As the flag-bearer for everything that enlivens the local music scene, CISM, the Université de Montréal college radio station, is celebrating a quarter century on the air this year. And as noble as the road travelled has been, 89.3FM is resolutely looking and moving forward. Nostalgia? Not their thing at all. “We’re a ‘discovery’ radio station, no nostalgia here. When you listen to our programming, it’s more likely than not that you’ll never have heard what we play anywhere else. It’s our strength, yet sometimes our weakness, too,” says Jarrett Mann, the station’s General Manager.

He means weakness in the sense that traditional, commercial radio stations need to retain their audiences with the heavy rotation of hits, or oldies. Regardless, it’s thanks to its spicy, daring and uncompromising programming that the station – broadcast with the most powerful student antenna in the world, with a reach of 70 km – has created its own niche. And even though that programming is sometimes a little demanding on its audience, an incredibly high proportion of the most important music creators in Québec took their first public steps there. Its web platform recently hit the million streams mark, additional proof that, sometimes, the best way to satisfy your audience is to take it to new horizons. Even if those horizons are marginal.

“A radio station like CISM is striking because of its diversity, and is an invitation to discovery.” – Olivier Langevin, Galaxie

Louis-Jean Cormier’s case is one of the most powerful. A year ago, almost to the day, the songwriter streamed his entire latest album, Les artères, exclusively on CISM’s website. It was the musician’s way of thanking the station, underscoring how important a broadcasting platform it is for so many of his emerging colleagues. As Mann remembers, “the website crashed during the first hour!” Yet that was one of CISM’s major highlights.

Olivier Langevin, frontamn  of the band FGalaxie, who’ll participate in the 25th anniversary celebrations, alongside Hôtesses d’Hilaire and I.D.A.L.G., says: “A station like CISM is striking because of its diversity and is an invitation to discovery. It’s always seeking the good stuff among the tons of music that’s being put out there, and that’s crucial.”

Happiness is a warm niche

CISMBetting on new music discovery allows CISM to give on-air time to more niche genres, whose fans are often much more fervent and loyal than fans of mainstream artists. To wit, garage rock, which couldn’t have a better high priestess than Romanne Blouin—an authority on the genre and its many subgenres —and her show Nous sommes les rockers. Says Blouin, “It think it’s very healthy, culturally, that there’s such an alternative to traditional Francophone media. CISM has a very positive impact for bands whose music airs here, but also on an audience who isn’t satisfied with what happens elsewhere on the FM dial.”

Benoît Beaudry is at the helm of a show called Ghetto Érudit, a flagship show for hip-hop culture, a genre that is largely absent on Québec commercial radio. He’s been hosting the show for almost a decade, and there’s a reason: “It is the station to turn to if you want to stay on top of what’s new on Québec’s music scene, regardless of the musical genre,” says Beaudry. “It’s also an outstanding laboratory that gives its hosts total freedom to try new things, content-wise.”

What’s the most-played song since CISM has been keeping tabs on that kind of data? We Are Wolves’ “Magique”and they’re another band that will be part of the 25th Anniversary celebrations — has logged a few hundred rotations so far. Alex Ortiz, We Are Wolves’ frontman, is blown away by this statistic. “I was really surprised, I honestly wondered if it was a prank or something,” he says, laughing. And as much as he appreciates that the station’s mission remains its local, promotional role, he mostly remembers the joy of hearing a band that turned him on and sharing a stage with them a few months later. Great minds think alike, as they say…

CISM 3.0

CISMSo what’s in store for the next 25 years at CISM? “We’re among the best on the web, and we’re one of the top references when it comes to new music,” says Mann. “One thing that’s evolved over the last few years is, we used to have the reputation of being a student radio station – in the pejorative sense of the term – and that has subsided as we’ve established our web style.”

The core mission? To keep on doing what they do best. “The digital transition is far from over,” says Mann. “We’ll remain at the cutting edge of technology. Right now it’s tablets and smartphones, but we need to stay on top of those changes that happen lightning-fast. If CISM is to remain a young and cutting-edge station, if we want people to keep listening and supporting us, we have to talk to them!”

Says Benoît Beaudry, “I hope CISM remains essential to the Montréal landscape, and continues to re-invent itself on a daily basis, in order to remain a relevant, avant-garde springboard for emerging artists.”

Avant-garde for the past 25 years, at the cutting-edge for the next 25. Long live life in the margins!

CISM will celebrate its 25 years in music with three concert evenings in Montréal that are sure to be memorable:
We Are Wolves — March 31, 2016, at Divan Orange
Loud Lary Ajust/Brown/Rednext Level — April 1, 2016, at S.A.T.
Galaxie/Les Hôtesses d’Hilaire/I.D.A.L.G. — April 2, 2016, at Club Soda