An ear to the GroundWire: citizen journalism for community news

By Jacky Tuinstra Harrison

Depending on who you talk to, the rise of the “citizen journalist” may be heralded as democratic, engaging, educational, and authentic. Alternatively, it might be criticized for its diminished professional standards, unsustainable growth or lack of oversight.

GroundWire Community Radio News launched amid a rush of citizen journalism projects nine years ago, and has since inspired innovative production practices, a new funding model and told many original stories mainstream media shied away from.

By Jacky Tuinstra Harrison

Depending on who you talk to, the rise of the “citizen journalist” may be heralded as democratic, engaging, educational, and authentic. Alternatively, it might be criticized for its diminished professional standards, unsustainable growth or lack of oversight.

GroundWire Community Radio News launched amid a rush of citizen journalism projects nine years ago, and has since inspired innovative production practices, a new funding model and told many original stories mainstream media shied away from.

Despite the success of airing on some 30 campus and community stations, GroundWire exemplifies the struggles most community news platforms are facing today.

How GroundWire works

A departure from traditional media presentation is clear from the start of any GroundWire edition: Each episode is produced at a different campus and/or community station and hosted by different volunteers. As public polls in North America and Britain continue to report plunging public trust in reporters, the plurality of voices that can be found in not-for-profit community news is a strength rather than a weakness.

GroundWire anchors include francophone voices, east-coast accents, youths paired with elders and folks who sound like your friends and neighbours. Such a format flies in the face of traditional media wisdom that even progressive programs abide by: The audience wants a connection with a charismatic and dependable host. Even Democracy Now! owes much of its brand to Amy Goodman.

As GroundWire trades in the cult of personality to embrace collaboration, we are valuing “news” itself above its presenters. It is this participatory approach to news that GroundWire takes that educators and academics have said will help the next generation engage with news. In Canada, Ontario was the first North American jurisdiction to make media education mandatory, and Simon Fraser University’s Stuart Poyntz is one academic who continues to focus on youth engagement with media.  In fact, so broad is the ethic of participation that UNESCO and UNICEF both publish a guide on youth media participation.

Cattle-like, youth are now said to be “grazing,” not engaging — that is, consuming multiple sources in a more condensed and less regular pattern. Today, young people—the millennials—are part of what Wikinomics author Don Tapscott calls the rise of the “prosumer:” Instead of passively consuming news, the next generation demands participation in its production.

People telling their own stories

GroundWire is already there, engendering a dependence on the voice of the primary source: a simple rule that states people should tell their own stories. To achieve this media aesthetic, coordinators produce first-person pieces with no external reporters, and also invest in training various groups to produce their own stories.

I cannot think of a more honest neighbourhood picture than the ones provided by FlemoCity Media's audio montage. This youth radio project reached out to GroundWire for training and produced its own feature. In the piece, one student describes getting an education outside Flemingdon Park, one of Toronto's 13 “priority” regions, as identified by a 2004 United Way report on income inequality and neighbourhood poverty.

I feel like I'm one chocolate chip in the pancake batter. When you tell them where you live and I say off the coast of Flem', they are like “Oh. You live there”… I guess I consider it kind of ghetto-y. We have a lot of different ethnicities here so you need to have a friend from every culture.”

Not everyone is a fan of handing over the microphone, though. It is a perpetuated stereotype that a reporter who is not paid has lower standards or less integrity than someone who is paid. In 2007, around the time GroundWire was on the cusp of its biggest expansion of producing stations, contributing journalists and paid staff, Educause, a U.S. not-for-profit research group, wrote:

While conscientious professional journalists are careful to separate supportable evidence from opinion or speculation, many citizen journalists have a weaker sense of what constitutes a reliable story, free of conjecture. Consumers of citizen journalism should understand that however well-intentioned a citizen journalist might be, reading the news with a skeptical eye is a good practice.”

If I compare my experiences in a community radio newsroom to those in a professional one, the motivations of paid reporters were not inherently more reliable or righteous than people who volunteer their time because they care or want to learn something. Conjecture and bias are problems I have encountered in both news environments. As for accuracy and integrity, some citizen news projects have proved porous in their processes, but it does not have to be that way. Some of journalism's best practices have been incorporated into GroundWire, including post-production meetings and training protocols.

Making hyperlocal work nationally

The most challenging assumption that GroundWire is testing is whether listeners in Canada are a homogenous or regionally-segmented audience. I call it the timezone test: will anyone in Nelson B.C. care about a bike lane in Halifax?

Sometimes we get “locally-produced but nationally-relevant” wrong, but here are a few examples of how we get it right.

The GroundWire Prisoner Justice edition was headed up largely by producers in Kingston where the prison population is a constant discussion, but one relevant to all listeners across the country. GroundWire's Prison Justice Special Edition was so special because of the frank and direct chord it struck with the audience.
One participant whose journal was excerpted for a GroundWire feature on the Prisoner Correspondence project wrote of the lack of condoms in prison: “There is no such thing as safe sex in prison; I know of guys using sandwich bags for protection.”

Invisible to most Canadians, this revelation startled many listeners.

Most Canadians won't ever get to know someone of Sinixt heritage unless a project like GroundWire makes the introductions, as we did with a Kootenay co-op radio interview with a community elder: “In 1956 the government declared us extinct. No one every bothered to ask us if we still existed.”

Gianna Lauren's documentary on Midwifery care in Nova Scotia cooked up a kind-of coffee-table conversation on women’s health that spoke to mothers outside the province as well: “My midwife came to my home. She knew my dog barked at her, she knew my husband, she knew the rhythm of my life.”

In a two-part airing of the Losing Ground documentary, the story of a proposed mine in Fish Lake was eerily familiar for many of Canada’s First Nations and Northern people.

You have one of the world's largest wild sockeye salmon runs left and we’re on the verge of destroying it. A lot of our people make $8,000 to $10,000 a year and they are able to do that because they can go to the river and fish. When you look at our backyards, at our rivers, you are looking at our refrigerator.”

The most successful features are those told by a person with deep personal knowledge that strike a chord with communities that share a common experience, be it resources and the environment, health care or public health. GroundWire is not a program, it is a project and it has a large low-cost training component. We have conducted Skype trainings and offer community news workshops to community groups. This is how you provide hyper-local content for a national audience: train informed locals to produce.

And yet, the question has been asked: how can a national network — even a not-for-profit one — benefit localism, local stations, the listeners and the volunteers? Shelley Robinson, executive director of the National Campus and Community Radio Association says local coverage won't happen by itself.

“Core to campus and community radio is a local service, especially when many other stations are pulling out,” she says. “In a lot of places there will be a raft of commercial opportunities from larger centres, but no place for people to listen to their neighbours.”

Looking to local for the future

Anabel Khoo, one the presenters representing GroundWire at the Working Definitions panel at the Journalism Strategies conference in Montreal earlier this year, typically works on an edition with anywhere from 8-25 people she has never met in person, scattered in towns and cities across the nation where headlines are written, produced and edited in up to three different stations.

“Traditional media needs to be seriously reconsidered,” says Khoo. “The community-based training and critical pedagogy GroundWire is experimenting with may be instrumental in forging a path for redefining what media could mean for directly impacted communities.”

GroundWire volunteers also recently gathered in Kingston at the National Campus and Community Radio Conference to craft a strategy for growth.

Kingston and Ganonque’s regional airwaves have long feted community radio: from the conference host CFRC at Queen’s university—a large station celebrating 90 years of a campus broadcasting tradition—to tiny CJAI FM, whose DJs are belting their hearts out of a barn at 250 Watts to the thick-as-thieves Amherst Island residents.

Despite these storied achievements, sustainability in news remains the nut to crack for many Canadian community stations. GroundWire currently relies entirely on volunteer resources, but we know now that a funded GroundWire is a different project in many ways.

During the time that GroundWire had funding for coordination, training and outreach, the number of volunteer contributors and producers rose significantly from just 5 producing stations to 12. However, when that funding—which consisted of a combination of sponsorships and small grants—ceased, the production team stagnated to just four regular production centres.

The unique challenges of community radio

GroundWire’s ability to adapt whether or not it is in receipt of core funding is a testament to its people-power. Charles Fairchild, author of Community Radio and Public Culture, identified community radio's mode of volunteer-driven production as simultaneously enabling and constraining the radio sector. Fairchild’s original thesis still holds true for projects like GroundWire. Volunteer-driven news has benefits and drawbacks: It gives us our authentic flavour, but also places the projects in perpetual flux.

Local content is time consuming and expensive and that is why Canada has less and less of it. If GroundWire can fill even part of that hole, it needs a small and steady stream of financial support for training, without compromising its reliance on volunteer voices.

Part of the solution may be found, not exclusively in funding, but in taking our people-power to the next level. Using mobile connections, micro-volunteerism trends, and new cloud-based editors, many people lend their time to a small and specific volunteer task. It is a great approach for community radio news, especially as GroundWire can capitalize on the apportioned minutes and hours of the hundreds of volunteers in campus and community radio stations nationwide.

Are you one of them? Many hands make media production light, so visit your campus and community station today or e-mail the GroundWire team.


Jacky Tuinstra Harrison is a community radio supporter who has worked and volunteered at CKCU Community Radio in Ottawa and CHRY Community Radio at York University  before joining as the NCRA's  first GroundWire National Coordinator in 2009/2010. She has presented on community-access media to the AMARC Conference in Amman Jordan, the National Campus and Community Radio Conference in Canada, the International Radio Conference 2009 and the Making Media Public Conference at York University.


When the GroundWire visioning process began in 2004 at the National Campus-Community Radio Conference (NCRC) in Edmonton, Alberta, no one knew the eventual size and scope of that brainstorming session we hosted. The structure and mandate has been developed annually at NCRCs hosted in different regions of Canada. Over the years, GroundWire has been developed largely through volunteer power, though we did secure a grant and several sponsorships enabling us to hire a National Coordinator from 2009-2010. GroundWire knits its project togetehr by narrowing the scope of stories by theme: we have twelve priority bureaus to ensure representation of environmental news, aboriginal voices, accessibility issues and other distinctly Canadian stories. The volunteer steering committee in coordination with the NCRA/ANREC Board of Directors oversees the program's function and development throughout the year.