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CKUT: Rendez-vous radio for Montreal's diverse communities
Seconds before going on-air, Thomas Waugh seems oblivious to CKUT's dingy and stale-smelling basement studio where he's about to be interviewed on one of the radio station's programs.
PHOTO: Owen Egan
Not even an absence of air-conditioning, on a sweltering August night, prompts Waugh to complain. Call him an habitué of community broadcasting.
As director of Concordia University's minor in interdisciplinary studies in sexuality, Waugh estimates he's been invited to CKUT some 15 times to provide expertise. He knows firsthand about the station's lacklustre surroundings.
What's brought him back to CKUT this evening -- specifically to Queercorps, a tri-monthly community and current affairs program -- is the opportunity to be heard.
"It's nice to be here," Waugh says. "The people at CKUT really listen and allow me to talk through my ideas. Unlike [mainstream] media, where I get interviewed for half-sentence newsbites."
Waugh's positive CKUT experience -- being allowed to explain issues thoroughly to a minority audience -- separates the station from its commercial counterparts. "CKUT provides a platform or voice to people who might not otherwise be heard elsewhere," says Louis Chauvin, a McGill management professor, explaining the station's mandate.
That broadcasting philosophy is why Chauvin eagerly accepted one of two faculty positions on CKUT's board of directors when recruited last spring. "In this era of increasing media concentration," he says, "I think it's more and more important for there to be alternative media outlets, unbiased news sources and different voices speaking to the community."
Fortner Anderson, chair of CKUT's board of directors, says the station is one of the few places where people can tune in to hear messages from leftist environmental parties or from representatives from ethnic minorities. "Allowing these groups an opportunity to be heard is essential," he stresses.
Ever since the station went live in 1966, originally as Radio McGill, CKUT has made it a priority to be an outlet for diversity. A case in point is how the station now features a whopping 100 programs: everything from jazz to electronica music shows and spoken word segments geared for everyone from the gay to the Haitian communities.
"CKUT is very much rendez-vous radio, where people tune in to programs that interest them, rather than leaving on the station as background noise," says Anderson.
The station's programming variety also means it appeals to an audience that's much broader than the McGill community. Indeed, since receiving a licence to broadcast at 90.3 FM in 1987, CKUT has been reaching an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 listeners throughout any given day.
And thanks to the station being accessible through the Internet since 1997, CKUT has won notice from the venerable New York Times. In a recent article on North America's best community radio stations, reporter Neil Strauss wrote: "CKUT-FM in Montreal is one of the best places to hear experimental radio plays and sound art."
Such media raves, says Anderson, "show that CKUT occupies a leadership role in campus radio across Canada."
"If CKUT managed to capture the attention of a publication like The New York Times," says philosophy professor Eric Lewis, the second of two McGill faculty representatives on CKUT's board of directors, "it's because there's a lot of people who are putting a lot of thought into the station's programming."
Because vast amounts of attention go into what's broadcast on CKUT, says The Gazette's freelance folk and country music critic Mike Regenstreif, "some of the best radio shows can be found on CKUT."
"Then again, some of the worst shows can be found on CKUT," Regenstreif adds, in the same breath, explaining the community station is staffed by a combination of amateurs and experts.
No matter who lends their talents to CKUT, listeners can be sure that whatever they tune into won't be available elsewhere. As host of CKUT's Folk Roots/Folk Branches since 1994, Regenstreif says, "What you hear on my program, you won't hear on CHOM or Q'92."
To ensure that, he listens to an average 1,000 new recordings per year and picks out interesting tracks that aren't hot singles. Fortner Anderson puts a similar effort into the pair of CKUT shows he hosts: Grey Matters, an outlet for alternative political analysis, and Dromotexte, which features poetry readings.
"Finding some spoken word segments is a craft in itself," Anderson says.
Another key role of the station is to break in new musical acts. Two homegrown acts that have made big splashes into the mainstream, partly thanks to their start at CKUT, include the politically barbed instrumental ensemble Godspeed You Black Emperor and crooner Rufus Wainright. "We were playing Rufus back when his music was available on demo tapes," chuckles Anderson.
CKUT has also been a training ground for hosts who have crossed over to the mainstream: DJs Tiga & Gnat, who left the station to become prominent rave-circuit record spinners, while John Moore went on to CJAD radio and Stuart Greer graduated to Global News. Jed Kahane, a fixture on the CTV National News, is another CKUT graduate.
Regardless of where CKUT staffers move onto, almost everyone involved with the station is a volunteer. It's thanks to some 400 volunteers, the majority of whom work in the background, that CKUT is heard 24 hours per day, 365 days per year.
CKUT relies on volunteers because its annual budget -- about $320,000 that comes through student fees, funding drives, advertising and grants -- only covers the salaries for a few full-time staffers that include an ad salesperson and a secretary.
That means the majority of CKUT volunteers juggle day jobs, too. Anderson, for instance, gives close to 300 hours to the station per year, while working as business agent for the Quebec chapter of the Director's Guild of Canada.
So why does he do it? "CKUT is a central part of my life," Anderson says. "I feel that I can be useful there, helping build the station into an institution that will survive for the next generation."
Queercorps host Chris DiRaddo, who works as a full-time publicist for the Canadian National Theatre School, says giving back to the gay community through his role at CKUT is fulfillment in itself. "I don't even consider this volunteering," he says.
Queercorps contributor Michael O'Keefe, a market researcher who uses his skills to interview CKUT guests on current affairs, says he reaps more than he sows from volunteering. "Every show, I get to discuss subjects that interest me, while getting my questions answered," he says. "It's a wonderful exchange."
Suhrid Manchanda, a management student, has volunteered 15 weekly hours of administrative work at CKUT over the past three years and recently became secretary to the station's board of directors. "CKUT's become much like a second home to me," he says. "The station is much more than a place to spin records."
Manchanda adds CKUT -- with its range of art, music and current affairs programming -- has been like a second schooling experience. "CKUT has been responsible for a large part of my personal evolution and knowledge," he says.
Knowing CKUT is educating people in various ways is the very reason Eric Lewis has also acted as one of five revolving hosts for Jazz Euphorium, a show spotlighting swing music, that's existed on CKUT for a dozen years. "No other station does what CKUT does," he says, explaining why people commit themselves for such long periods to the station. "Without its volunteers CKUT would die. And if the station disappears, our shows disappear.
"We broadcast knowing it's us or no one."
For more information on CKUT's programming, or to tune into the station on-line, please consult www.ckut.ca.