Radio playground for local artists

UdeM’s CISM tops Quebec francophone university radio charts

By Simon Tousignant

The inconspicuous door, one of thousands around Université de Montréal, stands atop a flight of steep stairs overlooking Blvd. Édouard-Montpetit. Its only distinctive aspect, a small CISM sign with faded lettering, is nailed to the door’s left side. The door’s tiny window is plastered by band stickers; some old, some new. Few passersby know that this door leads to one of the biggest francophone university radios in the world.

The inconspicuous door, CISM’s entrance. Photo Simon Tousignant

Founded in 1991, CISM is the leading francophone university radio station in Quebec, and the only one broadcast on FM airwaves in Montreal, on 89.3. It provides up-and-coming musicians and journalists alike with a radio platform that welcomes experimentation and innovative ideas. Shows like Olivier Boisvert-Magnen’s On prend un micro pour la vie and Catherine Guay’s Les meilleurs partys se passent dans la cuisine use loose, improvised structures that would never be allowed at private stations, which tend to run on strict schedules. Apart from the francophone music quotas imposed by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), show hosts are largely free to run their shows the way they want.

Latest episode of Les meilleurs partys se passent dans la cuisine, published Wednesday, April 11, 2018.

For Boisvert-Magnenwho goes by the name Riff Tabaracci on air and also writes for and Urbaniathis freedom is necessary in order to let people explore different ways to do radio. “I think that being allowed to do basically whatever we want,” he says. “It gives us the necessary tools to truly find what we want to do with radio.”

“I love cooking, and I love rap,” Guay says. “CISM allowed me to combine both of those passions into a show, with a format that’s more akin to a discussion between friends than a formal radio show.”

This is the mindset that appealed to Fred Savard, a comedian who hosts Radio-Canada’s La soirée est (encore) jeune, and also a former CISM co-host from 1996 to 1999. “I think that without CISM, we probably wouldn’t have founded the Zapartistes (a large-scale comedy group and artistic collective), which was the key to everything that happened after in my professional life,” he says.

Fred Savard hosting La soirée est (encore) jeune, pictured here with co-host Olivier Niquet. Photo courtesy Radio-Canada

Savard sees his time at CISM as the perfect platform to get comfortable behind the microphone and in front of the sound console, even if it might not be the shiniest reference on his resume.

“It was like radio school,” says the 47 year-old. “Working at CISM gives you the necessary practice to become confident in what you can do. It might not be the first thing employers will look at, but having CISM on your resume shows you can handle anything, in terms of radio.”

On the other hand, Catherine Guay says her show helped her establish herself as a referrence on the local rap scene. “Having a show at CISM gives you media credibility,” says the 24-year-old. “Which makes it easier to ask for press passes at events, to schedule interviews with artists. It might not stand out on a resume, but it gets your name out there.”

In a time where people are turning to podcasting and on-demand services, CISM is still going strong, with an audience that keeps growing. In 2017, CISM reached its highest audience numbers ever, with an average of 80,000 weekly listeners, added to the two million total streams on the website. These numbers make it one of most-listened to francophone university stations in the world, and while its 10,000 watt antenna only emits as far as Vermont, some CISM shows are broadcasted on other stations around the world.

Here is the recipe to their ongoing success: “The station’s mission has always been to showcase new talents,” Savard says. “By doing so, artists drive audience numbers, which in return helps the hosts and contributors be heard.”

Inside the station. Photo courtesy Infopresse.

Étienne Champagne’s showRythmologie—has over a hundred thousand streams by itself. The 14-year CISM veteran has seen the station grow, celebrate its 25th anniversary, and rebrand itself as a leader in the province’s independent music scene. “We can’t play artists that have music in rotation on commercial radio,” the self-described music nut explained. “So we focus on new artists, local discoveries and scenes that do not receive mainstream media attention.”

The CRTC’s Broadcasting Regulatory Policy says that “the programming of campus and community radio should distinguish itself from that of the commercial and public sectors in both style and substance, offering programming that is rich in local information and reflection.”

Latest episode of Rythmologie, published on Thursday, April 12, 2018. 

CISM stands as a tastemaker when it comes to underground music and radio. Its audience is as dedicated to this mission as the station. This was highlighted by the reaction to CISM’s masterful 2014 April’s Fools joke, where it announced that the station would reposition itself with a focus on commercial music. Major media outlets like TVA and Voir covered the story as factual, and listeners as well as many artists of the underground music scene who benefited from the station’s mission publicly, criticized the decision. While this remained a joke and CISM maintained its focus on lesser-known artists, it was a call back to days where the station was less monitored.

“CISM used to be like a pirate station,” says Savard, who co-hosted Les Amants d’Esther for three years. “The structure was even looser than it is today, there was no Internet, no constant access. We did what we wanted, pretty much.”

Today, CISM is available everywhere. Tune-in to 89.3FM around Montreal and you’ll hear Quebec’s next musical giants. Download the station’s app on your phone and you may end up listening to the province’s future radio stars on your bus ride home after class. Even better, walk through the unimposing door on the left of Pavillon J.A. de Sève’s main entrance and you will discover the playground where the next crop of the province’s francophone radio personalities are growing into their own.