Catching the wave

A 75-year-old private station in Yarmouth has found a niche in the era of modern radio.

By Chris Muise

CATCH THE WAVE - CJLS's Main Street office, just above the local Tim Hortons. (Photo by: Chris Muise)
Catch The Wave - CJLS's Main Street office, just above the local Tim Hortons. (Photo: Chris Muise)

By Chris Muise

As groggy motorists drag themselves to their cars, they catch a whiff of the flats, Yarmouth harbour’s way of saying, “Good morning, sunshine.” Their Tim’s slowly cooling in their cup holders, they switch on their radios. Chances are good that it’s been preset to 95.5 FM.

Those tuning in at 7:15 a.m. are greeted by their slogan, “Catch the Wave,” and Sean McClelland’s smooth voice as he introduces Gary Ellis of the local Murray GM Dealership. Before he gets to the fantastic savings and low interest rates, Ellis starts his segment with a joke, a really bad joke. Something like this:

“How do you cure swine flu?”

“Apply Oinkment”

7:17 a.m.; Cue collective groan.

As he does every morning during the week, Dwayne Allen, a production foreman at Scotia Garden Seafood Inc., sits in the break room with his coworkers and hears this attempt at humour.

“They’re groaners,” said Dwayne. “Gary’s been doing these jokes so long that I think people are getting pretty tired of him.”

For the rest of the morning, people are talking about how bad the joke was. Or how funny it was. Some might even complain about it, or find it offensive. But either way, they’re talking about it. Even something as innocuous as a car salesman telling a stinker is a topic for discussion in Yarmouth, simply because it’s on CJLS.

Local, local, local…

CJLS is a privately-owned community radio station in southern Nova Scotia, covering Yarmouth, Digby and Shelburne counties. Owned and operated by people living in the region, the station prides itself with keeping in touch with the issues and interests of the town.

“In real estate, it’s ‘Location, Location, Location,’” said Ray Zinck, co-owner and president of CJLS. “In radio, it’s ‘Local, Local, Local.'”

The station has been a part of the community for a long time, having just celebrated its 75th year. Broadcasting on September 17 from the Rodd Grand Hotel (the first home of “The Wave”), more than 2,000 Yarmouthians browsed displays of old-time radio boxes, 45s and a razor blade once used to edit tape.

"ON THE AIR - Heartly Reede performs live from the Grand Hotel on CJLS's 75th birthday." (Photo by Michael Muise)
"On The Air - Heartly Reede performs live from the Grand Hotel on CJLS's 75th birthday." (Photo: Michael Muise)

“That was way beyond my expectations,” said Zinck.

CJLS is one of the oldest stations in the Maritimes. Founded in 1934 by Laurie Smith, the station came to be owned by Zinck, and his co-owner Chris Perry in 1998.

Corporate radio stations had interests in CJLS at the time as well. Zinck believes that by not selling to those interests, better minds prevailed.

“The owner wanted to sell to a local group of people,” said Zinck. “I would like to believe that he wanted to keep the local radio station local.”

Buying radio stations and managing them off-site has become a trend in recent years;

“In the United States,” said Kim Kierans, “they went to this automatic broadcasting, this voice track radio, where there was never a person in the station. What they found is that people knew instinctively that there was no one there really talking to them.”

Kierans, the director of Journalism at the University of King’s College in Halifax, said that this trend began in the 80s when the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission dictated that private radio stations no longer needed to report as much news as they had been required to do previously.

“News costs money,” Kierans said. “All of a sudden, a newsroom like C100 (in Halifax), an award-winning newsroom with 16 reporters, went to two overnight.”

With the emergence of small low-power stations in recent years steadily gaining support from their communities, it would appear that people have a desire for something more substantial on their airwaves.

“”People want to talk to each other,” said Kierans. “They want community.”

In this regard, CJLS is ahead of the curve. They’ve been all about community for decades.

“They’re telling stories of the community, so you’re hearing your neighbor on the radio,” said Kierans. “They’re very local, their rooted in their community, and that creates a sense of loyalty among businesses.”

Betting on a winning horse

Local businesses get behind local radio, Kierans explains, because they have faith that their interests coincide; both want to speak directly to the community, and provide a service, and there is a trust that by working together, they can meet the same goals.

There’s an added bonus for the small-town business owner, because they know to bet on a winning horse. They know what channel their customers tune to.

Blaine Anthony runs a green grocer and garden supply store just on the outskirts of Yarmouth called Dayton Fruit & Vegetable. When looking for a place to promote his produce, it was pretty obvious where his market lay.

“I felt that they were community-minded,” said Anthony.

“I’ve always found that companies that have one or two or three more stations or businesses tend to run them all the same,” said Anthony. “With a local radio station like CJLS, they give you a little more airtime. With some bigger companies that we deal with, there’s no camaraderie; there’s nothing. You pay for your minute and you’re only going to get a minute.”

CJLS, on the other hand, considers itself a “mom-and-pop” station.

“You have to stay local, whether its a little traffic jam, a group of basketball players having a car wash on a Saturday morning and they’re trying to raise money for their championship game and we go out and do a live hit,” said Zinck. “That’s the strength of this radio station.”

“When I read the early newspapers,” Zinck added, “it’s almost a carbon copy of what I just said.”

CJLS’s stranglehold on the airwaves in Yarmouth is one of the town’s constants.

“Among all of the businesses that have been in Yarmouth for years, it is one of the longest running ones that is still operating,” said Jamie Serran, the archivist for Yarmouth County Museum and Archives. “Several closed recently in the last couple of years, and to have this one that’s been around for the last 75 years and is still going strong is very impressive.”

David Doucette was on the Minor Hockey Board from 2004-2008 as Registrar, and currently coaches his son’s hockey team.

“My son has been playing since he was five,” said Doucette. “ He’s about to turn 13.”

Doucette says that CJLS has a sizable impact on the popularity of all sorts of sports events in Yarmouth. From announcing tryout times to promoting the all-girls team Chicks with Sticks as they head for their championship game, they’re the station to go with if you want to get bums in the seats.

“It’s important that you get the message out to them, because they get the message out to the local area,” said Doucette.

Zinck believes that CJLS’s success stems directly from this symbiotic relationship with the community.

“I think it’s a glove-and-hand relationship. We both support each other.”

“I’m it.”

When White Juan hit the shores of Southwest Nova Scotia in 2003, CJLS showed its value to the community, says News Director Gary Nickerson.

“What we do is we go to work, regardless of if it’s two o’clock in the afternoon or two o’clock in the morning,” said Nickerson.

“I actually had to climb out a window in the kitchen to get out of my house.”

The phone lines were made available for people to call in, which they did in droves. Stranded people across town called in to the station, allowing the RCMP to respond to emergencies of which they were otherwise unaware.

Nickerson won regional and national awards for the coverage of Juan, but for him the greatest accolades were the ones he got from the townspeople. “People were writing us letters and emails and calling us and saying ‘you were there for us, you gave us comfort, it was nice to turn on the radio and hear voices live letting us know what was going on.’”

If you were thinking that Nickerson must have a fabulous news team to be able to coordinate a story with so much impact, think again.

“I’m it,” said Nickerson.

In his time, the largest the newsroom at CJLS has ever been was when Ray Zinck was news director, with three reporters on staff. But between the Yarmouth fisheries industry falling short a few years ago and the recent global economy, times called for tightened belts.

"YOUR FAVORITE RADIO STATION - An old flier for CJLS showcasing a new news program schedule." (Photo by Chris Muise)
"Your Favorite Radio Station - An old flier for CJLS showcasing a new news program schedule." (Photo: Chris Muise)

“Revenues weren’t growing that fast; the decision was made by the owners to cut somewhere,” said Nickerson. “Often those cuts do come out of the newsroom.”

Co-owner Chris Perry commented that while the station is facing a downturn, it could be worse.

“On a percentage basis, some businesses are reporting severe losses, 20, 25, 30 per cent,” said Perry. “We’re probably down only three or four per cent.”

Perry declined to discuss just how much money the station makes.

For Nickerson, the bottom line affects the quality of the news he’s able to report.

“It was much easier to get out there and get the news. It wasn’t so stressful on just one person,” said Nickerson. “We just can’t cover things in the community like we used to.”

“We scoop them on a regular basis,” said Tina Comeau, reporter for Yarmouth’s weekly newspaper, the Vanguard.

The Vanguard has four reporters including Comeau, and an editor. “We kind of out-number them in that respect,” said Comeau.

Nickerson may not have as many people on staff, but he has a flock of amateur reporters on-call. Folks call in with news stories, event listings, and traffic updates frequently.

When the old Odeon movie theatre in downtown Yarmouth was on the verge of collapse, someone had the presence of mind to call Nickerson in the newsroom.

He got there as fast as he could. As soon as he went on the air, the building collapsed.

Hundreds of people watched as a local landmark tumbled to the ground, the painted Smurfs on the side disintegrating and crashing into the Toots convenience store.

It was a major story at the time. Because one caller got in touch with the Newsroom, CJLS was the first to know. Many people driving on Main Street found out over their car radios before driving by the wreckage.

“How much of a relationship you’ve established with your reading public or your listening public for them to pick up the phone and call you when they see news happening,” is a sign of success, says Comeau.

For Zinck, proof positive that CJLS was relevant came in his early days working at the Western Nova Scotia Exhibition.

“I was at the booth working as an announcer,” said Zinck, “and I’ll never forget; a lady walked up and asked for my autograph, because I worked in radio. That’s always stayed with me, in terms of how important we were, and how important the radio station was to this area.”

“I guess for me, that was my welcome to Yarmouth.”

How long it will last as an independent radio station, no one can say for sure. The station’s had good fortune so far, but someday, the owners could retire, and a conglomerate might be the only one able to pick it up.

Rest assured; Gary Ellis will be on the air ready with more groaners to start the day.