Kimmirut hamlet improvises radio fix after CBC signal cuts out

A quick and dirty fix is all that's keeping Kimmirut's community radio from going the way of Fort Liard's and broadcasting dead air.

Aging radio equipment is causing headaches for Kimmirut's SAO

John Mabberi-Mudonyi, Saq Temela, Naomi Akavak, Nakashoo Michael, and Martha Ikkidluak all help keep local radio going in the hamlet office in Kimmirut. (Submitted by John Mabberi-Mudonyi)

Every few days, John Mabberi-Mudonyi gets a call that jolts him out of bed and into the Kimmirut hamlet office where he works as the senior administrative officer. 

The problem? CBC Radio is off the air. 

The solution? Hitting refresh on a laptop that streams the radio signal off the internet and into the community's rebroadcaster. 

"I started doing it and now there is an expectation in the community that I have to do it," Mabberi-Mudonyi said with a laugh. "Sometimes I come in at four in the morning."

Kimmirut, pop. 389, is one of 70 communities across Canada that owns and operates rebroadcasting equipment. In those communities, the CBC is responsible for the satellite receiver that brings the signal into the community, but not for the antennas, transmitters and other equipment that re-broadcasts it to the community at large.

A CBC map shows red triangles for every one of the roughly 70 CORB (or community-owned rebroadcaster) transmitter locations. Most are in remote, rural communities, and many are in the North. (CBC)

In the N.W.T. and Nunavut, the N.W.T. government turned over broadcasting equipment to hamlets decades ago. For a time, community radio societies or hamlets got funding to maintain and repair equipment. Now, local hamlet budgets are often used for the purpose. 

Much of the equipment is aging, and in many places, failing, leaving locals to improvise solutions with little support.

Signal down since 2017

Mabberi-Mudonyi first learned the radio was off the air when he moved to Kimmirut in the fall of 2018. He believes it went down in late 2017. 

His first step was to call the CBC. He connected with a kindly technician in Iqaluit who was able to help him diagnose the problem and who also rigged up the laptop the hamlet now relies on. 

Mabberi-Mudonyi bought two new transmitters and CBC did send in two satellite technicians to install a new satellite dish, only to find it couldn't point toward the signal. The Qulliq Energy Corp., which has a power plant on top of a hill, agreed to host the dish there.

Late last year, a surge after a power outage fried some of the equipment. That left Mabberi-Mudonyi ordering more parts from Florida. 

Now, he's waiting for Northwestel to provide telephone lines from the power plant to the hamlet office so that "we have broadcasting like everybody else in Canada." 

That can't happen until the ground thaws out sometime this spring. 

In the meantime, the hamlet relies on the CBC's internet stream and a local radio show Nakashoo Michael and Naomi Akavak host between 10 and noon every day. It's so popular, they're planning to rebroadcast it in the evenings when more people are at home and able to listen. 

The CBC rebroadcaster station at Yellowknife's Tin Can Hill. About 70 communities in Canada are expected to maintain similar equipment at their own expense. (Sara Minogue/CBC)

No timeline for Fort Liard fix

In some ways, Kimmirut is better off than Fort Liard, N.W.T., where the CBC signal has been down for about a year. The fact came to the attention of the CBC newsroom during an outbreak of COVID-19. 

John McKee has been Fort Liard's SAO for about 25 years. 

He remembers when the hamlet got a contribution agreement to look after local rebroadcasting equipment. 

"But that's all faded out, I think in all the communities," McKee said. "They don't pay anymore. It's totally up to the hamlet to do it."

He says the local station just quietly faded out as the transmitters "just become older."

"Probably about a year ago it finally packed it in." 

At around the same time, the same thing happened with the transmitter equipment for CKLB — the Yellowknife-based radio station run by the Native Communications Society — which has a similar system. McKee says the hamlet prioritized fixing the CKLB transmitter so that people could receive information about the pandemic in the South Slavey language.

McKee guesses it'll cost about $10,000 to get the CBC back on the air.

"We'll get around to doing it, it's just we have to come with the money," he said. "I guess they expect you to get it all off the Internet or satellite but most people can't afford that."

Fans of radio

CBC Radio is important in Kimmirut.

In the late 1960s a visiting CBC reporter found the town went black at 2 p.m. "The diesel generators were turned off for an hour because they were creating static and the townsfolk couldn't hear [former CBC broadcaster] Jonah Kelly," Whit Fraser wrote in his 2018 memoir. "When Jonah went off the air, the power came back on." 

More recently, the radio has been used for community bingo, which can't happen in person because of the pandemic. And Kowisa Arlooktoo, who read CBC North's Inuktitut newscast for years, grew up in Kimmirut.

"When it goes off," said Mabberi-Mudonyi, "the phone rings endlessly and I go, OK, that may be the radio." 

He's hoping they'll resolve the problem this spring. 

"I mean, radio is not something that someone should be preoccupied with. When I'm in Toronto, you don't even think about it. But here ... you have to be concerned."