Rediscovering the Treasures of CKUA Radio

The people's voice

By Maurice Tougas

They sold a provincial treasure for ten bucks. When the Crown corporation ACCESS—following the orders of the Ralph Klein government to get out of the radio business—handed over CKUA to the non-profit CKUA Radio Foundation in 1994, the whole operation was sold for a symbolic pittance. This was a sale not quite on the level of Peter Minuit’s purchase of the island of Manhattan from the natives for $24 in 1626, but it was by any standard a hell of a deal. 

With the handover of CKUA to the foundation, the province gave away a mammoth collection of recorded sound. Today, that colossal collection—about 60,000 CDs, 75,000 LPs, 18,400 78s, 500 45s and even a couple dozen Edison cylinders—lives on, housed in a clean and spiffy new location, the rebuilt and repurposed historic Alberta Hotel on Jasper Avenue in downtown Edmonton. It’s a space vastly superior to CKUA’s funky old digs (funky in smell as well as feel), which the beloved public broadcaster had inhabited since 1955, a jerry-rigged jumble that looked as if its interior had been designed by M. C. Escher. 

But what, exactly, constitutes a treasure? As the saying goes, one man’s trash etc. And might a treasure comprise more than objects? While CKUA was packing away 85 years of history, preparing for their move last fall, I spent some time at the old location, rummaging through some of its historic items and speaking to people who know the station well.

I stumbled upon a set of records called transcription discs, recordings of live CKUA broadcasts from decades ago. A number of them were wrapped in a crumbling piece of cardboard box that contained the warning “Do Not Play before May 29, 1945.” Seemed safe enough to play them now. 

The name Art Ward was attached to many of the recordings. Station general manager Ken Regan, an encyclopedia of CKUA facts and trivia as well as the man charged with running the station today, says Ward covered sports for the station. One of the transcription discs contained the notation “Sask–Ed Tues. Oct. 25, 1949,” which proved to be a recording of Ward doing the play-by-play of a hockey game between the Edmonton Flyers and the Saskatoon Quakers of the old Western Canada Senior Hockey League. Another disc contained Ward’s broadcast of a Flyers–Calgary Stampeders game from Calgary, which Ward described as “another ding-dong hockey battle.”

CKUA has also become home to thousands of recordings that might have found their way to a landfill if they hadn’t been dropped off, like the proverbial abandoned child in a basket, on the station steps. For example, CKUA has a small box of 45s which appear to be recordings of Yugoslavian folk songs (or maybe pop, it’s hard to tell) from the 1970s or 1980s by artists with such names as Krunoslav Slabinać, singing “Da Sam Tvoje Rijeći Slušao, Majko / Budi To Što Jesi” (that could be two or even three songs; my Croatian is a little rusty). 

Then there are hundreds of transcriptions of BBC broadcasts—which CKUA can’t play, since they don’t have the rights. Other oddities abound. From a company called WIS Instantaneous Recording there appear to be a couple of recorded greetings. “Greetings to Mother from Stanley” reads the label from one record, dated January 21, 1948. 

A prize piece of history, however, is the actual recording that became the basis for the Oscar-winning film The King’s Speech, of King George VI’s address on September 3, 1939, announcing England’s declaration of war on Germany. 

And while recorded sound may be art when listened to, only rarely is the recording medium itself a work of art. In the case of Vogue Records, their album art was probably greater than their music. These ornately designed 78 rpm recordings were released by the short-lived label—an offshoot of Vogue magazine—in the late 1940s. CKUA found four of these strikingly beautiful records in its collection, each worth thousands of dollars.

CKUA linked rural and urban Alberta as never before. Its mandate was unique in North America and perhaps the world.

Recorded on dozens of outsized discs labelled “The Voice of the Army” are variety shows by some of the entertainment world’s biggest stars, which CKUA played for the enjoyment of Alaska Highway engineers in Alberta in 1942. 

The bulk of CKUA’s collection is in LPs, the outmoded vinyl disc format still treasured by audiophiles worldwide. The spoken word and comedy collection is a treasure trove of historical, comedic and just plain weird recordings. The gems pulled from the shelves by CKUA librarian Arianne Smith include music from the coronation of Queen Elizabeth 60 years ago; war-related recordings such as “Songs, Marches and Speeches of Nazi Germany,” featuring “Hitler” (Adolf’s greatest hits?) and a selection of recordings from the Nuremburg war crimes trial; a compilation of early recordings of historic figures, featuring Florence Nightingale, Thomas Edison and even V. I. Lenin (the liner notes on the LP say “Remember Russia’s Lenin?”); Malcolm X speeches on an LP called “By Any Means Necessary”; Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell debating peace; an impressive collection of 1960s Canadian comedy from the likes of Wayne & Shuster and Max Ferguson; and “I am Canadian,” a recording of speeches from the thunderous John Diefenbaker. 

When CKUA was first conceived of 85 years ago by a surprisingly progressive United Farmers of Alberta government, the still-new medium of radio was seen as a way to bring university-level education to the far-flung rural areas of the province. This approach was unique in North America, and perhaps the world. We can only imagine what it meant for a farmer in an isolated part of the province to hear voices coming from his radio—voices directly addressing matters of interest to him.

While plenty of educational material was aired during CKUA’s formative years, very little of it exists today. In my casual perusal of items in the old building, I came upon a few that gave a small taste of what CKUA offered. One recording, on a label proclaiming the disc to be a production of CKUA, “The Voice of the People,” was a program called “Medical Talk,” by the delightfully named Dr. Charles Tuba. His topic: the study of enzymes. Slightly less interesting was a program titled “Alberta Poultry Farm”—although for chicken farmers, this information might have been vital. 

While educational and informational programming was the bread and butter of CKUA, entertainment was not forgotten. In time, the live broadcasts of musicians who happened to drop by the station, along with recorded music which would lead in time to CKUA’s mighty music collection, became the station’s raison d’être. Along with live dramatic productions, CKUA linked rural and urban Alberta in ways that had never been done before. Now, from one corner of Alberta to the other, in large cities and small towns, from urban rooming houses to isolated farmhouses, all Albertans could listen to the same music, newscast or dramatic program. 

Over time, CKUA’s mandate expanded to emphasize recordings made in Alberta, leading the station to become the largest repository of Alberta-centric recordings. Most if not all of Alberta’s best-known recording artists—k. d. lang, Jann Arden, Corb Lund—got their first radio exposure through CKUA. And it’s not just Alberta artists who got airplay. American singer-songwriters of niche musical styles not heard on commercial radio—Guy Clark and John Prine, bluesmen such as Buddy Guy and Dr. John and such gospel legends as Mavis Staples—play to large and enthusiastic audiences in Alberta thanks to regular exposure on CKUA. 

CKUA hasn’t just recorded sounds; they’ve preserved—or, more accurately, held on to—the equipment used to record the sounds and send them out into the ether. Dozens of pieces of formerly cutting-edge equipment, with names like Stereo Modulatic Processor, are stored away, just waiting to be rediscovered. If these technological dinosaurs are ever brought back to life, there should be no trouble finding the old vacuum tubes used to run them. CKUA has boxes of them, hundreds in total, probably, many stuffed with “radiotron” tubes from the Canadian Marconi Company.

While CKUA boxed up many treasures, other valuable assets—the men and women who create the programming—only needed drive a few blocks down Jasper Avenue to their new location.

Chris Allen is one treasure who won’t be making the move, however, having retired from CKUA late last year after a 36-year career with the station. He typifies the classic CKUA host. Most radio people, removed from their microphones, still tend to sound like their radio personas. But Allen talks quietly, without the faux bonhomie of the radio DJ. That’s the classic CKUA style: knowledgeable, intelligent hosts who actually talk about the music they play—they chose it, after all—and not about last night’s American Idol reject.

Allen was the first graduate of the radio and television arts program at NAIT, in 1969. After a stint doing everything at CKSA in Lloydminster, then bumming around Europe for four years, Allen returned to Edmonton in 1976 and began looking for radio work. He had second thoughts about returning to a very provincial town after the bright lights of Gay Paree. “I came downtown on a Sunday… and I stood on Jasper Avenue and watched a bag blowing down the street, like a tumbleweed in a small town,” Allen recalls in an interview in CKUA’s album library. “There wasn’t a car, not a person on the street. I thought ‘Oh my God, what have I done?’”

Allen found a job at CKUA later that year. His niche became jazz and classical music, along with arts programming. For example, he had a hand in an alphabet soup of arts shows (all of them starting with A): Arts Alberta, Arts Alive, Artbeat, Arts & Culture Guide and Artscape. He hosted and produced numerous jazz and classics programs, and interviewed a host of Albertan, Canadian and international musical and literary greats including Chet Baker, Woody Shaw, James Blood Ulmer, PBS news host Robert MacNeil (one of his favourites), Timothy Findley, Margaret Atwood, Douglas Coupland and dozens more. 

The government’s decision to sell CKUA was short-sighted, “like the Queen saying I’ll get rid of my crown jewels.”

Thinking back to when CKUA had a mere 40,000 or so LPs in its collection, Allen described the station as “an immense playground for anybody who likes music. It’s like you’ve got the best sandbox in the world and you can build any castle you want, or you can dig under the surface and build a cave. Whatever you think of as an announcer/producer, you can do. We are one of the few places in the world of radio where you can pick whatever you want to play.”

Allen was there during the darkest chapter in the station’s history, when CKUA’s government-appointed board of directors suddenly shut down operations in 1997. Allen was editing a piece on that fateful night, when Ken Davis came in and told him, “Well, that’s it. They’ve pulled the plug.” Allen was so removed from the inner workings of CKUA, he admits, “I hadn’t a clue what he meant for a second.” When Allen came downstairs from his office, he found security was already changing the locks. “That was one of the most traumatic things that has ever happened to me,” he says. 

In shock, Allen still had the presence of mind to make sure that not just anybody could waltz into the building and keep the station running. “I realized that if the board wanted to, they could try to run the station using our old playlists,” he says. “I knew where they were, so I went down to that office and pulled them all. I took them with me, because I wasn’t about to let someone else come into this station that I loved so much and run it on a shoestring using my playlist or anyone else’s.”

CKUA would eventually rise again as a listener-supported provincial radio station, unlike anything else in Canada. The animosity between free-spirited CKUA and the bottom-line-fixated provincial government now seems like ancient history, however. The provincial government recently made up with CKUA—with a big, wet kiss of a $5-million grant toward the station’s building fund, announced last October.

Perhaps CKUA’s greatest hidden treasure is its deep and unfailingly loyal volunteer base. Susan Campbell is the station’s volunteer coordinator, and she has at her fingertips a list of about 400 willing helpers. Campbell was once one of those volunteers, beginning back when she first arrived in Edmonton from Ottawa.

“I moved here in 1998, found CKUA, and the dial has never moved,” she says. Today, after 14 years volunteering, it’s Campbell’s job to round up people to help with pledge drives and festivals. Unlike many agencies that depend on unpaid volunteers, CKUA is having no trouble finding help. And supporters will do just about anything. When the station moved from the old Jasper Avenue building to the new, Campbell put out the call for volunteers to do the worst kind of grunt work—schlepping boxes from the basement. She got about 30 people out to get the job done.

CKUA volunteers are “committed to the station with a passion,” she says. While the average time a volunteer spends with an organization is a couple of years, CKUA’s volunteers stay for the long run. And they don’t scrimp on their time: in 2011, volunteers—from Athabasca to Medicine Hat—gave more than 4,000 hours. The publicity surrounding the new building has resulted in a boom in applications from would-be volunteers. And for every person who donates time, many more donate money. Since CKUA went to its “listener-supported” model in 1997, audiences have chipped in to the tune of $33,949,652. Clearly the decision to bring CKUA back from the dead was a good one.

Allen believes the government’s move to sell off CKUA was short-sighted in the first place. “It was like the Queen saying ‘I think I’ll get rid of my crown jewels, because I’ll get a little bit of money for them and won’t have to spend the time on upkeep,’” he says. But while the treasures of CKUA may no longer belong to the government of Alberta, Allen firmly believes they’re still owned by the province’s people—merely held in trust by the non-profit foundation that bears the station’s name. 

“CKUA still belongs to Albertans,” he says. “The Japanese have a term, ningen kokuho, or living treasure. These are people who make swords or whatever, who are masters at what they do. And that’s what CKUA is to this province.”

Maurice Tougas is a journalist, editor, blogger, former MLA (Edmonton-Meadowlark) and lifelong Albertan.


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