Volunteers are back in the CKUW studio, producing their radio shows in a place other than their homes for the first time in over a year.
But this studio isn’t the one on the University of Winnipeg campus, with its extensive record archive, lack of sunlight and decades of broadcast memories. It’s a satellite station, a room on the main floor of the Fortune Block on Main Street — an off-campus hub for on-campus radio.
Since last March, volunteers, who produce dozens of programs for the campus station that broadcasts at 95.9 FM, were barred from doing so at the university studio, instead resorting to creative means — calling in to station staff, pre-recording shows, slapping together studios in basement, garages and sunrooms — to stay on the air as the pandemic made normal production routines impossible to maintain. Some shows went on extended hiatuses, with no return date in sight.
"Like everyone else, we were thinking, ‘Maybe next week, maybe the week after that,’" says Ron Robinson, who hosts Pages: Radio for Readers on Thursdays and the aptly named Saturday Morning Radio Program with his wife Carol Mckibbon on Saturday mornings at 6 a.m.
"We are all creatures of habit, and one of our habits was to wake up at 4:45 on Saturday," says Robinson, who didn’t broadcast until the satellite station opened. "I did it for so many years it was carved into my cerebral cortex. I felt guilty to sleep in, but I knew the staff were working to find a way to get us back."
As early as last summer, the staff and board started looking for an off-campus broadcast location, says station manager Rob Schmidt. Conversations were had with community partners across the city to see if they had any space, and more importantly, if it could be used temporarily by the non-profit station for a cheap, or better, an infinitesimal, price.
Soon, word came that a unit in the Fortune Block, which has undergone a major resurgence in the years since its purchase and refurbishment bankrolled by the Pollard family, was available. Better yet, the space was generously offered free of charge until a paying tenant came through. By November 2020, an agreement was struck between the station and the building’s owners, but then the second wave of the pandemic intensified, forcing the station’s board to put the satellite station on pause.
By March, after CKUW’s annual Fundrive raised over $56,000, the satellite station began taking shape, with equipment quickly accumulating in the new space, which Schmidt says jubilantly "has windows." Some trouble-shooting was needed in setting up an internet connection and a broadcast signal, but by the first week of May, the first group of volunteers were welcomed into the new studio, which volunteer Nicole Firlotte, host of the Electric Chair and a former station manager, calls "CKUW Lite" — "the same great radio with half the calories."
Firlotte had been making her show from her Wolseley sunroom since the start of the pandemic, recording her intros and instructing station staff which albums she wanted to play. It was a major change of pace: for nearly 400 broadcasts over the course of about 20 years, Firlotte had made the show at the CKUW studio on campus. She’s been involved with the station since 1987.
She never quite found a groove at home, and was eager to try out the satellite studio, which she says exceeded her expectations. "It’s light, big. Has a window," she says. "I do really miss that cramped studio that has no oxygen that’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter," she added.
"It’s much different than the campus studio, but it’s better to actually be somewhere," she says. "I’ve been trying to get back into the swing of things."
The first song she played at the Fortune Block studio was Don’t Stand So Close to Me by The Police. "I am surprised it’s not been the global pandemic song," she jokes.
And while being on air herself was a thrill, Firlotte was mostly pleased to feel the "community" part of community radio, seeing other programmers, such as Kelly Hughes, the longtime host of The Ivory Tower, which goes to air right after Firlotte’s show wraps up.
"At the start of the pandemic, I did about four shows from home," says Hughes, whose two-hour program normally broadcasts jazz, world music, traditional folk and conversations with guests from the "dizzying heights of the fourth-and-a-half floor" at the U of W. "I found it very hard to do it. It’s a lot easier for me to show up and do it.
"Having the new satellite studio — I call it CKUW Express — has been really great for me, especially for my mental health," he says. "I was getting a little burned out even before the pause, but having one year off, by the end, I was really eager to jump in again."
For Hughes’ first show back, he had as a guest Jocelyn Gould, a local artist who won the 2021 Juno Award for best solo jazz album. "Even before she won, I wanted her as my first guest back," he says.
Robinson says he and Mckibbon have revelled in trips to what they call the "secret remote location" of CKUW, which has allowed them to make good on a promise they made to listeners that they shall return.
"We all have reasons to get up every day, and this is one of ours," he says. "Even though there’s no cash, the reward is sharing something with people. It’s like Robert Service wrote, ‘A promise made is a debt unpaid.’"
One promise manager Schmidt hopes to make good on soon is that CKUW volunteers will be able to return to the old stomping grounds again. The U of W intends to hold about 40 per cent of its classes in-person for the fall semester, which gives the station veteran hope for a return to Portage Avenue.
"By October, it will have been almost 18 months," he says.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.