University of Calgary

Dropping In

Submitted by alumni on Tue, 05/26/2015 - 12:00.

Dropping In

Pop into CJSW and discover who’s kept those airwaves alive for 30 years. From alumni who cut their teeth here, to the hosts of Road Pops — take this peek.
by Judy Aldous

Grant Burns, co-host of Road Pops, has volunteered at CJSW for 30 years.Grant Burns, co-host of Road Pops, has volunteered at CJSW for 30 years.

University Radio — A Study in Success
Not all university radio stations run purely on student initiative. Some, like UCalgary’s CJSW, have 30-year industry veterans behind the mic, serving communities with absurd back-and-forth on-air stunts while giving certain labels lots of love

by Judy Aldous

CJSW 90.9 FM is the jewel in the crown of campus radio stations in Canada, drawing in more money through its annual funding drive ($254,493 most recently — twice what the University of Toronto station raises) and reaching a wider audience with its strong signal (18,000 watts, compared to University of Alberta’s 900 watts) than any other university station in the country.

But that’s a cliche and, really, CJSW, that bastion of weirdness and experimental sound, deserves something more unique. How about — it’s the original beard in a sea of ironic ones. Or, a practical toque in a sea of slouchy ones.

You get the tone.

CJSW is the home for the misfit hipsters on campus, the place where new music is heard, where there are more umm’s muttered per minute than anywhere else on the FM dial, and where Calgary bands are launched.

And, this year, the station celebrates an amazing milestone in an era of increasingly homogeneous music stations: 30 years on the FM dial.

King of the Road Pops

Kevin Brooker and Grant Burns know how to make good radio. They’ve been doing it every Friday afternoon for 30 years, on CJSW’s flagship program Road Pops. Their secret ingredient — they don’t prep.

“Our format is no format. We never talk about what we’re going to talk about. That’s our rule,” says Burns in the studio one Friday afternoon, half way through their two-hour-long weekly program, sipping on a beer (remember the name of the program!).

Then Burns peers over the one computer and two microphones that separate him from his co-host and says: “Kevin. We’re going to be on the air in 30 seconds and I need you to refocus.”

“What do you want me to focus on?”

“You can ramble on about whatever you want.”

The red on-air light goes on and what happens next is such compelling radio I doubt anyone turned the dial.

Because, behind the veil of “we-don’t-give-a-damn-and-won’t-prep-because-this-is-volunteer-radio,” there are two men (Brooker a writer and Burns a theatre producer) who know how to engage, enrage and entertain with a rarely heard blend of opinion and great music.

They start with the uselessness of giving out the “403” before your number. “Is there anything more annoying than saying ‘403,’” says Brooker. “If you’re one of the outliers with the ‘587,’ then fine, we want to hear from you. But give up on the ‘403.’”

Soon after, there’s a rant about the frenzy the media created over “snowmaggedon,” that winter storm in the United States that never arrived.

They end with an impromptu debate around the pronunciation of British soul singer Sade’s name. “Shar-day or Shah-day?” they ask their devoted fans.

It’s like listening in on a dinner conversation where two intelligent and slightly eccentric men hold court. The banter ends as spontaneously as it began and it’s back to the music, the real focus of the program, a blend of reggae, funk, soul and electronica.

Grant Burns, BA’82 (and yes, that made him a classmate of Prime Minister Stephen Harper), has been haunting the halls of the station since before it was on the FM dial. (He was station manager, 1982-86). “We came onto the market in 1985. There wasn’t much to listen to then — we provided a real alternative. We got in on the ground floor in a growing city and solidified a listenership.”

Brooker says the station was instrumental in Calgary’s evolution from backwater to thriving city. “Growth of the alt-music community wasn’t when we started. I can tell you, 30 years ago, Calgary was a bit of a backwater. What became known as the growth of the hipster movement was, in a peripheral way, attached to this station.”

CJSW Station Manager Myke Atkinson says the two have great on-air chemistry. “It’s not everyone’s taste but that’s the nature of everything that’s on CJSW. They have history with this station. They still care about this place. Their listeners love them and have supported them for years and years.”

Suddenly, a light flashes in the studio: a listener is calling. Brooker picks up. “You’re killing me,” says the listener. “There’s no ‘r.’ 
It’s Shah-day, not SHAR-day. But I LOVE your show.”

Another Friday afternoon on the air, show number 1,500 or so for these two, who say they’ll keep signing, “until it’s not fun anymore.”