by Chris Bryson and Daniel Emberg
Even in the heyday of print publications, 30 years was a long time. For a small budget, locally focused music publication, 30 years is worth celebrating. Stylus has now made it over that hump, continuing to bring locally relevant music news and serving as the physical program guide for CKUW 95.9 FM, which is also our current publisher. Over the early summer, a couple of volunteers sat down with over a dozen past and present Stylus editors and staff members, whose experiences span from the first edition to the one in your hands. There was far more said than could possibly fit within these covers, so this is not intended to be comprehensive.
Karla Hilton was the very first editor of Stylus magazine from 1989 to 1990. This was pre-internet, and Hilton says it was a time when zines were becoming a really big thing, popping up all over the country.
“It seemed like, at least in Winnipeg, there was a pretty vibrant music scene but not a lot of focus on the musicians and the music,” explains Hilton. “So Stylus was a way to capture sort of, a) what was going on in the media landscape, which was this zine culture; and b) tap into what already existed, which was a pretty vibrant, pretty connected music community.”
Hilton had a CKUW radio show before being editor of Stylus, which she then left for the same role with the Uniter. She eventually left Winnipeg to do her master’s in journalism at Carleton, and then worked at the CBC for 23 years as a radio producer and radio reporter before leaving in 2018. In talking about her experiences with Stylus and the Uniter, Hilton says that they helped solidify her commitment to want to do journalism and show how such a decision could be put into motion.
Ted Turner’s name has been around the University of Winnipeg’s media world since 1990, and on the Stylus masthead for many of those years. He points to Stylus as a key factor in getting the community to pay more attention to CKUW, which existed at the time as a closed-circuit station heard in just a few rooms on campus. Further, he points a decision by the station’s then-manager (Chris Jacques) as crucial to keeping Stylus alive.
The budget was dry in 1990, and Turner credits Jacques with a stroke of genius in keeping it viable. “He found enough money for one page of newsprint that folded out,” even making it cheeky to boot. “It was right when university policy on smoking had changed. The space in Lockhart they call the Hive was one of the few places you could still smoke, plus it was one of the few spaces where you could hear CKUW. So Chris, on the cover, put like, a no smoking sign and a note thanking the university for increasing our listenership.”
By the next fall, Turner was managing CKUW and approached Bartley Kives about taking on Stylus with the goal of making it a standalone magazine. Turner looks back on this as a crucial moment that helped the magazine really start to look more sustainable.
“Someone like Bart was a gift, with his talent, tenacity and resourcefulness,” says Turner, “He really dove in and gave it all he had. There was a lot of generosity from Bart too, in terms of finding resources to do it. If we didn’t have computer equipment, can we borrow some?”
Approaching 30 years in the media business, Kives points to his time with Stylus as one of valuable experience and much learning, but certainly one with growing pains.
“When I was involved, it was very student papery, lots of in-jokes and trash talk.” Citing just one example of that, Kives says, “During my time we published…well, not a takedown of Propagandhi, but a piece that got a really bad reaction and created a rift. We printed a picture of Chris Hannah’s childhood home in Charleswood to show how not punk he was. It was totally immature, and I still look back at what an immature little jerk I was.”
After finishing a degree, Kives moved away to pursue a master’s degree in journalism. Stylus would be headed next by Jill Wilson, continuing a theme of CKUW being a source of people power for the magazine.
“I started writing in ‘91 because I had become a DJ at CKUW,” says Wilson. “One of the requirements—not really enforced—was that you write a piece for the magazine. My first piece was on the Barenaked Ladies, who played at the Athletic Centre, what’s now called the Duckworth Centre.” Writing that piece led to an abiding friendship between Wilson and the band, though Stylus has not always been terribly friendly to them.
During Kives’ run as editor, Chuck Molgat (another future editor), wrote a takedown of the band called, “Fuck the Fat-Assed Bare Naked Losers,” which, believe it or not, Kives describes as, “A hilarious takedown of the Barenaked Ladies. I remember Jill (Wilson) telling me that Steven Page loved it.”
Wilson knows there were more interviews than she cares to remember, and very few stick out. One that leaps immediately to mind is a New Zealand band called The Mutton Chops. “Just a super, super smart band,” says Wilson. “After a lifetime of interviewing people, musicians are probably my least favourite. They just tend not to be super articulate. Not that they’re not smart, but sometimes it’s like pulling teeth.”
Smart content was a priority for Wilson, as she tapped a contact from Montréal to contribute an ongoing comic series called “Kevin The Duck,” as well as bringing The Pompous Old Fart into the fold…but we’ll return to that last one. Wilson has since gone on to a couple of decades’ worth of media work, largely with CBC and currently with the Winnipeg Free Press.
Barb Stewart was a part of Stylus magazine from around 1993 to 2003, as a contributor, assistant editor, and editor. Stewart says that music is what kept her sane while growing up on a farm in the middle of nowhere. After arriving at the University of Winnipeg as a student, she eventually got involved with CKUW where for many years she had a radio show with the aforementioned Jill Wilson, through whom she was eventually introduced to Stylus.
Stewart was there when CKUW went from being closed-circuit to FM. Stylus began as the program guide for CKUW, which is still one of its functions, and Stewart says that as the station grew so did the magazine. She describes it as a very hands-on, grassroots movement put together by the love and passion of its contributors and team. Stewart describes the co-workers who defined her time at Stylus as like a family, and some remain good friends today.
“Those were important bonding times, and I think they’re still kind of a group of people who I will always probably be friends with because we just went through so much together at that time,” says Stewart.
From the mid-90s to around the mid-00s, Deanna Radford also went through the roles of Stylus contributor, assistant editor, and editor. She started writing for Stylus during her first year of university, during the Wilson/Stewart editorial era.
Radford says the first issue she did as editor was hard copy style, but she and Ted Turner had a designer friend who had been badgering them into going digital. This is another point Bartley Kives finds baffling, even if Wilson and Turner both have detailed stories about wax, paste, and having to figure out how to fix ads after screwing them up.
Kives says that back in 1991, he sought layout lessons from a friend. “I asked a guy named Michael Koch-Schulte,” says Kives. “Mike had worked for the Winnipeg Free Press weeklies and was hanging around the Uniter. It was early days of desktop publishing, and he showed me how to use Ventura,” an early program for desktop publishers. “If anyone after me was doing cut and paste, that’s just bizarre.”
This is Radford’s story time though. “Within a few months, that was a huge evolution for us to move from editing hard copy to print, and we really pushed to have a full-colour, glossy cover stock…so it was an increased expense,” explains Radford, “But the idea was this is a student-run organization, but also it’s the kind of place that you want people to have relevant experiences producing work that was in line with other productions, in the world and Canada and so on. That was huge. That was a big deal.”
After the format change, it came up that Stylus should “invite artists from outside the university to contribute artwork to do the cover art for the magazine,” says Radford. “So that was also a way that we could broaden our relevance within the creative community in Winnipeg,” and the relevance hits home when looking back at iconic cover images from artists such as Marcel Dzama.
Radford says that Stylus and CKUW were foundational for her, and that even though it wasn’t always easy depending on budgetary concerns, it’s remarkable the magazine has continued until now.
“That the commitment from volunteers and the interest continues is really fantastic and is a special thing,” says Radford. “I think it’s a really positive outlet for people to try something that they might not have dreamed of trying. To try different things without consequence as a volunteer is liberating. It’s awesome, and a rare thing in Canada.”
Sarah Michaelson joined the fold through CKUW, but in a way distinct from the others. As she says, “They were looking for a couple of energetic young hosts, and then in theory there would be audio contributions from Stylus contributors.” Eventually, the show just became Michaelson’s music program and lasted until 2016.
“I feel like I made fiscal changes,” says Michaelson when asked about what defined her time as editor. She specifically cites a glossy insert that featured the CKUW program guide. “I think it was great, but it didn’t make much sense.”
Michaelson also worked to make the magazine appealing both for its content and its personalities, on the theory that the latter can be a way of gaining reader loyalty. She lists off regular columns such as Pompous Old Fart, Charly Hustle’s Mighty 45s, and Weird Shit with Kent Davies, and a comic called Baby de Beauvoir, featuring infant mockups of de Beauvoir and Sartre. Michaelson cites the trust readers had in these contributors as analogous to that of community radio hosts, or staff picks at a video rental shop.
Eventually, Michaelson had to step back from the editing role. Fortunately, she had an excellent working relationship with assistant editor Jenny Henkelman, so after doing the requisite paperwork the two simply switched roles and kept working together.
Henkelman had been with Stylus in the roles of contributor, web-lady, and assistant editor before taking on the editor job. Throughout her time at Stylus, Henkelman says working with Michaelson was a good fit, as they shared values in terms of being inclusive and welcoming, and sought to instill those in the magazine. For Henkelman, it was important to take a friendly approach so people would feel welcome, a place where they knew they were being seen and could feel comfortable and proactive.
Stylus’ 20th anniversary fell during Henkelman’s tenure as editor. She took that seriously and says she wanted to make sure they marked the occasion with an appropriate celebration. “I wasn’t sure how long the magazine would be able to last,” she says, “Given the way magazines are going.”
Henkelman found Stylus was a good way to learn “how to manage a project from start to finish, and get something out on time every month, or every second month. And kind of understand that even though it seems like a big thing to get a publication out every two months, it’s like you can break it down into steps and it’s a pretty doable thing if you have good collaborators.”
After getting some experience as a writer with the Manitoban, Sheldon Birnie was editor of Stylus from 2012 to 2015 before moving on to his current role with the Herald in Winnipeg as a community journalist.
Being editor gave Birnie an appreciation and better understanding of that side of writing. One of the things he liked, aside from the nuts and bolts, was, “Allowing people to kind of explore and develop as a writer or photographer, whatever it was. It was neat seeing folks who got their first byline, developed confidence and improved over the course of a year or two and somehow are still doing stuff.”
Birnie describes the struggle for funding that has been with Stylus for most of its existence, and says that he was relieved when CKUW became its new owners. “I was relieved [by] the current model, where CKUW has taken ownership of it and kind of steering it a little bit more,” says Birnie. “Very relieved when that came about because it just meant it would continue on and was in the right hands.”
Ted Turner cites Birnie’s arrival as a great shot in the arm for the magazine. “He had this esoteric focus on the music he loved, but he also saw what all the other ‘musics’ do together. It’s so specific, so sincere, and we benefited from that. He had confidence and didn’t have any attitude. It’s a great combination.”
Having moved on, though, Birnie just wants to see Stylus continue doing its job. “Hopefully that’ll be something that works for the station for years to come because it was a great experience for myself. Hopefully it’ll continue to foster these early careers, or at least give people a taste of writing or photography, what-have-you, so they can see if they like it or not,” says Birnie. “It’s a cool opportunity for sure. It’s doing what it’s meant to do and that’s great to see.”
It was in her first year at the University of Winnipeg in 2010 that Victoria King started volunteering for Stylus, perhaps seeing it as a step toward her goal of becoming a journalist. While that objective changed, King always really loved music, wanted to learn more about it, and continues to work in the industry with Jazz Winnipeg.
King had never been exposed to much Winnipeg music before joining Stylus. “I grew up in Elmwood in North Kildonan, and that sort of music scene didn’t exist there,” she says. “So it was cool to come downtown and go to shows, meet people and write about stuff, and to connect with other writers or musicians.”
At her first Stylus contributor meeting, King also met a friend with whom she would go on to host a CKUW show for a number of years. “It’s places like Stylus and CKUW that you can really just dive in feet first and get experience,” says King. “That’s important. There aren’t other spots in the city like that. You have to pay a lot of money to go to school and learn to do those things, whereas those organizations exist to help people.”
“I’ve always felt, with Stylus and CKUW, that what they do really well is tell local stories,” explains King. “And that’s so important to talk about small local bands. I always loved when Stylus would do weird artists that no one’s really heard of. It seemed like they were usually willing to write a story about someone who was new in the scene who was just starting to hustle. And that was really cool because sometimes I think those stories feel too small to tell, but then when you start talking about it you realize they’re pretty important. It shows growth and it shows change. It helps you connect with your community.”
Kaitlyn Emslie Farrell started contributing to Stylus around her second year of university and was with the magazine for about five years. Emslie Farrell started out doing news writing but branched out from there, into features and taking pictures, before eventually becoming assistant editor.
Over her time with Stylus, Farrell also maintained a CKUW radio show, the “Prairie Punk Perspective” column in the magazine, multiple bands, and even a DIY record label. All these activities worked hand-in-hand, immersing her more deeply in the local music world.
“It got to a point where the bands were familiar enough with me that they would just tell me when they were doing stuff. I felt like I had unlimited access to this hub of information around the community,” says Emslie Farrell. “Stylus being Winnipeg’s only music-focused magazine—exclusively for music—I find that it is a big draw for readers, because there aren’t six other things they can read. It’s a good thing for Stylus, because it keeps the loyalty of its readers. It’s written your way, not essay format…you can swear in your articles, it’s very raw.”
It is only space restrictions that have allowed us to make it this far before mentioning Rob Schmidt. After growing up in northeastern Ontario, Schmidt chose to attend McMaster University in part because he wanted to get involved with the campus radio station. After the station hosted a national radio conference in 1996, he was hired to move to Winnipeg and help CKUW become a broadcaster on the FM band, rather than just a closed circuit station pumping through a few creaky old speakers on campus.
Schmidt was the first full-time staffer at CKUW, and remains the station manager to this day. Given the tight links between the station and Stylus, he has been close to a lot of the changes and says one of the real struggles with the magazine has been the continuous demand to justify its existence and keep it going.
“It’s hard to measure, right? When people look at businesses, they look at well, how much money is it making? How many copies do we print? How many get picked up?” says Schmidt. “It’s hard to stack that up against how many lives has it saved because it’s turned people on to music that has brought joy and given them inspiration in their life? These are kind of ridiculous extremes to go to, but I really feel that community radio, Stylus, and art and culture have those effects because people have told us that.”
Over the years Schmidt has seen the influence of Stylus on the music scene and beyond. Through his own music discoveries upon moving to Winnipeg, to volunteers and contributors getting experience and building confidence, to feedback from readers and people who have been a part of and affected by the magazine, Stylus’ importance is evident.
“When you see yourself in the media, when you see yourself reflected, it’s incredibly empowering, and it validates what you’re doing, it validates your culture, your friends, your community,” says Schmidt. “And that’s power people can take to their personal lives. It can make them happier, make them more successful. It can make them just have a better life.”
“I just hope people can see the bigger picture, and see the value that it brings to the community, and recognize that even though it appears to cost a lot of money, it’s really a fraction of what gets done in any of the corporate media,” says Schmidt. “Stylus is an underdog, an underground magazine. It’s not big money corporate stuff, but the influence that it has compared to the money that gets thrown around on these other things, I think, is so worth it. It’s so important, and I hope people continue to recognize and understand that.”
Columns have not always been a hallmark of Stylus, but it is hard to overstate the reverence still felt for the Pompous Old Fart. Many of the past staff were reluctant to name any old favourites, for fear of leaving people out. However, those who remember Pompous Old Fart were effusive in their praise for the man behind the eponymous pen name. If the name is unfamiliar, it doesn’t take much to piece things together.
The Pompous Old Fart was Alex Wilson, father of former editor Jill Wilson, who explains the inspiration accordingly: “I read this old US magazine and they had this kind of satirical column where a skater boy reviewed albums but his only prism for looking at music was through skate punk. I thought all my dad likes is classical music and he could do reviews from that perspective. He was a doctor, but his favourite thing was writing, like, these scathing letters to hotels.”
“Pompous Old Fart was world class, as funny as it gets,” says Ted Turner. “I’d watch people pick up a Stylus and go straight to the back page to read it. Incredible guy, I miss him.”
Sarah Michaelson says, “I can tell you he was actually pompous and old, and I loved him. We would make him review wonderfully preposterous things like a U2 album. He was really good with badass insults, but sounding very elite while doing it. That was the whole angle. If you boil it down, it’s like the music snob everyone tries to be in their twenties…in some ways, Pompous Old Fart was satirizing us as reviewers. At least I felt it.”
Stylus’ current editor Gil Carroll attended the U of W from 2010-2015. Through being around at the university and his friends, he started doing fill-in shows and volunteering for CKUW, eventually becoming deeply involved in the local music scene through his own bands and promotion outfit, Real Love Winnipeg.
Carroll likes the community elements of Stylus and says that a general goal of his is to give people “the opportunity to get involved with the music community,” and that Stylus is definitely a way he can accomplish that.
As involved as one can get, though, nobody is on top of everything in the Winnipeg music ecosystem, and Carroll knows it. “If anyone wants to write about a different scene, like we’re always open to it,” he says. “I still think we do a good job of covering different sort of zones in Winnipeg scenes, but there’s definitely stuff that we don’t know about and I would encourage someone to tell us about it, write about it.”
Looking towards the future, Carroll thanks, “the Winnipeg community for continuing to support Stylus and CKUW for believing in Stylus and funding it. And to all our advertisers and everyone who’s ever contributed. Yeah, thank you, and I think another thirty years. So much ongoing support. People seem to really care about it, so it’s nice.”
He’s right, of course. This all goes away if people quit contributing, or quit reading. Other past staff members are right, too, when they say that Stylus has served as a jumping off point for some remarkably successful media careers. At risk of getting carried away with emotion, let’s close with this.
To all of the people who have been involved with the magazine along the way, thank you for your caring support. Thirty years of Stylus wouldn’t have been possible without you, nor will thirty more.