Alberta’s public radio station is relying on donations to stay on the air.

CKUA, the country’s first public broadcaster, has relied significantly on crowdfunding for years. But no money was allotted for it in the federal and provincial budgets in 2024 — and the station needs to raise $3 million by Sept. 30, or its reserves will be drained.

“It’s a perfect storm,” said CEO Marc Carnes. “We’re not immune to the same financial realities that a lot of homes and businesses are in right now, with inflation, the cost of borrowing going up and utilities.”

CKUA also owns the Alberta Hotel on Jasper Avenue in downtown Edmonton. Half the building is rentable commercial space — and most of it is sitting empty after the primary tenant became insolvent last year, Carnes said.

Ironically, the station is still performing well, he said. The audience is growing, while its revenues have remained steady.

A white man with short dark hair and large glasses is standing indoors, in front of a brick wall. He is wearing a casual jacket with a 'CKUA' button on his left breast pocket.
Marc Carnes, CEO of CKUA, is pushing for funding to save the radio station that has been on the air since 1927. (Nick Brizuela/CBC)

“The core business pieces are there. It’s just things that are happening to everybody right now,” he said.

Opposition NDP arts and culture critic Joe Ceci raised the plight of CKUA at the legislature Thursday. During question period, he pressed the United Conservative government about whether it would send money to the station, and how the government would promote it.

In response, Minister of Arts, Culture and Status of Women Tanya Fir noted that the Alberta government gave $5 million to CKUA in 2012 to buy and renovate the Alberta Hotel. Since 2019, the station has received $450,000 in provincial community grants.

Fir acknowledged how significant CKUA is to the province of Alberta in preserving and promoting its culture and history. But she said any provincial dollars would be primarily used to cover the station’s debt obligations, which doesn’t align with the purpose of government capital grants.

“They’re using different measuring sticks for different things,” Ceci later told CBC News.

A white woman with brown hair is wearing a suit. She is talking at a podium.
Minister of Arts, Culture and Status of Women Tanya Fir responded to the Opposition NDP during Thursday’s question period about CKUA. (CBC )

The government is suggesting debt is bad for the arts and culture sector, he said, but it has helped other industries when they need it — namely oil and gas.

Fir’s press secretary Garrett Koehler later told CBC News that the government learned of the radio station’s financial situation in September and that the minister has met with CKUA to discuss its situation.

Carnes said he is hopeful that dialogue with the provincial government continues.

He is also lobbying for funding from the federal government, but that has been more challenging, he said.

He and Fir each noted that the latest federal budget excluded CKUA from millions of dollars earmarked for CBC — Canada’s public broadcaster — and other public interest programming services.

CKUA is hoping to leverage the fact that, when it bought the Alberta Hotel, Ottawa did not match the amount of funding from the City of Edmonton or government of Alberta, Carnes said. The municipal and provincial governments spent $5 million each; the federal government spent $500,000.

‘Heartbeat of the Alberta music scene’

The CKUA music library in Edmonton, which stores recordings dating back 140 years, is renowned. The station, Carnes said, also airs up-and-coming artists, as well as those who are more established.

“If we go dark, it’s a very quiet, sad day in the province,” Carnes said.

Trevor Mann, a band member of Scenic Route to Alaska, considers CKUA a “formative part” of raising the band’s profile because it was one of the first to play their music.

“We truly feel like, without the support of CKUA, we would be nowhere close to where we are today,” he said.

A shelf is stacked with records.
The CKUA library is renowned, holding 140 years of recordings. (Nick Brizuela/CBC)

Mann described the station as “the heartbeat of the Alberta music scene,” but said it might be taken for granted — and its true impact only realized if it disappears.

CKUA has already started raising the $3 million it needs, launching a 10-day donor drive on Friday. As of 3:30 p.m. MT Saturday, it had raised more than $467,000 toward its goal of $775,000.

The $3 million would help the station get by, Carnes said. The station already has plans to attract more tenants into its Edmonton building and to cover higher operating costs.

The money would also help CKUA be able to create a separate fundraising campaign in 2027 — its centennial year — to create an endowment, ensuring the station remains sustainable long-term, he said.

LISTEN | CKUA needs $3M before October to stay on the air: 

Radio Active6:02CKUA needs $3M before October to stay on the air

Find out why Alberta’s historic public broadcaster is struggling

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