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Making airwaves: A Tour of Spaceship CKUT

Representation on the airwaves

CKUT has been broadcasting on 90.3 FM for 24 hours a day, 365 days a year for the last 27 years (ice storm of 1998 notwithstanding), and in that time, has developed both an expansive reach and a cult following consistent with its unique mandate as a non-profit, campus-community radio station. The Daily visited the station to take a tour and talk with Madeline Lines, the station’s funding outreach coordinator and CKUT Staff Representative on the board of directors, and Spencer Gilley, the production coordinator, about what makes the station a locus of the Montreal community. 

Will Barry Spencer and Madeline in the music library.

The McGill Daily (MD): CKUT has “an open door policy when it comes to solid ideas.” How do you ensure the quality and stability of shows while also remaining open to radio newbies? 

Spencer Gilley (SG): We want to be the place where people do stuff for the first time. We want people to feel like they can figure it out on the fly and make mistakes. We’re intentionally trying to be an alternative to what already exists. Our license does not permit us to play Top 40 –  even if we wanted to, we wouldn’t be legally allowed with a Campus Community Radio License. We have this dual identity of being affiliated with the university and making sure we provide opportunities for students that they can’t get at the university, like journalism experience or hands-on technical stuff, but also being reflective of the city at large. Most of the shows on the programming grid that are permanent are not students, they’re people who have been doing this for years. A lot of the shows here have been around for decades. So we have that mixture of new people coming in, and then there’s the old heads who have developed really close connections with the communities they represent. They’re speaking directly to them each week – like micro-news: births, deaths, weddings, babies.

MD:  When it’s easy to get insincere or feel corporate, how do you maintain that authenticity?

SP: I think a bit of it maybe comes from the collective management system and the diffusion of decision making. Not only is it sharing decisions on who to hire with several staff members, but also on who we include on those hiring committees — volunteers, members of the board, and members of our general family or community. We’re doing a hiring committee coming up soon and one of the people on it was the station manager in 1993, so a lot of these things come back and loop around – while still acknowledging that we need to get fresh ideas and fresh perspectives. We’re ideally not a place where someone who just wants to get famous for being a radio personality comes to. All our programming is supposed to be about different communities, rather than about individual personalities.

MD: What does a typical 24 hours look like at the station?

SP: Prior to COVID, the door didn’t have a lock. You could never fix anything, because there was always someone in the studio. It was an active space, and the building was a real melting pot of people and ideas. When COVID happened, it was a huge change. We were able to recreate more or less how it sounds on the air with some grants (for example, from the Red Cross of Canada) we got that helped us buy equipment. So everyone was making radio from home, and for some people it was their first time ever doing audio outside of the building. We’ve now opened our studios fully, [but] a lot of people are staying home for various reasons. Still, we’re starting to see glimmers of that pre-pandemic life in the building come back. We have a ton of volunteers this fall. Alex, the music coordinator, said it’s more than he’s seen in recent memory – he’s been here for 20 years.


Part of the grants CKUT received comprised funding for archival projects. In the next room, archivist Janice Kerfoot was actively working on a tape they were in the process of digitizing. Part of the archives are the defunct CKUT print publications that were at one time distributed around the city, comprising advertising and editorials about what was on air in a given season. CKUT is in the process of scanning and uploading them to their new website, alongside physical audio. Starting in the last few years, programming is automatically archived on the website forever.

Commentary Janice works with a spliced tape, part of “CKUT Time Capsule – Preserving 90s Counterculture: Historical Radio Archives from the Radical Margins of Montreal,” funded by Library and Archives Canada’s Documentary Heritage Communities Program. 


SP: The whole point of this archives project was, as the grant said, to democratize access to our collection and open it up to the communities that made all this stuff. We have a database inventory that we’re going to make public. People can browse through all the files we have and hopefully come up finding gems in there or using them to make new edits, summaries, to recontextualize things, to interview people who were originally involved in making that stuff, or to try to revive the tradition of making some print publications that allow a bit of a window into what we do here.


We proceeded to the music office, where I was introduced to Alex Moskos, the music coordinator, and Raef Lawrence, the student music librarian. Raef organizes volunteers who go through the music submissions, organizes the physical music library, and more. 


Raef Lawrence (RL): A big part of the job is taking the CDs that we get in the mail. I go through those, put them in the mail log, and organize a lot of volunteers that we get to look through them, listen to them, and eventually process them and put them in the database.


CKUT’s music library boasts some 70,000 titles – some of which originate before the station began in 1987. Artifacts harken back to days like when the first hip hop show in Montreal debuted on CKUT. The library comprises anything that fits the CKUT mandate – local and homemade music and music made by people who have barriers preventing them from being heard on other platforms are the main focus. It’s also just a great place to find new music.


SP: There’s been everything from metal bands – Godspeed You! Black Emperor, sub-Saharan African instrumentalists, rap performances, absolutely everything happening in here.


The CKUT office was converted from a dorm, complete with converted bunk beds now used for storage. The station runs largely based on student fees, making every McGill student who doesn’t opt out a de facto member of the station.


Madeline Lines (ML): [Students] are really free to give their feedback on programming. We want people to be involved in the station, to volunteer, to help shape programming. We have some programs that are for McGill students in particular: All Things McGill, and this night spot called William Shatner’s Whiskey Tears, which is a really fun slot to just mess around in the music library and have fun. At Gert’s, we’ve revived Thursday (A)live, where we highlight McGill musical talent and curate a student music lineup. We also run a funding drive every year in March – we pick a theme, get a designer to make fun merch, and we rally the community to pitch in and keep the station afloat.

SP: It’s a fun chance for us to hear from our community, because its all [small, individual] donations for the most part, and you get to hear people be like “Oh I’ve been listening all year!” and you realize there are people out there – you don’t always know who’s listening, or how many people are tuned in, or what kind of a difference it’s making. For example, we have a long running show called Prison Radio. Their mandate is to have direct collaboration with people who are incarcerated, so they have two hotlines that you can call if you’re in prison and report on conditions – especially early in COVID, it was a big thing of being able to share what it was like. In the funding drive, we did get a lot of calls from people in prison –  some of them were prank calls requesting obscene shout outs, but I know that there is a decent listenership in the local prison [population] for a variety of shows. There are a lot of really cool opportunities to reach people with the FM signal. It’s kind of floating around you at all times, it can go through walls, it goes over borders. People in prison who don’t have internet can request a radio, and they can connect to the world that way. FM allows for unique opportunities to connect with people outside of infrastructure provided by telecom companies. One of the things about FM is that it’s a bit less of a destination for some people than it would be going to a specific website and knowing what you’re going to hear. You have the opportunity for somebody to accidentally stumble on whatever it is you’re doing by nature of just scrubbing through the radio dial. On our station, you’re going to hear music that you won’t hear anywhere else, even not on other college radio stations, and you’re going to hear perspectives on news and arts and culture that you’re not going to hear on other stations. So typically, there’s no mistaking, “Am I on CBC or am I on CKUT?” Ideally, it’ll be pretty obvious which one you’re on.

MD: Radio has a history of being a radical way to share information, though some say it’s in decline. What made you want to get involved working at a radio station?

SP: It’s hard to tell if radio is declining or not because as we adapt ourselves better to the modern media landscape, we start to think of ourselves as a community media organization, not just community radio. We do video series and podcasts. We also do a lot of projects, like Transforming the Airwaves, which encourages local trans artists to come and learn about some aspects of the music industry, some technical stuff, to use our equipment, and get on the air and do their thing. I came here for the first time eleven years ago filming my friend’s band who was playing live on the air downstairs, and later I started doing a radio show for about 5 years before I started working here. I only ever met Joni Sadler, the then music coordinator, who passed away last year. She was amazing, and I would just come in the middle of the night, so I never really saw anyone else. It was very ghostly – you’re kind of just there in the spaceship by yourself. It was a cool introduction to the world of radio broadcasting.

MD: What is the best way for McGill students or anyone reading to get involved and support the station?

ML: Honestly, I would say a good way to start is to just start listening. Explore the programming and see what sounds interesting to you. That’s a really easy thing to do: put it on in the background, put it on at work. If you do end up wanting to take that next step to be involved, it’s nice to have that understanding to come from first, because you’ll know exactly what you might want to help with or try.

SP: Because our volunteering opportunities are always changing, from week to week and day to day we have different needs that we’re trying to fill. It’s usually a pretty custom arrangement between the volunteer and the department they are working in, because all of our volunteers have different schedules and amounts of time they can commit –  some people are one hour a week, others are like, “Whenever you need me, I live next door, I’ll be there.” The first step is just to write [to] us and then we’ll show you around. 

MD: Where do you see the future of CKUT? What are your hopes? What’s daunting?

SP: Long term, having more stable core funding that allows us to pay ourselves a competitive and fair wage to retain and recruit talented staff and happy staff is really important to us. Finding ways we can have a really solid foundation financially. If we ever didn’t win an existence referendum [at McGill] we’d have to completely restructure, and we would no longer be what we are.

ML: The exciting thing is even though we were talking about the limits of FM, I think that there’s something so intimate and special that people crave these days, especially with – this sounds so cheesy – algorithms and the way that tech is going. I hope that there’s a revival in the interest. 

SP: People are looking for an alternative – not just in what they’re listening to but in how they’re participating in their own creative lives. The more I work here, the more I realize that it feels like a community centre that has a radio studio in it. Radio is just part of the equation; one of the outlets that we have here for people to represent themselves on the airwaves.


You can tune in and find ways to get involved at