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Remembering Student Radio

student radio studio circa 1955

My career in broadcasting started in student radio. Right there, in the chair of the studio shown above at the University of Manitoba. Since the 1940’s, student radio has been a place for young people to develop and pursue passions and careers. I am planning to write a short history of UMSR. Can you help? I would love to hear your stories and get a copy of your pictures. In the meantime, here is the short version of student radio at University of Manitoba. There are similar stories at most universities and colleges across Canada.

UMSR has been known by many names including University of Manitoba Student Radio, UMSU Radio, Campus Radio, and more recently CJUM-FM. Many of Winnipeg’s broadcasters got their start at student radio. Just as many of Manitoba’s leaders cut their teeth at UMSU, the Students’ Union.

Student radio began in earnest across Canada just after World War II. Most campuses followed a similar pattern. Groups of students became active in producing programs that were aired on commercial radio stations, and occasionally CBC. During the 1940’s and 1950’s, student radio was a committee of students that produced programs to publicize university activities. They were often also the main source of audio and technical expertise for sound systems around the campus. During that era, student music and drama activities were very important to campus life. Student radio productions reflected these interests, and extended performances to the broader community.

Eventually, student radio clubs built their own studios, like the one shown above, constructed in 1955. The goal was eventually to build a real radio station. For most, this dream was initially met by broadcasting “closed circuit” to student cafeterias and lounges across campus. This was accomplished by sending audio signals over phone lines to speakers mounted high on the walls in popular locations. It was always a challenge getting the volume set right. Sometimes the lounges were full and noisy; sometimes they were nearly empty.

During my era at student radio (late 1960’s to early 1970’s) we did a few innovative things. First, we expanded our coverage to dozens of locations and added advertising (sadly mostly cigarettes and beer, but those were the Rat Pack days.) Second, we learned how to remotely adjust the volume to best serve the audience at different times of the day. Third, we used a technique called “carrier current” to broadcast real low-power radio signals, especially to the campus residences. This way, student radio could be heard on ordinary AM radios.

For a couple of years, I did the morning show from 8:30 to 10:00 a.m. My claim to fame was memorizing the top stories on CBC Radio News at 8:00 during the car pool drive so I had some content for my 9:00 a.m. newscast on student radio. But all the rest was simply rock and roll. And lots of it.

Student radio on the FM dial

There have been university-associated radio stations on the air in Canada for nearly a century. Initially, these were owned by university administration rather than students, and were instructional in nature. The two most noted stations were CFRC at Queens University in Kingston and CKUA at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. They went on-the-air in 1922 and 1927, respectively. In 1965, CJUS-FM started at the University of Saskatoon as a joint venture between the students’ union and the university administration.

Ten years later, in 1975, Canada’s first purely student-backed FM stations went on the air. These were CKCU-FM at Carleton University and CJUM-FM at University of Manitoba. CKCU-FM is often credited with being the first FM student radio station, but CJUM-FM actually began broadcasting two weeks earlier. (No bias here! Let’s call it a tie.)

During the 1970’s, student radio had moved into expanded studios in the new University Center. Its application for a broadcast license was approved. CJUM-FM broadcast to Winnipeg from 1975-1980, when it shut down due to financial problems. At that time, the Canadian regulator would not allow student radio to broadcast commercials.

But in 1998, CJUM-FM returned to the air, with stronger financial support. Student radio has remained alive in Winnipeg since then. It is known today as UMFM 101.5 as a combination student radio and community radio service.

For over 70 years, student radio has remained a great way to develop interests, make friends, learn skills, pursue careers and most often, just have fun. Many of today’s ventures belong to the National Campus and Community Radio Association, which has 90 member stations across Canada.

Two final thoughts about student radio over the years. First, student radio focused more on entertainment and innovation than politics and ideology. Most student radio groups were far less radical and dogmatic than student newspapers. But they still made huge, creative and often daring contributions to cultural change. They provided a voice for many different ideas, rather than a pulpit for a few. Second, we should recognize the useful, symbiotic relationship that existed between commercial broadcasters and student radio for many years.

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