This is the Life: Technology helping to keep magic of radio alive

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Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.

I have spent most of my life describing myself as a newspaperman, but rarely a day passes when I don’t turn to radio for news and entertainment.

My fascination with radio dates back to my childhood, when I loved lying in bed, two-transistor radio close to my ear, so I could listen to hockey games. In my adolescence I tuned in to CKXL in Calgary to hear the latest pop music charts and, later in the evening, to CFCN’s talk radio show, which fed my fascination with UFOs. When we built our house in Riverview I installed an antenna and got a shortwave radio. At night I tuned in to stations around the world. And I couldn’t resist Larry King’s call-in show, which, unlike his television career, was nothing short of brilliant.

The technology now available to us has made it even better for radio lovers. I have a dozen shows that I download regularly as podcasts so I can listen to them at my leisure. They are primarily CBC and NPR shows and for years my absolutely favourite has been This American Life, a weekly one-hour show of short documentaries hosted by Ira Glass. It is radio at its absolute best.

Recently, even as I struggle to find the time to keep up with my podcasts (because I love listening to music of my own choice, too), I have fallen head over heels in love with a show out of Alberta on CKUA, which is surely one of the best radio networks on the planet. CKUA became Canada’s first public broadcaster when it went on air at the University of Alberta in 1927, sending signals out from a prototypical 500-watt station. Its program hosts play a wonderful selection of music and I used to listen to it a lot before I shut down our satellite TV service at home.

I just never seemed to remember that I could listen on the Internet, but all that changed a few months ago when I came across The Road Home, which airs Monday to Thursday evenings at 9 (and rebroadcasts from Monday to Friday at 5 a.m.). The Road Home is the brainchild of longtime radio personality Bob Chelmick, who now lives in a cabin an hour north of Edmonton on a large acreage. He is not connected to the electrical grid and uses solar power backed up by a generator. From the remote location, he produces a program of music and spoken word, which includes his observations about his rural life.

Each one-hour program has a theme, and Chelmick’s hypnotic voice is often heard reading from his large collection of poetry books and introducing songs meticulously selected from his collection of 39,000 singles stored in iTunes on his computer. Occasionally, Chelmick offers some insight to listeners about how the show is put together (years ago, when he pitched the show to CKUA’s manager, he was advised not to use the word “poetry” in the intro because no one would listen). On the Monday morning that I write this piece, he described the complications of creating each program. Each of the songs stored on his computer’s hard drive has key words attached to the file, so he can simply conduct a search to find potential pieces for the show.

It isn’t so easy with the poetry (or “spoken word”, I should say). No metadata searches here — his dozens of poetry books are spiked with tabs containing keywords. They look like porcupines, he says. On this particular morning he put out a plea for listeners who might volunteer to go through the poems in a book and enter keywords from each into a computer file, which would allow him to search for them digitally. With an audience that spreads around the world, he will doubtless get a flood of offers.

Never having been involved in making a radio show, I don’t have a great understanding of the effort it takes to research and write one. But in listening to The Road Home, I had come to appreciate that it is an enormous effort, especially for someone working on his own. True enough. He says it takes from 12-18 hours to produce each episode. In describing it as a labour of love, Chelmick is certainly not exaggerating.

The legalities of copyright have not kept pace with digital technology, so many radio shows cannot be podcast because stations don’t have the necessary rights. But, thanks to Chelmick’s mention, I now use an Internet recording service that allows subscribers to schedule recordings of pretty much any radio show in the world. It is easy to use and, to this point, flawless. Even better, it is simple to download the shows and move them into iTunes, so I can listen to them on a variety of devices at the time of my choosing, and for as long into the future as I like.

I recommend The Road Home to anyone who wants a meditative, thoughtful, edifying hour at the end of the day. It is easy to listen directly from the CKUA radio network website. Be sure to listen to the end, when Chelmick signs off with his gentle caution: “Mind your way.” The words create a bridge to one of the shining lights of our era.

Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.

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