Shaking up Montreal’s airwaves for 25 years

Fall-Winter 2012
by Jessica McGovern

Ilyan Ferrer, a PhD candidate at the School of Social Work, is a co-programmer of CKUT's Sigaw Ng Bayan (Cry of the People), a show that focuses on the social and cultural issues of the Filipino diaspora in Montreal. (Photo: Alex Tran)

While most of the city is tucked in bed, while students are rushing to class, while Montrealers enjoy a morning latte or an after-work glass of Pinot Noir, McGill’s community radio station, CKUT, is on the air.

The fact that CKUT broadcasts live content 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, is an impressive feat on its own. The fact that this non-stop operation is run almost entirely by hundreds of dedicated volunteers is quite another.

The station, which made its campus debut in 1966 as Radio McGill, is celebrating a milestone this fall. CKUT has now been reaching a much wider audience at 90.3 on the FM dial for a quarter of a century.

“Before”, explains long-time staff member Louise Burns, “college radio had a stereotype – a couple of music nerds from campus playing their favourite, obscure music to a handful of friends. We may have started out that way, but now, the programming is extremely diverse.”

Few top 40 hits get airplay at the station, but, depending on when you’re listening, you’ll be able to hear local indie pop, bluegrass, traditional Acadian tunes, seventies-era punk, Bollywood songs, acid funk, reggae and a whole lot more. “It’s pretty varied around here,” says Burns, “it’s not unusual to have Muslims handing over the mic to metal heads.”

Forty percent of the station’s financial support comes from student fees, and the rest from grants and donations. “We are very lucky to receive support from our listeners and donors,” says Caitlin Manicom, BA’10, the station’s funding and outreach coordinator. “Once, during our annual funding drive, someone phoned in to say that he didn’t have money, but was there anything else we needed. We looked around and realized we didn’t have a clock – the next day he turned up with a bag full of them!”

CKUT prides itself on the tentacles it has in the local music and arts scene and constantly shines a much-needed spotlight on emerging bands, cultural happenings, and festivals of every genre.  Artists respond in kind, with well-loved bands visiting the station for live performances – just this summer, for example, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, who were in town for the Nuits d’Afrique festival, dropped by for a visit.

The station’s studios play host to youth summer camps, seniors training sessions and workshops for the disabled, as well as year-round radio orientations for McGill students who receive schooling in how to conduct interviews, write news stories, produce documentaries and host shows.

Veterans of the station have gone on to successful careers in the media and arts; CTV Montreal ‘s news and public affairs director Jed Kahane, BA’88, musician and recent Polaris Prize finalist Grimes, and Arcade Fire co-founder Régine Chassagne have all passed through the station’s colourful corridors.

So what kinds of people are drawn to CKUT?  “All kinds” says Burns, “because of the incredibly diverse programming. We have people in here at three in the morning, over Christmas, and long after they’ve graduated.”

As for the next 25 years – the staff have their fingers firmly on the pulse of this generation. The CKUT site is packed full of MP3 archives, videos, photos and blog posts, and the space continues to evolve into a comprehensive hub of alternative radio-related content. But if you’re old fashioned,  you can still catch them on the wireless: 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, there is always someone live on air at CKUT.

 

 

CKUT is inviting all former volunteers and staffers to share their stories of working at the station and to send in photos from their days at CKUT. You can contact the station at alumni@ckut.ca.

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