Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Radio network refuses to put on airs

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THOMPSON -- Across a hodgepodge of one-horse towns, reserves and cottage subdivisions, one not-quite-forgotten medium is connecting northern Manitobans.

The Arctic Radio Network -- 610-CHTM in Thompson, CJAR-1240 in The Pas and CFAR-590 in Flin Flon -- is as much about music and news as it is tightening the bonds of northern society.

"We want to be a neighbour in the communities we operate in," says Tom O'Brien, the Thompson-based manager of the network.

The network is certainly succeeding in that, thanks largely to a team of eager, omnipresent announcers.

They are there for the frosty Saturday night junior hockey games and for the sizzling summer celebrations such as Thompson's Nickel Days and Flin Flon's Trout Festival.

They are there to promote the church bake sales, the school dances, the coffee shop openings and whatever else matters in their undersized markets.

"People always want to know the little stuff," says Raphael Saray, the morning show host at CFAR. "They want to know how the local hockey team is doing, they want local weather, and then when big stuff happens, they want to know what's going on."

Arctic Radio dates back to 1937, when the first of the network's three stations, CFAR, hit Flin Flon airwaves. CFAR was one of Canada's two most northerly radio stations. With a vast reach, it became the voice of northern Manitoba.

CFAR would spend nearly three decades as the only northern Manitoba-operated radio station until CHTM (the TM stands for Thompson, Manitoba) opened in 1964. In 1974, the owners of CFAR expanded into The Pas, which had somehow missed the broadcasting boat, with CJAR.

By the end of the 1970s, CFAR, CHTM and CJAR fell under the same ownership to form a small but proud radio network. The more content that was shared between the stations, the smaller the North felt.

The network is now accessible by about 45,000 of about 60,000 Manitobans who live north of Swan River, half of whom live outside of the North's three major centres.

Arctic Radio has received regulatory approval to shift from AM to FM, promising a crisper sound more resistant to interference, and looking at repeating transmitters in Snow Lake and Leaf Rapids.

Obviously there's still a demand for the on-air product, despite the never-ending predictions that radio -- particularly small-town radio -- has met its maker.

"Every time a new technology -- talking movies, TV, cable radio, Internet, satellite radio -- has arrived, some have predicted the end of radio," says the friendly faced O'Brien, 52. "But it's still here."

For that Saray is grateful. Calling himself "the Hungarian Heartthrob," he has used CFAR to hone a delightfully self-deprecating persona that is bound to take him to a major market one day.

Local radio matters to people like Peter Zaworonok, a long-time Thompson resident and business owner.

"If we didn't have somebody talking about the local news in town, and the things that are happening in town, who would do it for us?" Zaworonok asks.

CBC broadcasts two hours of northern content out of Thompson on weekdays, and NCI has become a popular choice, particularly among aboriginals, its target demographic.

But those stations are attempting to cover the North as a homogenous unit. Arctic Radio, with its micro focus, can be more attuned to the nuances between the different communities.

In the end, that is why they have survived.


Jonathon Naylor is editor of The Reminder newspaper in Flin Flon.

jonathon_naylor@hotmail.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 10, 2013 A15

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