News / Edmonton

'Like the bumblebee, it shouldn’t fly, but it does': CKUA celebrates 90 years on the air

Against the odds, Edmonton-based all-music station survives, thrives and looks to a bright future

David Ward has been with CKUA since 1982.

Kevin Tuong / Edmonton Freelance

David Ward has been with CKUA since 1982.

The glam metal band Cinderalla's legendary song 'Don’t know what you got ‘till it’s gone’ could be the unofficial motto for CKUA, which celebrates nearly a century of broadcasting this fall.

Fans of the Edmonton-based station gathered this weekend for a retrospective on the building, personalities and decades of music that shaped CKUA. The station's first air date was Nov. 21,1927.

But they also remembered the moment 20 years ago, when the loss of government funding and a few weeks off the air forever changed the trajectory for the multi-genre, all-music station.

“The community rallied at that time with an Alberta grit — it made people realize the impact of CKUA in their lives,” station CEO Marc Carnes said.

“We’re now 65 per cent donor funded, public radio with a unique multi-genre format: jazz, blues, classical, folk, rock, pop, roots, and the hosts are often musicians too, passionate and involved in the community. Listeners can feel that authenticity — the genuine respect for and love of the music.”

After starting as a University of Alberta extension service for farmers, CKUA now has 16 FM transmitters from Fort McMurray to Lethbridge, with 250,000 weekly listeners. Meanwhile their app enables streaming around the world.

A few years ago, the station moved up Jasper Avenue to digs in the new Alberta Hotel, a space that now houses 1.5 million songs (digital and vinyl), performance space and even host studios with turntables. There’s also vintage mics, a retro 8-track, cassette tape and CD players in the station’s historic collections.

Long time on-air host David Ward, who also oversees CKUA’s growing Calgary studio in the National Music Centre, says all the ‘stuff’ changes with technology, but it’s the intimate connection listeners feel with the hosts and the music that makes the difference.

“On paper, we’re like the bumblebee: it shouldn’t fly, but it does,” he says. “Listeners can sense what’s real. We’re not trying to sell anything; we’re just telling a story.”

CKUA’s core boomer audience remains, but the station recognizes the need to embrace the growing millennial audience, such as those listening to and playing the indy and roots music often featured by the station at various year-round festivals and concerts, Carnes added.

“Our values align. We want to maintain our ethos but add new community voices."

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