Culture
Ollie Williams

Cabin Radio Fever

Is there listening room for a new, private radio station in YK that serves the whole territory? Broadcaster Ollie Williams thinks so

“You guys did it. Right ****in’ on. No more ****in’ heavy breathing and things along the way.”

I have no idea what any of that means, but it is by far my favourite message to the Cabin Radio inbox all summer. (If you wrote that, know you brought a huge smile to my face.)

We haven’t actually done anything yet, and I don’t have the faintest clue what the heavy breathing thing is about. But when we DO get something done, we hope we take your breath away.

We are Cabin Radio: Yellowknife’s next radio station. My name is Ollie Williams. You may know me from such broadcasters as Moose FM and CBC, and from that piece about dentist avoidance in an earlier edition of EDGE YK, which I suspect is the reason I now often sit alone in bars.

I am the British guy who read the news on the Moose for about a year and a half. Before that, I was an Olympic sports broadcaster for the BBC for the best part of a decade. I still do that now and then – I’ll be at the Winter Olympics in February doing play-by-play on ski jumping, as one does. Until then, I’ll be making my own leap of faith in the company of four individuals who collectively want to fill a gap in the NWT’s radio market.

If you haven’t heard about us yet, we are planning to launch a new commercial radio station in Yellowknife this fall. Jesse Wheeler, AJ Goodwin, Adam Vivian, Scott Letkeman and myself believe there is room for a local, independent radio station that aspires to reflect the qualities that make Yellowknife and the territory one of a kind.

Like a cabin, we want to offer warmth, adventure and excitement. We want to make radio that gets you through the day but intrigues you along the way. We want the community to feel ownership of what we put on the air.

Radio is central to life in the NWT and if we thought that was about to change, we wouldn’t be doing this. I learned about radio's importance here from the moment I first moved to Canada, to a trailer in Fort Liard in the summer of 2012.

We had no internet or TV when we arrived, so I spent morning, noon and night listening to CBC North. Within hours it became apparent that few things span this vast territory the way radio can. I loved, and still love, hearing the CBC air messages in their noon-hour show reminding someone, somewhere, that they have left their lunch at home or need to collect their dog from the vet.

That trailer was where I first heard the late, magnificent Stuart McLean; established about three episodes in that the program This Is That was not an accurate depiction of Canadian life; and learned by heart the order of communities in the weather forecast.

On moving to Yellowknife and beginning work at Moose FM, the speed with which that job propelled me into my new community took me aback. You could hear the station playing in any number of cafes and stores, listen to your own taped newscasts while dropping in at the health centre, and shrivel awkwardly into a cinema seat listening to your show on the speakers while waiting for a movie to start.

Moose FM presently has no natural predators. Its owner is Vista Radio, a group of several dozen stations majority-owned by a Toronto investment group attached to Sherry Brydson, who is often dubbed “Canada’s richest woman.” Formerly owned and operated locally by the Dent family – Charles Dent being one of the founders, back in 1979 – it is the only commercial radio station based in the Northwest Territories.

We think there is space for a second offering catering to a broad spectrum of the community and prepared to take risks, without some of the concerns and restraints that come with membership of a nationwide entity like Vista Radio. As I imagine people in many industries know, it’s hard to explain why things should be different in Yellowknife to corporate bosses in southern Canada who feel like they’ve heard it all before – even when you know what you’re talking about.

It’s easier to cater to a community, even a whole territory, when everyone involved lives here and understands what matters when you call the NWT home.

Our station will be run, to start, entirely by volunteers and make its money through advertising like any other commercial radio station. The only difference will be where you listen to us.

Instead of flipping the FM dial, you simply go to our website, use the app we’ll create for your phone, or watch our best moments on Facebook and Instagram. Focusing on our online product first allows us to reach all communities in the NWT at next to no cost. Then, as we grow, we’ll look to establish FM licences in key communities.

This project has already been more than a year in the making and as I write, we’re approaching one of our biggest milestones: deciding where we’re going to live.

That’s the kind of decision that has opened a whole new world to a career broadcaster like me. I’m used to turning on a microphone and talking for a living. Poking around downtown basements for signs of mould is not in my wheelhouse. That’s where the rest of our crew comes in, as well as the kind services of trade professionals lending us a hand. With their help, we’ve been scouring the city for the right place to call home.

Hopefully, by the time this is published, I’ll be gutting some Yellowknife building's innards, throwing up soundproofing and installing a beautiful new mixing board for people to spill coffee on. Who knows? Maybe we’ll even be on the air. (Whenever people ask about our launch date, I tell them the fall – it’s broad enough that it could reasonably mean any of five or six months. I also tell them that Yellowknife rules apply: add up to one year to any estimate.) Once we’re on the air, what you’ll hear depends on when you tune in. All morning and afternoon we’ll give you a great mix of classic tracks and new Canadian music, hosted by pro broadcasters who know and love the NWT.

Evenings are where we experiment: after 6 pm, our specialist programming is on the air. These are shows by the community, for the community, alongside our own talk shows, documentaries and specialist music programming, and they're available as podcasts too.

There’s one last thing that I shouldn’t overlook: training and development.

We’re working on partnerships with the likes of Skills Canada NWT, the NWT Creative Collective, and Hackspace NT to deliver workshops, skills clubs and long-term programming across the territory. Hopefully we can expose a new generation to what it takes to make great radio, be funny on the air, play great music, and tell people’s stories for the world to listen.

If we’re successful, I hope the next northern journalists and broadcasters can join CBC, CKLB or any major organization knowing they got their start at Cabin Radio. And I hope people think of us as much for our commitment to youth as they do for our commitment to giving you something good to listen to.

Support from the community has been amazing so far. I can’t wait till we can fade up on day one and start repaying your faith with radio that believes Yellowknife, and the North, is unique.