Prior to the mid 1950s most of the rural communities in the Central Cariboo/Chilcotin region were very isolated.
The communication devices we take for granted today — cell phones, satellite phones and computers — did not even exist.
Some places had telephone service, usually party lines, but many did not. Even electricity was not yet widely available.
As for radios, people tried to stay connected with battery powered sets, but there were no local broadcasting stations, so no local news, weather, or programming.
If atmospheric conditions were just right, especially at night, the CBC station out of Vancouver, via a rebroadcasting signal, could be tuned in for Canadian news or hockey games. Signals from other powerful American stations could also come in clearly on occasion, but all told, radio signals were spotty and undependable.
It was into this market, starving for a unique and local radio presence, that five Quesnel broadcast entrepreneurs, John Boates, Bob Leckie, Denny Reid, Jim Ritchie and Fred Webber in 1957 began a small, independent radio station with the call letters CKCQ.
It operated out of a small storefront space at the foot of Reid St. in Quesnel from 7 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week and was aimed at the middle of the road/easy listening/country audience.
This station was intended to serve the local market, and its founders left a strong obligation to serve all of the communities reached by its signal.
Each of the five principal owners did a little bit of everything at the new station. John Boates was the sales manager and also worked on air, hosting the early morning show. Bob Leckie took on the role of program director, but also did an afternoon slot as well as taking on live sports broadcasts.
Fred Webber designed the station and was the engineer. He later went on to operate stations in Terrace, Kitimat and Prince Rupert. Denny Reid, who had come from Kelowna where he had worked with Bob Leckie and John Boates in the early 1950s, left his position as assistant manager at CKOV to take up a similar role in Quesnel.
He did the on air newscasts and filled in where needed.
Jim Ritchie was involved in the financing side of the business. From the outset, the partners worked together very well and the atmosphere that was established was akin to an extended family.
The first full day of licensed broadcasting took place on Aug. 28, 1957. All of the advertising revenue for that day, a grand total of $718, was turned over to the Quesnel Civic Arena centennial roofing project, the first of many community service activities and fundraisers supported or organized by the station.
Almost immediately, CKCQ was embraced by people throughout the area. Harold “Dude” Lavington, a rancher from the remote Baker Creek region west of Quesnel, in his book “Born to be Hung,” writes:
“There were many public service programs, Music from Other Lands, International Hour, Trading Post (where you could trade off most anything but your wife), hockey games (Foster Hewitt had nothing on Bob Leckie!), Community Club that gave us all the community doings for miles in every direction, and many more … There were church programs from all churches. But most of all, the regular message programs helped so much.”
How many of these programs can you remember? There was the Lucky Logger Breakfast Club with John Boates, Message Time, Club Calendar, the Trading post, Lost and Found, the Bundle of Joy program, Morning Devotions with a local pastor, the Cariboo Caravan Show including the Open Mike segment, the Weather Roundup, the noon hour Melody Lane, the afternoon Party Line Show with the Coffee Break segment, the family Fireside Hour on Friday evenings, the weekday evening Mostly Music Show, the Easy Listening Hour during supper time, Sunday morning live Church Broadcasts, Kiddies Time, the Farm market and regular newscasts.
Live local and regional sportscasts (hockey, curling and even softball games, basketball, golf tournaments and boxing bouts) were presented as well.
There was no doubt that the programming was focused on, and catered to the local listeners.
As Lavington pointed out, without a doubt the message Time broadcasts were the most listened to and popular community service feature. They came on three times each day, at 12:30, 6:15 and 10;15 p.m., and they kept everyone in the far flung ranches, reserves and communities connected.
Lavington likened them to “the old party line telephone that all the neighbours listened in on, so that you always knew what everybody else was doing.”
At first, people were so fascinated with message time that they would send messages to themselves just to hear their names on the air, but as the program became established, it turned into a crucial vehicle for passing information along, and the rural listeners would seldom miss it. Sometimes it took more than 15 minutes to read all the messages.
The broadcasters who were reading the messages were supposed to proofread them ahead of time, but somehow that rarely happened, leading to some humorous on-air moments when fake messages or intentional word changes were included.
Ken Wilson recalls one occasion when a new RCMP constable arrived in town and someone slipped in a bogus message, supposedly from a popular local woman, “To Constable ______. Please come and pick up your clothes that you left at my place last night.”
Another message was addressed “To the Pelicans at Peterson lake,” instead of “To the Petersons at Pelican Lake,” was written and received all sorts of ribbing for the gaffe. Most messages were not humorous. They dealt with births, deaths, equipment pick ups, doctors and dentists’ appointments, church services, and hospital announcements.
“Your child is being discharged tomorrow. Please come and pick him up.” Personal messages, both positive and negative, were also common.
One time, a distraught young woman called from Prince George to request that a message be sent out to a young cowboy on a distant ranch.
Her message was for him to come to Prince George because she was in hospital there having his baby.
What went out on the air was: “______ in Prince George needs to speak with you in person as soon as possible about an urgent personal matter.”
Some people became adept at coding their messages so that only those for whom they were intended would understand what they really meant.
It was said that Message Time was the “baptism by fire” for rookie announcers who had never even heard of names like Tatlayoko, Chezacut, Anahim, Nazko, Klushkus and Batnuni, much less how to pronounce them.
For almost 50 years, Message Time, which had been conceived by Fred Webber and Denny Reid, continued to be a real lifeline, connecting people in their home communities with the outside world.
In 1958, Gil McCall was recruited from Edmonton. He began working at CKCQ on Valentine’s Day, and his distinctive voice became an on-air fixture for more than 40 years. Gil was soon promoted to program director, and “the man from Sheep Tracks, Alberta” quickly put his personal stamp on the programming with his popular Morning Caravan Show.
Included in this show was an Open-Mike piece, for which callers could call in and express their opinions on issues of the day.
There were some persistent and regular contributors, and sometimes it took all Gil’s professional skills to deal with the calls.
In 1982, McCall was presented with the B.C. Association of Broadcasters’ Roy Chapman Memorial Award as B.C. Broadcast Performer of the Year, the first small market radio personality to receive this recognition.
He remained with Cariboo Radio, serving in many capacities until his retirement in Williams Lake in 2006.
Two years after Gil McCall’s arrival, a small repeater station with the call letters CKCQ-1 was opened in Williams Lake.
It was located just north of the ‘Y’ on Highway 97 in a small building.
The staff had living quarters in the rear. With this expansion, Cariboo Radio became the first private radio network in Western Canada, and Williams Lake became the smallest town in Canada to have its own radio station. Cariboo Radio was promoted as “Canada’s only full-time privately owned radio network.”
During those early years, the signal was relayed from Quesnel to Williams Lake over the telephone line, resulting in a poor quality, tinny sound.
The first on-air disc jockey was Denny Carr, who had joined CKCQ about four months after it went on the air. Denny left the network in 1961 and went on to a long and successful career in radio in Saskatoon.
He was awarded the Order of Canada for his community service there, and a statue of him can still be seen in the downtown area.
In 1964, Bob Leckie moved to Williams Lake as manager and program director, still filling in on air and doing many of the play-by-play sports broadcasts.
The station’s call letter were changed to CKWL, and the two sister stations were billed as “The Twin Voice of the Big Country.”
CKWL moved to the offices above what is now Ken’s Restaurant, and considerable work was done to improve its audio signal and to upgrade the connections between it and CKCQ.
In 1971, the network added a third station, CKBX in 100 Mile House.
Not to be outdone by Williams Lake, 100 Mile now claimed that they were the smallest village in Canada to have their own radio station.
Ken Wilson, the “little guy at three feet, 18 inches,” had originally worked at CKCQ as a disc jockey in 1965.
After two and a half years, he moved on to Nelson to work at a station there.
He was recruited again by Denny Reid and Gil McCall for a position at 100 Mile.
They met him in Cache Creek and made him “an offer he couldn’t refuse.”
Ken became a jack- of-all-trades at CKBX — station manager, program director, on-air announcer, sales person, and engineer.
He remained at CKBX for 10 years before moving up to Williams Lake to work at CKWL.
That same year, 1971, Denny Reid retired from broadcasting.
His career culminated in his earning the prestigious BCAB Broadcaster of the Year award, an honour which his friend and colleague John Boates had received four years earlier in 1967.
In 1982, the network was purchased by Cariboo Central Interior Radio Limited out of Prince George. Big changes were in the works, including a move to the FM format and many smaller operations being incorporated into larger broadcasting groups.
It was the beginning of the end for local, independent stations and the end of an era for specialized, local programming.
Since then, the three stations have gone through a number of transformations and owners.
The network is currently known as the GOAT and Cariboo Country.
Over the years since that first broadcast in 1957, there have been several alumni who “cut their teeth” at Cariboo Radio, and who have gone on to have noteworthy careers in broadcasting and other related endeavours. Some of these personalities include:
• Stan Bailey, who moved on from Williams Lake to have a 40-year career at CHNL in Kamloops.
• Don Prentice, a well-known broadcaster and city ambassador who moved on to CJCI in Prince George
• Patrick Nicholson, who went to CHPQ-FM (Parksville/Qualicum) as Program Director and on-air personality
• Michael McIvor, who moved to Toronto to become a well-known CBC reporter, foreign correspondent and program host
• Jas Johal, who started at CKWL along with Jason Ryll while both were still in high school, and who became a reporter on Global TV in Vancouver, then moved into provincial politics
• Mike Halleran, a native of Quesnel, who went on to become a CBC journalist and TV producer
• Sam Coryiya, originally a newscast at CKCQ who became the provincial press secretary for the B.C. Liberal Party
• Wayne Cox, who began his career in broadcasting at CKCQ, then moved on to CKNW radio in Vancouver, and eventually became a Global News Hour weather man.
There were many others who had long and successful careers right here in the Cariboo.
The names and voices of personalities such as Myles Green, who began with CKCQ on Aug. 27, 1963 and retired from the station on Nov. 30, 2006, Robin Creamore, Heather Gagnon, Patrick Reid, and Terry Shepherd will be familiar to many old listeners.
For a quarter of a century, the Cariboo Radio network played an important part in the lives of its listeners.
It informed, entertained, connected, and offered home grown programs to people throughout the region.
It has become another piece of our local history that many of us remember with fondness and nostalgia.
For this article I relied on conversations with, and memorabilia from Bev Boates (Solly), Ken Wilson, and Terry Shepherd, along with the writings of H. Lavington and some online research.