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Canada’s first public broadcaster needs $3 million by October to stay on the air

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Alberta’s public radio station relies on donations to stay on the air.

CKUA, the country’s first public broadcaster, has largely relied on crowdfunding for years. But no money was allocated for it in the 2024 federal and provincial budgets — and the station must raise $3 million by September 30 or its reserves will be depleted.

“It’s a perfect storm,” says CEO Marc Carnes. “We are not immune to the same financial realities that many homes and businesses now find themselves in, with inflation, rising borrowing costs and utilities.”

CKUA also owns the Alberta Hotel on Jasper Avenue in downtown Edmonton. Half of the building is leasable commercial space — and most of it is vacant after the anchor tenant became insolvent last year, Carnes said.

Ironically, the 96-year-old station is still going strong, he said. The audience is growing, while revenues have remained stable.

A white man with short dark hair and large glasses stands inside, in front of a brick wall.  He wears a casual jacket with a 'CKUA' button on his left breast pocket.
CKUA CEO Marc Carnes is pushing for funding to save the radio station that has been on the air since 1927. (Nick Brizuela/CBC)

“The core business is there. It’s just stuff that’s happening to everyone right now,” he said.

Opposition NDP arts and culture critic Joe Ceci raised CKUA’s plight during the parliamentary term on Thursday. During Question Time he pressed the United Conservative government over whether it would send money to the station and how the government would promote it.

In response, Minister of Arts, Culture and Status of Women Tanya Fir noted that the Alberta government gave $5 million to CKUA in 2012 to purchase and renovate the Alberta Hotel. Since 2019, the station has received $450,000 in provincial community grants.

Fir recognized how important CKUA is to the province of Alberta in preserving and promoting its culture and history. But she said all provincial dollars would be used primarily to cover the station’s debt, which is inconsistent with the purpose of government capital grants.

“They use different measuring sticks for different things,” Ceci later told CBC News.

A white woman with brown hair wears a suit.  She talks on a stage.
Minister of Arts, Culture and Status of Women Tanya Fir responded to the opposition NDP during question period on CKUA on Thursday. (CBC)

The government suggests debt is bad for the arts and culture sector, he said, but it has helped other industries when they needed it – namely oil and gas.

Fir’s press secretary Garrett Koehler later told CBC News that the government was aware of the radio station’s financial situation in September and that the minister had met with CKUA to discuss the situation.

Carnes said he is hopeful the dialogue with the provincial government will continue.

He also lobbies for federal government funding, but that has been more challenging, he said.

He and Fir both noted that in the latest federal budget, CKUA was excluded from the millions of dollars earmarked for CBC – Canada’s public broadcaster – and other public interest programming services.

CKUA hopes to take advantage of the fact that when Ottawa purchased the Alberta Hotel, it was unable to match the amount of funding from the city of Edmonton or the Alberta government, Carnes said. The municipal and provincial governments spent $5 million each; the federal government spent $500,000.

‘Heartbeat of Alberta’s music scene’

On November 21, 1927, after much teamwork and lobbying, radio announcer HP Brown spoke into a microphone at the University of Alberta in Edmonton – marking CKUA’s first broadcast.

The channel started primarily as educational programming with university staff, but expanded over decades to inform and entertain Albertans on a daily basis. It was the first to regularly broadcast the Legislative Assembly, as well as play-by-play broadcasts of football matches.

Today, the CKUA Music Library in Edmonton is famous, with recordings dating back 140 years. The channel, Carnes said, also airs emerging artists, as well as those who are more established.

“When it gets dark, it’s a very quiet, sad day in the province,” Carnes said.

A shelf is stacked with plates.
The CKUA library is famous and contains 140 years of recordings. (Nick Brizuela/CBC)

Scenic Route to Alaska band member Trevor Mann considers CKUA a “formative part” in raising the band’s profile, being one of the first to play their music.

“We really feel that without the support of CKUA, we wouldn’t be anywhere near where we are today,” he said.

Mann described the station as “the heartbeat of the Alberta music scene,” but said it may be taken for granted — and its true impact won’t be realized until it disappears.

CKUA has already started raising the $3 million it needs and will launch a 10-day donor drive on Friday. As of 3:30 PM MT on Saturday, it had raised more than $467,000 toward its $775,000 goal.

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Radioactive6:02CKUA needs $3 million by October to stay on the air

Find out why Alberta’s historic public broadcaster is struggling

The $3 million would help the station make ends meet, Carnes said. The station already has plans to attract more tenants to the Edmonton building and cover higher operating costs.

The money would also help CKUA create a separate fundraising campaign in 2027 — its centennial — to create an endowment, which will ensure the station’s long-term sustainability, he said.