Watch this Sound: The Story of CJSR (1946–2004)
Written By: Adapted from Mick Sleeper
Fooling Around With A New Invention (1927–1945)
The earliest history of CJSR is really the early history of CKUA. The story begins in 1921 when H.P. Brown, an employee of the Department of Extension at the University of Alberta, first heard a radio broadcast while vacationing in the United States. At the time, radio was just starting to get off the ground as the technology to send and receive radio signals became available to the public. Brown was thrilled by the new medium and realized the possibilities of radio for the University. At the time, members of the Department of Extension traveled around Alberta on speaking engagements; Brown realized that the University could reach more people using radio. Professor A.E. Ottewell, the Director of Extension Services at the time, was also intrigued by the prospect of radio. However, the University politely told them that it didn't have any money to spare in order to "fool around with this new invention".
Brown and Ottewell remained persistent, however, and by 1926, a small studio was established at the University with a telephone link to CJCA's studio, located in the Edmonton Journal building. Before long, it became evident that the University would benefit from its own radio station.
In 1927, the University bought out a small Edmonton radio station, CFCK. Faced with a funding dilemma for the new station, Brown pulled a clever bit of subterfuge. He requested a grant of $7000 from the Alberta government for a "new lecturer" in the Department of Extension. The request was granted, and a small group of engineering students began building a transmitter and antenna on a knoll south of Pembina Hall. At the same time, several studios were built in the upper floor of the Power Plant. In November 1927, CKUA (UA standing for "University of Alberta") went on the air. It marked the birth of campus radio in western Canada.
From humble beginnings, CKUA steadily grew throughout the 1930s and 1940s to become an important part of Alberta’s lifestyle, a role it still fulfills today. It continued to be owned and operated by the University of Alberta until 1944, when the Alberta government bought out its license. In 1945, CKUA left the University campus after 28 years and moved to the Provincial Building in downtown Edmonton.
The Radio Society Years (1946–1960)
CKUA's seminal time on campus ensured that radio was going to stay at the University of Alberta. A sufficient number of students were interested in broadcasting that a radio club, the University of Alberta Student Radio Directorate, was created in 1946 to fill the void left by CKUA's departure. Prior to the formation of the Radio Directorate, a group of Arts students had formed the Varsity Radio Players in 1942. The Players were responsible for a weekly 15-minute program called "Varsity Varieties" that was broadcast on CKUA. This was an important first step, as even though CKUA was the University of Alberta's radio station, students hadn't been involved in production or hosting until the formation of the Varsity Players.
Alongside the Radio Directorate, there was also an amateur radio (better known as "ham" radio) club operated by the Engineering Society. Its members would surf the airwaves for other ham operators and make contact with people who could be thousands of miles away. In an era before satellite communications, the prospect of chatting with someone half way around the world was rather thrilling. As other Canadian universities developed ham radio clubs, the University of Alberta crew would be in regular contact. Chess games with other campus radio clubs were played via short-wave radio.
CKUA's move downtown showed that you could take the radio station out of campus, but you couldn't take the campus out of the radio station. CKUA sponsored several hours of University-produced programs such as "Varsity Varieties", "Campus Musicale", and "Gateway News"—all produced by the student Radio Directorate. Phone line connections allowed for live broadcasts of University basketball games.
With some foresight, the radio clubs of several western Canadian universities formed the Western University Radio Federation in February 1946.
Using the ham radio club's short-wave sets, the Federation exchanged news stories between universities. With all this broadcasting activity taking place on campus, it became clear that some kind of studio needed to be built. Using leftover and donated equipment from CKUA, the Radio Directorate created a small broadcast studio using an army hut that had been erected on campus during the war years. It was known as "Hut H" and relayed campus programming to the CKUA studios downtown. It was the birth of a kind of primordial CJSR.
In 1948, the Radio Directorate changed its name to the less despotic sounding Radio Society. By this time, CKUA was no longer referring to itself as the "station of the University of Alberta" but any of the programs from Hut H were referred to as "University programs". Although it was still a brick in the CKUA wall, at least the Radio Society was being recognized as distinct. It came up with three hours of programming every week for CKUA.
By 1951, the Radio Society was producing an entire evening’s worth of programming for CKUA, entitled Varsity Night. The Thursday night broadcasts included campus news, sports, movie reviews, and a popular quiz show, "Champs or Chumps". The same year, a new Students' Union Building (now University Hall) was built, and the Radio Society moved its tiny studios into the new building. The ham radio club joined them down the hall.
In 1953, the Radio Society's relationship with CKUA was soured due to some inexperienced operators' causing some serious on-air problems. As a result, the Society's Thursday nights were scaled down. By 1956, the Radio Society was finding it difficult to fill its allotted time slots on CKUA, and its programming was once again reduced. Despite these problems, the Radio Society maintained good relations with CKUA, and Radio Society productions continued to be broadcast for the rest of the decade.
In 1953, two second-year law students, Jim Redmond and Dave McDonald, made a small bit of CJSR history. They became the Radio Society's first DJs on CKUA with their program "All The Best". Previously, Varsity Night didn't include a music program; when music was played, it was in the form either of live performances by students as part of "Campus Musicale" or of brief musical interludes between programs. "All The Best" was a 90-minute program of popular music heard Thursday nights from 10:30 to midnight. Although the show was on CKUA, since they were students in the Radio Society, Redmond and McDonald could technically be considered CJSR's first DJs.
Out With The Old (1960–1968)
By 1960, the Radio Society was still producing programs for CKUA, but gradually it began to wean itself off of the venerable station. At the same time, CKUA was re inventing itself, more or less shedding the last of its original University ties. As a result, there were fewer reasons for the station to be broadcasting University-produced programs. With a basic recording studio built in 1955 and a core of experienced members, members of the Radio Society saw more local opportunities for their talent and ambition.
A closed-circuit PA system, with loudspeakers in cafeterias and student lounges in nearby buildings, began to carry Radio Society programs during the day. Regular programs such as "Campus Report", "My Country", and "Talent From The Campus" became popular with students. Although not technically a radio station, the Radio Society's 1960 closed-circuit broadcasts can be considered the real debut of the modern CJSR.
An important addition to the Radio Society studios was the arrival of a teletype machine in 1961. As the teletype provided news items from across the world, the Radio Society's news broadcasts soon outgrew the confines of campus.
Despite all these important strides, the Radio Society had no real ambitions about becoming a radio station. Like many other student organizations, the Radio Society was simply a way for people to socialize and to have a gathering place somewhere on campus to pursue some common interests. Becoming a radio station was a pipe dream.
For most of the 1960s, the Radio Society's programming was very much an "old school" affair patterned after the CBC and BBC. It consisted mostly of droll observations on campus life, light news, and Shakespeare plays. When music was played, it was usually quite banal: Mantovani, light jazz, or classical. You didn’t hear Elvis or The Beatles or even Pat Boone. It was a far cry from what most people think of today when "university radio" is mentioned.
But the times, they were a-changin'. As the "ivy league" vibe began to disappear in the late 1960s, it was replaced with a hippie/counter-culture attitude. Before long, it would be time to roll over, Beethoven.
At the same time, radio itself was undergoing an interesting transformation: FM radio began to supplant AM radio as the dominant medium. In the early 1960s, new technology allowed FM signals to be broadcast in stereo—a first in radio—and more and more stations began broadcasting on the FM band. Alongside the new technological advantages of FM, a new ideology for radio started to emerge. Until the mid-1960s, singles were the dominant way for music to be released. Albums at the time were usually collections of singles, rather than a group of songs that had been recorded at the same time.
As bands began to release more albums, radio programmers began to realize that many of the songs on albums were just as good as—or better than—the singles getting airplay. People began to recognize that most AM stations' playlists—consisting only of singles in the charts—were pretty narrow in scope. Thus, starting in 1966, American and Canadian radio stations began to embark on a new format, known as "free form radio", later known as "album rock". It was a less restrictive kind of format, where DJs had more liberty to choose the music they played. Although album rock stations have now become synonymous with playing the same 100 songs over and over again, at the time, the format was groundbreaking and would greatly influence radio and the music industry throughout the 1970s.
The Birth of CKSR (1968–1974)
In 1967, the University of Alberta began building a new Students' Union building, and when it was completed in 1968, the Radio Society moved its studio from University Hall into the new SUB. It was the only time in its history that CJSR's history occupied a space that was specifically designed, engineered, and wired for radio production. Second-hand equipment was donated by CFRN and CJCA, making things a bit more modern. These improvements marked a significant change for the Radio Society as the new equipment and expanded studio space would allow its members to produce a wider variety of programs.
Once the new studios were in operation, the Radio Society started growing in scope and confidence. Its members began to start pushing the outside of the envelope when it came to programming. Phone-line connections to the studio meant that live broadcasts could now be done almost anywhere on campus. Some of the more brazen Radio Society members liked showing off: during the University's annual Open House in February, day-long broadcasts from the top of SUB in -30°C weather were not uncommon.
Within a year of moving into its new headquarters, the Radio Society made an important decision and took the first real step toward becoming a radio station. A 100-Watt carrier current transmitter was installed on the top of SUB and broadcast a weak AM signal to the nearby University residences at Lister Hall as well as the Education, Engineering, General Services, and Tory Buildings. A carrier current signal uses existing power lines to transmit a radio signal and small transmitters inside a building can then broadcast that signal to any radio within a certain radius. Thus, as opposed to being restricted to the closed-circuit PA system employed until this time, the Radio Society's broadcasts were now going out over the airwaves for the first time.
The Canadian Radio and Television Commission (CRTC) rules were fairly strict that carrier currents couldn't broadcast outside of a certain range, lest the signal interfere with other radio stations. If you were broadcasting on the airwaves, you needed to have call letters. In 1970, the Radio Society made an application to the CRTC and became CKSR. The CK was from CKUA, and the SR stood for "student radio".
Another important chapter in the history of CJSR was written at this time: regular live coverage of University sporting events. Although coverage of campus sports had been done earlier on CKUA, it wasn't until the late 1960s that a sports department emerged at CKSR, providing commentators and live broadcasts from Golden Bears games at Varsity Field.
Although CJSR's reporting of University sports has since been greatly scaled back, throughout the 1970s and 1980s, it was an integral part of the station and its value to students at the University of Alberta. Many CJSR sports reporters including Cam Cole, Lisa Miller, Gene Principe, and John Sexsmith moved on to become well-known figures in Edmonton and Canadian sports media.
As more radical politics began to drift into university campuses, it was only natural that more politically-sensitive issues would be explored by CKSR. Those in the news department took their jobs seriously, often writing their own copy instead of relying on whatever came over the teletype.
During the FLQ Crisis of 1970, there were bitter arguments among CKSR’s news directors with respect to what political perspective their reportage should take. Things had definitely changed from the days of Shakespeare plays and "Campus Report".
Now that CKSR had emerged from the Radio Society, people involved with the station began to take the idea of going FM more seriously. Surely the thought of becoming an actual radio station must have been in the back of a few people's minds as the new studios were being built. While not state of the art, the equipment and facilities in Room 224 SUB had cost a lot of money and were meant for professional broadcasting endeavours. The seed for an FM station had definitely been planted, even if it would be more than a decade before it seriously took root.
Sparkle and Shutdown (1970–1974)
As mentioned earlier, the people involved with CKSR were becoming more daring with what they were putting on the airwaves. While the programming was certainly not too outrageous musically or politically, it was more adventurous than ever before. The staid blueprint that the Radio Society had followed throughout the 1950s and 60s was tossed out the window. In other words, the people at CKSR were having fun instead of worrying how professional they sounded. Slowly but surely, music moved to the forefront of CKSR's programming, supplanting the radio plays and current affairs programs.
When it came to music, the DJs at CKSR modeled their playlists after those of their CKUA counterparts at the time. British folk music and jazz were considered "alternative" music—although rather tame by today’s standards, at the time nobody else was playing this music on the radio, or at least not to the extent that CKSR and CKUA were. Once the hippie era came into vogue, more avant-garde music and early progressive rock began getting played on CKSR, sharing air time with jazz, folk, and blues. Ethnic music also started getting airplay as DJs discovered the wealth of music from around the world. The idea of CKSR's being an "alternative" radio station started to take shape among its staff and volunteers. The pride in playing music that other radio stations wouldn't touch became a focal point for everyone.
All was going well for CKSR until the station suddenly found itself in disarray in early 1974. An ill-fated attempt to turn CKSR into an FM station in 1970 had failed due to lack of resources—both physical and financial. A second attempt was made in February 1974, but the station was rejected by the CRTC.
In the wake of the rejection, much of the staff at CKSR quit. As if that wasn't bad enough, the Students Union faced a budget crisis that year, and since CKSR was completely funded by the SU at the time, the station found itself under the microscope. The future of CKSR suddenly looked grim: the expenses incurred during the application for an FM license were seen as extravagant and beyond what an SU-funded radio station should be doing. CKSR's musical programming was also seen as cause for concern, as the SU felt that campus news, sports broadcasts, and "communication between various student groups on campus" should be the station’s main focus. The SU's final verdict in April 1974 deemed CKSR expendable. As the school year ended, the doors to CKSR were locked and the station fell silent.
Rebirth, Change, And The Letter J (1976–1980)
Throughout 1975, CKSR laid idle, its equipment and music library gathering dust. Although the situation was discouraging, it wasn't hopeless; the SU had no plans to get rid of CKSR—only to put it into hibernation until enough money could be found to revive it. CKSR's Program Director Gordon Turtle became a persistent voice on campus to get the station back in action and others were determined to do the same.
In January 1976, the Students' Union approved a motion to allocate $9,000 to CKSR from a reserve fund. The money would allow for two paid positions: a General Manager and a Chief Programmer; the rest would be used for operational expenses. The station would have to remain under the watchful eye of the SU, whose mandate for CKSR was partly spelled out in a January 6, 1976 Gateway article, where SU members envisioned CKSR as a "student service" and vice-president Gene Borys stated that "music is secondary".
The survivors of the 1974 shutdown cheered the decision and quickly ran ads in the Gateway calling for volunteers. More than 100 people applied. After a month of house cleaning and attending to neglected equipment, CKSR was back on the air in February 1976.
As CKSR went back into action, the staff was confident but understandably cautious. CKSR found itself in the position of having to please the Students' Union as well as planning for the station's future, a situation that persisted for many years. Given that the station was back in operation due to the generosity of the SU, the plan to become an FM station was put on the shelf. The ambition was still there, but it would have to wait for the right time.
In September 1976, CKSR took an important step toward its eventual goal of broadcasting to all of Edmonton when it started broadcasting on cable FM. This meant that CKSR would be accessible across campus, as well as to anyone in the city with cable TV and an FM radio adapter. The carrier current broadcasts had been previously scaled back in the early 1970s due to new CRTC restrictions, but cable FM had no such restrictions. Eventually, CKSR was connected to almost every building on campus.
By the late 1970s, both CKSR and modern music were due for a drastic change. After years of sophisticated music from bell-bottomed rock stars with extravagant lifestyles, along came punk rock, a raucous "up yours" to modern pop music. While the claim that punk changed modern music forever can be debated, there is no doubt that it changed campus radio forever. As the lines were drawn between what commercial radio would and would not play, commercial radio's loss was campus radio’s gain.
At the time, much of CKSR's playlists were oddly conservative. While jazz and folk were still mainstays, a good deal of CKSR's programming day consisted of mainstream rock such as the Doobie Brothers and Bruce Springsteen. There were no real restrictions on what DJs could play, and so it mostly came down to personal choice. While many played Top 40 fare, others were much more esoteric. It made for a somewhat schizophrenic atmosphere at the station, and the emergence of punk rock certainly stirred the pot.
Punk pioneers like the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, and The Clash were just starting to be noticed by the hipsters at CKSR in 1977. When the first Sex Pistols album, Never Mind The Bollocks Here's The Sex Pistols, arrived at the station, it was as if a bomb had been delivered. The album caused so much controversy that some of the staff threatened to quit if it was played on the air. It was, but nobody followed through on the initial threats. Punk rock—and the musical and political ideas it embodied—had arrived at CKSR. Eventually, the clashes between the station's Dead heads, jazzbos, and punks resolved themselves, although it would still be several years before the likes of Rod Stewart and the Eagles would disappear from CKSR playlists.
In 1978, CKSR found itself faced with an unexpected dilemma, one that would alter its identity for good. A TV station in Chilliwack, British Columbia was starting an FM station, and, for some reason, wanted the CKSR call letters. As CKSR was still considered a "small potatoes" station at the time by the CRTC, it was told that it would have to change its call letters. The staff was none too pleased but didn’t have a choice. CKSR staff reasoned that "J" sounded just like "K", so CKSR became CJSR.
The Quest for FM (1980–1981)
CJSR had failed in two previous attempts in 1970 and 1974 to become an FM station. As the decade changed, the ambition to go FM was rekindled. Still mindful of the 1974 shutdown, the staff at CJSR realized that if there were going to be a future for the station—on FM or otherwise—internal fundraising was going to be a necessity. In 1980, The Friends of CJSR, a non-profit society registered with the Alberta government which could hold concerts and other events and channel the proceeds back into CJSR, was formed. Not only did the Friends of CJSR mark an important development in the station's self-governance, it gave CJSR some much-needed financial leverage with the Students' Union.
In the winter of 1980, a small group of staff and volunteers who had been with the station since the mid-1970s decided to take on the challenge of finding out what it would take for CJSR to finally become an FM station. A weekend retreat was held in Innisfail. Two CJSR stalwarts, Steve Cumming and Gary McGowan, emerged as the people to spearhead the endeavour.
McGowan approached the Students' Union and proposed a feasibility study for CJSR's FM plans. The SU bankrolled a fact-finding mission that saw McGowan and another long-time CJSR volunteer, Randy Talbot, visiting campus radio stations across Canada. Their operational successes and failures were taken into account when considering CJSR's ambitions. McGowan and Talbot returned to Edmonton and submitted a report. The SU reached the conclusion that an FM station on campus was a viable proposal. However, CJSR management and the SU quickly came to the conclusion that the SU did not require the financial resources to underwrite such a project. CJSR would need the support of the University of Alberta.
In January 1981, station director Steve Cumming put together a passionate and detailed proposal for the University. It outlined several key points for the University to consider.
The proposal first addressed how an FM radio station on campus would benefit the University of Alberta. It pointed out that the University was "frequently saddled with an image of a staid 'ivory tower', remote from the needs and concerns of the community". University radio, composed of student and faculty programmers, could dispel this myth. Cumming argued that, when its size and economic strength were considered, the University community was under-represented in Edmonton; he surmised that an FM station based at the University "could have a profound impact on the community's perception of the University". All things considered, a University FM station would ultimately be the most cost-effective way to take the University of Alberta off campus and into the community.
The second key point in the proposal concerned programming. Cumming was frank when he stated: "Although the programming we presently prepare is not insubstantial, it is far from what we would like and what it would have to be in an FM environment." CJSR would have its work cut out with respect to expanding and improving on its programming, should it make the move to FM. The proposal outlined CJSR's current music, spoken word, sport, and "magazine" programming and suggested many options for new programs dealing with University activities.
The final point in the proposal came down to the proverbial brass tacks: money. The total cost of going FM would end up being more than $200,000. Although those costs were high, they were mainly for one-time only expenses such as a transmitter and improved equipment for the studios and the on-air booth. Cumming argued that the University was spending more than that every year on various kinds of public relations projects: the money involved in CJSR's proposal wasn't as excessive as it might seem at first glance. It was also estimated that the station would start to show a profit from advertising and production revenues once it became fully operational.
The proposal also outlined the formation of a new Board of Directors for the station. As a matter of policy, the CRTC does not issue radio licenses to academic organizations or students' unions: it would be necessary for CJSR to form an organization—off handedly referred to as "CJSR Inc." in the proposal—which would be legally and financially responsible for the new FM station.
The proposal raised a number of questions from the University. In March, Cumming submitted a second proposal addressing these questions and providing more detailed information on the material involved—both physical and bureaucratic. The proposal went before the powers that be and Cumming and the rest of the gang at CJSR held their breath for a couple of weeks.
At the end of March 1981, the University of Alberta gave CJSR the green light to become an FM station. It would be another three years before CJSR made its debut on Edmonton's FM dial.
Hard Work and Dodging Bullets (1981–1984)
As the wheels were set in motion for the transition to FM, it became apparent that it was not going to be easy.
The University approved the FM plan in March 1981 but did so only in principle and offered no financial commitment. In fact, it simply provided an approval for CJSR's plans, nothing more. It would be up to CJSR to raise the $200,000 necessary to make the transition to FM. CJSR still had to make its FM sales pitch to an even more demanding overlord, the CRTC. Besides that difficult task, the station still had to survive on an annual basis and that was becoming difficult as operational expenses mounted. Clashes between CJSR and the Students’ Union became inevitable.
Friction between CJSR and various incarnations of the SU were always cause for concern. Naturally, CJSR felt it was providing a vital service to the University of Alberta and to the community; it felt the SU should realize this and keep providing financial support for the station. The SU's position was understandable: it had to look after the wider concerns of the entire university, dealing fairly with all campus organizations; CJSR was just one of many. There was usually a mix of pro- and anti-CJSR members in the SU in any given year, and the station staff kept their fingers crossed that each year, a "CJSR-friendly" council would be elected. Certainly that was not always the case.
In 1982, CJSR was shocked to discover that its SU funding had been cut to zero. CJSR staff made a last minute appeal at a council meeting, and it was only due to a fan of CJSR's sitting on the council at the time that the budget was amended. The SU's support was half of what the station needed, but clearly, it was better than nothing. Without it, CJSR would have been forced to close its doors. For those who had been involved with the station for a long time, it was shades of the 1974 closure all over again.
As it crept towards FM, CJSR learned the golden rule: "he who has the gold rules". The Friends Of CJSR held many fundraisers and profits from working bingos and casinos became an important source of revenue. Private donations from individuals and corporations began to trickle in. Some lucrative University grants were acquired and the Alberta government matched some of the corporate donations. Little by little, CJSR's piggy bank was getting larger.
However, the years just before the transition to FM were not completely overshadowed by money worries. New ambitions and opportunities presented themselves. In April 1981, the station began its own magazine, Airtight. Long before Edmonton had any kind of independent or alternative press, Airtight featured interviews with musicians and passionate editorials on music and acted as a low-key propaganda piece for CJSR. From the April 1982 issue:
…Over the past few months, we have tried to impress upon you the importance of the fact that CJSR is alternative radio. Happily we have recently been provided with a graphic example of just what this means. The programming services which control the content of most of North America's commercial radio stations’ playlists have decided that The Clash's latest EP, Radio Clash, is "unsuitable" for commercial airplay. This means that the latest release by [The Clash] is aired in Edmonton only on CJSR! While some critics have panned Radio Clash, we believe you deserve the chance to decide for yourself. That, ladies and gentlemen, is what alternative radio is all about.
Although CJSR was trying to assert itself as an alternative station, it clearly had some way to go. A look at CJSR's program schedule in Airtight from the early 1980s is quite revealing. While the 9 am to 11 am space on weekdays was occupied by folk and "roots" programming and 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. was strictly jazz, in 1982, the noon to 2 p.m. block was set aside for "mainstream rock". Browsing the content of early Airtight issues also reveals the somewhat split personality of CJSR in the early 1980s. For example, the August 1982 edition features a cover story on The Clash as well as an interview with Roger Taylor from Duran Duran and a review of the latest Elton John album!
Airtight also had a strategic modus operandi: to raise the profile of CJSR across Edmonton. Before the move to FM, if people couldn’t hear CJSR, they could at least read about it.
By 1983, things were finally looking good for CJSR. Thanks to a couple of years of hard work, intensive fund raising, shoestring budgets, and dodging bullets, the station was ready to make the transition to FM. Paperwork had been filed, government licenses acquired, and a proposal had been submitted to the CRTC. CJSR had also created a board of directors, the First Alberta Campus Radio Association, or FACRA. FACRA would be the FM licensee and would also be legally and financially responsible for CJSR in the future.
In the summer of 1983, CJSR got the word from the CRTC that its FM license had been approved. Edmonton would have a new radio station. CJSR was assigned the 88.5 frequency—as far left as you can get on the FM dial. This would become an unofficial slogan for the station in years to come.
In December 1983, the necessary upgrades to CJSR's equipment had been completed, and a transmitter was erected on the top of the Students' Union Building. It would put out a rather unimpressive 44-Watt signal, but it was enough to put CJSR on the air.
Radio for the Adventurous (1984–1990)
The very first FM broadcast took place on Saturday, January 7, 1984. Steve Cumming was given the honour of being the host. Cumming had left CJSR the previous year to pursue graduate work at Simon Fraser University but decided to extend his Christmas vacation in Edmonton for a few days to accept the invitation to do the first broadcast. He chose Joni Mitchell's "You Turn Me On, I'm A Radio" as the first tune to grace the airwaves at 88.5 FM. That afternoon, the station was filled with long-time volunteers, staff, and supporters, all justifiably proud to be on hand for CJSR's debut on Edmonton's FM dial.
Edmonton's radio landscape was not drastically different in 1984 from what it is today. 630 CHED and K-97 (now K-Rock) were the pop/rock stations; K-LITE was pop with a mix of syndicated programs; CISN, CFCW and CJAX (now Joe FM) were Edmonton's country triumvirate; CFRN, CJCA, and CHQT were the stations that your mom and dad listened to; and CBC and CKUA offered Edmontonians the only other choices to commercial radio. Fast forward 20 years, and Edmonton still has two big pop/rock stations, a few country choices, stations that your mom and dad still listen to, and a station that plays the same 100 songs over and over again. A slightly more vibrant CBC and CKUA still provide alternatives to commercial radio.
Despite an ill-considered marketing slogan from a commercial station that had changed formats in 2002, CJSR is and has always been Edmonton's alternative radio station since its FM debut in 1984.
The term "alternative music" didn't start being used until the early 1980s to describe the types of music that provided an alternative to commercial pop. As punk turned into the new wave and labels for music started becoming rather arbitrary, the programmers at CJSR decided to use a word that has stayed with the station ever since: eclectic. The dictionary definition of eclectic is "made up of or combining elements from a variety of sources". The DJs at CJSR often took this too literally and ended up with messy playlists. Sets that included a jazz tune followed by metal and then folk fit the definition of eclectic but gave listeners a headache. It thus became a challenge to adhere to the eclectic mandate and make it sound professional and enjoyable. It wasn't long before a lively debate ensued between program directors and DJs who often disagreed on what the station should and shouldn’t be playing.
Several DJs argued that CJSR should be playing "not necessarily the hits, but not necessarily no hits either". The more hardcore alternative types took the complete opposite stance. They insisted that if and when a certain artist started being heard on commercial radio (often thanks to the exposure they got on campus radio, ironically) their music should be dropped from CJSR's playlists.
For instance, Bruce Springsteen was a mainstay on CJSR for many years and when his 1984 album Born In The USA spawned several hit singles, Springsteen's music quickly disappeared from CJSR. To some at the station, it seemed like a kind of left-wing censorship: why weren't DJs allowed to play whatever they wanted? If by chance a few of their selections were also being heard on commercial radio, so what? More than one DJ found himself in hot water from CJSR program directors if he strayed from the mandate. On a more pragmatic level, however, CJSR couldn't play the music that commercial radio stations were playing.
Part of CJSR's application to the CRTC included a Promise of Performance. Because it was a campus/community radio station, CJSR was duty bound to play music that provided an alternative to commercial programming and "challenged the status quo". A certain amount of commercial music was allowed in the Promise of Performance, but it was definitely in the minority. Besides the Promise of Performance obligations, battle lines were being drawn when it came to music in the 1980s. A compromise was reached when DJs were allowed to play the non-hit tracks from albums that were in the charts. By the mid-1980s, however, mainstream rock—and the DJs who played it—had been completely phased out of CJSR's programming. While some might argue that this was elitist, it was also practical and understandable given CJSR's mandate. If you didn't hear "Holiday In Cambodia" on CHED, there was no reason to hear "Walking On Sunshine" on CJSR.
Now that CJSR was an FM station, more of an effort was made to reach out to the wider community. The station wanted to break out of the stereotype of a campus radio station—that of crazy college kids' playing crazy music and doing whatever they wanted to do—and to establish more concrete ties to the community it was serving. One of the most important aspects of CJSR's programming in this respect was its ethnic shows. While not the first broadcaster in Edmonton to have foreign language programming, CJSR was an early groundbreaker in this respect. In 1981, shows such as "The Polish Program" and "Ukrainian Hour" took the first steps. Throughout the 1980s, CJSR featured a variety of programs dedicated to certain countries, their music, and their current affairs. "Voz De Portugal", "Polish Showcase", "African Hour", "Chinese Connection", "Voice Of The Philippines", "Espańa Es Diferente" and others not only stood out as well-produced radio, but they were also a way of connecting with Edmonton's rich and diverse ethnic community.
Another important legacy that CJSR has brought to Edmonton's airwaves is its alternative news programming. Over the years, the station has not been afraid to present shows that contain radically different content from the mainstream media. The earliest and perhaps most unusual was "Soviet Viewpoint", heard on Sunday mornings in 1982. Given that the Cold War was still very much a reality in the early 1980s, for CJSR to broadcast a Soviet program was a bold move. The same can be said of the "Voice Of Chile", "Uncle Sam's Backyard", and "Central America: Breaking The Silence" programs that shed light on the tragic, American-fuelled conflicts that plagued Central and South America throughout the 1980s. "Probe" was another important news program on CJSR that featured "Scope", the United Nations' radio magazine as well as other segments focused on native issues, European news, and in-depth interviews with news makers. Environmental issues were discussed on "Terradox", a show originally hosted by the late Tooker Gomberg. "The Witching Hour" was CJSR's first feminist program, laying down the groundwork for subsequent feminist programs such as "Womanwave" and "Adamant Eve". Certainly CJSR was a pioneer in giving gays and lesbians a voice on Edmonton radio with "Gaywire", which debuted in 1988 complete with a weekly gay soap opera segment, "Lavender Towers".
Of course, CJSR broke a lot of ground with the music that it played in the 1980s. The independent music scene was flourishing, and as CJSR continued to draw its "battle lines", indie music became a mainstay on the station's playlists. Legendary bands like Camper Van Beethoven, Husker Du, the Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, The Gruesomes, Skinny Puppy, The Smiths, The The, Violent Femmes, and Cabaret Voltaire regularly appeared in CJSR's Top 10, based on a combination of programmer preference and listener requests.
Just as important was Edmonton's home-grown talent: SNFU, Jr. Gone Wild, Jerry Jerry And The Sons Of Rhythm Orchestra, Euthanasia, Idyl Tea, kd lang, and NEO-A4 were all a vital part of the CJSR mutual appreciation society. As the local music scene took off in the mid 1980s, all of the bands that had released a single or an LP or who could hammer out a demo cassette got enthusiastic airplay on CJSR. To be completely fair, K97 played and promoted a fair amount of local talent during the 1980s, but clearly it was CJSR who was head and shoulders above anyone else in this respect.
Before the days of being able to download anything you wanted to hear, CJSR was a way for people to tune into a world of music and information that must have seemed like it came from another planet at times. More and more high-school kids were tuning into the station during the 1980s and hearing wild alternatives to the pedestrian pop music heard everywhere else. At some point in any person's adolescence, one arrives at a point where he either simply conforms to the norm or decides to start doing things differently. For a lot of teenagers in the 1980s, CJSR was the soundtrack as they took that fork in the road and went down the path less traveled. In many cases, listening and volunteering at CJSR introduced a lot of young people to radically different ways of thinking as well as to community activism and, generally speaking, giving a damn.
The perpetual problem for CJSR was always money. Now that the station had gone FM, the momentum needed to continue. After some deliberation, CJSR decided to hold a fund drive for the first time in 1985. Some felt a bit sheepish about asking listeners for donations but clearly it was one of the best ways to earn money for the station. Airtight ran several editorials explaining the reasoning behind the fund drive, and the writers are charming in their almost apologetic tone. The 1985 fund drive broke the ice, raising more than $6,000 and ever since, CJSR's annual fund drive has been perhaps the most entertaining week of programming you will hear throughout the year. By the end of the decade, CJSR's budgets became much less shoestring as an important referendum at the University of Alberta tipped the scale in CJSR's favour.
In 1989, the Students' Union held a student referendum on the question of dedicated fees for CJSR. As CJSR and other campus organizations' budgets grew, the SU realized that it could no longer keep on bankrolling them. It was therefore proposed that a small increase in students' tuition—known as a dedicated fee—would go towards major campus organizations such CJSR, the Gateway, and Student Legal Services. The motion was passed. This was a very important event for CJSR: the dedicated fees would provide a steady source of revenue for the station.
The main focus of the 1989 fund drive was to increase the power of CJSR's transmitter. The station had already raised most of the money needed to upgrade its transmitter but it needed $15,000 to swing the deal. The fund drive easily surpassed that amount: CJSR decided to go beyond the 500 Watts it had originally sought and opt for 900 Watts. Iit wasn't until April 1992 that the transmitter upgrade actually took place. The transmitter was moved from the roof of SUB and onto the top of the Tory Building, the highest spot on the University campus.
Airtight went through various incarnations for the rest of the 1980s, eventually becoming an insert in the Gateway in 1989-1990 before fading away. It was missed by some, but the expense and effort involved in creating a new issue every month eventually spelled its demise.
More Power, More Confidence, More Alternative (1990–1999)
Throughout the 1990s, CJSR worked hard to make itself more visible in the community. If the 1980s were CJSR's childhood, complete with some growing pains and youthful irresponsibility, the 1990s marked the station's true coming of age.
By the early 1990s, FM radio was changing again. Large media corporations were buying out radio stations all across Canada and the United States. While stations held onto a token amount of regional personality, for the most part, their playlists and broadcasting styles became fairly uniform. A rock station in Edmonton could sound just like their sister station in Calgary or Toronto. DJs—once able to choose whatever music they wanted to play—simply became the voices between commercials and music programmed by someone else. More and more, commercial FM radio became shades of the same colour.
The start of the new decade was marred by some internal difficulty at CJSR. Within a couple of years, it had led to another crisis situation. Not for the first time and not for the last time, the station found itself almost broke and wondering whether it would once again have to shut its doors.
The details behind the trouble are still contentious, but they can be summed up briefly. A station manager was hired in 1990 and over time, he was running CJSR as if it was his own private radio station. He was rather commercially minded and intended to move CJSR more into the mainstream. His hope was to create some programs that had the potential to be syndicated, but their rather commercial content was at odds with CJSR's alternative approach. His management style was too harsh and irrational for most of the staff to handle, and before long, he had alienated most of them. Morale and team spirit at the station started to falter. With some cronies sitting on the FACRA board, he was able to give himself regular raises and enact other troublesome policies. He had also managed to get some well-chosen friends hired so that staff debate over certain issues would usually work out in his favour. It’s even alleged that through insidious bookkeeping, he was able to channel station money into his own bank accounts. All in all, he was a rather disagreeable station manager.
By 1992 the situation had come to a boiling point, but with a new board of FACRA directors' being elected that year, change was coming. Once the new board took office, it began to investigate exactly what was happening at CJSR. Once the station manager's impudence and its negative effect on staff and volunteers was fully realized, it was clear that drastic times called for drastic measures. FACRA laid off all of CJSR's staff and started again from scratch. In order to prevent a similar situation—one in which one person had too much control over the station—the position of Station Manager was split into two: Program Manager and administration manager. The former would be responsible for the station's overall sound and for dealing with volunteers and the latter would be in charge of accounting and clerical duties. FACRA was also dismayed to discover that the station was almost broke, due in no small part to the former station manager's improprieties. The 1992 fund drive brought some much needed relief and got the station back on its feet.
By the early 1990s, most of the "old guard"—people who had been with the station since 1984—had moved on. Many went on to work at the CBC; others graduated from the University of Alberta; and others simply went on with their lives. New faces at the station began to leave their marks. One of these was Christine Chomiak, hired by FACRA as Program Manager in April 1992 in the wake of the chaos that had done so much damage to the station. Chomiak had been volunteering with CJSR since 1986 and later joined the staff as receptionist and then as Music Director. As Program Manager, she was faced with the tough task of overhauling the station after two of years of bad management, and she had to restore confidence and morale among staff and volunteers. Chomiak had some tough choices to make but eventually CJSR was back on track.
Along with the new 900-Watt transmitter, CJSR also started to re-equip its on-air and production studios with more modern digital equipment. CDs had recently supplanted vinyl. Thus, alongside the trusty Technics turntables, a trio of Denon CD players were installed. Both recording studios also got new equipment which was welcomed by staff and production volunteers. Money from the fund drive and some lucrative casino and bingo revenues helped pay for everything.
Two new additions to CJSR's bag of tricks came in 1993. First, the station started broadcasting 24 hours a day as opposed to signing off between 3 a.m. and 7 a.m. Second, CJSR negotiated a live feed from the BBC World Service, a unique addition to the station's news programming. At the time, CJSR was the only radio station in Alberta to carry the BBC feed.
In the winter of 1996, CJSR moved from its 28-year old home on the second floor of SUB into the basement in Room 009, a space previously occupied by the CIBC. Although the station was happy to have a new location, the space was much smaller than the previous one and not exactly conducive to the logistics of a radio station. Engineers Ray Semenoff and Lori Gawryluik worked hard to ensure that CJSR's new digs would work properly. Despite its basement address, the new location also made the station more accessible to volunteers and visitors.
In 1997, Daryl Richel replaced Christine Chomiak as CJSR's Program Manager. Previously the News Director at the station, Richel had started with the station shortly after its move to FM in 1984. Richel started to make some changes with respect to volunteer management and also started to introduce a new level of professionalism at CJSR. Previously, new volunteers at CJSR often had informal training before they went on the air. Under Richel's guidance, however, new volunteers were now subject to a detailed training regimen where they could learn any and all aspects of volunteering at CJSR. Once they had proved themselves, volunteers could then take the next step and get behind the microphone. One result of the new regimen was that more people were interested in working behind the scenes at the station. With the advent of digital technology, it was also easier for volunteers to become skilled with studio production as painstaking reel-to-reel tape editing with a razor blade was replaced with a few mouse clicks.
If part of CJSR's mandate is to give a voice to the voiceless, that point is best illustrated by the station's most unique and daring program, "Youth Menace". "Youth Menace" made its debut in the summer of 1998. Mark Cherrington, a Youth Court worker, approached CJSR with the idea of a young offenders' radio program in which young people in trouble with the law would work off their community service by producing radio programs instead of something more menial. Produced by Cherrington and Christine Jairamsingh, "Youth Menace" deals with a variety of topics relevant to youth who are either on the street, dealing with abuse, or going through the child justice or child welfare systems. Kids are in charge of researching and producing a piece which then becomes the focal point for a particular episode. The program is live, uncensored, and very spontaneous. A lot of kids have been able to overcome tremendous odds—sexual and physical abuse, drug addiction, crimes ranging from armed robbery to homicide—and have been able to turn their lives around thanks in part to their work on "Youth Menace".
Over the years, Cherrington and his colleagues have been able to prove their critics wrong by keeping the attitude on "Youth Menace" positive and respectful. No doubt the laid back attitude of CJSR staff and volunteers when a small troop of young criminals visits the station once a week must be a welcome change to these youngsters. The program has been recognized by no less than the United Nations: it was a finalist in the UNESCO Children's Radio Competition in 2001. "Youth Menace" has been re-broadcast in Australia, the Netherlands, the US, and all across Canada. In 2004, it won the Royal Commonwealth Award for outstanding youth program. Despite all of "Youth Menace"'s success, however, there are some disturbing details behind the show: out of the 150 guests over the years, 16 have died either by their own hand, from drug overdoses, or as murder victims. Tragically, one of the two girls who created the idea for the show took her own life in April 2004.
1999 saw the launch of another modern component for CJSR, a website at www.cjsr.com. Featuring a snazzy design by long-time volunteer Gabino Travassos, the site soon became an online counterpart to CJSR's radio fare.
A Larger Slingshot (2000–2004)
CJSR is currently on solid ground, thanks to its dedicated, hard-working staff and committed base of volunteers. However, recent events show that a non-profit organization like CJSR is still vulnerable.
In the spring of 2001, due to unfortunate clerical oversights and poor business planning, CJSR found itself in dire straits once again. A series of innocent but tragic mistakes that had occurred in previous years and simmered in the background suddenly began to boil over. Too much money had been spent in certain areas, and some important tasks had been neglected. The station's financial records had become a tangle of numbers scattered across multiple bank accounts. The station was close to bankruptcy. Tension among FACRA members and staff ran high as confusion and panic set in about the future of the station.
To make matters worse, the 2001 board of directors was mostly composed of volunteers who had never served on FACRA before and who were therefore inexperienced in crisis management. The only person with any real grasp on the situation was CJSR's newly hired Administration Manager, Charlotte Bourne. She faced the daunting task of having to solve both the financial and clerical confusion of the past and of taking care of CJSR in the present. Showing unprecedented determination, Bourne eventually got the upper hand in the battle and coached FACRA through the chaos.
However, the station's immediate problems could only be solved by a serious injection of cash. The Students' Union quietly and generously kept CJSR afloat with a loan until the station's annual fund drive in September could deliver it from the lion's den. At one point, FACRA and CJSR staff seriously considered pulling the station off the air for a one-week period in order to seriously address the crisis. The plan was abandoned, however, and everyone held tight. Corners were cut, and staff and volunteers pulled together to execute CJSR's most successful fund drive to that point. More than $100,000 were raised and CJSR was out of danger.
Determined not to let the past repeat itself, FACRA embarked on some drastic changes to the station's structure. The long-standing Friends of CJSR society had become unworkable and its members apathetic. Friends was dissolved and incorporated into FACRA. FACRA's membership was brought up to government standards, and an active campaign to recruit more professionals from the general public was announced. A new board was elected at the 2002 Annual General Meeting, and with CJSR now on solid ground thanks to the 2001 fund drive, FACRA set about learning how to properly govern the station. Workshops with the Alberta government's Board Development Program taught FACRA some valuable lessons and revealed new and better ways to run the organization. Within a year, FACRA was more organized and savvy than ever before.
As CJSR turned 18 in 2002, many at the station began to realize that mainstream radio was paying a lot more attention to CJSR. Both CKUA and the CBC approached CJSR about sharing some programming. Although some efforts came to fruition, for the most part, the venerable stations didn’t have that much to offer CJSR in return for re broadcasting some of its productions, and thus, the reply was "thanks but no thanks".
CJSR has retained its independent stance in many ways over the years and has taken a definite stand on important issues. Some have been quite innovative and militant: during the March 2002 US invasion of Iraq, two CJSR volunteers created a quick CD compilation of anti-war tunes consisting of MP3 downloads. CJSR DJs played selections from the CD for several months, and many voiced their own opinions on the Iraq war. It's hard to imagine any other radio station in Edmonton doing something like that. Bulletins from the BBC World Service were played every hour for the first few months of the war, a welcome alternative to corporate media's show-bizzy coverage.
Another hallmark of CJSR's substance over style is the number of important intellectuals who have been guests at the station in the past few years. While other radio stations get excited over the arrival of a minor movie star, hockey player, or Playboy centerfold, some of the great thinkers of our time have graced the studios of CJSR. Guests at the station (in person or via phone interviews) have included famous anti-war, anti corporate, and anti-globalization figures such as Noam Chomsky, Ralph Nader, Michael Moore, Amy Goodman, and Chuck D. CJSR was the only media outlet in Edmonton to provide any kind of coverage to these people when they visited Edmonton.
As new technology emerges, the face of radio is changing once again. With the advent of good quality streaming audio through the Internet and satellite radio’s becoming available to consumers, people have more listening choices than ever before. More and more people are realizing they now have a wide variety of listening options, and CJSR has become one of them. The CJSR website started to feature streaming audio in 2000 and has since gained a worldwide audience. It is not uncommon for CJSR DJs to get phone calls and emails from listeners in Vancouver, New York, Los Angeles; Melbourne, and Bath, England who are enjoying their shows via the Internet.
As CJSR celebrates its twentieth anniversary, a sense of pride and satisfaction among staff and volunteers is very tangible. Not only has the station survived over the years, but it has also thrived. The revenues from the station's annual fund drives have increased every year, showing that listeners are behind CJSR in a big way. Once it seemed as though CJSR were a kind of best-kept secret, known only to a small bunch of hipsters and musical eggheads; now the station’s profile in Edmonton is higher than it's ever been. For several years, CJSR has topped See Magazine's "Best Of Edmonton" poll for favourite radio station, beating out stations that probably spend more just on advertising than CJSR's entire annual budget.
All over Edmonton—in teenagers' bedrooms, car stereos, family living rooms, and office computers—CJSR is there. Twenty years have not diluted or changed CJSR's steadfast commitment to being Edmonton's true alternative radio station. Pop music for the most part has always been banal and disposable; critiquing it too much is a moot point. The more serious aspect of modern commercial radio—one deserving of criticism—is the shrinking number of companies that own it all. Less is definitely not more. Now more than ever, people have become used to slick, pre-packaged media and quick sound bites of news that are easy to swallow. As the world gets more complicated, people need to hear more opinions instead of just those of the powers that be. More voices from the community&mdsah;both local and global communities—need to be heard. "Big Media" isn't interested in that. As commercial radio and corporate media attempt to provide people with a glossed-over view of everything, CJSR stands out as the sand in the Vaseline, reminding its listeners that the world is still rough around the edges.
© 2004 CJSR FM. Reprinted with permission.