A Brief History of VOWR

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If you haven’t spent much time listening to VOWR 800 AM, here are some of the things you might hear on a regular day of broadcasting: a banjo cover of “Mr. Sandman;” an instrumental cover of Serge Gainsbourg’s “Je T’aime, Moi Non Plus;” a lot of Anne Murray; slightly less Barbra Streisand; country songs about quitting your job and moving to Montana; and maybe even a country cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire” with freestyled verse or two.

Sometimes songs cut out or repeat and sometimes there are long stretches of dead air. Although there are regular death announcements, there are no news shows or weather updates.

The shows differ wildly but generally stick to a theme of easy listening music from the mid-20th century. The only constant is the warm hiss of the needle on the records. “There’s nothing else around Canada like it,” says Kenney Purchase, of Fog Lake and RocketRocketship. “I’ve done my research and tried to find something else like it, but there’s absolutely nothing quite like it.”

After landing a summer job at the station two years ago, Purchase became regular at the station, volunteering as an operator and broadcaster.

Kenney Purchase in the VOWR vinyl library. This is a record by the Sanderlings, a Newfoundland pop group from the 60s.

Of the 60 volunteers keeping the station running, Purchase is the youngest person at the station by a large margin. A lot of the broadcasters, or show hosts, are in their 70s and 80s. The Saturday afternoon rock ‘n roll show is targeted at “younger” folks in their 40s and 50s.

Purchase, 23, is hoping to bring more young people to the station.“I think that old sound, especially with the rise in vinyl culture and cassette culture and older music, I think it’s a very appealing sound to younger people,” he said. “I just think there’s definitely room for growth amongst a younger audience.”

VOWR began broadcasting out of the Wesley United (then Methodist) Church on Patrick Street in 1924. Reverend Joseph Gilbert Joyce launched the station as a way to bring his Sunday service to the sick and shut-in in rural parts of the province. There are mugs down at the station with “Newfoundland’s oldest radio station” printed on the side.

According to the VOWR website, Joyce had a hard go of it. Radio was brand new in 1924 and a lot of people in Joyce’s congregation thought the new technology was the devil’s work. They now broadcast 24 hours a day and stream online, and they’re moving away from their religious mandate, switching their tagline from “We Serve” to “Music of Your Life.”

VOWR began as a way bring the Sunday service to shut-ins across the province.

Hosts choose the songs they play from the station’s enormous record library, which takes up a room and a half of meticulously numbered shelves. Broadcasters can look up specific records on a computer in a cataloguing program that runs on DOS.

Or, like Purchase, they can spend hours combing the shelves. There are turntables close by so hosts can test their selections.“The library has so many weird old records from artists that didn’t really go anywhere,” he says. “I’m always finding out about new artists and new performers that were big in say, like, Calgary or something like that in the sixties. It’s endless.”

The records in the library have been selected and approved by various station managers over the years. There was a time when Beatles records were verboten and Purchase says he still finds records with “Do not play” scratched into the vinyl, but things are looser now and the station is expanding their collection.

“We have kind of a panel of hosts, board members, and volunteers who decide whether [a new selection] is playable or not,” he says. “It depends on the listening audience, if we think they will enjoy it, and if it fits with the program and the sound of the station.” He says he’s been able to play some music of his life: Hey Rosetta!, Coeur de Pirate, and Angel Olsen.

He’s not in it to overhaul the station, though. He likes the old music and the occasional dead air. He likes the spooky sounding warps in the records and he likes that every host gets to play their own music, the music of their life. He also really loves the equipment itself. “It’s very analogue, very old school,” he says. “We use tapes and records, a lot of LPs and just live broadcasting, we don’t have any computer programs or anything like that.”

Yes, that is a dead air alarm. Does it go off sometimes, yeah, says Purchase.

Inside the operations room, there’s a double turntable, Marantz tape deck, a reel-to-reel, a mixer and a classic-looking VOWR mic. Down the hall, there are offices with IBM Selectric typewriters on the desks.

Purchase says he spends a lot of time at the station writing songs and listening to old tapes. “As unusual as they find me playing with tapes, they love that I’m putting it to use,” he says.

He recently made an album, nyotaimori, under the name moan, of sampled tapes from the station’s unplayable bin. The new Fog Lake has a VOWR tape loop on the song “Tolerance.”

He’s heading out on a European tour with Fog Lake this spring, opening for Foxing.

“It’ll be good, yeah,” he says. “But I’m kinda sad that I won’t be able to come here.”

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Sarah Smellie

Sarah Smellie is a freelance writer in St. John’s.

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