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Canada Faces the Loss of Its First Public Broadcaster

The Edmonton radio station enjoys scads of public support but faces a financial ‘perfect storm.’

Ximena Gonzalez 21 May 2024The Tyee

Ximena González is a freelance writer and editor based in Calgary. Her work has appeared in the Globe and Mail and Jacobin.

On an unseasonably mild winter evening in February, Calgary writer Samantha Jones attended the final show of Block Heater, a four-day winter music festival, eager to bounce to the eclectic rhythm of Vieux Farka Touré’s and Dominique Fils-Aimé’s music, both of whom were performing that night at the Central United Church in downtown Calgary.

“She’s incredible,” Jones says about Fils-Aimé. “Her whole band was amazing. It was one of those rhythm, soul, folk performances that just filled the whole church.”

Moved by the experience, Jones instinctively texted her family, 5,000 kilometres away, on the East Coast and invited them to join in. Her mom did.

Jones’s mother wasn’t signing up to watch a haphazard livestream from Jones’s shaky smartphone. All the way from Kempt Shore, a rural community in Nova Scotia, she listened in via CKUA’s live broadcast.

“I thought that was really cool that I could connect with my family far away,” Jones says.

But by April 17, just two months after the show Jones attended, Marc Carnes, CKUA’s CEO, would be taking to social media to make a heart-wrenching plea.

“We must raise $3 million by Sept. 30,” he said. “Without it, CKUA’s cash reserves will be depleted, and we’ll be forced to shut down after 96 years serving Albertans and honorary Albertans.”

Founded in Edmonton in 1927, CKUA was Canada’s first public broadcaster. It was conceived to fulfil an educational mission but has since bloomed into a cultural beacon for Albertans.

Jones, who purchased her tickets to Block Heater after hearing about it on one of the station’s 33 shows, says the station does a good job of both playing Albertan musicians and connecting their programming to upcoming community events.

How funding gap ballooned

While outsiders might perceive Albertans as a homogeneous group of cowboy-hat-wearing conservatives, the actual population of Alberta is much more of a medley — East Coast writers, Manila-born techies, country-girls-turned-photographers born and raised in the Prairie province and more.

All these unlikely Alberta characters have one thing in common: they regularly listen to CKUA.

An older man with short white-blond hair and a light skin tone smiles at the camera. He is standing in a Calgary café.
J. Lindsay Hood, CKUA’s board chair, joined the board in 1997 after the Ralph Klein government privatized the station and it ran out of funds. Photo for The Tyee by Ximena Gonzalez.

In 2023, CKUA’s shows aired roughly 19,000 different artists across a broad range of genres, all hand-picked by the station’s announcers.

Attracted by the station’s unique cultural coverage, CKUA’s 475,000 monthly listeners tune in from all corners of the province, including rural communities such as Whitecourt and Spirit River, and from across the country.

The station and its announcers have become so beloved that last year alone 11,000 listeners contributed $3.5 million, roughly 60 per cent of the station’s revenue.

“We have an unbelievably loyal amount of monthly donors and semi-annual donors,” says J. Lindsay Hood, CKUA’s board chair.

However, rising costs are taking a toll.

In 2012, CKUA acquired $5.9 million in debt to purchase its headquarters at the iconic Alberta Hotel, in downtown Edmonton. This was manageable at the time, Hood says, but a decade later, the perfect storm hit.

After borrowing costs doubled in 2022, and the station lost its main tenant, who’d brought in about $450,000 in revenue, the board leaped into action, Hood explains, and started lobbying the federal and provincial governments to increase their funding. “But weeks ago, we hit the wall.”

So they pleaded to the station’s listeners for help — and 7,400 of them responded, raising a total of $1.67 million in two weeks.

“We were elated,” Hood says. “There was a sense of the importance of the station in the life of Albertans.”

Frank Litorco, a longtime listener, first tuned in to CKUA when he bought a stereo at 14. Over the years, the station has offered him a window into the vastness of world music.

“I started listening in 1984, when I was living in a small town called Gleichen,” he recalls. “The radio stations I could get at that point were the classic rock stations, country stations, the CBC and CKUA.”

“One thing I really respect about CKUA is the fact that they are community-operated,” Litorco says. “And how vital the community is to the station’s existence, as well as to the identity of Alberta itself.”

More support needed

Although the April funding drive was a success, CKUA still needs to raise an additional $2 million by Sept. 30 to cover its current deficit and service the station’s debt.

The good news is that this is not CKUA’s first rodeo — or board chair Hood’s. In 1997, the station shut down for five weeks, after Ralph Klein’s conservative government privatized it and funds ran out.

“It was a bit of an exciting, even contentious time,” Hood says. He joined the CKUA board then and participated in a series of fundraisers that eventually got the station back on air. “We raised a million dollars.”

CKUA’s board has been lobbying to raise an additional $12 million in government funding, but in the face of a negative response from the provincial and federal governments, on May 16 the station launched a campaign asking listeners to write to their MPs and MLAs to support the station.

“We want our fair share of financial support,” Hood told The Tyee in a follow-up email. “We require ongoing provincial support, and from the federal government. Currently we receive $57,000 provincially, and even less federally, on our budget of between $8 and $9 million.”

In his view, this ask isn’t far-fetched, as the station plays an essential role in sustaining the long-term success of Calgary’s Arts Commons transformation and expansion project, which received $160 million in government funding.

“We are the voice of music, arts and culture in Alberta, and the incubator for local and Canadian artists,” Hood says.

“The new seats and building in Arts Commons require the artists we support in order to fill those seats. Without CKUA, our cultural landscape is severely diminished.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Alberta, Media

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