Listeners react to CKUA changes: OFF WITH THEIR HEADS!

GigCity Edmonton Tom Coxworth

Tom Coxworth

CKUA’s decision to axe its local news programming is troubling enough – but the cancellation of Folk Routes has caused a storm of outrage.

Tom Coxworth, host of the popular weekly roots program and fixture of Alberta’s folk music scene, is in limbo. Social media erupted with protests following Monday’s announcement. Some listeners have even cancelled their subscriptions, or threatened to do so unless the decision is reversed. The general feeling one gets from reading CKUA’s message board is “Off with their heads!”

Much of the anger is directed at the new lieutenant, 36-year-old Content Director Adam Fox, who’s been with the station and in Edmonton for about a year. He comes with journalism diploma and a decade of experience in community radio in Windsor, Ontario.

“This wasn’t a cost-cutting move,” he says. As part of CKUA’s overall plan to focus more on music and consolidate resources in Edmonton’s new Alberta Hotel headquarters, he explains, Folk Routes will eventually be replaced with a three-hour “expanded” roots music program with two new two producers who have yet to be hired.

“There’s no question that Folk Routes has been successful and that Tom’s been a great ambassador for CKUA and the folk and roots audience across Alberta,” says Fox. “But the vision we’re trying to advance here is for content that can not only exist in FM radio, but in a digital space.” He says that means producing videos of live performances from the Alberta Hotel space, adding podcasts, on-demand content, a “convergence,” Fox adds, “And in order to do that it means we have to do it in Edmonton.”

GigCity Edmonton Blackie and the Rodeo Kings

Blackie and the Rodeo Kings perform at the new digs

Coxworth, who is based in Calgary, has declined to comment – but a lot of his supporters have no problem. Edmonton folk singer Maria Dunn says she is “extremely disappointed” by the move. “To make a change is one thing, but to make a change that would devalue someone who’s been with the station for 20 years is a real shame.”

Juno winning folk artist Bill Bourne chimed in, “I’m reminded of KPFK in Los Angeles – a great radio station in Hollywood. They hired a new guy and he fired a lot of people, but the station went down, down, down. They hired them back after a few years. The entire process was a waste of time and money, it seems. I hope everything is respectful and moving upward at CKUA. It is a treasure of a radio station.”

Fox says that the door is still open for Coxworth to be involved with CKUA, and has asked him to continue with Folk Routes until the new show is ready. Word is that he’s refused, however, and it looks like this Sunday’s program will likely be an “encore presentation.” The ball, Fox says, “is in Tom’s court.” (UPDATE Jan. 24: CKUA admits mistake and promises “very good news.”)

More disturbing to some is the suspension of the local original news and public affairs programming, which had been a part of CKUA since the station started in 1927. Although a news booth was built as part of the new studios, news director Ian Gray and reporter Matt Nodge have both been laid off, and now there’s one less occupied office at the already shrunken Alberta Legislature press gallery. The current affairs program Sunday Magazine is on “hiatus,” Fox says. For CKUA information content, BBC World News will now be heard seven times daily Monday through Friday.

“Media organizations need to figure out what they do,” Fox explains. “It’s a fragmented market, people have more options at their disposal. And honestly, local news journalism is really expensive to produce. We feel that in order to position ourselves to bring a quality news product that we would like to deliver, it would take way more than we’re currently allocated,” which is between $150,000-$200,000 a year. Fox adds, “Matt and Ian did a great job given their scant resources, but it was an unsustainable situation. We’ve become a music focused station, and that’s what people come to us for.”

These changes have made people in Edmonton’s music business nervous. The independent record store Permanent Records derives at least 75% of its sales from records played on CKUA, says owner Clint Anderson.

“I hate to see that happen,” he says. “It sounds to me that it’s just the beginning of something. That’s what scares me. I wouldn’t be able to run the business without that radio station.”

Bill Werthmann, who runs the Northern Light Folk Club, says Coxworth had been instrumental in the club’s success, and is really going to miss the support of CKUA’s flagship folk music show. “We’re certainly going to feel it,” Werthmann says. “Every single show he talked about our shows – not just our club, but all the clubs.”

Edmonton singer-songwriter Colleen Brown, currently on tour in the US, has had a lot of support from CKUA over the years, and offers a positive note, “Maybe this puts CKUA in more of a niche than before, rather than trying to be everything to everyone, it narrows their scope a bit. Which, interestingly, is what seems to be happening in every part of creative business. I know at least for a lot of musicians that it seems to make more sense in this market to try to appeal to a smaller number of people, but make sure that what you’re offering to those people is truly unique and valuable to them so that you are the ONE place they’ll go when they need that specific thing.”

GigCity Edmonton Bill Bourne

Bill Bourne

Other less-outraged individuals GigCity spoke to say they would welcome a little change at CKUA, whose on-air staff turnover is a fraction of what it is in commercial radio, which makes changes all the time. Then again, few radio listeners are as fiercely loyal as CKUA listeners. They take bad news as a personal affront. After all, they’re the ones paying for it.

Fox says he understands that people’s feelings are hurt, talks about the uproar when Wide Cut Country went on the air in 2000 (though he wasn’t around to see it). “People were furious,” he says. “What are you doing putting alternative country on the airwaves?! There was a massive outcry. And now it’s one of the most popular shows.”

As for the terrible optics of laying people off just months after moving into a spiffy new building with all the expensive studio equipment therein, and a combined $10 million in city and provincial grants announced to help with the relocation, Fox says, “There’s no good time to lay people off. Change is hard. These aren’t decisions we make lightly. We really respect our listenership. And if we made changes and we didn’t see some outpouring of emotion on social media, we’d be worried.

“I’d caution people about over-reacting, because I think when the dust settles on this, people will realize that the product we will bring to bear to support the folk and roots-loving core listenership of CKUA, I think they’re going to love what we’re going to bring.”