CFRU Marks 40 Years on FM Radio, But Dangers Lurk for Campus Radio

On January 28, 1980, CFRU 93.3 fm went on the air. What started in the fall of 1964 with a small group of Ontario Agricultural College (OAC) students creating a radio society, turned into Radio Gryphon by the 1970s, and then evolved again into a complete community radio station 40 years ago. Although CFRU and other campus radio stations are facing tremendous challenges, it’s still being hailed as a cause for celebration.

Photo Credit: The original staff of CFRU (clockwise from top left: Paul Heap, Rob Burr, Richard Vidug, Bonnie Durtnall, and Ian MacDiarmid. Photo courtesy of Barbara Salberg Matthews, reprinted in The Ontarion.

“I’ve been pretty nostalgic, I must say,” Ian MacDiarmid explained. MacDiarmid, who on the radio goes by the simple call-sign MacDee, should be the most nostalgic of all given his 50 years of involvement in CFRU and its predecessor Radio Gryphon. MacDiarmid was CFRU’s first general manager, and he’s currently giving up some of his time as a retiree to guide the station as interim manager.

“It started out as a hobby, just as an interest, and then it became quite personal to me,” MacDiarmid added. “It represents a success story for me given the assignment of transforming what was basically a student club into an organization that can obtain and maintain an FM license.”

MacDiarmid was there in 1980 as the emcee of CFRU’s very first broadcast (which you can hear below). Also there for the first minutes of air-time was local broadcasting legend Mayor Norm Jary, then still the news director for CJOY and at the time in his 10th year as the mayor of Guelph. Jary’s comments on that day in 1980 still echo in 2020.

“I think the fact that you now have a new radio station indicates that this university continues to grow and develop in so many aspects. I think of all the jobs the university provides, I think of the monthly payroll that certainly stimulates the economy of the entire City of Guelph,” Jary said.

“I think of the contributions made by the students as a contribution that is not only to this city, but to this country and indeed to the entire world,” Jary added. “I think the fact that you have a new radio station indicates that you’re ready to play a continuing leadership role, as we look ahead to the 1980s.”

After Jary spoke, MacDiarmid gave a tribute to Frank Ryan, who was one of the original members of U of G’s Board of Governors. When Ryan passed away in 1965, he bequeathed $25,000 to the university so that they might start a campus radio station. “The Ryan fund has been used for a number of things, but the most visible evidence is our Frank Ryan studios upstairs in the second floor of the University Centre,” MacDiarmid said in 1980. “Our call letters ‘CFRU’ were chosen to honor Frank Ryan.”

A dedication plaque outside CFRU’s studio, still in its original location, remains to give thanks to Frank Ryan for his generosity, which is a quality that’s been in short supply lately.

It’s hard to talk about the current status of campus radio stations without taking about the lingering effects of the Student Choice Initiative, a measure passed by the Provincial government to allow students to opt out of select fees, including the ones that radio stations like CFRU depend on to operate.

“I’d certainly like us to get back to full funding. I would want us to not be under any kind  of threat really,” MacDiarmid said. Since the SCI went into effect, CFRU has lost three staff members including the previous general manager, and MacDiarmid is using his 30 years of experience in banking to assist the station through a difficult financial transition.

“To have a situation of less funding means that there might be a  whole rethink of the organization and how it operates, and that would involve change, which is always awkward,” he added.

Still, CFRU is looking to keep things positive, and focus on the vaunted history of the station and all it still has to offer. A 40th anniversary committee has been established by the Board of Directors to plan events and commemorations throughout the year, as MacDiarmid works to set the station on a course for the next 40 years.

“I’m getting emotional just talking about it,” said the normally stoic MacDee.”I view CFRU as a learning environment, and I think it’s certainly still fulfilling that objective.”

Some Celebrate, Others Struggle

While CFRU celebrates, other campus radio stations are not as lucky. In Kingston, the Queen’s University station, CFRC, is now facing a budget gap that has nothing to do with the Ontario government, but the fact that the undergraduate students of Queen’s no longer sees the value in the nearly 100-year-old station.

“What ended up happening is that of the total number of people that voted, there were a significant number who did not vote on our question like they did on other issues,” said David Cunningham, the chair of CFRC’s Board. “There were almost 1,000 people who either didn’t understand the question or didn’t feel informed enough about the station.”

The Student Choice Initiative took a toll on many campus radio stations. Only 43.3 per cent of students opted in to pay the $3.73 per semester fee for CJRU at Ryerson last fall, while CJAM at the University of Windsor did not renew the contract of their music director and left the position vacant to save money. An Ontario Court ruled last fall that the SCI was “unlawful” and that the government had “no statutory authority … to interfere in the internal affairs of these student associations,” but the situation at Queen’s is different.

“Every couple of years, we have to deal with a referendum,” Cunningham explained. “Every organization on campus that comes up for a referendum has to take the same approach whereby members of the undergrad society have to conduct a campaign, and there is a very limited budget that they allow for the various groups.”

The undergrad student government at Queen’s, the Alma Mater Society (or AMS), ran 30 referendum questions in this winter’s election, and to add insult to injury, the only one that failed was the renewal of CFRC’s undergrad student fee. A total of 4,344 students voted in the elections, which is a turnout rate of 28.3 per cent; 188 votes separated CFRC from getting their renewal, and, to Cunningham’s point, 858 people, or almost 20 per cent, abstained from answering the question.

“We’ve had battles in the past and this is another one,” Cunningham said, adding that he and the board are trying to look ahead instead of looking behind now. “We have to figure out the best way we can move forward, and we have a lot of enthusiastic volunteers. We just have to find out how we can generate cash flow.”

Cunningham says that the lesson from this vote is that stations need to constantly prove their worth to the community, push the unique programming that independent campus radio stations can offer, and tell the stories that only they can tell.

“I worked almost 20 years in commercial radio, and I’m looking at the stations that I used to work at in town, and everything is programmed from Toronto. Those stations are very rigidly formatted as far as I can see,” Cunningham said. “CFRC is the station that opens up its doors and plays all kinds of different music, and gives different groups in town an opportunity to let their voices be heard.

“So in my mind, that kind of radio has a future,” he added.

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