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Running out of air: 98.7 FM The Lake struggles to survive

Lake Cowichan’s local radio station 98.7 FM The Lake is battling to stay afloat and on the air
Mike Bishop

Lake Cowichan’s local radio station 98.7 FM The Lake is battling to stay afloat and on the air.

From what began in 2002 in local radio enthusiast Brian Simpson’s living room, The Lake faces the grave possibility of extinction after the station’s community license expires in August of this year.

“It has been a real struggle right from day one to sell the concept of a volunteer-run community radio station right here. It has been an uphill battle,” said the radio station’s board member Ron McKenzie.

The local radio station is threatened by Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission license renewals. In 2009, The Lake acquired a three-year developmental community license. A short time ago the CRTC has moved towards five-year licenses, a time frame which gives community stations a longer period to stabilize and generate revenue.

The date to reapply for this license closed in November, leaving The Lake in quite the quandary. 98.7 FM’s chairman of the board of directors Mike Bishop even tried upgrading The Lake’s three-year license to five years but was rejected.

“It’s time and money pressures,” said Bishop.

The radio station has now set its sights on acquiring a license upgrade by upping their wattage from five watts to 50 watts. Currently The Lake can only be heard clearly in the limits of Lake Cowichan. 50 watts would give the station the ability to broadcast clearly in Honeymoon Bay, Youbou and Mesachie Lake.

Upgrading The Lake’s license means hiring a broadcast engineering firm to prepare a technical report for the CRTC so the governing body of radio can ensure the station meets the requirements for a 50-watt output and that the station won’t interfere with others in the area. Having this engineering test completed is the first step that needs to be taken.

Bishop has spoken to a handful of engineering firms on Vancouver Island. He estimated that the cost for the survey will run from $10,000 to $15,000.

“Coming up with the money is going to be a huge hassle and huge difficulty for us,” he said.

Even if the station can gather the funds to pay for the survey, Bishop noted that The Lake will still have to deal with CRTC and the fact that the organization might not accept The Lake’s revamped license proposal and allow station to stay on the air after August 2012. However, Bishop’s crossing his fingers.

“We’re hoping they’re not going to make us power down the antenna and let us continue here until they have a chance to look at our new license application,” said Bishop.

If The Lake can raise the necessary money to complete the study, the station is aiming to have it complete by August.

Recently The Lake has joined the support network of the National Campus and Community Radio Assocation to look for help. The NCCRA has pointed The Lake in the direction of various grant applications.

To further complicate things, The Lake’s lease at their present location at 27 Wellington Street will expire in February, 2014, at which point the station will be forced to vacate the building.

McKenzie said that the Town has made plans to sell the building in 2014.

“We’re looking. I have wind of a few places but we don’t have the funds to move in” said McKenzie.

McKenzie indicated that the radio station is prepared to move out of town and to a nearby location in the region if necessary.

“It’s extremely upsetting and puts a lot more pressure on us,” said McKenzie.

Bishop agreed.

“It’s adding another layer of complexity to the his broadcast application to the CRTC. If we get the engineering study done it will be done referencing the location we’re at right now. If we’re only there for another year and a half, then we’re going to have to get the whole thing done again when we find a new place to locate to,” said Bishop.

Bishop, along with board member Grace Bond attended the recent community public meeting on Jan. 16 to inform Town Council and the general public of their emergency status. He thought that the response that 98.7 FM’s presentation gauged was shaky.

“I did not get a positive feeling from that meeting. I got the feeling that a lot of people there didn’t understand the complexity of our situation,” said Bishop.

Bishop said such feedback is discouraging. He indicated that only one individual asked any questions during the meeting.

Aside from announcing community events and taking a local angle to broadcasting, 98.7 FM’s power generator would be invaluable to the Cowichan Lake-area if a natural disaster were to ever strike the region. Bishop is adamant that their power generator is integral to communicating with the public during an emergency where power has potentially been wiped out.

“We really want to be a community radio station. We want to be able to help in times of emergencies, disasters, forest fires and whatever else,” said Bishop.

If The Lake fails to stay on the air pending the CRTC’s decision on their August license expiry, Bishop said they will continue to broadcast their programming over the Internet.

Mayor Ross Forrest believes the radio station serves a valuable purpose in Lake Cowichan.

“Absolutely anything that helps promote the community is an asset,” said Forrest.

The mayor admitted that he would be saddened to see The Lake disappear from the airwaves.

“I wouldn’t be happy if it went under. I certainly hope that it manages to stay going. It took them a long time to get up and running here and since it has I think people listen to it and that it is a good thing,” added Forrest.

The Lake will hold nine outdoor concerts during weekends this summer in conjunction with local not for profit organizations to help raise money and promote awareness for the station’s struggle.

However, Forrest was unable to indicate to what lengths the Town can go to aid the local radio station but said he’s open to suggestions.

The Lake will host their annual general meeting on Jan. 25 at Country Grocer at 7 p.m.