Vancouver in imminent danger of losing its Roundhouse Radio voice

Disclosure: this column is part obituary, part conflict of interest and part appeal.

We are losing too much vital media in our communities. Our company, Glacier Media, is reinvesting – we’re filling specific needs to strengthen our team – but mostly media are cutting. Or, in the case of Roundhouse Radio 98.3 FM, facing collapse.

Declaration: we produce a daily hour-long business program for Roundhouse as a joint venture. The station’s owners say it will go dark at month’s end, unless someone steps forward.

Further declaration, even in self-interest: it is fair to say the loss of Roundhouse would be a terrible step backward for the community. Given the complexity of our issues, this is not a city that can afford any less media.

At Business in Vancouver, we have grown in the last two years and added reporters and contributors. In the digital age it is the right thing to strengthen and broaden content to navigate the atomizing of advertising and the afflictions of political and organizational spin. It serves to be unique in a landscape of undifferentiated content from many newsrooms whose owners treat journalism as a nuisance expense.

There are many reasons to critique media decline as self-inflicted, but when it concerns an outlet like Roundhouse, there is good reason to mourn for a moment and then reach for the phone to find friends with high net worth.

Since its inception two-and-a-half years ago, the independent station has conducted vastly more discussions than any other outlet on civic matters and on Vancouver’s lens on the wider world. If we lose Roundhouse, we might never get back the civic-minded model of its founders and those who crafted it. 

It has made business mistakes along the way, no doubt; that does not mean it cannot be rescued. But time is running short.

There were good economic and editorial reasons for the programming model. The broadcast licence conferred a reach that barely covered the city and the North Shore. The frequency collides with a private station in Chilliwack and a CBC transmitter in Squamish, so the federal regulator stipulated its signal could only reach whatever wouldn’t reach the incumbent outlets. Without the range into the Fraser Valley or over to Vancouver Island, there was little choice but to be a truly Vancouver station – and for that reason alone, it is truly worth Vancouver saving it.

The radio market is seemingly congested here, but there are few talk-oriented stations. It was intriguing to note that one announced last week it will depart its sports talk format – it has two counterparts, at least one too many – to focus on national, and eventually local, business. Most AM and FM stations, though, are music.

Of course, radio is having a tough time. The music audience is splintering with the rise of digital streaming services and seemingly limitless libraries of songs, free or through subscriptions.

But there is an impending shakeup of broadcasting headed our way as cars and their occupants acquire more plentiful digital access to media outlets.

That being said, something that does things differently almost always has its place.

I know enough of Roundhouse’s financials to think there are likely a few hundred people in our city who could invest, direct and salvage the station. It might require philanthropy, a different and more artisanal operating model, or just a new wave of entrepreneurial impetus.

But if it goes dark, it is going to be difficult to restore. Almost as much as I would lament its loss, I would grieve any new owner converting it to yet another bland outlet for well-worn music; the best path is to do what Roundhouse does best: its hour-by-hour talkfest.

There are certainly more significant investments with less significance to the community. While Roundhouse has failed initially to meet the promises of its business model, it has proven with its listeners the value of discourse in this age of diminishing media, fake news and increasing questions of public trust.

It’s a bargain, considering what we need as a city.

Kirk LaPointe is editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver Media Group and vice-president of Glacier Media.