N.L.'s oldest radio station off air for second time in 97 years after lightning

·3 min read

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — Newfoundland's oldest radio station is off the air for the second time in its 97-year history, after its transmission tower went down in a weekend storm, leaving a stretch of dead air and many confused seniors.

VOWR's tower trouble began early in the morning on Saturday, as a rare lightning storm lit up the sky over the provincial capital, station manager Doreen Whalen said. Since then, listeners hoping for VOWR's signature easy-listening music have heard nothing but a fuzzy, humming sound at the station's spot on the AM dial.

"We're trying to assess the damage and figure out exactly what we need to do and how quickly we can get another transmitter and all that sort of thing," Whalen said in an interview Monday.

A new transmitter could cost as much as $60,000, she said — a tall order for a volunteer-run church radio station that relies almost exclusively on donations. But the unlucky and improbable lightning strike has shown her just how important the station is to its community of listeners, she said.

VOWR is based out of the Wesley United Church in St. John's and has been broadcasting since July 20, 1924, before the province was a part of Canada. Whalen described the station as "the brainchild" of Rev. Dr. Joseph G. Joyce, who wanted to bring his Sunday sermons to those unable to attend in person.

Stacks of tapes from VOWR's early days can still be found around the station, with labels such as "Chapel for shut-ins: Palm Sunday special."

An online history of the station says Joyce had to work to convince his followers that radio technology was not the work of the devil.

The last time the transmission tower went down was in January 1982, when it was toppled by high winds during another storm, Whalen said.

Meteorologist Dale Foote from the weather office in Gander, N.L., confirmed that lightning storms are an unlikely occurrence in the province. "For the moisture and instability and the (wind) shear and the trigger to all line up at one time, it's almost like threading the needle for Newfoundland," he said in a recent interview. "We're so far north, we just don't generally have those warm tropical air masses over us."

The station is home to a vast collection of vinyl records and cassettes full of hard-to-find tracks by artists such as Anne Murray and 60s Newfoundland pop band The Sanderlings. "It is a different kind of music; it's not the hard thump thump thump you get from the other radio stations, not to criticize the other radio stations," Whalen said.

VOWR is the station of choice for many senior citizens, and Whalen said her answering machine has been taken over with messages from confused seniors wondering what happened to their favourite music. Listeners can still tune in online, but many of the people leaving bewildered messages say they don't have access to the internet, she said.

"It means so much to so many people, you wouldn't believe the calls we've gotten," she said. "VOWR has a special meaning for a lot of people … I'm always amazed at the reach of it and how it touches people."

A volunteer technician has been working hard on the tower, she said, trying to figure out if it can be fixed and if lightning was indeed to blame. In the meantime, people in the province young and old have been sharing the radio station's donation page on social media, encouraging their friends and family to chip in.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 24, 2021.

Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press

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