Mohawk radio stations By the community, for the community

Mohawk radio stations: By the community, for the community

Radio stations in Kahnawake and Kanesatake are seeing brighter futures, thanks to helping hands on and off the air

K103s news director, Paul Graif, in red, and morning host Lance Delisle chat during a break in Studio A in Kahnawake.

Photograph by: Dave Sidaway. The Gazette

KAHNAWAKE/KANESATAKE — “Sego zewawgwego negigo nuuwa ga-re-wah-nuh-ge-reh Paul Graif iojuts. Good afternoon, this is K103’s noon news.”

With those words (written out phonetically, as they are on Graif’s laptop computer), the community radio station K103 on the Kahnawake Mohawk reserve made its first broadcast from its new building on Friday, July 11.

For more than 30 years, K103 had been housed in the top floor of a two-storey building next to a hockey rink. To access the station required climbing up an exterior wooden staircase, which was getting more difficult for the town’s aging elders. The office had broken windows, no reliable temperature control, and barely enough space to fit four people in its one studio. Local firefighters joked that they would have to close their eyes when they visited, because one look at the place and they’d be forced to condemn it as unsafe.

Compared to that, the new building is amazing.

“It’s been kind of a culture shock,” explained station manager Cheryl Deer. “There’s just a lot of space that we’ve never had before.”

Built from scratch on the western side of town, the place is 2,979 square feet, more than double what the old building had. It’s wheelchair-accessible, has more offices and two fully functional and spacious studios, plus a third for newscasts.

And it has brand new equipment, thanks to a radiothon fundraiser that raked in almost $80,000. That works out to more than $10 for every person who lives on the reserve.

“It’s amazing because you never know the type of support you’re going to get,” Deer said. “It was amazing. We were extremely pleased, overwhelmed. We could never say thank you enough.”

The building itself was funded by a grant from an aboriginal construction fund at a total cost of more than $1 million, and is shared with a native language centre.

K103 (CKRK-FM) was launched on March 30, 1981, by the late Conway Jocks, whose picture hangs in the hallway of the new building, and whose voice can be heard every day on the air in recorded vignettes about Iroquois history.

The station’s mission is to promote the community and its culture and keep it informed. “We have to be here for every single emergency that comes up in the community,” Deer said. “We hope to never go away because of that. We need to be here for the community.”

K103 had previously held radiothons to finance the purchase of a new ladder truck for the fire department and help out the local youth centre. Both raised totals with six figures.

Its programming is eclectic, featuring country music on weekends, hip hop and R&B on weeknights, and a mix of music and talk during the day, mainly in English but with some Mohawk as well. It carries advertising, but its main revenue source is the Friday night radio bingo.

The staff at the station mainly comes from the community, but also includes some non-natives. Paul Graif, who co-hosts the morning show with Lance Delisle, started here in 1992 and came back in 2010. This summer he was also given the title of news director, with more of a mandate to report on news from the community. Many radio personalities have gone through stints at K103, including Virgin Radio’s Kelly Alexander and Vince (Cousin Vinny) Barrucco and Christin (CJ) Jerome at 92.5 The Beat.

K103 isn’t the only station undergoing a renaissance. Not too far away, commercial music station KIC Country is also moving into a new building, hopefully in the next month after the plumbing is done, owner Brian Moon told The Gazette.

KIC Country started as Kahnawake Keeps It Country in 2009, operating without a broadcasting licence on a frequency formerly used by Aboriginal Voices Radio. In 2011, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission gave the station its blessing, and it officially became CKKI-FM 89.9.

The station is solely devoted to country music. Its biggest personality is longtime CHOM morning man Ted Bird, who started there in January after he was let go from TSN 690 in the wake of the Bell/Astral merger. He hosts the afternoon show after 30 years of doing mornings for various stations, including K103.

Though Bird’s background is more rock than country, he said he’s become a fan since working there.

“It’s not the old-school country anymore,” Bird said. “Not that I don’t like the old stuff, but it’s got so much influence from pop and rock. It’s right up my alley.”

The station brands itself as KIC Country Montreal, and has listeners as far away as St-Eustache and Ormstown, but “we’re still Kahnawake,” Moon said. It doesn’t have formal ratings data, but Bird estimated based on anecdotal evidence that about half the listeners come from the reserve and half from neighbouring communities.

It may seem odd for a community of about 7,000 people to have two radio stations, but Kahnawake isn’t just any community. It also has two newspapers and a community TV station.

“We’re both surviving, which just tells you how much support there is out there,” Deer said.

* * *

Mohawk radio stations By the community, for the community

Hop over the West Island to Kanesatake, and there’s a smaller group from a smaller community bringing a smaller radio station back to life.

CKHQ-FM 101.7 first went on the air in 1988, two years before the Oka Crisis. It stayed on the air until the start of the new millennium, but became defunct after its station manager died and people stopped contributing programming. Its CRTC licence expired when no one applied for its renewal.

Fast-forward to March 2013, and a group of locals are taking part in a 12-week job training program called Project Pikwadin.

“We were all brainstorming about what Kanesatake could need,” said Tahkwa Nelson. “We brought up: ‘Hey, what about the radio station? The radio station has been shut down since forever.’ We did a vox-pop. Of course everyone was all for it.”

A group was formed of James Nelson, 38, his cousin Tahkwa Nelson, 32, Michael Dubois, 24, and Shawna Etienne, 37, to bring the station back to life. After talking to the owner of the building that houses the station’s studios and transmitter, they took a look inside in June 2013.

It was a mess. There were rat droppings on the floor, the ceiling had caved in and some of the lights didn’t work. “It took about a week to clean the place up,” Tahkwa Nelson said. A new ceiling was put in place, the unsalvageable carpet was ripped out, and some new equipment was installed. On Aug. 28, 2013, the station went back on the air as Kanesatake United Voices Radio. With a small antenna tower next to the building and a signal of just 11 watts, it can’t be heard outside Kanesatake, Oka and Hudson, but it has started fulfilling its mission of bringing the community together.

“There are a lot of tensions in the community among different families,” Tahkwa Nelson said. But with the radio station, “people have all come together, put their beefs aside and had fun.”

The station’s programming is mainly country and rock music, and is mostly automated during the evenings and overnight. Like K103, its main revenue source is radio bingo, which it does on Wednesday nights.

Part of the motivation for bringing the station back is that the new team has connections to the old. “My mom was on the board of directors herself when the radio station first started,” Tahkwa Nelson said, reminiscing about helping her bring milk crates filled with records to the studio, and of working part-time here in 1999. “I remember them going around the town on a bullhorn. That’s how they (marketed the station).”

James Nelson said he practically lived at the station with his mother during the Oka Crisis, but didn’t have any experience in broadcasting before this. “It’s all a learning experience for us,” he said. “None of us went to a broadcast school. We just came in here and winged it. But we got a lot of help.”

Etienne used to be a DJ here in her teens, though she has a more off-air role now, trying to promote the station. “I’m very happy and excited about the progress,” she said. “Every new little step makes me proud. We’re doing something a lot of people said we couldn’t do. Proving naysayers wrong is always my favourite thing to do.”

“It’s not hard to be motivated to come to work,” said James Nelson, who goes by the name Moose on the air and acts as the station manager. “I love the people I work with. I love coming here. People would call us not to make requests, just to say: ‘You’re doing a great job.’ ”

CKHQ holds its second annual corn roast, with performances from local bands, Saturday, Sept. 6, from 1 to 10 p.m. at Ratihente High School in Kanesatake. Tickets cost $15 at the door.


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