Inside VOWR, Newfoundland and Labrador's oldest radio station
Settle into a cozy chair, tune the radio to AM 800 and expect to hear almost any type of music coming from the speaker. It could be the trumpets of a military band, a Bruce Springsteen single, or the familiar traditional Newfoundland sounds of Bud Davidge or The Wonderful Grand Band. Or you could get a talk show, a church service or community announcements. It’s the variety of programming that defines VOWR.
For almost 95 years, VOWR has been broadcasting from its studio adjoining Wesley United Church on Patrick Street in St. John’s. “We’re kinda like a time machine in that way, we’re kind of stuck back here. But it’s cool ’cause there’s so much good music from back then,” explains Kenney Purchase, broadcaster and host at the station.
VOWR is the province’s oldest radio station, founded while Newfoundland and Labrador was a country (it is included in a special section of the 1949 Terms of Union with Canada). Originally called 8WMC, it first went on air in July 1924, and was founded by Reverend Joseph Gilbert Joyce as a way to reach parishioners who couldn’t make it to church. Using cutting edge technology of the time, people could use their telephones to call in and listen to the broadcast. It was the first church-run radio station in North America.
“It wasn’t even a radio station, it was a small booth, which is now the cleaner’s closet down in the basement of Wesley Church,” says station manager Doreen Whalen. It grew from that tiny space into one of the rooms in the church. “I think Reverend Joyce was a great visionary in his time,” she says. “I marvel at the man because as a minister who had absolutely no training, to envision that was just an incredible thing.”
Decades of Dedication
A team of approximately 70 volunteers keeps VOWR on the air 24/7, and there’s a whole host of jobs that need to be done. Some work with their library of music, or tidy the place up. Not everyone wants to host a show, and if they do there’s an audition process. No one is paid and people commit the time they’re able, so while some are here once every two weeks, others are at the station almost every single day. It also poses some challenges, Doreen says. A lot of their volunteers are retired and want to head down South in the winter, and sometimes a volunteer will call in at the last minute because they can’t show up to their shift. But they make it work. Their listeners make it worth the effort.
“Here at the station, literally every 10 minutes somebody’s calling and you really hear so many beautiful things from people,” Kenney says. “Every day I’m here I receive a phone call saying ‘Can’t believe you guys are still on the air, you’ve been around since I was a child,’ all this stuff. People are anticipating the program and paying attention.”
Doreen has a folder filled with letters they’ve gotten from fans, with messages like, “‘You’re with me 24/7,’ ‘You help me make it through the night,’” she recites. Sometimes these letters come with donations, cheques valued up to $100. VOWR runs completely on donations to cover their costs, which is about $100,000 a year.
In fact, up until the past year VOWR was also operating with donated equipment. While it all worked, there were some problems. “It was routine a tape machine would go; it would just stop working. Or the record players were scratchy, or strange problems with the broadcasting. Thankfully, that’s been eliminated with the new equipment,” Kenney explains.
Two avid listeners had bequeathed them enough funds to pay for the $60,000 upgrade. “When you’re doing everything live and analogue, there’s so much that can go wrong. You kind of get a feel for it. And you figure out what to do when all these little problems happen.”
The station also gets donations of a musical variety. The VOWR library is stocked with more than 300,000 selections, and “that’s only a portion of what we’ve got,” Doreen says. On the floor below the station there are even more records and CDs. They received some 46,000 albums from CBC over the years, and local artists will drop off their CDs to the station, hoping to get some airtime. Thanks to all those donors, VOWR has a wide variety of music to choose from, in all sorts of formats. During a walk through the station, you can find cassette tapes, CDs, 45s and 78s. The station doesn’t purchase any of the music they play.
While the broadcast is enjoyed by radio listeners in Newfoundland and Labrador, its reach goes far beyond the province. Its signal is beamed around the globe through the VOWR website. “We hear from people all over the world; they’re not just Newfoundlanders. A lot of them are expats, there’s no doubt about that. But we heard from people, just a couple of weeks ago, people from Finland and Norway,” Doreen says. Many of those listeners have no connection to the province but find the station on their own.
Almost 100 years after Reverend Joyce made his first broadcast, the mission of VOWR has largely remained the same. “Outreach to the lonely, sick, the shut-in, the people who are working all night,” Doreen says.
“There are so many people who want a human voice to hear in the evening or want that feeling of closeness… making people feel good and welcome,” Kenney adds.
Rev. Joyce died in 1959, long before the internet, and now the church service is on YouTube. “So it’s crazy how far we’ve gone,” he says.
“Crazy in how far we’ve gone in terms of technology, but how close we are to Reverend Joyce’s major intent when he started the station,” Doreen agrees. “He started it as an outreach and it remains as an outreach. It’s an outreach to the community, whether they’re local here or whether they’re listening on the internet or watching a church service on YouTube. That’s what we do.”
-by Elizabeth Whitten