Photo Credit: Tracks From Abroad (CIUT 89.5 FM)
How a U of T radio show is connecting students on campus, and across the world
Claudia Doyle, Arts Editor
In an era of streaming music and podcasts, where does radio fit into the art scene at the University of Toronto? Since 1987, CIUT 89.5 FM has curated and delivered campus and community programming to listeners 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Tracks From Abroad is a great example of why this station is worth tuning into today.
Jesse McDougall started the radio show in October 2021 after successfully pitching the idea to CIUT. His goal is to feature an interview with an international student in every weekly episode, and so far the show has covered over 60 countries. It is uniquely formatted so that not everything has to be done in the studio. Along with his pre-recorded interviews, the show has explored various neighbourhoods in Toronto through the help of international students who have introduced him to new foods, sights, and sounds in the city. Music is a particularly important part of McDougall’s creative process. He asks interviewees to bring 10 of their favourite songs that he can play on the show, and he has also interviewed many local musicians who specialize in genres from abroad.
When asked about the impact that Tracks From Abroad has had on the U of T community, McDougall broke it down by listeners and guests. There are international students who feel heard and seen when their countries are featured on the show. Then there are domestic students who get to learn about what this diverse city has to offer them. And finally, guests on the show get the opportunity to tell their own story. Many students will touch on politics and questions of identity in their interviews, but one of the great strengths of McDougall’s interview process is the space he creates for them to share unique anecdotes and talents. For example, one student from Jamaica talked about working on her own fashion line. A student from Haiti revealed that his father is a professional skier in a country that has no snow. Another guest from Ukraine even brought their own music to showcase. How often do student musicians get the opportunity to play on an FM radio show?
McDougall has a great sense for the impact radio has on the city more broadly. He told me about interviewing Lenny Lombardi from CHIN radio, a key figure in Canada’s multilingual broadcasting, for a recent episode of Tracks From Abroad. In the early twentieth century, McDougall explained, Canada’s rough geography made communication difficult for isolated communities. As broadcast ranges increased, radio played a major role in unifying Canadians across the country. McDougall also has no trouble situating radio in the art world. He has to curate each episode carefully, editing complicated intros, incorporating sound effects, and transitioning smoothly between segments live on air. Hosting a radio show is itself an art form, and the final product aims to promote the work of other artists.
Along with an exclusive rundown of the show, I was lucky enough to get a tour of the CIUT offices and watch a Tracks From Abroad interview take place. The studios at Hart House are located in the west wing of the third floor, just above the library. The space consists of a long corridor lined with shelves of old records, and doors that lead to individual studios which staff and students pop in and out of intermittently. The atmosphere is cozy, and a wall of CDs in one of the studios made me feel particularly nostalgic. Working on an episode for Japan, McDougall was interviewing two representatives from U of T’s Japan Student Association. He jokingly showed me the questions he had prepared – they were pretty much nonexistent, but that’s the point – it’s really a chance for international students to share what they want to share. McDougall guides with questions that come up naturally through the interview process.
Ultimately, Tracks From Abroad has amplified the voices of over 60 diverse students since the show started in 2021, and it’s going to keep doing so every week. Moving forward, McDougall is putting together a new cast of student volunteers who will take over (although the show has been a collective effort from the start). There are also ways to get involved at CIUT that don’t require full commitment. For example, the show recently hosted a potluck where people brought international dishes and enjoyed them while listening to a live band (see image). If you are interested in helping Tracks From Abroad reach more countries either as a guest or as a volunteer, you can send an email to [email protected]. You can also follow Tracks From Abroad on Instagram (@tfa.radio), Youtube, or Spotify. And of course, be sure to tune in to the show every Monday from 6-7 pm on CIUT 89.5 FM!