Articles

Where even the kids are disc jockeys

Anybody can run CFYK in Yellowknife—and practically everybody does. There’s no permanent staff nobody gets paid and, best of all there are no commercials

ROBERT COLLINS April 1 1954
Articles

Where even the kids are disc jockeys

Anybody can run CFYK in Yellowknife—and practically everybody does. There’s no permanent staff nobody gets paid and, best of all there are no commercials

ROBERT COLLINS April 1 1954

Where even the kids are disc jockeys

Anybody can run CFYK in Yellowknife—and practically everybody does. There’s no permanent staff nobody gets paid and, best of all there are no commercials

ROBERT COLLINS

(OUR YEARS ago Kenneth Kidder, overseer of a small gold-mining properly near Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories, noticed that the mine’s caretaker, elderly Sam Daigle, was using a new set (of radio batteries nearly every week. Since batteries normally lasl several months Kidder was intrigued. He drove to the mine and found Daigle chopping wood outside his shack, listening intently to a radio booming from within.

“No wonder you use so many batteries, Sam,” said Kidder. “Your radio’s on full blast. Is it like that very often?”

“Sure,” said Daigle. “I leave it like that all day so I can listen to CFYK while I’m working out here. I don’t wanta miss anything.”

To most of Yellowknife’s three thousand people, Daigle’s listening habits seem perfectly justified. When CFYK, the Voice of the Golden North, is on the air nobody wants to miss a broadcast.

That isn’t because Yellowknife’s four-year-old community radio stat ion provides the finest in radio listening. It’s a station that anyone can run and almost everyone does. Its programs are amateurish; its voices range from childish falsetto to middle-aged monotone; its staff' is untrained, unpaid and unpredictable. But this is often the only station Yellowknife hears and it’s nearly always the most entertaining. The joy in listening to CFYK is that no one least, of all the staff knows what will happen next.

There was the December day in 1951, for example, when CFYK transmitted the first Yellowknife meeting of the Northwest Territories council, relayed to the studio by telephone from the local theatre. In the midst of this broadcast a telephone operator crossed the wires and two Yellowknife housewives came on the air swapping recipes.

One evening not long after, volunteer disc jockey Ralph Murray, a Department of Transport radio technician by day, received his eleventh straight listener-request for Mocking Bird Hill. Murray loathed the record so he announced that he would play this request continuously until somebody begged him to break it. Patti Page chanted through Mocking Bird Hill eight times before a listener phoned in, “Smash it.” Gratefully, Murray did.

And there was the Sunday night last year when volunteer announceroperator Fred C. Humphreys, a young employee of the Department of Resources and Development, dropped into t he studio for his weekly stint. He gave the station call letters at 9.30 p.m., switched on a remote control line for a half hour religious program from the Yellowknife Bethel Mission

and settled back to await his own ten o’clock disc-jockey show. As the Bethel choir began its opening hymn, music-lover Humphreys whistled noisily along, unaware that the studio microphone was still on. He was puckering his lips for the second verse when his wife phoned in and said, “The choir can manage without you.”

Episodes like these crop up with delightful regularity. In its early months, CFYK published program schedules in the local weekly newspaper but soon gave up because announcers never adhered to them.

CFYK is one of six non-commercial stations in t he Canadian north, set up as a community service under the Department of National Defence with the approval of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Other stations are at Dawson City and Whitehorse, Yukon; Aklavik and Hay River, N.W.T., and Churchill, Man. Basic equipment and technical knowledge is supplied free by t he Royal Canadian Corps of Signals. Volunteer broadcast ing personnel is provided by the town.

Yellowknife’s station, thirteen forty on t he dial and licensed for one hundred watts, seldom reaches beyond the town’s immediate area but freak reception has been reported at Seattle, Wash., New Westminster, B.C., Calgary and Lethbridge, Alta., and Alaska. It broadcasts a mixture of CBC programs, monitored daily from CBX, Edmonton, over a receiver station near town, and local shows produced spasmodically.

CFYK took shape in 1949 when a few Yellowknife citizens led by Dr. J. D. Bateman, a geologist, tired of the community’s freak radio reception. In the winter Yellowknife listeners can hear Edmonton, six hundred and thirty-five air miles south and usually other outlying stations as well. But often in the summer the average radio set won’t even receive Edmonton.

A group of Edmonton businessmen held the franchise for a commercial broadcasting station in Yellowknife but abandoned it in 1949, apparently considering it unprofitable. Dr. Bateman negotiated wit h Ottawa and obtained permission to set up a community station. On Jan. 12, 1950, a few radio enthusiasts met in a Yellowknife schoolroom and elected a governing committee with Bateman, who’s no longer in Yellowknife, as chairman. They ran a slogan contest and received twenty-five entries, ranging from “Where the Aurora Roars” and “The Voice of the Yellow Metal” to a small girl’s “This Is Station CFYK, The Only Station So Far Away.” The committee chose accountant E. V. R. Merritt’s “The Voice of the Golden North.”

On Feb. 19, 1950, CFYK officially began broadcasting. Typically, nobody knew wliat, the inaugural broadcast would be until the last minute. A scheduled visit by Dr. H. L. Keenleyside, then deputy minister of Mines and Technical Surveys, was canceled. Luckily, a blizzard grounded a plane load of Defence Research Board dignitaries. CFYK’s

one-room basement studio wouldn’t accommodate a crowd so the broadcasting committee herded the surprised Ottawa men into a schoolroom and put them on the air via a telephone hookup. The storm kept telephone wires down between school and studio until three minutes before broadcast time.

Since then CFYK has expanded. It now broadcasts from two basement rooms, donated rent - free by the I department of Resources and Development, with a noisy furnace outside the studio doors, footsteps echoing

from the floor above and a couple of hot-water pipes dangling from the ceiling. The main studio, fourteen feet square, holds a piano, three microphones and is lined with wallboard. The wallboard is CFYK’s answer to the water pipes which sometimes “ping” when a pianist or vocalist hits a high note. The control room, eight feet by fourteen feet, has twenty-five hundred filed and indexed records, a tape recorder supplied by CBC, a microphone and a horseshoe desk with a homemade console, or control board.

This setup is operated by an eight-

member unpaid broadcasting committee, elected by ballot at a public meeting each February and including a president, vice-president, treasurer and program manager. Yellowknife provides an annual one-thousand-dollar grant to which local clubs and firms add donations. It all goes toward new records, better equipment and studio improvements. None is spent on announcers. They’re all volunteers, coaxed to the studio by the broadcasting committee.

At one time or another most of Yellowknife has been on the air. Bankers, barbers, housewives, miners, schoolteachers, nurses, accountants, taxi drivers, Mounties—even school kids all double as CFYK announcers.

For several months Peter Boyco, a rotund hoist operator at a gold mine, opened the station every weekday at 6.30 a.m. with records, time and temperature reports. He then plugged in the CBP Jall tor ;llS bus,

worked a full shift, returned at 4.30 and played music until suppertime. Finally the novelty of radio wore off and Boyco confined his efforts to mining and, later, bartending.

Last winter the staff included civil servant Fred Humphreys; mine employees James Duckworth and James McDonald; Shirley Tremblay, a brunette stenographer with the Department of Resources and Development;

T. A. Throndson, a meteorologist; and several teen-agers including blond sixteen-year-old Patsy Markle; lanky Ralph Moyle, son of a Yellowknife liquor vendor; Larry Phinney, a serious youth of seventeen; and Joe Elian, a sixteen-year-old with a fine baritone.

Occasionally There’s Dead Air

Some of the recruits are passable announcers and one CFYK graduate even went on to professional radio. Donald C. Brinton, now twenty-six and radio director of the Alberta Federation of Agriculture, worked in Yellowknife for the Department of Agriculture during the summer of 1950. He ran a weekly farm and gardening program and a night disc-jockey show over CFYK. This experience, his first in radio, landed him the present job.

Few other CFYK staffers are likely to go that far. Housewives tend their knitting, teen-agers do their homework and small boys read the funnies during idle moments in broadcasts. Some disc jockeys announce a recording and then leisurely place it on the turntable, leaving a long uncomfortable moment of “dead air” before each piece. Others brush the turntable switch with their knees, causing records to groan to a halt halfway through the number. Almost all announcers stumble through club announcements and other publicservice notices with the flat halting voices of a first-grade reading class. Not a single one of them, however, afflicts the listener with that inescapable byproduct of radio—commercials. There are no commercials at CFYK except when an occasional CBC show comes in.

Yellowknife is used to untrained announcers and often, as in the case of Wally Brink, they’re more fun than slick-voiced professionals. Brink, a middle-aged prospector and mining promoter, went to Yellowknife from the bush one winter to pass a few months driving a night taxi. Every morning after work he hurried to CFYK to present a program for tired housewives, featuring Brink’s rasping, chatty mutilation of the English language and his thermos of coffee. He played square dances by the hour, urging mythical parties of housewives to dance around the studio. Sometimes Brink called a square dance for them, shouting the classic instructions.

One cay he organized and coached an imaginary bridge game, explaining at one point, “Now, ma’am, you should finance your queen ...” From time to time he tilted his thermos with an audible gurgle and invited, “Let’s all sit down for coffee, ladies.” The ladies loved « and Brink had so much fun himself that he rarely plugged in the scheduled CBC morning programs. If a CFYK program director took him to task Brink said evasively, “Couldn’t get CBC this morning. Bad reception.” Once, asked why he hadn’t tuned in the CBC Kindergarten of the Air, Brink replied. “Why, there’s no use playin’ that stuff at Í0.30 in the morning. All the kids are in school by then.”

He didn’t neglect the children, though. On Saturday mornings, as “Uncle Wally,” he played nurserystory recordings, each one preceded by his own rambling resume. It was a sorry day for the listeners when Brink drifted back to the bush. Often there is a shortage of colorful CFYK performers. Since there’s no pay for anyone, the initial novelty of broadcasting soon wears off. Then, too, Yellowknife’s gold-mining population fluctuates constantly and promising announcers often move away. CFYK can’t estimate next week’s staff any more than it can forecast next week’s program.

When local programs are down to a few disc-jockey shows, as sometimes happens, there is always the CBC. CFYK always carries such CBC shows as Stage 54, NHL hockey, Wayne and Shuster, all national news bulletins and, sometimes, CBC Wednesday Night of which last year’s program manager Ralph Murray says, “A noisy few like it, a disgruntled majority don’t.”

But when local programs are at their best, the majority of listeners are always happy for they hear a lively sprinkling of sports, religion, talent shows, onthe-spot broadcasts, planned programs and unplanned errors. Even children get into the act. Jimmy Anderson, a red-cheeked schoolboy with a piping voice, was only nine when he and his father, a local hardware clerk, ran a children’s record show for a year.

Then, for two years, Jimmy did it alone almost every week. Once he couldn’t find the studio keys so CFYK’s announcer went home crying. Jimmy provided his own records and also brought his own comic books. Sometimes he became so absorbed in the comics that records ended and scratched for minutes before he remembered to change them. In other spare moments, Jimmy doodled with the dials. After his program someone invariably had to tighten up the knobs on the control panel.

This spring the Yellowknife drama club presented a series of radio plays. In 1953 when Governor-General Vincent Massey visited Yellowknife a team of CFYK reporters tape recorded his appearances at the airport, Indian agency, schoolhouse, Canadian Legion and a banquet. This was later broadcast.

A year ago housewife Annette Feniak produced a weekly children’s talent show which ran from fifteen minutes to three quarters of an hour depending on the supply of talent. The moppets sang, recited, did tap dances, played the piano or mouth organ and collected toys, candy and theatre tickets as priz.es. This was a popular program since it featured most of the kids in town but the show folded when the Feniaks left Yellowknife.

Some of the most popular live shows have been conceived by Victor Searle, a millworker in his early forties. At one time he spent seven nights a week at the studio. On Tuesday he and housewife Betty Stevens ran Memory Lane. Searle chose old-fashioned tunes which followed a theme—perhaps all Irish melodies or Gay Nineties tunes. He wrote a few lines of dialogue to link each one and as he read the script Mrs. Stevens played the numbers on the studio piano.

They Like Their Hockey

Sometimes Searle played rare recordings, such as songs by Irish tenor John McCormack, taken from his own collection. Once he played the complete Die Fledermaus opera. One Christmas, after many careful rehearsals, Searle sang Adeste Fideles in Latin, although he neither reads nor speaks that language. He also originated a Christmas Day program which has become an annual feature. It opens and closes with a recording of cathedral chimes. A local minister reads the story of the nativity while Searle inserts, at appropriate places, such carols as Little Town of Bethlehem, We Three Kings of Orient and While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night.

Hockey broadcasts are a favorite in Yellowknife and one of the most colorful announcers was Frank (Jo Jo) Legere, a chunky young mine worker. Most people, including Legere, thought he was the best man for the job and when the broadcasting committee decided to give other aspiring sportcasters a tryout Legere circulated a petition of protest and gathered numerous signatures. The committee stood firm and Jo Jo eventually left town in disgust.

Once hockey clashed with religion. The latter has always been a hot CFYK issue. In the beginning the station carried a church program six nights a week, representing every faith in town. Most listeners resented this policy because it eliminated their favorite CBC and CFYK evening programs. One night, during an exciting hockey broadcast, a scheduled church program cut in at 10 p.m. The minister had barely launched the opening prayer when the studio phone jangled and an angry hockey fan shouted irreverently, “Get that damn program off the air.”

CFYK settled the problem by allotting one half hour of air time a week, on Sundays or on weekday mornings, to church organizations. Five groups are represented: Homan Catholic, Anglican, Baptist, Bethel Mission and Latter-Day Saints.

For every local controversy that’s settled, something new crops up to harass the volunteer program manager. Once Radio Moscow spoke briefly over CFYK. A hasty investigation revealed that a couple of army signalmen had momentarily tuned in the propaganda via shortwave for a prank.

“It’s louder and funnier than what we were getting on the CBC,” they explained solemnly.

Housewife Florence Whyard will

never forget Christmas Eve, 1950. CFYK planned a midnight Mass broadcast from the local Roman Catholic church but at 11.30 a priest phoned to say there was no equipment oi announcer at the church and no one at the studio. Mrs. Whyard, who wa; production manager, feverishly phoned around town, got the show on the air and spent Christmas Day counting her grey hairs.

Nowadays, for remote transmissions, the station has special broadcast lines to the local arena, curling rink, public school, Baptist church, Bethel Mission and the movie theatre. Before the lines were installed everything went over telephone wires. Programs were frequently interrupted by the operator’s “Number, please.” The Bethel Mission was on the same party line as Cinnamon’s boarding house and every Sunday CFYK had to remind boarders not to use the phone and mix hot gossip in with the church broadcast. Even now CFYK studio is on a party line. Often, at 10.30 or 11 p.m. the announcer interrupts a program with “Please do not phone in any more requests. The other people on our party line would like to go to sleep.”

With miners, taxi drivers and other rugged outdoorsmen in its ranks, the station is always haunted by the possibility of strong language on the air. Last fall it successfully by-passed one hazard. During an election campaign for seven seats on the town council, CFYK offered each candidate five minutes free air time.

One candidate was Dennis O’Callaghan, a wiry grocer with a mild Irish brogue and a weakness for profanity. O’Callaghan is known as the cussingesi man in Yellowknife. He swears absently, fluently and often. To the disappointment of many listeners, O’Callaghan delivered his speech with the restraint of a Sunday-school teacher. (In the election, he ran twelfth in a field of thirteen.)

On election day CFYK had a technical breakdown and the studio was swamped with calls, asking when polling results would be broadcast. Oddly, the staff enjoyed this small furore. To the hardworking unrewarded volunteers it indicated that, despite few compliments and little fan mail. Yellowknife appreciates CFYK.

There’s no doubt that people enjoy the entertainment anyway, particularly the impromptu kind. Like the day last fall when the CBC sent CFYK a collection of Claire Wallace broadcasts about Yellowknife. Program manager Ralph Murray ran them directly on one tape recording and presented them asa continuous broadcast, forgetting they were separate five-minute units, each with its own commercial. For more than an hour that night Yellowknife listened to Claire Wallace and some thirty rapid-fire commercials.

And though it happened more than two years ago, the town’s still laughing over the day Major-General Hugh A. Young, then commissioner of the Northwest Territories, spoke over CFYK for the local home and school association. The guest finished his talk with a minute to spare and a clubwoman moved forward to thank him. But the teen-age operator, unaware of the thank-you plans, seized the nearest record to fill in that last gaping moment. Hot on the heels of the general’s solemn address came a bouncy cowboy Champ Butler recording of Way Up In North Carolina.

Major-General Young and the home and school representative stood by patiently and heard the record outThey knew, as everyone in Yellowknife knew, that this was just another of the strange noises that issue from the Voice of the Golden North. if