CJCD, Yellowknife’s first commercial radio station, turns 40
On November 13, 1979, CJCD first broadcast on 1240 AM in Yellowknife. Now on FM and under different ownership, the station – which retains the same callsign – celebrates its 40th anniversary on Wednesday.
Until CJCD’s launch, the CBC was the only radio station available to Yellowknife residents. Early CJCD broadcasters say they took pride in offering a genuine difference in tone and content, a station connected with its community – and one that raced elephants through downtown Yellowknife.
“We had a circus come to town that were looking to advertise, so they proposed a race,” said Charles Dent, founder and former owner of the station. Morning show host Ed Saunders, dressed in a Tarzan outfit, is immortalized in photos of the race, which took place on Franklin Avenue on a summer day in 1982.
“It was certainly something. It was an amazing day,” Dent recalled. “The crowds were out in huge numbers.”
While Dent was one of three founding CJCD directors, alongside Derek Squirell and Reg James, only he remained associated with the radio station for any significant length of time. His partner, Eileen, succeeded him as the station manager.
The Dents owned CJCD until its acquisition by British Columbia-based Vista Radio in 2007. CJCD is now one of 19 Vista-owned Moose FMs across Canada.
The station began, Dent said, as an attempt to inject high-quality, hyperlocal reporting into the community.
Dent and a friend at City Hall went for lunch in the mid-1970s and “lamented how bad the coverage had been of a city council meeting the night before,” he told Cabin Radio.
They decided to explore starting a radio station, which ended up taking three years to come to fruition. Paperwork incorporating CJCD Radio Limited was filed with the territorial government on July 18, 1979.
“The station didn’t make any money for the first few years. The best times for the station were probably in the early to mid-1980s,” said Dent.
Kelly McCrae, who went on to broadcast at stations from Ontario to Texas, was appointed CJCD’s second-ever program director – in charge of music and on-air hosts – in 1981.
“I got married up there. I met a girl up there and we got married on dog sleds,” McCrae said from his Texas home on Tuesday. “It was a good time.”
Small-town station, big-market sound
McCrae said he, Dent, and the nascent CJCD team realized many Yellowknife residents had, like some of the broadcasters, come from southern cities to the Northwest Territories. They adapted the radio station’s sound to fit.
“There are all kinds of small-market radio stations around Canada and US, but they’re not putting a lot into their programming,” said McCrae.
“Charles was a good guy, he understood programming and radio, and we put things together for the sake of good programming, not just for sales. That made a big difference. And everybody seemed to have a real ball with it.
“It’s a small town and small station but the people in town were from everywhere else. They were used to good, big-market radio, so we tried to make it as big and as good as we could.”
Saunders, left, and his elephant race rival. The identity of the man in white is the subject of some debate. (If you’re certain you know who it is, let us know.) Photo: Kenneth Huss
Steve Bujold, who joined CJCD in 1982 and stayed for 18 months, said: “The only other game in town was CBC North, and we took a back seat to them, you know? We were kind-of frowned upon. You’d meet these guys and sometimes it was odd talking to them – they were making twice what you were making and had a whole bunch more benefits.
“But the mindset we had back then was we were just so involved in everything. I remember doing an interview with one of my idols, Margot Kidder [the late actress who played Lois Lane in the Superman movies, and who was born in Yellowknife], a few months before she came back for the 50th anniversary of the city. We just loved being part of it all.”
It was McCrae’s decision to hire Saunders as the host of CJCD’s morning show. “He sounded good and I just liked his personality, but you don’t really appreciate it until you really see it in person,” said McCrae. “He’s one of a kind.”
“Eddie was quite the character,” agreed Dent, referring back to the elephant race. “He was willing to do all things. He was dressed up in no more than a loincloth and having a great time.”
(Cabin Radio, acknowledging the time for elephant races has probably passed, is sticking to traffic helicopters as its gimmick of choice.)
‘Not your mom and dad’s CBC’
While Saunders and McCrae moved on, Drew Williams grew up in Yellowknife before joining CJCD and still lives in the city, where he now works for the territorial government.
Williams remembers the frequency, 1240 AM, “because that was the price of a case of Canadian at the time,” he said.
At a time when radio stations did not possess the automation software that keeps them running around the clock in 2019, Williams began at CJCD on the overnight shift. He gradually made his way up through the ranks from the late evening show, to evenings, to daytime.
“I remember CJCD signing on when I was in high school,” he told Cabin Radio. “I remember the moment when we finally had radio that was not your mom and dad’s CBC programming.
“When I was working there, I was having a ton of fun. There was so much camaraderie in the staff. If we weren’t working together, we were playing together – literally, in the sense of the CJCD slopitch team, or piled onto a couch over at the CJCD apartment.”
Williams described a promotion in which he and colleagues paraded up and down Franklin Avenue wearing furs “worth more than our monthly paycheques,” while Dent recalled a new recruit from the south who was entirely unprepared for a live broadcast of Yellowknife’s Santa Claus parade.
“The first morning man I hired was from a larger radio station in Edmonton,” said Dent. “He was used to doing things in a more professional way than you might expect in a small town. I told him the Santa Claus parade was a really big deal – when, back in those days, there was basically a convertible and three fire trucks and that was it.
“We had a remote line put in at the Yellowknife Inn and he was set to call the parade. He stipulated to the guy on the control board: ‘All right, this is professional. We don’t break into a song or fade things out, we’re going to do this as if we were at a big station down south.’
“He sees the parade coming, and then it’s pretty much all gone. He’s yelling at the guy back at the station, ‘Fade it! Fade it!’ He had to try to make it sound like there was a much bigger parade, when there were four vehicles.
“He came back to the station and he was hopping mad, jumping around. He understood that I’d set him up, and he was not impressed.”
A page from a 1982 broadcasting yearbook shows entries for CFYK (CBC North) and CJCD in Yellowknife.
Dent said that reflects the fact many southern broadcasters found northern radio to be a different beast.
“People felt they knew the formula for radio but, at that point, there were only two choices: the CBC, or us,” he said.
“People would say, ‘You’ve got to follow a format, get your niche audience, and get them listening to you a lot.’ But since there was no real choice, the audience tended to listen for a much longer period of time.
“Your programming had to reflect that and, if you were repeating songs too much, it was boring to the audience. You couldn’t just pick one type of music to play or one event to focus on, you had to focus on everything the community was interested in.
“It was actually a lot more work for announcers than what would be common for them in a southern market, and it took a while for people to understand that when they came up.”
‘People still need and want private radio’
Bujold said Dent understood CJCD had an opportunity to be unique.
“He had a definite way of doing things. I think he got it,” said Bujold, who now presents a podcast entitled Downhome Corner.
Williams believes CJCD was one of the last homes of true radio, not least because the North had a tendency to lag behind technological developments farther south. Even today, he feels Yellowknife’s love affair with radio isn’t quite over.
“I think there is still very much a place for private radio here. Maybe even more than one private radio station, frankly,” he said. “I think it’s a really important thing, and I think the reason they’re still around is because people ultimately still need and want that.”
Dent still listens to CJCD, though it’s been more than a decade since his family owned the station. Now, he says, it’s more relaxing: he doesn’t have to pick up the phone and deliver a stern rebuke when somebody mispronounces something.
After all this time, one mystery remains: exactly what the station’s four-letter callsign stands for.
Stations have very little freedom when choosing a callsign, which must – for federally mandated reasons – begin with either CF, CH, CI, CJ, or CK. The last two letters are at the station’s discretion, as long as they haven’t already been taken elsewhere.
That means CJCD’s callsign could be, for example, a combination of its founders’ initials: C for Charles, D for Derek. However, there’s a more obvious interpretation, too.
“I guess the answer to that depends on who you ask and what time of day it is,” said Mr C Dent. “It’s certainly got my initials at the end, doesn’t it?”