by Victoria King, photo from the CKUW archives, circa mid-80s.
More often than not, we’re mistaken for a secret study space. People wander up our flamboyant yellow stairs, hoping to find repose and peace amidst a sea of textbooks and cell phones. Instead they stumble upon a den of music geeks, activists, anarchists, journalist-types, etc. There are posters on the walls, stickers attached to almost every surface, and odd pieces of nostalgia that have been propped up on bookshelves and cabinets (see the Hillary Clinton nutcracker above Program Director Robin Eriksson’s desk, for one example). This attic-like sanctum is home to CKUW, 95.9 FM; that campus-community beast on your radio dial, smack-dab in the heart of downtown Winnipeg.
CKUW began in 1963 as a radio club that existed only in closed-circuit format until 1999. Current station manager Rob Schmidt arrived at CKUW in 1996, and recalls that, “some people were putting all this energy into just three speakers,” and doing full-blown radio shows.
The station’s first home was in the Bulman Centre, where many records were played (sometimes backwards) and many cigarettes were smoked. As Ted Turner, CKUW’s Outreach and Sponsorship Coordinator recalls, the pre-FM CKUW was, “a hideout from the world in the basement.” Ted stumbled through CKUW’s doors in his first year of university, having heard about the station as a teen. He says he knew immediately that this place would be an important and pivotal part of his life as, “it gave me a place to belong on campus.”
For many (if not all) of CKUW’s volunteers, that’s a common response. “People learn incredible skills while doing radio – maybe they come in and they’re shy, or maybe they have a fear of public speaking . . . radio helps them learn to do these things, and improve themselves and their community,” attests Manager Schmidt. “We’re not just here to feed people’s egos and play music, we’re here to improve the community and the people in our community.”
This year, CKUW celebrates 50 years of radio in the downtown area. To mark this occasion, we hosted the National Campus Community Radio Conference and welcomed campus/community stations from across the country to participate in several days’ worth of workshops and events. There’s also the Lieutenant Governor’s reception for the station in September, in recognition of the contribution of our many former volunteers. Moreover, whispers are flying around about birthday party-like celebrations . . . stay tuned for more details!
There’s definitely a gap in CKUW’s history though, particularly between the mid 60s to early 80s, where it’s damn near impossible to find records of volunteers, programs, activities, etc. We can probably safely assume that CKUW was the radical & righteous soundtrack as girls marched outside and burned their bras, or as a T-Bird inspired crew snuck out the Ellice doors for a quick drag, never to return to class again.
Those are only assumptions though. That gap in CKUW’s history has a “romantic ghost-like reputation,” says Turner. Apparently there were jackets made, with the slogan “Downtown Underground” emblazoned on them. Unfortunately, like so many other pieces of our history, these have disappeared and been forgotten over time.
“We’re looking for memories of the station,” explains Schmidt. “Maybe you dated someone who use to DJ here, maybe you sat on the couch, maybe you heard stuff for the first time on CKUW, like R.E.M. or the Sex Pistols . . . At that time, you only would have heard that on closed circuit [stations] because they wouldn’t play it on the mainstream.”
This station – a refuge for the alternative – doesn’t always get the credit it deserves. While she’s no beauty queen, CKUW has trained thousands of citizen broadcasters and has been serving up a healthy dose of controlled community radio chaos for 50 years. We’d love to get the whole story.
If you want to get back in touch, or have photos, charts, programs, set lists, pre-90’s memorabilia, send them our way – we’re happy for anything. You should e-mail Rob at [email protected].