CKUA Celebrates Its Near Death Experience of 20 Years Ago

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CKUA Celebrates Its Near Death Experience of 20 Years Ago

Postby jon » Fri Mar 31, 2017 8:08 pm

CKUA celebrates 20 years surviving the brink with Alberta tour
Fish Griwkowsky
Edmonton Journal
Published on: March 31, 2017

Last year, in the midst of our anecdotally dark times, CKUA Radio Network — read this slowly — exceeded its listener-supported fundraising targets. Impressive, joyful news!

But the first-ever public broadcaster in Canada hasn’t forgotten its scars. It’s embracing them, actually.

There was a time, see (pulls up rocking chair), not so long ago, when CKUA wasn’t just in peril, it was outright dead and off the air — growing pains after the provincial government sold the station from its Crown corporation Access to CKUA’s non-profit foundation for $10.

Host, producer and jazz lover David Ward has been with the station on and off since 1982. He was there in 1997 when CKUA went silent. He laughs, “I’ve left the station five times and keep coming back. I’ve left, I’ve been locked out, I’ve been laid off.”

Now 59, he and Hayley Muir broadcast from the satellite CKUA station in the under-construction National Music Centre in Calgary. On weekdays, Muir’s The Spot broadcasts from noon to 2 p.m — Ward’s afternoon show Freeway is from 4 to 6 p.m.

The famous sword of the rebuilt King Edward Hotel hangs on the corner just south of their studio, an accidental symbol of the fact that, in Alberta, people fight hard for the arts.

“Some of us used to joke,” says Ward, “it’s not a radio station, it’s a church. Some people don’t like that word, but the power of music is pretty palpable. The core of our audience grew up with the station, before streaming, before the Internet. We became their home.”

CKUA’s ongoing musical mandate includes roots, eclectic, classical and local. “We don’t have as wide a range as campus radio does,” Ward says, “but what we have is consistency.

“From the listeners we raise almost $3 million a year — and this is for something that is free. Anyone can tune in for nothing.” He notes over the last 20 years, Albertans have donated to the tune of $40 million to $50 million.

To celebrate this, for six days starting Sunday, Ward and Muir are going on a 4,000-km trip around the province — the Touch the Transmitter Tour — to connect with the station’s lifeblood listeners. Their donations account for the lion’s share of the operating costs.

Stopping in at each of the 16 transmitter communities — doing meet and greets, hosting concerts — it’s a symbolic reminder of what happened 20 years ago, and how the station was saved from the brink with people power.

Explains Ward, who was running the record vault back then, “I’d been a 15-year employee when we shut down in ’97. The reality was, the Klein government, a few years earlier, their position was public broadcasting wasn’t their business.

“There was a group in Calgary,” he says, “who had ties to the government. Really big fans of the station (who) put together a business plan and presented it. They convinced the government to grant them transitional funding. They came in, cut wages, cut staff — their intention was to make it work.

“But by the spring of ’97, the turnaround wasn’t happening as fast as they’d hoped, which meant raising a lot more money. The advertising side wasn’t coming together fast enough.”

The controversial decision was made — shut the station down before the group faced bankruptcy.

Says Ward, “So we shut down. We were off the air for five weeks. People made all kinds of noise. And somewhere in that five weeks we wrested control back, figured out what we were going to do, went on the air … and here we are 20 years later.”

That effort involved a rallying road trip around the province, which he and Muir will echo starting this weekend.

“We thought we could celebrate the 20th anniversary of the shutdown — the 20th anniversary of this crazy idea we cooked up one Sunday night where we hit the road on Monday morning.

“We’re doing it as a way of thanking our long-term donors. More than 1,000 people have been donating continuously since 1997, from all over the province.”

The station is giving out, face to face when possible, 20-year donor pins, mailing the rest. “It’s a way of saying thank you. We would have never believed 20 years ago we’d still be here.”

Along with its network of 16 FM transmitters, the station was also Canada’s first — in 1996 — to stream its broadcast online. Facing a $5-million transmitter upgrade to modern standards, AM 580 went off the air in 2013 on the station’s 86th anniversary. Yet to be replaced, Ken Regan retired as station manager after 18 years. CKUA will be 90 on November 21.

The six concerts include Mitchmatic in Edson Tuesday, Shaela Miller Band in Lethbridge Wednesday, and Boots & the Hoots Thursday in Red Deer, “Young guys making really old-timey, twangy, folk-country music,” Muir notes from Calgary.

“All in all it’s a really stellar lineup of Alberta talent. It’s going to be cool to have these off-the-beaten-path gigs.”

The full schedule of music and appearances is on the CKUA site, including the 6 p.m. Friday wrap party at the downtown Edmonton studio (9408 Jasper Ave.) with Leeroy Stagger. Much of this, including dispatches and the hour-long concerts, will end up on the air, of course.

Says Muir, “I’m relatively fresh blood here. It’s going to be really nice to meet people who have graciously let me into their family home. I haven’t really seen that much of Alberta, I’m excited to learn more about the history of the station and the province.

“I thought the other day, ‘Oh my God — there are people all over the province who know me!’”

Ward laughs, “People are going to be coming up to us and saying they love the station, really nothing to grouse about there.”

He muses, “All the things that have happened in the last 90 years, we’ve survived. When television came on, radio was going to die. When computers and streaming and iTunes came, we were going to die. And somehow we’re still here.

“I don’t understand why,” he chuckles. “Will we be here in five years? I don’t know. But we believe in the power of music as a positive force.”
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