CKFM: Anatomy of
a Positive Response

By: Dennis Strong

From: Currents Spring 1983 pp. 20-23
© 1983 Urban Alliance on Race Relations

In the history of social change, the greatest progress has frequently been instigated by inadvertent, often unpleasant incidents. July 31, 1982 may well represent such an epoch in the relations between the Toronto media and its black community.

Toronto is the business and communications centre of Canada. It is also the bastion of WASP conservatism. However, with the change in immigration policy in 1967, the number and type of visible minorities has increased at a rate which was alarming to those whose values and privileges are now being called into question. New human rights legislation was passed, complaints of discrimination increased and even acts of physical violence were reported. Bit by bit, tensions began to build.

The frustrations on both sides are predictable and understandable. People who have worked all of their lives to nurture and support a way of doing things that has been in place for a long time will resist and oppose groups which represent to them a requirement to change or do without the privileges of the old way.

Blacks are portrayed in the media, if at all, as a troublesome version of "the white man's burden," or as athletes and entertainment performers who want too much money. Corporate announcements of senior appointments scarcely ever show a black; billboards and commercials depicting the "Canadian life style" contain few, if any, black faces; the Canada Council and other cultural funding entities pour monies into Stratford, the ballet, the opera, the comparative exclusion of forums of black expression. Discrimination is pervasive. Yet because of its subtle collusive nature, attempts to redress merely bring choruses of: ''If they don't like it here, they can go back where they came from.''

Enter CKFM, a lily-white FM station ranked number one among Toronto FM listeners between the ages of 18 and 49. The station is owned by Standard Broadcasting, a subsidiary of Argus Corporation, whose directors include the cream of the "old boy" network. The station is the paragon of success and good corporate citizenship. CKFM sponsorship of charities such as the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (including a concertmasters chair), the Hospital for Sick Children, Ronald McDonald House (to which it was the largest contributor) and its raising one-half million dollars for the Terry Fox Marathon, is legend. The station's manager, Bill Ballentine, has been voted Broadcaster of the Year by his peers; CKFM has been named FM Station of the Year and has also received the prestigious Armstrong Award for its specials on the FLQ. The programming of its music, news and current affairs is very middle-of-the-road (adult contemporary) and seemingly impervious to the drastic changes of "complexion" which have taken place in Toronto in the past 10 or 15 years. Ironically, the station's slogan is: "The Sound of Our Toronto." Indeed, its programming of the show "Toronto Alive," featuring jazz greats appearing in Toronto, was considered unique for commercial radio in North America.

Among its staff announcers was the late Phil McKellar, who had achieved international eminence as an authority on jazz after 34 years of association with the music and its artists. McKellar was a sought-after host and emcee for jazz concerts and presentations all over the city. He was the host of "All That Jazz,'' a weekly Sunday night jazz programme. It may be useful to point out that the "white sound" of Toronto's music programming in general has long been a bone of contention in the black community. The feeling is that white deejays are inappropriate as the sole interpreters of what is basically a form of black cultural expression. This practice represents an all-too-familiar act of exploitation and the black community has been powerless to change it.

So it was that at approximately 8:10 A.M. on July 31, 1982, McKellar was overheard on air to refer to the upcoming Caribana parade as "four million niggers jumping up and down.''

Caribana is an annual event presented by the black (Caribbean) community. It is a week long festivity and includes an enormous parade that winds along one of the city's main arteries. Over a period of 16 years, Caribana has grown into a major international event which attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors and millions of dollars of revenue to Toronto .

The timing of McKellar's racist comment could not have been more dramatic. It took him three weeks to apologize after the original broadcast. During that period, McKellar was incommunicado. The station said he was on holidays; the black community interpreted this as ''hiding out" with the station's help.

Time and again, leaders of the black community had sought to galvanize the community around issues involving the media and wound up being isolated as "radicals." The very blatant racist nature of the comment and the feeling that CKFM was just hoping that the demands for redress would "blow over," caused a groundswell of support not only among blacks, but from other visible minorities and concerned whites as well. A meeting was held at the offices of Contrast, the black newspaper that broke the story to the community, and the Committee Against Racism Within the Media (CARM) was formed. Its mandate was to keep the issue alive and obtain satisfaction for the black community. A campaign was mounted which included flyers, pressure on other media, politicians and prospective employers of McKellar.

CARM demanded that McKellar be fired. CKFM removed him as staff announcer, had him apologize, but dug in its heels at firing him and at accepting responsibility. After the apology - aired at exactly the same time as the incident, as is the usual practice in such cases - the community's persistence began to generate a sympathetic backlash on behalf of McKellar. The tone of this was: "The man has done a lot for blacks by playing jazz." ''It wasn't on purpose and he has apologized; that should be enough." "It's not fair for a man to be labelled a racist and forfeit his career for one mistake." " They are definitely over reacting."

The radio station and CARM jockeyed for position. McKellar himself, along with those in the media who sought to tell his side, fanned the flames. In an effort to defend himself against attack, he made more racist comments.

CKFM finally arranged a meeting in the black community which was attended by CARM, the Black press and other community members. There was tension and defensiveness, but feelings and information were at last being shared face-to-face. The station agreed to accept some responsibility by broadcasting an apology (read by the station manager, Bill Ballentine) for three consecutive days. CARM's position was that since all of their demands had not been met, they would organize picket lines at the radio station. This protest was also timed to coincide with a conference being convened by the Federal Minister of Multiculturalism around the grievances of visible minorities with the media. The scope of the incident had become international. Visiting, as well as local, musicians refused to appear on ''Toronto Alive," a show hosted by McKellar; moderate participants at the federal conference successfully fought to include the cause celebre in the deliberations.

CKFM began to see that the issue would not just go away, though it was felt that capitulation to even the modified demand of McKellar's removal from jazz programming could not be permitted. The Canadian Radio Television Telecommunications Committee CRTC asked CKFM to outline a response to the community's complaint alleging violation of the Broadcasting Act. Subsequently, the Ontario Human Rights Commission called a meeting under its mandate in race relations. It was at this meeting that the positive responses were set in motion. A broad cross-section of professionals with experience in the area of race relations and media advocacy, plus representatives from CARM, Caribana and CKFM were invited. This group included representatives from a variety of visible minorities. CARM, after taking exception to the presence at the meeting of an individual with whom they had a grievance, made a statement and withdrew.

The station by this time had recognized that further action was necessary and that while inadvertent, there had been a lack of sensitivity on its part. As a result, a proposal was tabled by CKFM to hire a news reporter who would report on the "changing, exciting and sometimes turbulent face of race and cultural relations in the city." In addition, commentators and public affairs programmers would begin work on "new and special programmes to better reflect the concerns of the many and diverse cultures of Toronto. At the group's suggestion, a press release was circulated to all media. A prime time commentary by Jeremy Brown, a 17-year veteran at the station, decried prejudice and informed listeners of the commitments made at the meeting. The group was assured that work on all undertakings would begin immediately and that concerns about "tokenism" were unfounded.

The task that lay ahead from that point was laced with as many pitfalls as the phase just completed.

CKFM has, in effect, committed itself to a voluntary affirmative action programme at a time when the ''old boy" network is publicly resisting government suggestions that the private sector needs to do this. With the help of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, the Metro Chairman's Committee on Multicultural Relations, and the North York Committee on Race Relations, the process of forming a community advisory board was begun. The membership includes a broad cross-section of the multicultural make-up of Toronto. Immediately, the group was astute enough to recognize that its value was in bringing a "community" perspective to the station and its key people. The group unanimously rejected any notion of screening or attempting to direct the station's actions.

The commitment to hire a "community" news reporter contained some very interesting twists. As the criteria for the position were being developed, it became apparent that a background in journalism was essential. Of equal importance was experience in dealing with minority communities. This suggested that the most appropriate candidates would likely come from these communities. The "Catch-22" was that "major market" radio stations seldom, if ever, hired personnel without their having been "seasoned" by working on stations in small, outlying towns.

The likelihood of finding minority candidates with ''seasoning" is remote. The station made the commitment to emphasize the two former qualifications. John McFadyen, the station's news director, and a former teacher, interviewed the candidates, made a choice, and designed an orientation and training programme that led to a fully "certified" radio news reporter.

At this juncture, it should be pointed out that there are a number of "wild cards" present in the scenario to be considered. Executives on all levels are evaluated by how well they can plan, budget and obtain a return on money and resources put at their disposal. The everyday activities of a company are geared to efficiently achieving the results that have been promised. The effect of an unexpected incident such as the one in this case, is to create tremendous tension internally. The fact that the black press editorially commended the station for its actions, and that letters of commendation have arrived at Standard Broadcasting citing Ballentine and the station for its leadership in race relations, are important elements in the support systems necessary to ensure continued progress.

The dialogue and interactions which are part of the advisory board process frequently have an organic effect in opening up resources and providing insights.

On January 26, 1983, Phil McKellar died suddenly of a heart attack. The very first meeting of the newly formed advisory board was scheduled to take place at CKFM the next day. The telephone lines at the station, the black press and the other media, burned with angry calls denouncing both as having "hounded McKellar to death." Despite the fact that the station's staff were frantically fielding these calls and making funeral arrangements for a colleague, the meeting was held, all members attended, and at an emotionally charged gathering, the group coalesced and the task was begun.

Since that time, CKFM has included screening for negative racial stereotypes part of its commercial acceptance criteria. Programme Director Jerry Good recently rejected two on that basis and suggested to other Programme Directors that they do the same. It has taken initiatives to make the station more open to community input by attending events, such as the Harry Jerome Awards, and by working to develop seminars and other educational forums of exchange. It is now in the process of designing and implementing internal training programmes for the station's managers, which will enable them to respond more positively to the opportunities inherent in Toronto's multicultural fact.

The value of studying this case is that, in a time when there is so much turmoil in Canadian race relations, positive models must be found to overcome the barriers to a harmonious society. The CKFM/black community story is an example of how we can all learn from our mistakes. Risk is necessary to find new approaches but the rewards can be commensurate with the risk.

Dennis Strong is an actor. He is presently Community Relations consultant at CKFM, and formerly managed the careers of Salome Bey, Beverly Glenn-Copeland and Cecile Frenette.

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