CJSW hasn't always been a home for freaks and weirdos. The station started as a short radio program mostly acting as a training ground for straight-laced kids to get a leg up into the world of broadcasting. Their polished radio voices resonated on campus through a student-built PA system and eventually into the University of Calgary's residence buildings.
But there was a shift in the early '80s when CJSW went from a radio club for aspiring broadcasters to an incubator for alternative culture.
"CJSW sort of was the catalyst for Calgary, it's not like it changed the shape of culture, but you know all that stuff was going on in the world and there needed to be a focal point and CJSW was that focal point for a lot years," said Ian Chiclo, a CJSW DJ since the late 1980s and current publisher of FFWD Weekly. "I think it deserves credit for that."
The early years
CJSW started as a 15-minute radio program called Varsity Vista that was aired on CFAC once a week. Bruce Northam, a student at the University of Alberta at Calgary, who also worked part-time at the station, originally produced the show. The program soon spawned a radio club and grew to include programs like Meet the Professor and Introduction to Campus which aimed to promote the idea of an independent university campus. In the fall of 1960, the UAC moved from its home on the SAIT campus to a new campus with four buildings and about 1,000 students. The 30-member radio club moved from recording their broadcasts at CFAC to a two-room recording studio in the basement of the Arts and Administration building where they worked on home-made or donated equipment. A closed circuit PA system built by an engineering student was installed throughout the campus allowing the radio club's broadcasts to be heard around the school. Many of the members from this period went on to professional broadcasting careers, such as Colin McLeod, who started CBC's As it Happens. In 1967, the MacEwan Student Centre was built, the University of Calgary was officially established and the radio club moved into CJSW's current space near the doors of the Den. The Students' Union put up the cash and the money to build state of the art studios and, through electric carrier current, student broadcasts were heard in the U of C's residence buildings.
The station's first citywide broadcasts were heard in the summer of 1972. Money from a government project allowed the station to hire 10 students to run the station 24 hours a day. The project was repeated the next summer and station member Deborah Lamb made history by becoming Calgary's first female DJ.
"In commercial radio, the male voice wasn't even conversational, it was hype, it was top-40, it was rock 'n' roll," said Lamb at the station's 50th anniversary in 2005. "We had a totally different sound in that we all decided we were going to talk to the audience instead of shout at them. . . There were newspaper articles written then about the station, what it was trying to do and that there was a woman's voice. There was this presence that people weren't used to hearing. I think a lot of women started to come to the station after that, in fact, starting in the fall. See, a lot of women used to hang around the station and they would do secretarial jobs and sort albums and things like that, but they weren't actually on air up until that point. And then we started to see a change."
The year is 1977, Allen Baekeland makes his way down to CJSW's offices in the basement of Mac Hall with his English music sensibilities and a copy of New Music Express. The young philosophy major thrived in the growing station as punk rock and new wave became DJ favourites. Baekeland climbed the ranks quickly and was soon the station manager, but he wasn't making any friends at the Students' Union- who were giving $14,000 a year to fund the station.
Baekeland and his friends, Grant Burns, Bill Reynolds and Nick Diochnos made up the core of the Calgary Institute du Pataphysique- a campus club that would spend hours at Dinnie's Den discussing the ideas of the French philosopher Alfred Jarry.
The four even ran a slate in that year's SU elections as the Parti de Pataphysique, promising to turn Mac Hall into a giant green house to raise money by growing pot and then buy an ocean liner to make the campus mobile.
Baekeland describes it as a "culture clash," noting the music the station was playing wasn't the music being listened to by the student population and definitely not the "straight-laced Students' Union types."
"It was like the rest of the world had a musical revolution going on and this was the only place in Calgary that knew anything about it," said Don McSwiney, a station member since 1980, who would later become station manager and then move on to the CBC. "If I was going to write a made for TV drama and populate it with the characters that were running CJSW and volunteering at that time no one would believe it, they'd say 'cut it out with the outrageous stereotypes.' But you had to meet them and see them in action to believe it."
"The [SU] thought we were freaks," said Baekeland. "They thought that they were funding something the students didn't like and we saw our mandate as not necessarily just to the students, but to the city at large to provide a radio alternative."
The battle continued throughout the 1979–80 school year and at the last SU meeting of the year, they decide to shut the station down- after all they owned the space and the equipment. The plan was to change the locks overnight.
"I heard about this because there were a couple people on the union that were sympathetic to me and one let me in on what was going to happen," says Baekeland. "He told me the day that it was going to happen so I made the decision right there and then to stay in the station over night and so at two in the morning the locksmith came to change the locks."
The next morning Baekeland turned up the outdoor speakers that were on the top of Mac Hall and started playing "We Shall Overcome" by Pete Seeger and started calling the media to tell them the story. Some volunteers joined Baekeland in the office and the cops soon broke up their sit in, but the job was done- the city was on the station's side. The Calgary Herald even ran an editorial calling for the station to remain open.