Finally, black Torontonians, and all Torontonians, have a radio station that plays the spectrum of black music: R&B, soul, reggae, soca, hip-hop, gospel, smooth jazz, African beats, chutney grooves, et cetera.
There are also church services, a community call-in show, black history announcements and news from the continent (Africa) and the Caribbean.
Also dynamic is the panoply of "coloured" voices and accents legitimized by spilling out of the radio and into the air. I hear now our black urban multiculturalism endorsed; it feels empowering. G 98.7 nourishes my soul.
I confess that some of CKFG's advertising - pitching "helpful loans" and "credit counselling" - is irritating. But it is also a reminder of how hard the global liquidity crisis (i.e., worldwide bank fraud) has hit folks.
But I overlook the irritants to enjoy the excellent surprise of Beyoncé following Bob Marley; news about a soccer match in Nigeria or a political debate in Jamaica; the health bulletins about prostate cancer, breast cancer and diabetes; and Grapevine, hosted by Gordon, which explores issues of importance to the local communities.
I think G 98.7 has discovered the secret for unity across our black, but very segmented, community: play all our music(s), give everyone a voice and we'll get together - finally.
George Elliott Clarke is the fourth poet laureate of Toronto. His newest book is Directions Home: Approaches To African-Canadian Literature (University of Toronto Press).