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Alternative programming keeps listeners tuned in

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ONION LAKE, Saskatchewan - Hitting the scan button on my car's radio, the FM frequency stumbled across a station where pop star Jennifer Lopez was crooning out of the speakers. Following her song, the female deejay chimed in with some urgent news.

"House number 3-4 is in need of water. Anyone who can deliver water is asked to do so," the voice instructed in a calm manner.

Returning to the music, instead of another blast from the Top 40, the rhythmic beats of drums in a pow wow came over the air. Before the song ended, the deejay faded down the volume to state the next game of bingo was starting and she rattled off a series of numbers.

Curious indeed.

Kitaskinaw Radio, translated meaning "our land," is KR102.5 in Onion Lake and is in its fourth year of operation. While the local news and affairs don't have the global impact of commercial news sources, the announcements are more immediate with the programming designed to accommodate a variety of tastes.

Recently having had its power increased from 14 watts to 45 to incorporate a radius of about 30 miles, and with it a change in the dial frequency, the station's genesis was much more humble. General manager Vernon Lewis laughs when he relays the story about how the reserve got its first taste of live broadcasting.

"There was some equipment at the top of the hill by the radio tower and with an RCA plug-in and stereo jacks, we hooked that up to a four-channel mixer with an input for a mic and started to talk," Lewis said, now surrounded by an all-electronic console with a digitalized music playlist.

No sooner had he finished his three-hour morning show, in English and Cree, which combines the musical genres of new country and First Nations round dance, the GM gave up the mic to Gary Waskewitch. Fulfilling the role of a jack-of-all-trades, Lewis proceeded to sweep the muddy floor of the reception area following the previous night's public stampede for bingo cards.

From writing and producing the commercials to balancing the books and even filling in to answer the telephone, Lewis loves what he's been pursuing at the station for the past year. As the morning drive announcer, some of his role incorporates talking about world affairs but because KR isn't affiliated with Broadcast News or other news sources, the station's news is less formal.

"I'll use the Internet while I'm on the air and look for stories that pertain to Aboriginals. At home I left the TV on CNN all night (about the Gulf War) and hopefully their news is correct," he said again laughing.

When chatting about his duties at the front desk, he excused himself to answer an incoming call.

"Gare, line two!" he bellowed to the deejay booth, making up in vocal cord strength what the station lacks for budget to buy an intercom.

Contrasting a colorful on-air studio with state-of-the-art equipment is the drab reception area that except for a couple of posters, the painted walls in their off-white tone are bare and dull. Unlike the allure of big-city radio, budgeting money for promotions and frills is low on the priority scale when there's only so much money to go around in Onion Lake with a population of 3,000.

There are only three commercials promoting local businesses, all of them for restaurants, and even then, the change of money is minimal. The largest sponsor is the Eastend Cafe, "Where the paved road ends and great food begins." With a free dinner on the line daily, including the specialty of a cheeseburger on bannock, the gimmick has attracted an audience for the 11:30 a.m. call-in.

Now though, KR will have to become self-reliant as the band's council has ended its one-year period of funding the station. Lewis is confident that with the ears of Onion Lake listening and the added power, money can be generated through advertisements.

But selling airtime isn't the station's moneymaker. Up to half of the present revenues come from an unusual source; the twice-weekly bingo.

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With the drama and excitement of thousands of dollars on the line, Onion Lake comes to a stand-still when the play-by-play of the drawn numbers are meticulously spelled out, in English and Cree. A motorized fan, which vigorously churns away in the background, keeps the caged ping pong balls in motion and forces the next number into a slot.

Cards are commodities as the DJs continuously flog the game and encourage the town's citizens to drop by the station and purchase their numbers for that night's draws. Thousands of these pieces of paper with their jumbled digits of one through 75 occupy their space in KR's production studio, otherwise a small storage room with a microphone attached to a computer. Each card is printed with its own serial number and can be immediately verified through a machine.

To play the night's dozen games surprisingly takes about two hours with a lot of that time spent on the phone taking down particulars of potentially successful winners. If the pace isn't strenuous, the game's 10:30 p.m. start becomes tiring for Lewis.

"If I don't call, who's gonna?" Lewis sighed, saying that the twice a week bingo responsibilities means he'll put in 16-hour days on Tuesdays and Fridays. "It's fun though and besides, this keeps the station going."

Conveniently, Lewis' home is across the street from the station, allowing him to grab a mid-afternoon power nap when the afternoon show airs.

One of the two full-time deejays, Gary Waskewitch slides behind the mic between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. weekdays. What would be considered an unusually long shift for on-air talent, "On the air with Gare" is broken up for two hours at noon when KR picks up the feed from the Missinipi Broadcasting Company (MBC) and its Cree programming. MBC, out of La Ronge, services more than 50 First Nations communities.

In this smaller community, the rapport an audience has with the deejays is more personal and Waskewitch will certainly try to accommodate those requests for certain music. But that doesn't mean those wishes are always granted.

"You can get a lot of callers and non-stop ringing and people want to hear their songs," Waskewitch said adding patience is a necessity as the deejays are encouraged to answer the phone.

If audiences can participate in the show by calling in and suggesting their favorite tunes, the mandate of KR is to keep Onion Lake informed. Originally funded by the Chief and Council to become a source for how the town can receive the decisions of local government, the station provides live coverage of band meetings.

News on the reserve is also usually in the present. Water crises are rare but the radio is a conduit between those who need and those who can help. More common bulletins might include which school buses will be late delivering kids.

Waskewitch mentioned that sometimes KR acts as a middleman in a game of telephone tag when residents are attempting to locate someone yet trying to avoid long distance charges.

"To call from Saskatchewan to Alberta is a local call but Alberta residents will phone our toll free number and say can you get so-and-so in Saskatchewan to give me a call," he said about the anomoly of the town's bi-provincial status.

Laughing and chuckling on air, the day was just cruising on by when Lewis calmly stuck his head into the studio and said to Gare the station was going off the air for an hour. The computer technician was available that afternoon to upgrade the external hard drive because there were some problems with the CDs skipping.

Almost as an afterthought Waskewitch let the town know that KR will be going off the air and will pick up MBC's feed. These words were first uttered a mere 18 minutes before this shut down and yet, more air time was spent previewing that night's playoffs of two local women's volleyball teams in a Lloydminster league.

The computer was fixed in time for Waskewitch's return to be joined by Lewis for the weekly Friday afternoon free-for-all, the one occasion when two announcers team together. Some notes are downloaded from the Net and a couple of scratched out scripts are jotted out but otherwise these two hours summarize what KR is all about.

"We can say anything on air," said Waskewitch with his headphones on, listening for when the music stops. "Is it useful? Maybe, maybe not, but it's definitely fun."