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CKLN radio personality Ron Nelson at the Ryerson University's radio station studios

J.P. MOCZULSKI for The Globe and Mail

In a room at the back of CKLN's downtown Toronto studios sit two old mixing boards. They've been with the campus-community radio station since the 1980s and broke down long ago but are still being mined for parts.

They exemplify the station's ethos and serve as ever-present reminders of its history: Colourful and often controversial, CKLN sat at the forefront of independent music and radical politics in the city for more than three decades, working with a shoe-string budget, and yet it somehow always managed to survive.

But earlier this year, the federal broadcast regulator pulled its license in the wake of an internal power struggle two years ago. After the courts declined to hear an appeal last month, CKLN lost its radio frequency and is confined to broadcasting online.

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Now, staff and volunteers are left to contemplate an uncertain future. Some are adamant CKLN must get its frequency back, while others are resigned to becoming an Internet radio station. It is also unclear whether it will be able to keep its chief source of funding, a levy from Ryerson students, or its studio space. All, however, are determined that it must continue in some form to keep doing what it has done for years, launching the careers of indie artists and giving air time to subjects passed over by the mainstream media.


Students in Ryerson's radio and television program set up the station in 1977 under the call letters CRFM. It was a short-circuit broadcaster back then, its shows piped into lounges around campus. Studios were in the basement of the school's administration building. In 1983, CKLN obtained a broadcasting license and the frequency 88.1.

"The station was pretty cool, a lot of energy. It was a model most people hadn't seen," says Ron Nelson, who joined that year while he was studying at Ryerson. In 1984, he launched The Fantastic Voyage, the country's first all-hip-hop show. The studios became a social hub for local hip-hop musicians, who would hang around Saturday afternoons.

Other genres, from new wave to hardcore to reggae flourished there as well, and many acts who became major figures in Canadian music - from Maestro Fresh-Wes to Blue Rodeo to k.d. lang - received some of their first airplay on 88.1.

Radical politics were also part of the mix from the early days, with shows discussing everything from the queer community (it was the first to broadcast the city's Pride parade live) to police brutality.

It also helped create a news service to share content between left-wing radio stations around the world, including those run by the then-banned African National Congress and FMLN guerillas in El Salvador. Primitive computers allowed them to send news alerts and wire copy.

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"You could go live [on the air]down in Johannesburg when Nelson Mandela was coming out of jail," recalls city councillor Adam Vaughan, who worked as station manager. "We were making it up as we were going along. It was a fascinating group of people that were pulled together."

Norman (Otis) Richmond, who joined in 1983, says CKLN wanted to be more in-depth than other stations. On his newsmagazine shows, he would interview guests for 25 minutes, then open the phone lines for half an hour. He also produced documentaries, including a 20-part series in which he travelled to Africa to chronicle the devastation of HIV/AIDS.

"It was a voice for the voiceless," he says. "It was very social justice, it was very anti-imperialist."

Conrad Collaco, who worked at CKLN in the 1990s and early 2000s, remembers how, during the Rwandan genocide in 1994, the station looked at the longer, colonial history behind the unrest.

"CKLN news was really good at filling in the gaps missed by the mainstream media," he says.


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But even as the station thrived, it faced perennial administrative and money problems.

CKLN's chief source of funding is an annual fee paid by Ryerson students (at the moment, each undergrad pays $9.81, which raises just under $300,000 each year), who have complained from time to time that the station doesn't do enough to cater to the campus.

In 1992, one student successfully petitioned for a referendum on the question of student funding. CKLN won the vote.

In the early 2000s, student leaders spent tens of thousands of dollars to pay down its debt.

Then, from 2007 to 2009, there was a battle that pitted staff and volunteers against the station's board. While directors said they were trying to organize CKLN (which hadn't had a station manager in several years) and deal with its financial issues, volunteers accused them of trying to make it more mainstream. The fighting got so bad, the building manager locked everyone out of the studios for months.

CKLN was recovering with a new board of directors in place when the Canadian Radio-Television Telecommunications Commission punished it last January for various license infractions, including failure to file paperwork during the dispute.

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The station is still broadcasting over the Internet and is looking at reinstalling a closed-circuit system, which would allow it to broadcast within Ryerson's campus. It is also considering launching an appeal to the regulator to permanently designate 88.1 a frequency for campus-community radio. Beyond that, the future is unclear. It's unknown whether the station will hold onto the student levy or its space on campus.

"It's just astonishing that the CRTC can do this to a station that's been true to its mandate, that's sustained its commitment to community-based programming," says Mr. Vaughan. "The damage it does to communities served by this station, you couldn't even begin to quantify."

Outgoing student union president Toby Whitfield, who sat on the board throughout the troubles, says previous directors didn't seem to appreciate what they had.

"There's been so much infighting for so many years, people lost sight of the purpose of the station. The privilege of having a license is amazing, and I think that's what was missing," he says, adding that its new leadership has made strides towards getting students involved.

One of them is Noorez (Nunu) Rhemtulla, who grew up listening to the station and now hosts its overnight music show.

"It gives you a straight-up opportunity to go on air. At other stations, you're doing backroom work for years before you go on the air," says Mr. Rhemtulla, who recently finished his third year of the radio-television program.

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At the studios, a bright, modern mezzanine on the second floor of Ryerson's student centre on a recent afternoon, it still felt like business as usual. Volunteers chatted while Mr. Nelson hosted a reggae show and Jacky Tuinstra Harrison, a campus-community radio veteran hired last month as station manager, attended to administrative work.

"The calls I get have been heartbreaking in a great, community radio kind of way," she says, rhyming off the community-connected programs, including a radio show produced by Regent Park youth through a local arts centre, that continue to fill the airwaves. "'I've been listening to you since I was a kid,'... 'This is how I found out about hip hop.'"

Editor's Note: In the original newspaper version of this article and in an earlier online version, the name of station manager Jacky Tuinstra Harrison was misspelled. This online version has been corrected.

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