There was a period in the not too distant past when Sudburians could be forgiven for not realizing that the city has a community- and campus-focused radio station. But CKLU 96.7 FM has overcome the technical challenges that made it hard to find and hard to hear, and now -- in its 30th year of operation -- it is more committed than ever to bringing voices and music to the airwaves that you otherwise would not be able to hear in Sudbury.
According to station manager Rob Straughan, at the low point a couple of years ago the station "had a lot of trouble staying on the air." A series of lightning strikes at the broadcast tower one summer not only repeatedly knocked the broadcast out directly but also took a heavy toll on equipment that was already old and worn, leading to subsequent failures and more dead air.
"It deteriorated to a point within the last year or two where, if you turned [CKLU] on, if it wasn't staticky, you were lucky," he continued. As well, "The sound level ... was way down, so if you were listening to another station and went to us on the dial, you'd have to turn your volume up very loudly to hear it. And that's if it was on the air."
This was a particular loss to the Sudbury community, as CKLU is the only station of its type in the area. As with most community stations, CKLU's mandate emphasizes local, original programming. Much of its schedule is filled with niche music shows hosted and produced by both students and people from the broader community with interests that range from jazz to hip-hop to classical to electronica. It also features a handful of locally-produced spoken word shows on a range of topics, and a small number of syndicated shows, such as widely acclaimed alternative news source Democracy Now!.
According to Mélanie Tremblay, a professor of Journalism Studies at the University of Sudbury, stations like CKLU are "the perfect opportunity to discover what's happening in your community." She said, "People in CKLU, most of them are not professionals, so it gives Sudburians the opportunity to listen to radio made by people like us."
Straughan said that in his year or so as manager, between $20,000 and $25,000 has been spent on upgrades and repairs, "which is a significant part of our budget here." He said, "Most of the equipment that has been updated since I've been here has been tower-related. So things like the stereo generator, the modulation unit. We have a new transmitter in there now."
Part of that has included developing a new appraoch for connecting the station, which is based at Laurentian University, with the broadcast tower, which lies to the south of the city and is shared by multiple media outlets. The new approach and new technology means that it is much less likely that the station will go off the air, and much easier to get it back up quickly if it does happen.
With those updates, Straughan said that "the consistency of the feed has been there for the past six or eight months." And in terms of the signal itself, "We really turned a corner as the school year ended this year. There was a definite difference in sound quality." As well, CKLU's sound levels are now consistent with other stations in the city.
Karla Dozzi is sure that a lot of the material she covers in her show just wouldn't reach the airwaves were it not for CKLU broadcasting loud and strong. She is a nurse who works in community health and has a background in doing sexuality education with youth. Her show on healthy sexuality, Under The Covers With Karla, broadcasts every Monday at 4pm.
For her, "That's the beauty of [community radio] ... it's open to all genres of music, all types of topics." On other kinds of venues, she continued, "You can't just openly talk about some of the topics that I've covered. I've done great shows on, like, sex work, which the CBC for example can cover. But I don't necessarily see them doing a show on things like eco-friendly sex toys, or dildos, or anal sex, or the G-spot, or sex advice."
"Sex is still a really tabo topic and it shouldn't be. A lot of people do it, a lot of people are afraid to talk about it, and that leads to unhealthy behaviours regarding sex." Given that, Dozzi continued, "It's kind of nice that I have that open forum to speak freely about sex as it is."
And Tremblay, along with her role in teaching journalism, co-ordinates a French-language news show on the station called Info Etjo. During the school year at 1pm on Tuesdays, francophone students in the Journalism Studies program broadcast stories they have produced on local Sudbury issues, francophone issues, politics, student life, and arts and culture.
She hopes that the francophone community takes advantage of the revitalized CKLU to have more original, local, French-langauge programming. While the city has one public and one private station that broadcast in French, there is no exclusively francophone community station. For that reason, she said, "I think there's room in the community" for a greater presence at CKLU. "I think that francophones would like to hear themselves."
Straughan said that the upgrades to the broadcast equipment will be ongoing, but things have reached a point where they can turn their attention to the equipment in the station itself. He said they need things like new, high quality microphones and a new sound board. "Each DJ or each volunteer that's on the air is responsible for running their own show. They're basically an engineer as well as being a radio host," he said. Upgraded equipment in the station itself would help "make it as user-friendly as possible for the DJs."
Another big focus for that station is outreach, both to potential listeners and potential hosts. Straughan said, "I think what happened is that people have just kind of dismissed us. They may know the station but they don't listen because of the reputation and their own experiences of listening, with poor sound quality and not being on the air and so on. So now it's up to us to get the word out there, get a second chance from these people that maybe dismissed us. Or get word out there to people who have never heard of us -- which is, shockingly, a lot of people on campus." The station can turn its attention in this direction in good faith now "knowing that when people tune in, one, it will be on the air, and two, that the sound quality will be good. And then it's up to them to find the programming that interests them."
As well, though far more of the programming grid is filled with original content today than was true a couple of years ago, it also changes quite regularly. That means, Straughan said, that "if they are interested, if they don't hear something they like or they think, 'Hey, I can add to the station' -- if there's something lacking, maybe they can approach us and we can work something out."
Scott Neigh is a writer, activist, and media producer based in Sudbury, Ontario. He is the host of Talking Radical Radio, the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists, and a blogger. CKLU is one of 7 or 8 stations across Canada that broadcast Scott's show -- it airs in Sudbury at 11am on Mondays.