Partially burrowed in the basement of an unassuming building, three-quarters up the hill to the McGill’s Upper Residences, rests the CKUT recording studio. On any given day, you can find magic happening in this basement. Most of the time when I make this breathless trek it’s to volunteer on the show Radio is Dead, but a few days ago I found myself on the second floor of the station for an interview. I met with Madeline Lines, the station’s Funding and Outreach Coordinator, to talk about all things CKUT. Even though I had some background on the station from volunteering, as our conversation jumped from McGill and CKUT’s intertwined history, how CKUT survived the pandemic, and CKUT’s status as a third place, I realized that this radio program has had an even larger role in our community than I previously assumed.
I first learned about CKUT in the summer leading up to my first year at McGill during one of my many fraught social media searches for clubs. I came across their Instagram account, @ckutmusic, and was undoubtedly intrigued – but also slightly intimidated. Madeline recalls feeling similarly when she first got exposed to the radio programs in her hometown of Calgary. “Radio is intimidating from the outside, but once you get in there you find that they’re all a bunch of sweeties,” Madeline said. She would later go on to participate in radio while in university, finding it to be a place for her to experiment live on air while offering a reprieve from the strenuous and often restricting nature of journalism school. At CKUT, Madeline works mostly behind the scenes, where she can make the most of the program’s experimental side. During our interview, she emphasized how much the station values giving everyone who wants an outlet to share their truth, especially those belonging to marginalized communities.
When I asked about CKUT’s history of engaging in anti-oppressive movements, Madeline remarked how proud she was to be working for a station that was always “ahead of the curve.” She told me about shows like Dykes on Mikes, which has been platforming the voices of lesbians since 1987, and Gay Day: a 24-hour show dedicated to queer issues and news. Gay Day has a history of openly addressing “taboo” topics, like the HIV/AIDs crisis, long before other news and media outlets acknowledged them.
Madeline also informed me that many members of the Afro-Caribbean community have poured their hearts into CKUT and its programming, with decades-running shows like West Indian Rhythms and Bhum Bhum Tyme. “It feels really special to be a part of that,” Madeline replied when I asked what CKUT’s rich inclusionary history meant to her. “We’ve been a place where you can come and share your story and connect to your community before the age of social media.”
CKUT began as the McGill Radio Club in the 1930s. What CKUT is today was built by McGill students in “the basement of what is now the SSMU building,” Madeline recalled. This long history of McGill student involvement is part of what makes CKUT so special – generations and generations have built and fought for CKUT. Their biggest fight to date was in 1987 for their spot on the FM dial, which they won over Concordia’s radio station. Although CKUT has slightly splintered off from McGill and become its own entity, they’ve never lost sight of their roots. If you want to learn more about CKUT’s past, head over to ckut.ca and check out their digital archives.
Like all of us, CKUT struggled during the pandemic. They were quickly able to adapt by giving programmers equipment to record radio shows from home, but the loss of in-person presence around the station was the biggest change. However, Madeline told the Daily that things are finally starting to feel normal again: “it’s been a slow trickle […] every day that I come into the station it feels more and more alive.”
For McGill students, as well as members of the greater Montreal community, CKUT has long served as a “third place.” Ray Oldenburg, an urban sociologist and the originator of the term, describes a third place as somewhere time can be spent besides home, school, or work. Recently, there has been a great deal of discourse on TikTok about the role of third places in today’s society and what we can gain from them. This conversation isn’t entirely new. A few years back, The Atlantic and CBC published articles on third places. Both articles stressed the importance of having a place to go that wasn’t work or school: a place where you can relax, be creative, and meet people. This is why CKUT means so much to many McGill students.
With the comfy couches and inviting atmosphere, many other volunteers can be found hanging around the station. As a third place, CKUT not only offers an outlet for people who want to be creative on the air, but also a place to get involved with countless other interests. “To McGill students who aren’t super passionate about music or creative things, there’s a place for you here too!” Madeline promised.
Emily Halpen-Buie started out volunteering at CKUT to find her footing at McGill and meet new people. Since then, she’s started working on Radio is Dead, a show that allows her to “learn and create tasty sounds.” Some students, like Mia Duddy-Hayashibara, spend time at CKUT even when they aren’t working on a show. Mia devotes a lot of her time at CKUT to the music library or learning how to use the soundboards. She said of the music library, “There are so many gems! It’s a treasure box!”
Yet Madeline also warned that “sometimes we take for granted that places like this exist until they’re gone.” The latest SSMU referendum saw CKUT lose their appeal to raise their fee. “We haven’t raised the student fee in 12 years. The costs have risen, but the student fees haven’t risen at all.” Madeline reminded me that it isn’t just CKUT: “all of journalism is facing this issue.” Madeline stressed that you can help non-profit organizations like CKUT in many different ways: “listening, volunteering, or donating.” For CKUT, it’s not about making money; it’s about supporting the community.
At some point in the interview, I mentioned that I felt like CKUT was McGill’s best-kept secret. Nodding, Madeline replied, “Yes, but we don’t want to be. We want every student to know about us […] CKUT is a good tool to get into Montreal culture outside of the McGill bubble.” CKUT’s ambiance of rickety, worn-out floors, posters on every inch of the walls, old Christmas lights still hanging, and shelves upon shelves of music equipment, screams home. Its winding hallways and gently sunlit rooms sit quietly, almost waiting for you to speak, especially if you don’t know what you want to say. Even if you aren’t tuning in to the radio, CKUT can still provide a listening ear and place of acceptance for students, and everyone in the Montreal community.
CKUT’s annual funding drive will take place starting March 16. You can keep an eye out for upcoming details on their Instagram, @ckutmusic. If you’d like to get involved at CKUT, you can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or head to their website ckut.ca for more information.