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Vancouver radio, against conventional wisdom and in a declining market, may be set to rise again

The numbers don’t lie; Vancouver has never been much of a radio town. Since 1991, on average, listenership has been down about half an hour per person per year, with the average Vancouverite tuning in for roughly 12 hours a week. With the rising popularity of file sharing, satellite radio and the ubiquitous MP3 player, it would seem that as the old guard die off, those broadcast towers are destined for the history books.

Why then is Vancouver undergoing a radio renaissance? Media heavyweight Virgin Media has moved to town, lending its name to Virgin Radio 953 (formerly 95 Crave, formerly Z95.3), which promises a format geared to snag the oft-neglected mid-20s female demographic; CBC Radio 1 has added a stronger FM slot; and music impresario Sam Feldman has weighed in, first consulting for the newly launched The Peak 100.5, then backing another new station, Shore FM.

“Listenership may be down, but ad sales are up,” explains Gerry Siemens, vice-president and general manager of Pattison Broadcasting Group. “It’s an exciting time for radio in Vancouver.” That sentiment is shared by other players in the radio rebirth, who attribute the sudden new interest in radio to a rapidly expanding city with new listeners landing daily and to the general lack of innovation in the industry that has left radio showing its age.

With a glossy, interactive website, podcasting and encouragement of local, independent artists, The Peak hopes to spark some life in Vancouver’s radio audience. “I look at independents the same as I do the Killers or Jack Johnson: if it’s good, we’ll play it,” says music director James Sutton, who was instrumental in shaping the personality of The Peak after Feldman withdrew from the project.Feldman’s Shore FM also professes a strong independent streak, with a $7-million commitment to shaping local, independent content.

As radio’s new players step into the ring with Vancouver’s established stations to fight for prized ratings, the clash could mean a new lease on life for the medium.