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Gay roots of Vancouver’s new Roundhouse Radio

Local community station aims to be part CBC, part NPR and a little college radio

Roundhouse Radio, a new “hyper-local” station, is set to hit the airwaves in Vancouver in mid-September and the people behind it see the LGBT community as core to their mandate.

In fact, when Don Shafer first imagined his own radio station, he thought of one specifically aimed at the queer community.

“A lot of my friends and family are gay or trans and obviously I love them to bits,” says Shafer, who has been in the radio business for five decades, two of those in Vancouver. He’s been involved in Pride festivals in Winnipeg and Kelowna and has served on the local and national boards of PFLAG.

“I don’t want to wave a flag, but I’m committed to my friends and family,” he says. “I want to help where I can because I think there’s a lot of shit that they’ve got to wade through every day and I want to help. And it’s not ‘they’ — it’s we who need to wade through it.”

When the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission invited proposals for a new station, Shafer and his colleagues realized the business model for a strictly LGBT station was not sound. But he promises the community will be fully integrated into all aspects of the station’s programming.

The station will be mostly talk, with a focus on what’s happening in the city’s arts and culture, politics, neighbourhoods, social issues and street-level community activities. Roundhouse operates under a Class A station license, which is like most other FM radio stations, but with a reduced-power reach. So the station will be heard by residents in the city of Vancouver and maybe some of those on the periphery — in Burnaby, on the North Shore and in Richmond.

“Some people think that’s a weakness,” Shafer says. “I personally think that’s a real strength because the focus is really Coal Harbour to the airport and Stanley Park to Boundary Road.” Podcasts and online simulcasts will make programming available to wider audiences.

He wants a radio station that doesn’t sound like a traditional talk radio station.

“I think in our heads we hear something that’s more like CBC, NPR, maybe some BBC, maybe just a little bit of college radio or campus radio, some community radio, just to give it some honesty and some edge,” Shafer says.

An advisory board made up of people from diverse communities, including the LGBT community, will have input into programming and the staff team is equally representative, he says.

“By having a diverse work staff, by having an on-air team from different parts of the community, I think that’s a great place to start,” Shafer says. “In my happy place, we’re not just going to talk about LGBTQ on Saturday evenings at 7 o’clock. You’ll hear about what’s happening with the LGBTQ community, for example, throughout the day on different shows, from different hosts and from different points of view.”

Shafer himself will host a program showcasing community groups and local activists.

Shafer’s second hire when he started planning for the station three years ago was Barb Snelgrove, the station’s promotions and communications director, and an ubiquitous presence in the city’s LGBT community.

Shafer says he’s thinking about having Snelgrove on his show possibly every day, or whenever there is anything noteworthy to discuss in the queer community.

“Of course you know she’s really shy behind the microphone,” Shafer quips.

Snelgrove is effervescent when talking about the project and her part in it.

“There is a stream that runs through all of the work that I’ve done and the one word that can be used for my experience is community,” she says. “With my vision here, you can be guaranteed there’s going to be LGBTQ programming. This is a very open atmosphere, this office, made up of all types of Vancouverites, including LGBTQ. That LGBTQ presence will be felt during the programming day with Roundhouse.”

The optimism among the Roundhouse team is palpable, but media locally and globally is contracting, with independent platforms getting snapped up by conglomerates and even large media corporations struggling in a new economic environment. It could be a scary time to be launching a media venture.

Shafer rejects the idea outright.

“Or it’s a terrific time,” he says. “With fewer voices, with a shrinking media landscape and fewer perspectives, and less focus on what’s happening in the local community, I think it’s a perfect time for us. The time’s never been better.”