Yukon News

Tagish techie dreams big about small radio

John Thompson Wednesday February 10, 2010

Ian Stewart/Yukon News

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Rob Hopkins of Tagish has created software that allows small organizations to run radio stations on the cheap.

Rob Hopkins has spent the past decade fine-tuning a free software program that allows a radio station to be run by someone with little technical experience from the comfort of any computer connected to the internet.

The program, called OpenBroadcaster, is currently used by Hopkin’s own small station in Tagish and by CJUC, Whitehorse’s community radio station.

Hopkins, 47, has high hopes the program will allow new community radio organizations to sprout across the territory.

And while the software itself is free, Hopkins hopes to turn a profit by selling to organizations his expertise of setting up and running small radio stations.

He figures he could have a new station up and running for less than $10,000. And for a monthly fee of about $100, he would provide technical support and maintenance for the station.

He envisions community groups and First Nations operating these stations and pulling in revenue from advertisements sold to local businesses.

Whether he succeeds in persuading these organizations to get into the radio business remains to be seen. He’s received a cool reception from First Nations so far.

But Hopkins imagines many possible benefits arising from the proliferation of low-cost community radio across the Yukon. He sees it as being particularly useful for emergency broadcasting.

He’s designed a feature in which emergency workers would be able to easily trigger a pre-recorded message that could, for example, warn at regular intervals that a forest fire is approaching the community.

He’s now pitching to Yukon’s Emergency Measures Organization the idea that the territory ought to help subsidize the operation of these small stations as an inexpensive emergency broadcasting network.

If disaster does strike, the system could quickly pay for itself by mitigating damage. And during uneventful years, the territory probably would have a little money left over that would be set aside for emergencies, he reasons.

The chief strength of the web-based interface is that it eliminates much of the costly staff and equipment that is conventionally required to run a radio station.

And it allows a radio show to be hosted from anywhere. That’s how Tagish residents are able to listen to Estonian pop music played by a Toronto-based DJ.

The system’s weakness is that it’s not really designed to allow radio hosts to banter live on-air.

A recent meeting with EMO officials in Tagish went “really good and really bad,” said Hopkins.

Bad because computers misbehaved. Good because the software worked in the end anyhow, broadcasting over Tagish’s radio a pre-recorded message every several minutes.

Lest an actual emergency recording frighten residents, Hopkins instead played a seven-second soundbyte of a grizzly bear growl.

Hopkins began dabbling with radio in the late 1990s when he started his own five-watt, “under-regulated” (read: pirate) radio station, which at the time re-broadcast a classic-rock station from Vancouver.

The station received its federal licence in 2003, and continues to air a healthy dose of classic rock (Hopkins has a tattoo of his favourite band, Electric Light Orchestra, etched on his arm) along with a mishmash of other material, including the rantings of 9-11 conspiracy theorists.

Hopkins works during the day as a techie with the Carcross Tagish First Nation. When he comes home, it’s not unusual for him to find an assortment of electronic junk dropped off at his steps by Tagish residents who know he hoards the stuff.

He didn’t build the program himself, and professes that he couldn’t code his way “out of a wet paper bag.” Instead, over the past decade he netted various government grants that allowed him to hire a programmer.

He’s no stranger to outlandish sales pitches. He’s tried, at various points, to flog salmon, maple syrup and cosmetics to the Chinese during his travels overseas.

The cosmetics proved to be a bust. They ended up melting in the heat.

He hopes his radio software will perform better, but Hopkins is philosophical about the possibility it may not.

“If I make money, great,” he said. “If not, I just spent my life doing something I enjoy.”

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