Ice still bordered the mouth of Yellowknife Bay on May 31, 2018, but the city’s summer construction was already taking its toll on traffic. Three-minute commutes ballooned to 20-minutes—a picnic in any other city in Canada. An odyssey for a Yellowknifer. If any of the idling commuters looked skyward while they lined up Franklin Avenue, they might have seen Ollie Williams, founder and head of programming and news at Yellowknife-based Cabin Radio, in a helicopter, broadcasting a live traffic report over Facebook.
Some called it a publicity stunt, a poke at Yellowknifers’ patience. Regardless, traffic reports are usually delivered on, well, the radio. But Cabin Radio isn’t on the radio. Not yet, at least. When it debuted in May 2017, it was on a Facebook page. Since then its online presence has soared — 11,000 followers on Facebook, 500,000-plus page views a month on its website, and up to 7,000 people per month streaming its shows over the Cabin Radio website and app.
Jumping into the somewhat crowded and ebbing market of radio has been a challenge for Cabin Radio, but it has built an impressive audience with cheeky style and local content
For Williams, that success came not from strategic planning—unless wing nights at the Black Knight Pub count—but from being good at what they do. “No other media organization was doing quite what we thought we could do in terms of providing local content with the tone that we provide it in, and the entertainment that we wrap around some of that,” Williams explains.
Williams’ conversational coverage of local news—occasionally bordering on flippant—attracted listeners and readers used to the more straight-edged coverage from CBC North and Northern News Services, the largest newspaper publisher in the North. And Cabin was able to build a fan-base cheaply online.
Operating from a studio off the main drag in downtown Yellowknife, Cabin Radio has benefitted from good timing. People are shifting from traditional radio to online streams, with three-quarters of Canadians accessing streams weekly, according to the CRTC. Online revenues are soaring too, reaching $344 million in Canada in 2018. That’s compared with $274 million in 2017, and $208 million in 2016. The business case remains challenging, however, as online revenues still pale in comparison to the $1.8 billion from traditional radio in 2018. And though streaming’s ability to attract ad spending has increased exponentially, streaming itself is not profitable, and there’s no evidence it will be over the long term.
In Cabin Radio’s case, relying on advertising on its website and stream won’t allow the business to grow, even as its popularity grows. Donations help pay its journalists, and volunteers help fill programming. Online ad revenues keep the lights on, but it’s not a long-term solution. FM revenues have steadily declined in Canada over the past decade, but traditional radio is still profitable. And so, Cabin Radio has invested nearly $30,000 into an application to the CRTC to broadcast on FM. It will cost another $100,000 to get the equipment to transmit, should the CRTC approve. But for Andrew Goodwin, Cabin Radio’s general manager, it’s the only way forward.
“We’re happy to spend the money to get what we need to go FM,” Goodwin says, adding he believes Yellowknifers deserve more options on their radio dial. “If I went in my truck right now and listened to the radio, it would be that radio station [Vista Broadcast Group’s Moose FM], even though I really don’t like it.”
Goodwin says Cabin Radio is still two to three years away from being in the black, should the CRTC grant its FM license. The COVID-19 pandemic might stymie the station’s evolution further. Regardless, Williams sees FM as a door to hiring more reporters and staff, and even expanding into smaller NWT communities. The website had a staggering 700,000 hits in the month of March—proof that people are tuning in, even if they can’t physically tune their dials to Cabin Radio just yet.