Vancouver’s newest radio station pumps up the volume

Roundhouse Radio CEO Don Shafer brings a sense of community to Vancouver's airwaves

Credit: Tanya Goehring

Roundhouse CEO and director of programming Don Shafer broadcasts local issues

Roundhouse Radio aims to make Vancouver a better community. After shaking off some early setbacks, can the city’s newest station spin that social mission into listeners and advertisers?

It’s business as usual at Roundhouse Radio. Jody Vance is taking calls on the #MeToo movement, the conversation turning to Louis CK and men who masturbate in public. In the lobby, local restaurateur and Top Chef Canada alum Trevor Bird is discussing the recipe he’ll explain on air with a producer, while in smaller side studio, Minelle Mahtani, host of weekend show Sense of Place, is pretaping interviews with guests. Roundhouse’s gritty urban location in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside affords a high-ceilinged warehouse that easily holds the two dozen or so full-time staff, with room to grow.

Don Shafer, dressed in jeans and a pink polo tee, is obviously proud of his creation. Roundhouse’s CEO and director of programming is a commercial radio stalwart whose resumé includes executive roles at CFOX and Rock 101 in Vancouver, as well as Toronto’s CHUM-FM and Q107. He was motivated to apply for a Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) licence by a 2012 Vancouver Foundation report that concluded the city was an isolating, disconnected place.

Shafer saw a hyper-local station as an opportunity to revisit what he calls an “old-fashioned radio model” that would focus on what mattered to Vancouverites as a way to create community and bring people together.

“I’d like to believe that intention has a lot to do with outcome,” he says. “We are doing the very best we can to expose the voices who aren’t being heard in our community to make sure they have a fair and equal platform in our city.”

Vancouver’s newest radio station, Roundhouse Radio (which broadcasts on 98.3 FM as CIRH-FM), flicked the switch in October 2015, operating under a low-frequency licence designed to reach a specific audience, as far as Richmond to the south, UBC to the west, the Surrey side of the Port Mann Bridge to the east and the North Shore.

Roundhouse’s content is 80-percent talk and 20-percent music, with a strong commitment to offer airtime to non-profits, advocacy organizations and other socially conscious groups. Shafer cites the station’s two-week series on the National Inquiry Into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and ongoing coverage of the city’s opioid crisis as examples of its best work.

We’re all keen to hear more about what’s happening in our local community, its politics and its people. At least that’s what we say when asked by market researchers, notes Jeff Vidler, president of Toronto-based media research firm Audience Insights Inc., who adds that the magic formula for harnessing and monetizing that stated interest is yet to be discovered. Still, he believes success in small-market media is possible, citing Kelowna’s, an online local news outlet that last year acquired Juice FM.

“Nick Frost got in early,” Vidler says of Castanet’s owner. “He saw a niche for online classifieds in the 1990s, before Craigs­list began, and built a strong digital presence around that.”

Digital will be key for Roundhouse—which streams via its website and the Radio Player Canada app—as consumers increasingly want to listen, read and watch at their leisure, Vidler predicts. “I think it’s a tremendous initiative, and I am cheering them on,” he says.

With a potential audience of between 700,000 and 1 million listeners, Shafer believes his is a sustainable model, attractive to advertisers. But after two years in operation, the station is languishing at the bottom of the industry standard PPM (Portable People Meter) Radio Ratings for the city, with a zero percent share.

While it works to find its footing, Roundhouse relies on the deep pockets of its investors: Kelowna entrepreneurs and auto retailers David and Judi Daudrich; Okanagan legal heavyweight Rick Pushor (Pushor Mitchell LLP) and his family, who also own prefab building company Chaparral Industries Inc.; and Craig Cameron, VP of hearing aids manufacturer Sivantos Group. Shafer and his partner, Yvonne Evans, have also put in money.

“The ratings aren’t the whole story,” argues Brian Wiebe, an instructor in radio arts and entertainment at BCIT. “What they have is a fantastic, noble idea, as well as investors who understand the challenges they face. Now they need consistency in order to build loyal audience relationships.”

Shafer admits that it hasn’t been an easy start. It took longer than expected to launch, then longer again to gel as a team. Last year saw cost-cutting casualties, including original programming director Tracey Friesen, as well as several changes in the host lineup. Now, Shafer says, they’re finally settled and can concentrate on growing an audience, whether live, online or out and about in their broadcasting bus. He sees this year’s municipal election as an opportunity for Roundhouse to speak to more people and ask more questions of politicians than its province-wide competitors.

“I ask myself if anyone really cares about our neighbourhoods, about homelessness,” Shafer says with a shrug. “When you look at what is happening around us, you can either give up or hunker down.”