Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Lake Cowichan radio station has a small voice, but big plans

Michael Bishop sits before the microphone at radio station CICV in Lake Cowichan on Vancouver Island, a community station beaming to surrounding hamlets with five watts of power at 98.7 FM. Chad Hipolito photographs for the Globe and Mail.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
February 6, 2012


A jar rests near the microphone at the radio station, a glass repository for coins coaxed from visitors’ pockets and purses.

A community radio station can be a nickel-and-dime affair.

Welcome to the office, studio and temporary fundraising centre of CICV, a community station found at 98.7 FM on the dial. They call themselves The Lake.

“We’re lake oriented up here,” said Michael Bishop, the chair of the station’s elected board of directors.

You can find the station in a white, two-storey building surrounded by a picket fence at 37 Wellington Road West in Lake Cowichan, “one block from the United Church,” the station website helpfully explains, “on a plot of land where the E&N railroad used to run.” The building is a former forest rangers station. With a gambrel roof, it looks like an old barn.

The antenna outside stands just 14-meters tall. On a good day, it sends the signal as far afield as Mesachie Lake, about six kilometres to the west. It does not always get as far as Honeymoon Bay, another four kilometres down the road, or across the lake to Youbou, both of which are in the shadow of Bald Mountain, a peak on a peninsula that juts into the lake.

The staff suggests attaching old-fashioned rabbit ears to a home radio to improve reception.

Five watts — count ’em, 5 — only gives you so much juice.

Even that pipsqueak voice is under threat. The station approaches a deadline in August by which time their temporary broadcast license — a learner’s permit is how Mr. Bishop describes it — will expire. They need to raise at least $5,000, and perhaps as much as $15,000, to complete an engineering study.

“We only have two little things to overcome,” Mr. Bishop said. “Time and money.”

It is a heady sum for the station, which depends on volunteers and whose greatest asset is the goodwill of a listening audience whose numbers they cannot even afford to count.

If they raise the money and succeed in hiring an engineering firm to complete a technical report for the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, the station intends to apply for a 50-watt license.

“We’re hoping to get it done on the cheap,” he said. “We’re in a small community and we want to stay here.”

If they fail, then such shows as The Psychedelicatessen (Randy Liboiron’s pick of weird music from 1960 to ’75) and Grandma Grace Storytime (during which Grace Bond reads children’s stories) will fall silent.

The station first hit the airwaves two years ago with items like a fisherman’s report highlighting cutthroat hot spots on Cowichan Lake.

The current schedule features lots of music — none of it appearing on the current Billboard 100, as dictated by their license — and old-time radio dramas.

Much of the programming is like leaning over the back fence to chat with the neighbours.

The station airs 13 local programs, beginning the broadcast week sharply at 9 a.m. Sunday with Animal Health Care, a husbandry show hosted by the aptly named Elaine Nurse. This is followed in the afternoon by Gary’s Gospel Mix with Gary Dyck.

On Tuesday and Thursday, local writer Catherine Dook presents Dock Diaries, featuring anecdotes about misadventures as a houseboat habitu├ę. Mr. Bishop hosts his own show, too, called, not surprisingly, Open Mike, featuring a mix of “news, views and interviews.”

The airwaves are open to just about anyone with a willingness to don headphones and speak into the ether. Just the other day, Lindsey Hartshorn, the local high-school drama teacher, presented a radio drama written and performed by her pupils.

The station regulars now hope some of the teens might develop a regular show of their own.

The station currently reaches about 5,000 residents, a population that grows in summer, when city dwellers flee the Capital District and the Lower Mainland to enjoy the lake’s icy waters. Even so, Mr. Bishop estimates the listening audience numbers in the three figures.

Meanwhile, The Lake can be heard streaming on the Internet at cicv.streamon.fm, thanks to the sponsorship of a Victoria company that offers hyperbaric treatments.

The SOS (Save Our Station) campaign is off to a slow start, but the volunteers are hopeful, especially since Island Savings and Credit Union is accepting donations at any branch.

The station takes seriously its responsibilities. They want to stay on the air at least to be able to provide information should the area face a disaster, such as an earthquake, or forest fire.

On a good day, the staff even dreams about someday moving the antenna from the shadow of Bald Mountain to its peak

Just one thing.

Don’t drop your coins in the glass jar near the microphone when the red light is on.

Michael Bishop, host of Open Mike, stands outside the station's office and studio, located in a converted forest rangers' station.