Not so long ago, Winnipeg was a broadcasting hub where the likes of CanWest, Moffat Communications and Craig Broadcasting were running television and radio stations across the country.
Now the national media powerhouse in Manitoba is based in Altona where Golden West Broadcasting Ltd. pumps out MOR hits and hyper-local programming such as Altona Maroons coverage in South Eastern Manitoba Hockey League action from CFAM Radio 950.
It's the formula used in 40 Golden West stations in 19 towns across the Prairies, making it the largest independent radio company in the country.
The company recently received approval from the CRTC to change the music format at one its two Winnipeg stations, Ignite 107.1 FM, to classical music, and it's building a brand-new studio with a 100,000-watt transmitter. (Winnipeg is the only big city with a Golden West station.)
But don't confuse the down-home feel of Winkler's Country 1570 or the churchy music of AM 1250 in Steinbach with a lack of operational sophistication at Golden West.
This is a focused, modern business that's fusing old-fashioned, over-the-air radio with digital age technology in small towns across the Prairies... and making plenty of money along the way.
Golden West is the brainchild of Elmer Hildebrand, 76. An incessant community volunteer -- he sits on the board of directors of the Bureau of Broadcast Measurement (BBM) even though his stations don't even subscribe to the service -- Hildebrand is revered in the industry, having run Golden West for the past 55 years.
"I'm an old-timer, but I don't feel old," he said recently, waiting to get on a plane from Toronto to Ottawa.
In towns such as Fort Saskatchewan, Alta., Humboldt, Sask. and Airdrie, Alta., Golden West is a media godsend.
Ignored and abandoned by the national corporate media entities, Golden West gives these towns the chance to have their local culture on the airwaves. Just as important to the communities -- and to the Golden West business model -- it operates online community portals in every town it's in.
According to Hildebrand, the web-sites make money, too.
Last fall, Golden West's newest station, Mix 107.9 FM, went on the air in Fort Saskatchewan, Alta., a town of 20,000 just north of Edmonton.
"Fort Saskatchewan was largely overlooked because it was always considered so close to Edmonton and they got the spillover from all the Edmonton stations," Hildebrand said. "But when you go there, you see that they have their own identity in Fort Saskatchewan and we can provide them a service. It was a no-brainer for us."
In fact, Golden West now gets calls from town mayors all across the country asking Golden West to come to their town. Hildebrand admits the pipeline is getting smaller, but it still opens (or acquires) three or four stations a year. In just about every community it's in, Golden West's is the only station in town.
"We're not out there to compete with Rogers and Corus and Astral," said company founder and CEO Elmer Hildebrand. "That's not our game."
Lyndon Friesen, the president of Golden West and Hildebrand's second-in-command, said the company does not have to struggle to figure out what it needs to do to succeed -- it's all about local coverage.
"Most of our stations are next to a major market," Friesen said. It owns stations in towns close to Calgary, Edmonton, Regina and Winnipeg.
"They can receive all the signals (from the close-by city) and we can't play Shania Twain any better than anyone else can," he said. "The only thing we can do -- which we think we can do well -- is spend all our efforts on local service. We pay lip service to national news."
During the last reorganization in the industry while everyone else was shedding the news departments, Golden West did the exact opposite. It beefed up its local news coverage and instead of hiring journalism grads from Ottawa and Toronto who'd bolt to a bigger market the first chance they got, Golden West started hiring and training locals in every market.
Becky Cianflone, executive director of the Altona and District Chamber of Commerce, said, "At every single community group I'm ever at there is someone from Golden West sitting at the table. They are fantastic community people."
Reminiscent of Izzy Asper, the late, great Winnipeg media mogul who once famously said his company was in the soap (advertising) business not the television business, Hildebrand said, "Radio used to be all about the music. We think music is secondary. It's the information you broadcast that really keeps your audience with you."
With more than 400 employees and growing, the company has consolidated creative services in Steinbach and accounting and technical services in Altona with about 40 employees at each centre.
Hildebrand built his reputation in the hinterland communities but it's spread across the country.
Ross McCreath, past president of the Canadian Communications Foundation, an online archive history of the radio business in Canada, is effusive about Hildebrand.
"He's the best broadcaster in Canada, bar none," McCreath said. "He has made his stations so perfectly fit in the various markets they're in."
THE GOLDEN WEST NETWORK
* Altona -- CFAM Radio 950
* Steinbach -- AM 1250 Radio
* Boissevain -- CJRB Radio 1220
* Winkler -- CKMW Country 1570
* Portage la Prairie -- CFRY 920 AM 93.1 FM and Mix 96.5
* Winnipeg -- CHVN 95.1 FM and Ignite 107.1 FM
* Swift Current -- CKSW 570, CJSN 1490, the Eagle 94.1 and Magic 97.1
* Moose Jaw -- 800CHAB, County 100 and Mix 103.9
* Estevan -- Rock 106, CJ 1280 Radio and Sun 102.3
* Weyburn -- AM 1190 Radio and Magic 103.5
* Humboldt -- 107.5 Bolt FM
* Rosetown/Kindersley -- CFYM 1210, CJYM 1330 and Mix 104.9
* Drumheller -- 99.5 Drum FM
* High River -- AM 1140 Radio, the Eagle 100.9 and Sun 99.7 FM Country
* Okotoks -- The Eagle 100.9 FM
* Airdrie -- Air 106.1 FM
* Fort Saskatchewan -- Mix 107.9 FM
* Lethbridge -- CKVN 98.1 FM
* Kenora -- Q104