Arts and Culture

CiTR: Ruling Campus Airwaves for 75 Years

One DJ's look inside the UBC station that birthed Mint Records and Nardwuar, celebrating its 'Diamond Radioversary' this weekend.

By Maegan Thomas 17 Nov 2012 |

Maegan Thomas is CiTR's Arts Director and produces the Arts Report, Wednesdays at 5 p.m. She can be found near the cheese at arts events all around Vancouver.

In September 2010 I came to CiTR 101.9FM as advertising coordinator for the station's magazine, Discorder. I was in just a few hours each week. I needn't have come to the station to do the work, but I made the trek to the University of British Columbia's campus anyway. I was enthralled. People at the station knew about the latest good music, art, and politics -- and they didn't just know about it, but were curating and creating it and helping all comers to do the same.

So I stuck around long enough to become part-time staff. Though I never considered working in radio 'til then, I ended up on air after the Arts Director came in one day in search of a book reviewer. I tried to record my reviews in advance, but couldn't keep my foot out of my mouth. Time was running out before the show started. So like Bill O'Reilly, I did it live. From then on, I was hooked on airwaves. A jingle was commissioned, and more reviews and interviews came along: books, film, theatre, dance. I chatted with childhood hero Fred Penner.

And now I'm the Arts Director.

Maybe I bit off more than I could chew, but CiTR was always there for me as I struggled to understand the murky law and order of campus radio.

"There's a surprising amount of regulation, and we're impacted by copyright," says station manager Brenda Grunau. "It's crazy asking 100 volunteers to track every song they play every moment of the day. But campus and community radio is all about inclusion, experimentation and authenticity -- there's little fear about getting things wrong. It's all about throwing people on the airwaves."

At a place like this, "rank" is a flimsy concept, unless you count the on air booth in August... as recently as October, I discovered a sweaty, shirtless young man at the mic in "Studio A." (Oddly, editing booth "Studio C" is freezing at any time of the year.) College radio is a grimy, do-it-yourself place with a "lunatics running the asylum" vibe.

Zarah Cheng, current president of the student executive (the lunatics running things), compares it to a fantastical ranch.

"CiTR is a secret colony of unicorns that none of the horses know about. But once you join a unicorn colony, you don't really want to go back to the horses. It definitely took me a while to find the station when I first got to UBC but now, I can't imagine campus life without it. CiTR is definitely laid back (very typical West Coast), but everyone there is super passionate... people are always encouraging you to run with your ideas."

Cheng could also tell you about the "dragons in the student exec office," how the exec would be "the last survivors of the zombie apocalypse" or about the time Satan called her and told her she "should start playing more music instead of chatting all the time." These are not in-jokes; that's just how the people here talk.

CiTR is a hub of cultural development hidden away at UBC, where zombies, dragons and unicorns frolic freely in fields of discarded jewel cases, half eaten pizza and handy beers that only station members know where to find. Like Cheng, new students don't even know it's there, often wandering in late into their stint at UBC. One of the most familiar laments we hear is "I wish I'd found this place earlier," something we've been been trying to change lately. One thing's for sure: it would be hard to find a local, or even national, arts or music organization that doesn't have a CiTR alum in its roster.

After 75 years, one makes a few friends.

Pioneer radio

This Saturday CiTR will mark its 75th year as a radio organization. Way back in 1937, UBC students produced a series called "Varsity Time," and in 1938 UBC Radio was born. By 1940 "Varsity Time" and our chief announcer Pierre Berton had been snapped up by the CBC, cementing us as both a radio station for college students and a farm team for Vancouver reporting. In 1969, we were CYVR; by 1974 we were rechristened Thunderbird Radio: CiTR. And 30 years ago, we married FM as CiTR 101.9; Discorder, "that magazine from CiTR" was born soon after. It's the oldest music magazine in the city still in print, and is the only community station published magazine in Canada.

CiTR has always been a pioneer, risking new territory in that murky realm of copyright and common practice. We were one of the first in Canada to start podcasting our programs. The Discorder archives are replete with the breaking of new bands and the defiance of censorship. CiTR is also the home of Burli, a news editing system now used around the world; the technology was developed at the station. And we are very proud to be the birthplace of local indie powerhouse Mint Records.

With the help of staff, board and exec, station manager Brenda Grunau keeps the ship afloat, which is still seaworthy after three-quarters of a century. She's a programmer too, when she's not handling the grants, board meetings, governmental guidelines and all the other boring stuff that's life or death for an independent media organization. It's the spirit of the place that keeps her around.

"The amount of personality in this place is incredible," says Grunau. "I love being surrounded by music nerds every day. Thirty thousand CDs are sitting right next to my office; you soak up music just by being in the space. I love the amazing freshness of having brand new volunteers do their first radio show right after someone who's been on-air for 25 years, both sharing the music that they love."

Our music director Sarah Cordingly notes with trademark dryness that it's our "vague professionalism" that keeps volunteers at the station coming back. Personally, I've enjoyed the local celebs that stream through the station day-to-day -- though not nearly as much as I enjoy the soon-to-be celebs. And I definitely love a space where the common room is full of youth, wisdom, purpose and anarchy all at once.

President Cheng speaks to that: "CiTR is so lovably random and it's going to be hard to find another place after graduating where weird is the norm. No one really questions when dismembered, painted mannequins pop up in the lounge one day, or if George Stromboulopoulos or John K. Samson roll through. On the exec show, the Student Special, one day there will be a really amazing live performance or an interview, and another day there might be a three-minute discussion on how it's okay if you have a crush on Alan Rickman."    

After 75 years, it's not time to rest. We're in a tizzy building our digital library and perfecting our online listening app, though the classics are still in full effect: right now we're curating a local jukebox with classic 7''s, curating more live events than ever, and will soon be pressing the vinyl on the third volume of our Mint Records/CiTR compilation.

Ultimately, CiTR isn't just the station with the best music, or the station with staff who make bold statements about having the best music. We aren't just music nerds. We're art nerds, news nerds, tech nerds, political nerds... though maybe nerdy organizations don't have staff members quoted in the press recommending the best places to "get drunk and yell at the stage on a Tuesday night." (That's our music director again, talking about CiTR's battle of the bands, "Shindig.")

Whatever we are, once someone's here, we train 'em, unrestrain 'em and release them back into the wilds of the city like the feisty unicorns they've now become. You can meet these creatures tonight at our Diamond Radioversary. Come to Chapel Arts and hear acts like Lisa Marr (Cub), Carolyn Mark, Gang Signs, Fine Times, Culture Shock and Channels 3x4 (featuring our music director), plus some surprise guests. Happy Radioversary CiTR, here's to the next 75 years!  [Tyee]

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