The spirit of radio

Fifty years after it first hit the airwaves, CKUW is still serving the community with eclectic programming

“It’s amazing how easy it is to get involved and you don’t need a journalism degree,” CKUW host and volunteer coordinator Victoria King says of the station. “You can just be a community member and get involved.” Dylan Hewlett
“Back in the day it was so busy that there was barely a slot,” Winnipeg radio veteran Joe Aiello recalls of his time at CKUW in the early ‘80s. “We’d give everybody like an hour-long slot so I was just happy to get one as a rookie, just to get in.” Dylan Hewlett
Dylan Hewlett

In an era where free media reigns supreme, the original mass communicator, radio broadcasting - which began transmitting signals globally as early as 1901 - is still the cheapest and easiest way to discover new music.

As of 2013, 95.9 CKUW FM has been perfecting its homespun brand of broadcasting for 50 years - a major feat for any station, let alone one of the campus or community radio varieties.

CKUW remains as necessary now as it did upon inception in 1963, when David Shilliday, a student of what was then United Church College, founded a radio club to play songs in the corridors between classes and at chaperoned school dances.

Originally operating out of the basement of United College (now the Bulman Student Centre), CKUW has been around longer than the University of Winnipeg, which was founded in 1967.

When the U of W came to be, CKUW was a closed-circuit station, broadcasting exclusively to campus grounds via a P.A. system.

Joe Aiello, a veteran local radio personality and current host of The Joe Show weekday mornings on 102.3 Clear FM, got his start at CKUW in the early ‘80s.

“We used to call it Downtown Underground CKUW because we were playing underground music that got away from the commercial stuff, (and) we were downstairs in the basement at the time,” he recalls.
“Back in the day it was so busy that there was barely a slot. We’d give everybody like an hour-long slot so I was just happy to get one as a rookie, just to get in.”

Aiello was studying for his Bachelor of Education while volunteering at CKUW, but always knew his greater passion lay in working in radio.

“This is all I’ve wanted to do ever since I was a kid. CKUW was really a dream come true for me, because it was the one opportunity I had to get the kinks out and learn - and was able to do it while I was going to school to get a degree in something else.

“Even though that part never came to fruition, but it has for so many others ... it was pretty much a godsend for a guy like me growing up in the West End.”

FM or bust

Rob Schmidt, CKUW’s current station director, estimates that the number of volunteers that have come through CKUW’s doors over the last half-century tallies up to well over 1,000.

Most of these folks were first-time broadcasters, and a few, like Aiello, would go on to pursue careers in the music biz.

Former MuchMusic and VH1 VJ Bradford How, and celebrated Canadian music historian and columnist Alan Cross (The Ongoing History of New Music), are a few notable CKUW alumni.

“When I saw this opportunity to come to Winnipeg and help move CKUW onto FM, that’s what I jumped at,” says Schmidt, who made the move to CKUW straight from McMaster University in 1996.

“It was amazing to come to a place where there was already such a great history of the station existing; there was already an internal culture and tons of volunteers that had experience.”

Schmidt was hired on to create and develop a licensing application that would allow CKUW to broadcast citywide as a community radio station, rather than as a university station exclusively.

The first official citywide broadcast occurred on April 30, 1999, after decades spent fundraising and trying to convert the station to FM radio.

This first broadcast included a short speech by Schmidt, and the first song to hit the airwaves was That’s Entertainment by The Jam.

CKUW has been transmitted all over Winnipeg ever since, and is available on the Internet to listeners around the world.

Though the station doesn’t pool data regularly, Schmidt estimates they have about 7,000 core listeners and reach probably 20,000 to 30,000 people every week, a minority of which are listeners from overseas.

“The fact that the campus is where we started is still super important to us. It doesn’t make sense for someone on CKUW to be doing a show only for one person in Japan. They need to be doing the show for the listeners in Winnipeg, and if there’s a person in Japan who loves it, hey that’s awesome. Our focus is local, so that’s important.”

CKUW organizes many initiatives that integrate Winnipeggers outside the station.

Sarah Michaelson (a.k.a. DJ Mama Cutsworth), a long-time CKUW volunteer and host of the funk-infused Stylus Radio (Thursdays from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m.), says participating in Garage Land has been among her favourite memories during her 12 years spent at the station.

“On Saturday mornings (in June), we send out roving reporters to check out local garage sales and people call in with their bargains,” Michaelson says. “It’s a really visceral and immediate way to make radio, and there’s a quaint nostalgia around call-in shows like that one.

“Plus Winnipeg loves a good deal, so garage sales are a pretty great radio topic for this place,” she adds with a laugh.
Another summer tradition at CKUW is Radio Camp. A free weeklong day camp in August for children ages 10 to 13, Radio Camp teaches kids about the inner-workings of a radio station.

After four days spent learning the tricks of the trade, the kids take to the airwaves at the end of the week and speak their piece.

“I think they feel really empowered by being able to share their voice and their stories ... even if it’s just dolphins they’re talking about or whatever pop star they’re interested in. I think for kids to be able to be heard is really important,” Schmidt says.

A musical melting pot

CKUW’s programming is as diverse as its clientele, offering what Schmidt estimates as 80 weekly programs created solely by volunteers at the station.

Approximately 20 more shows are then outsourced from other campus radio stations across the continent, resulting in a succession of about 100 different shows being played on air each week.

“The thrill of radio is discovering new stuff and hearing the things that you haven’t heard before, and that’s something that people still turn to us for,” Schmidt says.

From late-night editions of Winnipeg Arena’s On Fire! (Mondays from midnight to 6 a.m.), where host JohNNy SiZZle spotlights different genres (complete with Casio keyboard accompaniment), to Highbrow Low Blows, a smart culture talk program by hosts Taylor Burgess and Brynna Stefanson (Sundays from noon to 1 p.m.), CKUW has something for everyone.

“There’s a show called Wooden Spoons on Fridays (8 a.m. to 9 a.m.), that’s all about cooking and healthy eating and living,” says Schmidt. “And then there are shows on the weekend where they’re talking about parenting, or perhaps stranger things like conspiracy theory or aliens. It’s whatever people want to bring, right? It’s about having a community radio station for the people.”

If you don’t hear anything you like on air, CKUW is always welcoming new volunteers and innovative program proposals.

“We think it’s really important to have alternative news and to have voices that aren’t normally heard in the mainstream media,” says Schmidt.

Michaelson echoes this sentiment.

“We have a very open philosophy when it comes to members of the community walking into our doors and finding out more about the station,” she says. “We are here for everyone and continue to strive to have all voices heard: children, refugees, elders, you name it. We are the city’s voice and hope to always be.”

Making it work

Michaelson recalls how hosting a radio show led to DJing dance parties.

“As I got into doing my own radio show, I realized that I love sharing music with others in a public sphere, which sort of naturally took me into the notion of DJing,” she recalls. “Thanks to the station I met other DJs, bought my first set of turntables and eventually became brave enough to perform.

“I am 100 per cent a DJ because of CKUW - this was the place I really discovered music.”

Victoria King also parlayed her volunteering gig at CKUW into a part-time job.

She continues to co-host Now Sounds (Fridays from 3:30 p.m. to 5 p.m.), a program that plays only newly released music, and was recently appointed as the station’s volunteer coordinator.

The position requires her to help organize and train the entire crew of volunteers, which easily constitutes more than 100 people. It’s a fleet whose numbers and pedigrees are constantly fluctuating.

“It’s amazing how easy it is to get involved, and you don’t need a journalism degree,” King says. “You don’t need a background, you don’t need to be a certified historian - you can just be a community member and get involved. And I think in that way there’s something really authentic and sincere about the involvement with community radio.”

It’s a more invested experience for CKUW listeners as well; fans often tune in for specific timeslots that they know and enjoy.

“All of CKUW’s programming can be downloaded for free online, so you might like one show but it’s only on once a week, ... (so) you can go download it and have it with you on your iPod. So I think in that way CKUW is staying in tune with changing technology and changing times.”

We’re not here to regurgitate the same old rock anthems. We’re here for people to learn about music, to build their skills as broadcasters, have a lot of fun and to promote the local scene. That’s the focus.

Rob Schmidt, station director, CKUW

Staying in tune

CKUW has demonstrated exceptional staying power despite rapidly changing technology over the course of the last 50 years.

As a non-profit organization, its funding comes from both a cut of the University of Winnipeg Students’ Association’s budget and from publicly sourced outreach campaigns like the annual Fundrive.

An on-air fundraiser where donations are pledged over the course of a marathon week in February, Fundrive 2013 netted about $59,000 for the station according to Schmidt, far surpassing their goal of $53,000.

Schmidt says that notions about the imminent death of radio are way off base, as evidenced by the success of Fundrive.

“Statistics just came out last week saying the majority of Canadians listen to radio every day,” he says. “We’re talking 60 to 70 per cent, depending on where the survey’s done and what age range you’re talking to. So I think the death of radio is kind of exaggerated. There’s a huge audience still.”

In other words, CKUW won’t be going anywhere anytime soon, though the station is in talks with the U of W to hopefully move to a bigger location on campus.

CKUW’s offices are currently located on the fifth floor of Centennial Hall, reachable only via a single staircase in the Buffeteria.

“It’s difficult for us to grow what we do while we are limited to this small space. So that’s our next challenge, and we’re looking to grow and spread the word out, get more people listening,” Schmidt says.

After so many years spent broadcasting exclusively to the U of W hallways, CKUW is ironically no longer transmitted anywhere on school grounds.

“We’d be happy to be broadcast in certain areas (of the school),” Schmidt says. “It’s difficult because (the programming) is different all the time, not everyone wants to listen to it. So you either have to be turning up the volume or turning down the volume.

“I don’t expect people to tune in 24 hours a day, but we know there’s something here for everyone. You just have to be more active with our station; you can’t just tune in and expect something. You have to know what you’re looking for and tune in for that,” he recommends.

“We’re not here to regurgitate the same old rock anthems. We’re here for people to learn about music, to build their skills as broadcasters, have a lot of fun and to promote the local scene. That’s the focus.”

Published in Volume 67, Number 24 of The Uniter (March 21, 2013)

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