The Little Station that Could

By Andrea Jerrett

Seaside FM offers listeners a unique easy-listening format, charismatic on-air personalities and a dose of local news and entertainment. If it gains approval for a new license, it could prove fierce competition for other radio stations in metro.

600 Seaside

Seaside FM started out as a one-watt radio station in Wayne Harrett’s mini-home. Now at 50 watts, Harrett estimates Seaside FM has around 20,000 listeners in Metro.

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By Andrea Jerrett

One night in 1998, Wally Buckoski was driving around a trailer park in Eastern Passage when he heard a faint broadcast coming in over his car radio.

The sound grew louder as he approached a home, and he noticed a large radio antenna sticking out of the roof of a shed. Homeowner Wayne Harrett happened to be outside, so Buckoski stopped to ask him where the broadcast was coming from.

It turned out Harrett had set up a one-watt unlicensed station — Seaside FM. He had turned a spare room into a makeshift studio.

“The next thing you know, I was on the air,” says Buckoski, who did broadcasts from the Shearwater International Air Show. “I’ve always had a love for radio.”

Seaside is now legally licensed, with a signal of 50 watts. It is kept on the air by 35 volunteers, including Buckoski, who hosts “Breakfast with the B” on Saturday mornings.

The station is seeking approval to upgrade to 1,400 watts, and if successful, it could give bigger radio stations in metro some competition.

We’ve Only Just Begun

seaside frankHarrett always wanted to be in radio, but a speech impediment prevented him from pursuing a professional broadcast career. Starting a station under his own format felt like a step in the right direction.

“Radio is art,” says Harrett. “Some people don’t realize that, but it is. It impacts on people.”

Harrett broadcast from the home where Buckoski stumbled across him for a few months, then found a new canvas for his art. In the summer of 1998, Industry Canada approved his application for a special events license. Harrett recruited several local broadcasters, including J.C. Douglas and Paul Marr, to broadcast from the summer carnival days in Eastern Passage and to play a wide variety of easy listening music.

“The feedback was amazing,” says Harrett. “People were calling and saying ‘that’s what we want!'”

Armand Pinard and his wife Florence stumbled across Seaside FM during a special Christmas broadcast. After years of scanning different radio stations in search of easy listening music, they locked in 94.7 on their dial.

“When you . . . have to listen to banging and clanging (that you find on other stations), you realize there’s something more than that,” says the Cole Harbour resident. “When I’m listening to radio, I want to listen to something that’s relaxing . . . and easy listening is relaxing.”

Harrett broadcast with a special events license until 2001, when listeners signed a petition, asking him to apply for a full-time broadcast license.

Harrett applied, and the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) said yes. Harrett announced that Seaside FM — or CFEP — would be going full-time. The calls poured in.

“One lady, she was crying!” says Harrett. “She said she had been waiting for this music for a long time.”

The first official broadcast came on Aug. 5, 2002, at 9:47 a.m., an echo of Seaside’s frequency, 94.7. Singer Karen Carpenter christened the new station as “We’ve Only Just Begun” penetrated the air waves.

But the volunteers and equipment had outgrown Harrett’s mini-home, so they settled in the church hall of St. Andrew’s Roman Catholic Church, until July 2006. Now the volunteers occupy the upstairs of a 1940s home on Shore Road.

It took six months to transform the house into a radio station, and it wasn’t uncommon to hear the pounding of hammers and buzzing of drills and saws during live broadcasts. Now it’s equipped with a master control room, programming studio, music library, news booth and administrative office. With a view of the shore and boardwalk at Fisherman’s Cove, Seaside FM earns its name well.

“It’s just working out perfect,” says Harrett.

Just Like that Old-Time Radio…

Since its initial broadcast, Seaside FM has earned five “Radio Station of the Year” nominations at the East Coast Music Awards. Geared towards a mature adult audience of age 50 and up, the station features a mix of easy listening selections not usually heard on more commercial stations in metro.

“The friends of Seaside FM number in the thousands,” says announcer Frank Cameron, now retired from the CBC and CHNS.

A phone survey conducted in 2005 by Seaside FM found 20,000 listeners. So what’s the attraction? Cameron and Harrett say that listeners are tuning in for unique music not heard on other stations, and personable on-air announcers who are actually live most of the time.

“People are tired of hearing the same old stuff day after day,” says Cameron. “You can take all the private radio stations in this city . . . and if you lump them all together they sound the same, but this one doesn’t.”

“Dear Florence had it on everyday of her life, morning, noon and night,” Pinard says of his wife, who passed away last spring. “I think they’re a great radio station.”

There are easily 1,000 CDs in the master control room, and more than 1,000 records in the music library. That’s right – records. As in LPs, and they’re still played on turntables in the station. Many have been dropped off by listeners, eager to share their treasures with Seaside.

With tunes from crooners such as Frank Sinatra, folk artists such as Gordon Lightfoot, and current hits courtesy of Michael Buble, emanating from Seaside FM, you never know what you’ll hear on 94.7.

Buckoski says that nostalgia is a draw, as many of Seaside’s older audience members grew up gathering around the radio. Between the various shows dedicated to genres such as jazz and big band, the veteran broadcasters and their unique way of communicating to the audience, Seaside FM is reminiscent of “old-time radio.”

“Seaside is what I remember radio as being when I started out,” says Kim Kierans, a journalism professor who studies media concentration. “It”s people in studios playing CDs and talking to an audience, and they have a very clear idea of community, who their community is and who’s listening. So it’s very personal, it’s very local and very engaging.”

Announcers read a five-minute newscast every 30 minutes between 7 a.m. and 8:30 p.m. with local news taking the lead, followed by regional, national and international news. The announcers get their news from press releases, government websites, news services and local newspapers. Some announcers are trained journalists — George Jordan spent 24 years at the CBC and Krista Cook broadcasts for VoicePrint Canada — while others are community members. Sixty per cent of news is local, which fits within the station’s mandate to concentrate on community news and events, and fulfills its obligations as a community radio station as classified with the CRTC. Being a community station also means that Seaside must remain not-for-profit. All the announcers are volunteers and any money made from advertising goes towards rent, equipment maintenance and other crucial services.

The CRTC lists 97 community radio stations operating nationwide, five in Nova Scotia. These stations must differ in programming from commercial radio stations and the CBC, and include a diverse range of music and spoken word content. Community radio stations are also expected to involve community members in the operation of the station and programming.

“It’s now at the point sometimes where we have to say ‘we’ll put your name on file,'” says Harrett of the volunteers.

Seaside FM reports from local events, and the mostly live format allows for constant updates on weather and even lost pets in the area. When Hurricane Juan hit in 2003, the station kept its power and announcer Matt Buffett broadcast on the conditions throughout the night. Callers are encouraged to get involved by making requests, even on weekends and at night.

“They love that they can call in and talk to us…they rely on that,” says Harrett. “The listeners are the true stars. Without the listeners we wouldn’t be here.”

Personal donations and support during fundraisers make this statement all too true, as the station relies on advertisers and fundraising efforts to survive.

Last May the station held its first fundraiser during which the announcers asked listeners to call in and make donations. Buckoski says they weren’t expecting to receive more than $8,000, but after 10 days the public had donated over $35,000.

Playing With the Big Boys Now

One of the biggest obstacles facing the station is its signal, which, at only 50 watts, is weaker than the light bulb in your refrigerator. A lengthy column on the station’s website is dedicated to “reception tips,” and includes advice such as carrying a portable radio from room to room until the signal is strong enough, and buying a rooftop antenna.

seaside wallyListeners have written more than 600 letters asking for a stronger signal, and Harrett has applied to the CRTC to upgrade from a low-power FM station to a class A station with 1,400 watts. As a low-power station, Seaside’s frequency of 94.7 could be snatched away. As a class A station, its frequency might change initially, but then it would be protected. A stronger signal would also increase the sound quality, and extend Seaside’s coverage more deeply into metro.

The competition has never been greater among Metro Halifax radio stations than it is now. Several new FM outlets have opened here since 2004, and the Maritime Broadcasting System flipped its AM oldies station to FM as the city’s new classic rock outlet, HAL 89.9. So how will Seaside penetrate even deeper into an already booming market?

“We are a flea on their dial . . . but they know we’re out there,” says Harrett of other stations.

Cameron says the constant phone calls and baked goods, frequently dropped off by dedicated listeners, prove that Seaside has appeal. If the application to become a Class A 1,400 watt station is approved, he says other stations might feel the heat.

“It would certainly shake up the other stations,” agrees Kierans. “But it’s a long term thing. I don’t think it would happen right away.”

But local stations don’t seem too concerned. Allan Gidyk, operations manager at classic rock station Hal FM 89.9 — estimated by the Bureau of Broadcast Management to have 53,000 listeners — says that most commercial radio stations wouldn’t consider Seaside FM to be heavy competition, mostly because of its size and format.

“There’s only so much room in the world for Duke Ellington, for people under the age of 60,” says Gidyk. And, “If you’re fighting 100,000 watts with 1,400, you’re still a few steps behind.”

He does believe that Seaside attracts its own niche and serves its listening community well. He says Seaside meets the need for easy listening, without taking away from other stations.

Until Seaside gains approval from the CRTC, its impact will likely be greatest around its community of Eastern Passage. If it receives approval to upgrade to 1,400 watts, more people may start changing their dials to 94.7 FM.

“There’s really a lot to like about this place,” says Cameron. “Quite honestly, I think we’ve got it made.”