Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Aboriginal Voices Radio Silence

In a way, I was there at the beginning. It was 1988 and I was working at Sunday Morning for CBC in Toronto producing documentary radio for the nation. One night in the editing bays, there was a very large Native man editing tape in one of the plexi-glassed cubicles. It was audio editing the analog way, listening to tape with headphones on a reel to reel machine until you found your spot, marking the tape with a grease pencil and cutting it with a razor blade. I took the bay next to him. 

I did not know Gary Farmer from the stage although I knew of him and the success of Thomson Highway's Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing was all over Toronto.  PowWow Highway the movie that would make him an international star was not going to be released until 1989. We were two Native guys trying to get our work edited and ready for the national airwaves of CBC. It was a couple of nights in the late 1980's and I do not remember if he talked about Aboriginal Voices Radio but I know we talked about radio and getting our stories heard and being in control of the medium.

When Gary created a pilot episode of Aboriginal Voices Radio in the mid 1990's, he brought me in as talent and had James Cullingham our Executive Producer from CBC produce the show.  Gary and I would do other projects together but never radio. 

He used his great influence as a person and personality to put together the team that got radio licences in most of the major Canadian markets and Aboriginal Voices Radio Network was born. The first licence for Toronto was granted by the CRTC in 2000. Licences in Regina, Saskatoon, Montreal, Ottawa, Kitchener-Waterloo, Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary would follow.

Then at some point in the mid-2000’s he was driven out of Aboriginal Voices Radio Network. I don't know how it happened, I broached the subject a few times with Gary but it was not something he would talk about. These days he continues to act on stage and screen as well as singing the blues with his band Gary Farmer and the Troublemakers.

In the years after Gary very little radio was made and the long lonely death spiral began. In 2009, AVRN lost their licenses in Kitchener-Waterloo and Montreal. Many began silent witness to the dream circling slowly inevitably into oblivion.

In 2012,  I offered to take on the AVRN operation in Edmonton. I had family there and had helped build a youth driven Native radio station in Winnipeg. I would go to work in programming and finding talent but also identify job training dollars and other sources of revenue to build the station. The offer was rebuffed. 

A year later, I read the CRTC warnings to AVRN online and sent a number of emails with concerns about the future of the network for the purpose of writing on this blog. On June 13, 2013 I received an email from Jamie Hill, President AVRN. 

“AVR is not at risk of failure at this time. Though I do believe it was at great risk of that in the distant past. When I became involved with AVR in 2004, AVR was about $1.8 million in debt, had very little money coming in, had not filed required financial statements with the CRTC and was thus in a state of non-compliance with conditions of licence, and was well past the CRTC policy maximum of 3 extension requests to get the stations on the air in 6 of its 7 cities. At that point AVR was at great risk of failure.”

I had queried about AVRN’s transparency.

“Also Miles, I would like to comment on your statement about a lack of information regarding AVR. As you are aware AVR operates in an extremely competitive business environment and must behave prudently as far as releasing information about its operations that other competitors could acquire and distort and attempt to use against AVR in Ottawa to advance themselves at the expense of AVR. I view this as AVR doing its best in undertaking sound business practices to ensure AVR's business survival. Rest assured there are numerous other broadcasters in Canada who would like to see AVR fail so they can have an opportunity to try to acquire AVR's radio licences - each of which would be worth tens of millions of dollars to a commercial broadcaster.”

I didn't know what to write and so I kept my silent vigil. 

In October of 2014, the station in Ottawa ceased broadcasting. 

According to Wikipedia, "In December 2014, AVR renamed itself to Voices Radio, as its scope expanded out of the aboriginal realm and more into music from mainstream artists, generally bent towards adult contemporary. In February 2015, Voices Radio began to air old time radio programs from the United States."

On June 25, 2015, The CRTC rescinded all the licenses of the Aboriginal Voices Radio Network. 

The death of Aboriginal Voices was greeted with a murmur. There was a story on APTN and a few words here and there. I saw one post on facebook and nothing else. 

It should have been a beautiful thing - a place to share our music and our voices and it was wasted. Silence sings the dream dying.


In response to this blog Gary Farmer sent me the following message. I have edited out references to individuals other than Jamie Hill who was quoted in the original story. 

Hey miles.  took a read.  the big thing that sticks out to me is that jamie says, "AVR was in debt when he took over"  1.8 million.  that is a total lie.  in the first 7 years of operation we had financing from the private broadcasters to build the network.  So we were not in debt when I left.

(The board) would not let me take the dollars and develop original content. I knew our original content would see the station to audience enough to make it reality.  We needed public support to survive.  I did not want to survive off Canadian government financing.  I knew that was a dead end.  If we were to meet success it would have been with Canadian audiences ready to embrace the history of relations between Canadian government and Indian people.

In the end the Canadian government did not want a free public voice for Native people in Canada cause they had already made deals to exploit natural resources to continue their way of life...and they knew a public radio voice from Native people would raise issue. 

If you read our original submission for can see our effort clearly...we wanted 25% spoken inform Canadians of that history between Canadians and Indians.  Seeing Harper in office it all becomes clear.

CBC fought every license we ever tried interesting to get the legal costs to do that for so many years and we beat them good...our writing and concepts won us those licences...and jamie's harvard educated self was a hired gun to do exactly what he did..bring it to demise.

All I ever did was give it money.  money i earned from my career as an actor to book the magazine and radio licensing.  For that matter I financed myself to help win APTN license as well. TVNC enlisted me because of my CRTC experience winning radio licenses. Of course with the strength of mark macleod and john the engineer both from public radio initiatives.

In the end. AVR owned legit $100,000 of my own money. Now that my career has obviously subsided I have nothing to show but this story. No home.  A beater car.  And tour small time to make ends meet playing harmonica and singing blues songs.  A fitting end to a dream to engage Native Canadians in our reality in a creative way.  

I believe still today that that is the route of success as Native people.  We need access to all audiences to tell our story and to inform the young to their Indian history and heritage. The reality is to be Canadian is to be Indian. We made Canadians.  

They owe us our common histories.

Aug 6 - 2015