New Toronto radio station explores the meaning of ‘Indie’

January 22, 2014  |  Chris Powell  |  Comments

As a youngster, Megan Bingley would often clean music CDs at the two radio stations owned by her father’s company Central Ontario Broadcasting, removing any dust or fingerprints that could affect playback. Today, her fingerprints are all over Central’s new Toronto station, Indie 88.1, which recently expanded its broadcast area and launched a serious marketing campaign.

Bingley, a former media planner with M2 Universal, is general manager of the station. Turntables have replaced the CD players, and that’s not the only callback to radio’s good old days.

Broadcasting out of the city’s Liberty Village area, Indie 88.1 is a rare independent in a market dominated by stations operated by conglomerates like Bell Media, Rogers Media and Corus Entertainment. The CRTC awarded Bingley’s company the coveted spot on Toronto’s crowded FM dial in 2012 after stripping Ryerson University’s campus station, CKLN, of its license for repeated violations. Central Ontario Broadcasting beat out 22 other applicants, including Newcap, the CBC and Moses Znaimer, for the license.

As one of its license conditions, 60% of Indie 88.1’s Canadian music must come from emerging artists, broadly defined as artists who have never had a hit single.

Operating under a philosophy of “giving great music a home,” Indie 88.1 soft-launched in August, before formally debuting in September. Like any fledgling station, it is gradually building its audience: BBM data shows that it currently boasts a 0.6 share among its core demo of adults 18-49, and attracts an estimated 200,000 2+ listeners per week (63,000 per day).

However, a recent CRTC decision giving the station permission to quadruple its power from 875 to 4,000 watts means that its signal, formerly limited to the Metro Toronto area, now reaches east into the Oshawa area and west into the neighbouring city of Hamilton.

Bingley expects the increase in signal strength to boost ratings. “In the early days we would hear comments like ‘This is really great music, but why is it so fuzzy in my house?’ So we’ve been able to resolve that, and it’s made a really big difference,” said Bingley.

The site is also currently attracting more than 100,000 visitors each month, with the average listener spending more than one hour per day with the station. “We’re really happy with where we’re at considering we basically started with zero two months ago,” said Bingley.

The station was conceived as a listening destination for consumers who have grown tired of mainstream radio and are increasingly discovering new music – and even old favourites – via streaming music services like Rdio and even YouTube.

“Every major market has a place for a station that introduces a lot of new music, is a little more progressive and more authentic,” said Bingley. “The other stations in Toronto are excellent stations, and have a very loyal audience, but there is a group of people looking for a bit of a change. It’s music first in everything that we do and everybody on staff is a really big music fan, including our announcers.”

The “voice” of Indie 88.1 is longtime Toronto radio personality Alan Cross, the former program director for the Corus-owned alternate station 102.1 The Edge. A fixture in Toronto radio since 1986, Cross arrived at the station in April as a self-described “guidance counselor” (a fancy term for consultant) and maintains an ongoing role with the station.

“I am a resource for them,” Cross explained to Marketing. “If they’re having some concerns about talent, or musical direction, or sales, or promotions, they can tap into my experience in the market. I’ve done just about everything a radio person can do in this city, so I’m a resource they can call anytime for anything.”

Cross compares Indie to the early days of The Edge forerunner CFNY and its “Spirit of Radio” positioning, which saw it champion seldom-heard artists.

“Here’s a small independent radio station, working on a shoestring budget with a smaller signal than just about anybody else, that is seriously putting music first,” he said. “We’re coming at the market from a real underdog point of view, and everybody there is on a musical mission.”

In addition to handling on-air promos, Cross also presents a daily segment on the station called “Crackle and Pop,” dedicated to songs seldom heard on radio. “He does what he does best, which is tell people why this artist is important, what they’re all about and why the song matters,” said Bingley. “He just adds a nice education moment for us every day.”

“He’s a national radio legend,” she added. “I can’t think of anyone who’s a bigger music fan than Alan Cross, so it was just a natural fit.”

In January, the station introduced a large-scale out-of-home marketing campaign including billboards, TSAs, wild-postings and some large-scale executions along the city’s Gardiner Expressway and Dundas Square. While the campaign largely focused on the city core, it has also reached into outlying regions including Etobicoke and Mississauga.

The teaser part of the campaign launched in early January, attempting to drive trial with the simple message “What’s on 88.1 FM?” Bingley said the campaign, with creative by MacLaren McCann and media by Initiative, deliberately eschewed the word “indie” because many people have a pre-conceived notion of what it means.

“We didn’t want people to self-select if they’re going to like it or not; we really wanted people to just become intrigued and try it out.” The second phase of the campaign, which begins rollout this week, features the Indie 88 branding and messages such as “32 flavours of not vanilla” and “Unboring radio since 2014.” All of the ads feature the tagline “Escape ordinary radio.”

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