Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Grey power passion pays off

Volunteer-driven nostalgia radio gets permanent licence, will soon have permanent home, stronger signal

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Bill Stewart and Dorothy Dobbie and their Grey Power cohort at radio station CJNU don't spend too much time worrying about how the music industry model is broke.

Instead, for the past six-and-a-half years the volunteers who run the nostalgia music station schlepp their turntables (and laptop computers) to a different "community sponsor" location every month and serenade a loyal listenership with the tight, tight sounds of the likes of Nat King Cole, The Ink Spots, Frank Sinatra, Artie Shaw, Duke Ellington and even a few Beatles tunes from time to time. After operating consistently for six years-plus without a full-time broadcast licence -- as a special event broadcaster the station had to go off air for a day or two each month -- earlier this year the community co-operative at CJNU received a permanent FM radio licence from the CRTC.

"We're very pleased," said Stewart, 72, a long ago radio man who went on to have a career as a certified financial planner. "They set out a number of conditions but there were no curve-balls or things that we weren't prepared to deal with in terms of what we promised to them."

The fact they have shown they have the stick-to-it-ness to stay on the air for as long as they had, likely played into their success at landing a permanent licence.

Maybe even more to the point is they have built up a loyal listener base and 1,000 members who pay $40 the first year and $25 annually after that.

Stewart said the station does not subscribe to the BBM ("that would be a cost," he pointed out) the station has commissioned market research that indicates there are 20,000 people who tune in to the station once or more every week.

"When you skew that demographically that starts to become a fairly significant factor in the radio audience," he said.

And just because it now has a permanent licence on hand that doesn't mean the station is going commercial.

It will continue to operate with monthly community sponsors -- this month they're broadcasting from the Khartum Shrine Centre --who for a small fee get a month's worth of community-service announcements on-air. It will now be able to accept commercial ads, but Stewart said they have no intention to go out and try to win market share from others on the increasingly crowded dial.

The station operates on an annual budget in the low six figures and Stewart said they are confident it is a sustainable proposition.

Clearly a component of the success of the station is that it is a labour of love for the volunteers (who are paid a small honorarium).

Howard Kroeger, the Winnipeg radio industry consultant who invented the Bob-FM format and then helped export it to radio stations throughout North America as a big-time industry consultant, does not see this format as a big money-maker.

"That kind of music is a pretty small niche," Kroeger said. "I do a lot of research across North America, and honestly, from a commercial radio stand point" he's not sure there is a market.

But CJNU is not trying to be a commercial station.

Dorothy Dobbie, a CJNU board member, magazine publisher and former member of Parliament, said the volunteers who operate the station have a passion for the music and want to preserve it for the community.

She doesn't spend much time worrying about how or why it shouldn't work.

"People underestimate the power of this particular group," she said. "I spent 10 years on a Rogers' advisory board and have an idea of how the numbers work and where the radio stations all fit and I know they are all focusing on young males between 18 to 25, the one group with no money and no influence. Why they do that, I have no idea."

Meanwhile, seniors and retirees are more affluent and active than ever before.

"Many of us are still out there buying cars, buying furniture, travelling," Stewart said.

He admits he's working just about full-time hours, and when people ask him how it feels to be retired, he says the only real difference is that he's not getting a paycheque.

But what it comes down to, is it's all about the tunes.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 23, 2013 B6

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