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Community air waves

sharing voices in rural communities

Ivan Emke

Ivan Emke is an Associate Professor in Social and Cultural Studies and facilitator for Internationalization at Memorial University's Grenfell Campus in Corner Brook. He is also one of the leading volunteers for Ryakuga, a non-profit communications company, which promotes local and community communications in a global context using a range of community media – from radio and television to print and internet. Ryakuga is led by Fred Campbell, a former MUN Extension employee.

“There’s something about radio that really reaches people,” says Dr. Ivan Emke. “It’s just magical.”

Since 1997, Dr. Emke has been bringing community radio into the lives of rural Newfoundlanders, giving them a chance to have their voices heard and to share their thoughts, traditions and opinions. “We turn the air waves over to the community for a couple of days to let them talk amongst themselves,” explains Dr. Emke. “We bring in various transmitters, show them how wonderful the technology is and put it in their hands.”

Dr. Emke works alongside members of Ryakuga, a non-profit communications company that aims to promote participatory communications in rural communities. Ryakuga receives Industry Canada licenses to set up radio broadcasts in communities across the province. These towns, Dr. Emke says, don't typically see themselves reflected in mainstream media unless they are the source of adverse events.

“The intriguing thing about these communities is that despite rural challenges and depopulation, there are people here who are soldiering on and doing their best to enjoy life,” he says. “We're giving them a medium to tell their stories and feel proud about where they live.”

He’s always interested to see how people will react to the opportunity of hitting the air waves. “It's interesting to see the evolution that occurs,” he says. “On the first day, kids start off with a little bit, [and] then they come back the next day and want to do more. They catch the bug.” Dr. Emke credits this evolution to the infinite engaging power of the radio. “People catch onto the excitement,” he says. “Even though they're talking to people they might see every day, the communication transforms them when they're on air. It instills a new sense of purpose to what they're saying.”

Topics of conversation stretch across the board from light political discourse to community services and events. Most often, though, people are just happy to share stories about their communities. “They love to sing, play music, reminisce about their heritage and discuss what the future looks like,” says Dr. Emke. “In that way, it's a chance for them to celebrate their culture. If you have local voices on the radio and they're having a conversation about what they share, people will listen and join in.”

Dr. Emke says this idea of using interactive media to empower community has a solid history in this province. One of the best-known examples was a set of films produced under the Challenge for Change initiative created by the National Film Board in 1967. In collaboration with MUN Extension, the NFB engaged with community members on Fogo Island to paint a picture of their daily life. “They were nice vignettes of what life was like on the island,” recalls Dr. Emke. “The idea was not just capturing an outside perspective of the island, but giving people the choice to tell the stories they wanted to tell.”

Dr. Emke says the long-term goal of the Ryakuga initiative is that communities will become inspired to start up their own radio station. This has been the positive result of several visits, most notably for communities such as Burnt Islands, Bell Island and Norris Point. Following Ryakuga’s community broadcasts, each town collaborated to raise money for radio equipment and set up groups of volunteers to run a full-time station. Burnt Islands began broadcasting in 2007, Norris Point went on the air in 2011, and Bell Island received their CRTC license in 2012.

And while new stations aren’t always the outcome, Dr. Emke says having any presence of local conversation can benefit small communities. “If people's experiences are enriched in some way, it's still a success,” he says. “These are places where there isn't a lot of positive light shed on their identity, so if it made them feel differently even for a couple days, then we've made an impact. It's not a healthy community without a sense of pride and belonging, and this is what local media gives to people.”

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