When S – – t Acquires Value: The Journey of FLOW Radio

Ten years ago a most remarkable thing happened on Toronto radio; Canada’s first “urban music” — read “black” — radio station was launched. 

There was a huge party in downtown Toronto with hundreds of jubilant people and thousands more listening to the live broadcast at home (I was among them) as Bob Marley’s “Roots, Rock, Reggae” signed-on FLOW 93.5 FM.

It was a poignant and ironic choice of music to launch a station that had struggled to be born in one of the most competitive media markets in North America in the most multi-cultural city in the world. Before FLOW went live, listeners had to tune into WBLK in Buffalo, New York for their dose of “black music.”  WBLK also attracted savvy Toronto advertisers who wanted to reach a certain demographic.

Tough-minded and often uncompromising CEO and founder, Denhan Jolly fought long and hard against his critics — mostly other so-called mainstream radio stations — who said there was no need for a station that promoted and highlighted “urban music” because other stations were already doing so. And besides, they argued, the advertising pie was too small and the new station would harm the competition.

But after a decade-long, politically-charged fight and thousands of dollars, Jolly and his supporters won the license from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC)  to operate the station that would serve up a format of hip-hop, R&B, reggae and soca targeting ages 25-to-44.

To be sure, FLOW had its share of problems.

First it realized early that it could not survive on a steady diet of hip-hop, rap, reggae and soca; so it morphed into a more mainstream urban music station; less reggae and more hip-hop. The station operators also realized that a large percentage of its listeners were not young black men but young white men attracted to the counter culture of hip-hop.

Second, FLOW could not live up to all the expectations from a black community that had waited so long and worked so hard to have its “own radio station.”  After all, FLOW had promised a “modern day reflection of rich musical traditions of black musicians and black-influenced music over at least the past century” as well as “a significant amount of spoken word and open-line programming” dealing with topics of particular interest to the black community, including live broadcasts.

It sure sounded good on paper and to supporters in the black community, but it didn’t make good business. Community critics accused FLOW of reneging on its promise.

Still FLOW survived and thrived; pulling in a respectable 450,000 listeners — a third of them considered to be Caribbean, South Asians or African Canadians — each week. The vast majority of FLOW’s listeners were white, young males, a desirable demographics for advertisers. The station also helped to boost the careers of local black artists such as Jully Black, Divine Brown and Kardinal Offishall.  It’s no wonder that other stations copied FLOW’s format.

Now FLOW, the station that was reviled by friends and foes alike, is being bought by CHUM Radio, a division of CTV Limited. The sale is subject to CRTC approval.

FLOW’s journey has not been easy. It faced incredible obstacles that can only be described as racially-motivated.

I am told that some advertisers refused to purchase air time on FLOW simply because of who they perceived were listening to the station. Apparently a representative from a major computer company joked that “your listeners don’t buy computers, they steal them, don’t they?” Ha Ha!

An executive of a major auto company scoffed at the idea of advertising on FLOW for fear of their cars being associated with “those people.”

And some club owners were warned by unnamed Toronto police officers they’d be “shut down” if they did live-to-air FLOW broadcasts from their locations.

There has never been any indication that people who listen to FLOW were more likely to commit crimes or that the radio station contributed to any unlawful acts. Yet, that was the perception of some people whose perceptions have the power to detrimentally affect the station’s bottom line.

It is the curse of being seen as a “black business” rather than just “a business”, and an illustration of the power of using negative stereotypes to discriminate against a whole race of people.

Canadians pride ourselves on being open and inclusive, yet the FLOW story illustrates an ugly side many of us refuse to acknowledge.

Writer Henry Miller was fond of an old Brazilian proverb: “When shit acquires value, the poor will be born without assholes.” With the sale to CHUM, FLOW and urban music has acquired value .. .to the tune of about $27 million.

No doubt the “new” New FLOW will once again morph into something else.  It will become a station owned and operated by a mainstream company – read “white” — with the credibility and muscle to take on those advertisers who scoffed at spending money on a “black” station.

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