New radio station keeps Indigenous language alive.
By Cory Schachtel | April 6, 2021
Bert Crowfoot set his alarm at 5:50 a.m. on Feb. 1, excited to hear the launch of The Raven 89.3 FM, Edmonton’s newest Indigenous radio station (CJWE Windspeaker was the first). Instead, he heard the most terrifying thing anyone working in radio could hear: dead air. He called the station immediately and found out it was intentional. Program Engineer Owen Martin had only turned off the 50-song loop that had been testing the signal, in preparation for the first words spoken.
As the founder and CEO of the Aboriginal Multi-Media Society of Alberta (AMMSA), Crowfoot’s helped launch many media outlets around Alberta, and this is the Society’s third radio station. “I’m too old to be a father,” Crowfoot laughs, “so I was sitting here like an expectant grandfather, excited to hear what the parents — the staff — were going to do with our baby.”
After a Cree prayer, the first words spoken were Crowfoot’s, welcoming everyone to Raven and thanking the staff and engineers for what ended up being a successful launch (every morning since starts with a Indigenous prayer). And they made a deliberate choice for the first official song: “Universal Soldier” by Buffy Sainte-Marie, who in the ’70s was blacklisted by many radio stations for her anti-establishment, anti-war stance. The Raven plays pop, rock, hip-hop and blues (AMMSA’s other radio stations have classic country covered, Crowfoot says), but the selection of Sainte-Marie set the station’s philosophical tone as a platform for Indigenous and emerging artists of all kinds.
Indigenous language is important too. The station incorporates the Albertan Indigenous languages (Blackfoot, Cree, Nakoda Sioux, Dene and Michif) in its imaging and splitters. And, in between, Shannon Medaglia in the mornings and Bill LeBlanc (aka Rellik) with the Tribe Drive show, there’s a mid-day Conversational show that alternates between Cree and Nakoda, with hosts sharing stories, in both Cree/Nakoda and English, one sentence at a time. It’s unlike anything you’ll hear on Edmonton radio, and Crowfoot is confident it will find success. “I know this works, because we did it on another station. I remember getting a call from this non-Indigenous lady who said she was with her son on the way to the store, listening to an elder on air telling a story. And they couldn’t go in to the store, because they needed to hear the end of the story, so they sat in the car for another 15 minutes. So we’re sharing the knowledge and stories of our people with non-Indigenous people, but also with Indigenous people who haven’t learned the language.”
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While launching a station in Edmonton during a pandemic is an achievement, Crowfoot says it’s less the culmination of a long-term plan and more the continuation of a take-the-opportunity-given strategy he’s employed for decades. Starting out in the ’70s, he was making jewellery when a friend running an Indigenous newspaper in Edmonton, who knew Crowfoot had a background in physical education, asked him to cover a basketball tournament. He continued writing sports, and learned the photography and business sides of things, too, which led to the creation of AMMSA, and its flagship publication, Windspeaker, in 1983. In 1990, the federal government cut funding to the Native Communications Program, which shuttered nine of the 11 Indigenous newspapers across Canada. “We sat down as a staff and asked ourselves: What’s the opportunity here?” Crowfoot says.
The opportunity was the void the cuts left across the country for an Indigenous newspaper, and thanks to AMMSA being monetarily self-sufficient, it thrives and lives online to this day.
Self sufficiency is key to the Raven taking flight, too. The AMMSA operates for free out of a building it owns, thanks to the other businesses it rents to. It makes money through advertising and used revenue from Radio Bingo — which actually became more lucrative during the pandemic, due to halls and casinos shutting down — to upgrade its broadcast towers around the province. Crowfoot explains that the Raven’s 100,000 watts brings the total to “750,000 watts of Indigenous power” pumping across Alberta’s airwaves, and it’s clearly gratifying for the Society’s CEO. “There’s so much ignorance out there, about Indigenous people. People ask, ‘How much of our government funding went to start this radio station?’ And I’m proud to say not one cent. We did it all on our own.”
This article appears in the April 2021 issue of Edify