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Roundhouse Radio: Bringing the hyperlocal to Vancouver’s airwaves

Roundhouse Radio chief executive Don Shafer is pictured at the station’s new home in Vancouver on Tuesday.

Ben Nelms for/The Globe and Mail

Do Make Say Think is the name of a Canadian rock band, but we also thought the title was a good one for a weekly summer series introducing readers to British Columbians out of the public eye who are doing things, making things, saying things and thinking things. This week, for Say, we check in with Roundhouse Radio, a soon-to-be-launched station that's focusing on hyperlocal content in a world of podcasts and digital streams.

Don Shafer remembers the days when radio stations were fixtures on local street corners.

"They could see out and you could see in; they could connect with their audience," said Mr. Shafer, a long-time broadcaster who has worked on and off the air in stations across Canada.

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Mr. Shafer is hoping to recreate that street-level connection to the community when Roundhouse Radio, a new low-power, hyperlocal station, begins broadcasting next month from a building in an area of Vancouver known as Railtown, located on the fringes of the gritty Downtown Eastside.

"We're the only radio station on the street," he said. "We can see the best and the worst of what happens on a day-to-day basis. It is admittedly confronting to be on the street like we are, but it's real and it's why we're here."

Billing itself as "a commercial radio station with a community feel," Roundhouse – which is set to go live at 98.3 FM in mid-September – will bring in major talent from media outlets such as CBC and MuchMusic. Former CBC ombudsman and one-time mayoral candidate Kirk LaPointe will host the station's flagship current-affairs show.

In an era where public broadcasters such as CBC or NPR and big media corporations like Apple are expanding their reach with viral podcasts and digital-radio streaming, launching a commercial radio station with a decidedly local focus may appear to be an unusual departure from the current media landscape.

Mr. Shafer doesn't see it that way.

"We don't want to do more of the same old, same old," he said.

The idea for the project was born on the back of a napkin in 2013 after an evening out at Vancouver's Alibi Room – a popular craft-beer pub located a stone's throw from the new Roundhouse studio – when Mr. Shafer and a group of colleagues started brainstorming about what they would do if they owned a radio station.

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The resulting vision was for a station that draws inspiration from CBC, NPR and the BBC, "mixed in with some campus radio and some community radio, just to give it some honesty and some edge," Mr. Shafer said.

"We wanted to have a station that had some spaciousness, that allowed a complete conversation, that had some room to breathe – and that allowed people to share their stories about what they're doing."

"That's a different sound from CKNW," Mr. Shafer added, referring to one of the city's all-news AM stations.

Investors felt the same way, Mr. Shafer said, and in a matter of days a small group of B.C.-based families put up the seed money for the station. A year later, they received approval for a licence from the CRTC.

The on-air blueprint will feature about 20 per cent music and 80 per cent talk, focusing on a diverse range of topics including news, current affairs, politics, business, sports and media. The lineup of hosts include veteran broadcaster Terry David Mulligan and Janice Ungaro, a former morning show co-host at Z95.3, a Vancouver-based pop music station.

"We have some really interesting, passionate people sitting in the chairs from 6 o'clock until midnight that have a lot to say and have a really big Rolodex of people and things that they want to interview or talk about," he said.

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While Roundhouse won't shy away from breaking news, the mandate is clear: This is not a traditional station. For Mr. Shafer, that means spending more time developing and talking about stories to really give listeners in-depth analysis.

The goal of the station is to sound more like a conversation around the breakfast or dinner table than a legacy newscast, he said, but it's not a podcast.

Although anyone will be able to live stream shows from its website, where the best content will also be available for download, Roundhouse is first and foremost a commercial station.

"Over time we can migrate to having an online audience as over-the-air tuning becomes less important," he said. "But having a transmitter and having an old fashioned FM radio signal allows us a much greater reach and the availability of a much larger audience."

The challenge, though, will be competing for ears with the other stations that have stronger signals and longer-time listeners such as CKNW, News1130 or CBC.

Roundhouse's airwaves only cover about 700,000 people in the City of Vancouver, although there's some spill into areas of North and West Vancouver, Burnaby, Richmond and Surrey.

Mr. Shafer said he believes the limitations in reach, however, will become the station's greatest asset: If its signal spanned the rest of the Lower Mainland, Roundhouse would have to expand its coverage.

"Content gets flattened to reach a larger and more generic audience," he said.

"The challenge is going to be to make sure we have room for everybody we want to bring into the station, that we don't leave anybody [in the community] behind, which is one of my worst fears."

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