Hay River's CKHR radio station on shaky financial footing

The territorial government isn't showing the same eagerness to rescue community radio broadcasters as it did to rescue aboriginal broadcasting last year.

High rent, decreased ad revenue, not enough young volunteers at beleaguered station

Hay River's CKHR radio station, which operates out of the town's 'Highrise' building, faces an uncertain future. (Jacob Barker/CBC)

The territorial government isn't showing the same eagerness to rescue community radio broadcasters as it did to rescue aboriginal broadcasting last year.

Community radio broadcasters are as grassroots as radio gets. Non-profit societies operated by volunteers broadcast programming to their local communities.

Three stations have stopped broadcasting community programming in recent years and one of the last two functioning stations, CKHR in Hay River, is on shaky financial footing. 

Last year, the territorial government stepped in to rescue CKLB, an aboriginal language programming station that broadcasts from Yellowknife to communities throughout the N.W.T.

The N.W.T. government has increased its financial support for the Native Communications Society, which runs CKLB. But the amount of funding available for community radio stations like Hay River's CKHR is very small by comparison.

The station is run by the Native Communications Society. It ran into federal funding delays and laid off all all of its on-air staff for almost a year. The territorial government stepped in and increased its annual contribution from $202,000 to $602,000 to get it back on the air.

At the same time, the government doubled its contribution to the Inuvialuit Communications Society to $200,000 annually. The ICS produces a quarterly magazine and television programming broadcast on APTN.

"We really understand that broadcasting in the aboriginal languages of the Northwest Territories is essential," said Rita Mueller, an assistant deputy minister with the Department of Education, Culture and Employment.

"It's essential for the people that we serve in all of the communities. And, in fact, it becomes even more essential when we have an urgency around some of our languages diminishing very quickly."

Mueller says the department recognizes that territorial support for community radio stations is "quite small." Each station is eligible to apply for up to $6,000 annually.

Rent up, revenue down 

The lifeblood of community stations is volunteers. But even when there are enough volunteers, there are still bills to pay.

Kyle Camsell has volunteered with CKHR since he was in high school.

"After that I just kept on doing it because I found that I really like talking in a room to a mic alone," said Camsell. 

The 25 year old is now the station manager. He also records and programs weather and music, and is on the board of the non-profit society that runs the station. He says ad revenues from the government and local businesses have dried up.

At the same time, monthly rent for space in the apartment building known in Hay River only as "The Highrise" (it's the only highrise in town) has increased from less than $700 in the early 1990s to $1,200.

Camsell says he's as concerned about volunteers. He wants to see more young people get involved.

'I don't see the political will to save [it]'

Batiste Foisy has been a volunteer and an employee of Yellowknife's Radio Taiga French language community station since arriving in Yellowknife 12 years ago.

He says Radio Taiga survives on contributions from the local French language newspaper L'Aquilon.

"Maybe I'm pessimistic, but I don't see the political will to save community broadcasting in the North," said Foisy.

He says community radio is unique in that anyone can come in and create their own show for their community. One of his many jobs at Radio Taiga was to give people the technical help they need to get their shows on the airwaves.

"If the government wants to support community broadcasting they should talk to the people that are doing it," says Foisy.

"But I'm afraid it's too late. We had four community stations, two of them (in Fort Smith and Fort Liard) are gone, Hay River may be gone soon. How long will Radio Taiga last? I guess as long as L'Aquilon supports it."

Mueller says the government is in negotiation with the federal government for more funding for official languages, some of which could be used to support community radio. She did not know when that negotiation would conclude.