A public radio station in Alberta called CKUA may close because of the ending of government funding. The station has a cult of listeners who enjoy its alternative and eclectic music, news broadcasts and drama. Fans are writing to newspapers urging the retention of the station.
"Most of our work indicated that 70 per cent of the people of Alberta still don't even know we exist," says Ken Regan, the station's news supervisor. This despite the fact the station began life back in 1927. It was part of the University of Alberta then.
In those early radio days, entire choirs or drama groups packed into curtained studios, complete with potted palms, to broadcast live. The university connection was severed in the 1940s, when the CKVA came under the province's wing.
Then in the mid-1970s it embarked on an expansion program that saw transmitters sprouting across the province, making the station's signal available to 85 per cent of Albertans.
Despite their disappointing numbers, those who do tune in to CKUA's sometimes funky, often thoughtful, frequently off-beat mix of musical genres, newscasts and drama, are more than merely loyal.
The most recent transmitter went up in 1992, thanks to the largesse of an anonymous Lloydminster man. He wanted to pick up the station's signal in his corner of the province -- by the Alberta-Saskatchewan boundary. The gift was worth $50,000. He's been described as the last person anyone would expect to have that kind of money. And more recently, another anonymous benefactor kicked in a six-figure donation to underwrite the costs of hiring professionals to help draw up a survival plan for the beleaguered station.
That was as a result of last fall's announcement by Steve West, Alberta's Minister of Municipal Affairs. He told the province's public broadcasting network, ACCESS, to come up with ways to unhook itself from government funding. The network includes a television side, with Alberta-produced and imported programming and an educational production division.
But it is CKUA, housed in a rambling, haunted, ancient former Edmonton rooming house, that produces the most emotion from its fans.
Following the minister's ultimatum, letters to the editor urging retention of the station poured in to provincial newspapers. "There is still a chance to save CKUA Radio," a Slave Lake listener wrote to the Edmonton Journal. "If everyone calls or writes their MLA immediately the lunatics can be held at bay." An Edmonton fan wrote that pulling the plug on CKUA and ACCESS television was a betrayal of earlier generations of Albertans. A support-group of fans was founded and benefit concerts organized.
What is it about this station that drew such a reaction? "The surprise element," says Sev Sabourin. He's a member of the station's management team, and a 40-year listener. "You never quite know what you are going to hear next," he adds.
Unfettered by the bounds of commercial radio, CKUA happily serves up a melodious stew that could range from folk music from the Urals, to Mozart, to Appalachian music -- all in the same program. This, in addition to extensive news broadcasts, current affairs programs, documentaries and drama.
CKUA listeners were among the first to hear Celine Dion, outside of Quebec says Sabourin. The station played her French language recordings six years ago. k.d. Lang's unmistakable voice was heard by CKUA listeners long before she hit mainstream radio. The Consort, Alta. crooner is one of a lengthy list that includes Robert Goulet, who once worked at the station, Amos Garrett, Joni Mitchell, David Foster, George Fox and Gaye Delorme.
CKUA's news supervisor hopes a revamped CKUA will soon be a secret no more -- it's charms broadcast well beyond its current 70,000 or so listeners.
As long as it was linked to the government, says Regan, the station was inhibited from promoting itself. It didn't want to appear to compete with commercial radio. Once uncoupled, says Regan, the consultants believe they can market the station to listeners, who tend to be over 35, well-educated, and corporate.
Regan and Sabourin are full of hope. "This place has always been a challenge," says Sabourin from his cramped little office, complete with external pipes snaking across the wall. "We're used to challenge."