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Toronto’s New Radio Station Plans to Overcome Old Challenges

G98.7 FM launched yesterday with a lineup of music, talk, and on-air personalities, and a focus on Toronto's African and Caribbean communities. But after a long journey to secure a broadcasting license, the work is just beginning.

Some of the on-air staff at G98.7 FM: The Way We Groove

Tucked at the very end of a North York cul-de-sac lined with long grey office buildings, there is a patch of grass covered in geese. In the summer, Fitzroy Gordon says, those geese will be replaced by band stands, food, and people. He’s describing just one of the many block parties and music festivals he plans to hold, there on the grass, outside the studio of his brand new radio station, G98.7 FM.

If the scene is hard for you to imagine, consider this: Gordon first came up with the idea for this new station that would service Toronto’s black, African, and Caribbean communities in 1998. He was told it couldn’t be done. He saw other stations try and fail. And yet he went ahead, filing multiple applications with the CRTC and eventually crafting a detailed plan for a radio station to serve an under-served market in Canada’s most diverse city.

It’s been a dream of many in the city’s black community for a long time, but recently the dream became more urgent.

Last February, G 98.7′s director of communications, Aisha Wickham Thomas, sat at a long table set up at the front of room 309 at Metro Hall. She had heard of Gordon and his plans, but she wasn’t yet working for him. She was there because Wickham Thomas had worked at Flow 93.5 and was still working for the Canadian Independent Recording Artists’ Association. She was there because CKLN’s broadcast license had just been revoked and she, along with everyone in that room, was wondering: what now?

In the same month, February 2011, two other key stations on Toronto’s radio dial were going under. Flow 93.5 was officially taken over by CTV and fell into the ether that is mainstream radio, a long way from the station’s beginnings—a pioneering black-owned independent radio station built to serve Toronto with an urban format and unique community initiatives. For some, Flow had strayed from its mandate long ago, but as former morning show host Mark Strong said soon after much of the station’s staff was cleaned out, if things were already bad they were about to get worse. And over at Ryerson’s campus-community station, CKLN was in the midst of a battle with the CRTC that would see the station, a hotbed for Toronto hip hop, off the dial by April.

So Wickham Thomas sat in Metro Hall and listened to a packed room grieve for what was about to be lost. But the night was not just a send-off for black radio in Toronto—far from it. The event flyer called for unified efforts, potential solutions, and moving forward, and all of that got discussed. They talked about black radio versus hip-hop radio. They talked about the black business community putting its money where its mouth is. They talked about how hard it is to satisfy Canadian content regulations with so little music-industry support for quality hip hop and other traditionally black genres. (And before anyone goes crying Drake, keep in mind that with CanCon’s convoluted criteria, Drake’s mere presence does not CanCon make.)

And they talked about G98.7 FM.

The master control suite at the new studios.

Back in February the budding station was still known by its old name, the Caribbean and African Radio Network. It was five months before the CRTC approved station founder Gordon’s application, but job inquiries had been flooding in since the station had aired a test signal in June 2010. In all, Gordon says he received over 600 applications from eager broadcasters hoping to land a job with his new station. Interest came from the GTA and all across Canada, from the U.S. and U.K., and even from the Caribbean.

Eventually Gordon went with a mostly local team that many radio and hip-hop fans will already know, including former Flow program director Wayne Williams, morning show hosts Mark Strong and Jemini, and popular soca and reggae DJs Dr. Jay and Spex. When asked if anyone was nervous about getting burned again, Gordon says it was the opposite.

“Nervous? You had to calm them down. Every single person that came, they expressed how much they wanted to be here,” he told us. And that positive attitude is something Gordon hopes to cultivate going forward. He says he warned his staff that any bad vibes from past experiences have to get left at the door to give this new station a clean slate. “What happened to you there,” he says, “we here are not responsible for.”

Gordon saw what went wrong with other stations with similar mandates, and he’s carefully crafting every component of his station to avoid that fate. For starters, G98.7 has a specialty licence, not a typical commercial radio licence, so it’s more CHIN than CHUM FM. The station’s music content must be at least half “world beat and international” (according to the CRTC’s definition of the term) and spoken-word programming plays a significant role. The CRTC has also imposed a licensing condition that prohibits the station from changing format, which was one of the main downfalls for Flow.

The spoken-word programming on G98.7 will consist of news, sports, and talk shows, all with a focus on the African and Caribbean communities. Gordon says news will cover issues in the black community, like gun violence, with a more in-depth and balanced approach than those of mainstream outlets. He hopes to have a focus on health and wellness in the talk programming and encourage young black males, specifically, to lead a healthier life and turn away from gangs and drugs. With sports, Gordon hopes to cover local talents so as to encourage and recognize them at home “before they get drafted,” he says. And he’d like more coverage of international sports, like cricket, that he says are hugely popular in the GTA but don’t get the corresponding media coverage.

Efforts to speak to the black community don’t stop when the programming does. Gordon has a plan for the advertisers too. He wants the station to serve small business in the black community. He even says he has a special sales team to target these types of small businesses.

“If you go along Eglinton West, there are so many restaurants, clothing stores, electronic stores. And all over Mississauga and the GTA. We want to make their businesses into stars,” he tells us. Sure, it may be a sales pitch, but it’s a pretty good one.

Though the station is geared toward the black community, Gordon insists it can serve “all Canadians from all walks of life regardless of your culture, your nationality or your religion.” He just asks for one thing: he needs people to listen and he needs advertisers to support an untested, music/talk format. He needs people to get into the non-traditional mix of world beat, gospel, R&B, jazz, soca, and reggae.

“[The station] is a baby, a young baby. Baby G. I’m asking all of them to be godparents to this station,” says Gordon. “Give us a chance. Support us.”

Photos by Ryan Bridgelal.

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