Swift Current is one of only a few Canadian communities outside the larger urban centres that can claim to have been part of the pioneering era of television broadcasting in the country.
The current exhibition at the Swift Current Museum highlights the history of television broadcasting in the city over the past 62 years.
The exhibition TV in Swift Current: CJFB, Shaw Community Channel and Southwest TV News is on display until Dec. 31.
Stephanie Kaduck, the museum’s education and public programs officer, said it is an interesting history that needs to be told.
“For most of the last 60 years we have had local TV and it's an important story,” she noted. “I thought it was a good time, particularly with the fairly recent closing of Southwest TV News, to explore that story and what it meant.”
The history of local television broadcasting in Swift Current started when CJFB-TV went on the air on Dec. 23, 1957. It was started and operated by broadcasting pioneers Bill and Julie Forst, who owned the station until it closed on May 31, 2002.
CJFB-TV started broadcasting with 14 staff members. It was only the third television station in Saskatchewan, and residents in Swift Current and southwest Saskatchewan did not have access to television programming until this station went to the airwaves.
“It was the very first time they received any TV signal and the fact that it was local and privately owned meant that it was very much focused on Swift Current and the surrounding area,” Kaduck said.
It offered local and network programming, and it was initially only on the air from 4 p.m. to midnight.
“They brought in CBC programming by plane,” she said. “That was one of the earlier uses of the airport after the war. This plane would go from community to community that had TV stations and they would drop off film and pick up film, and so television shows like Bonanza would come in on the plane.”
Leanne Tuntland-Wiebe, the office manager at Great West Auto Electric, has fond memories of working at CJFB-TV from 1982 to 1986.
“You did more than one job,” she recalled. “So you were a news anchor, a reporter, and a weather person when you had to fill in. Sometimes on the late shift, you were the operator. So I worked with the equipment.”
She worked as a radio announcer and reporter in Swift Current for nine years before moving over to television. She enjoyed working in both media, but her job at the television station gave her more flexibility to be out in the community and to report about local events.
“If there was something going on in Swift Current, we were there with the cameras,” she said. “It was very much a local news station and the news was local. So it was great, because it was local.”
There were many memorable moments during her time at CJFB-TV, some serious and others more lighthearted. She recalled a fatal accident on the bridge at Saskatchewan Landing and she still remembers clearly where she stood in the control room when the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle flashed on the multiple screens.
“We were a family,” she said. “It was a training ground for a lot of broadcasters and young people.”
Tuntland-Wiebe once burst out in laughter while presenting a weather report during a live broadcast, because another staff member played a practical joke on her. There was a red phone in the control room, and it started ringing as soon as she laughed.
“It was a direct line to Bill Forst's house,” she said. “That was the boss. Everybody took off and I'm left live on the camera trying to compose myself, because I heard the red phone ring and I knew we were in trouble.”
She left the television station when she got married, because the irregular working hours were not convenient for family life. She felt the skills acquired during her years in the media industry have been useful in her business career, whether she is interacting with customers, creating video posts for the company’s Facebook page, or making public appearances.
Southwest TV News reported about local events in the region since March 2005, but the station’s final broadcast took place this past summer on June 28. It was owned and managed by George Tsougrianis and Carol Andrews.
They donated items to the museum that are on display in this exhibition, including a first-generation digital video camera used for news gathering and a large Southwest TV News sign that was part of the studio set during broadcasts.
Andrews said it is bitter sweet to see the history of Southwest TV News now being portrayed in this exhibition, and there are a lot of great memories from covering a variety of events in the region.
“We covered a lot of things in 14 years,” she mentioned. “Along the way we met a lot of interesting people and we hope people will remember what we covered and that we were a part of Swift Current's history, especially in today's age of hearing the word fake news. I hope that people still see value in the actual journalism, what we were committed to. There is still a need for actual journalists and I hope that people will appreciate what we did and see value in what other networks still continue to do.”
Southwest TV News received various accolades during its existence. At one time it was rated as the top show on the Saskatchewan Communications Network (SCN) channel, and it received the Radio Television Digital News Association best use of new media award for the prairie region.
The company faced the challenge of creating a viable business model in a smaller market to report local news while competing against larger media companies as well as social media. It received valuable exposure through SCN, and the provincial government’s decision in 2010 to close that publicly owned television channel was a significant blow.
They started to diversify by doing video productions for corporate clients and that work still continues through their company Overtime Studios. During the past five years it became increasingly challenging to do documentaries and corporate productions while also doing news coverage through Southwest TV News.
“To me one of the greatest feelings I had doing this, is when you go in and you really don't have an idea what the story is,” Tsougrianis said. “When you talk to that person and when you start to zero in on it, and they tell you this great story.”
Both of them enjoyed the exhilaration of covering news and making a difference through their reporting of local stories.
“You need that independent voice,” Andrews said. “People want to know what's the real story here and we were willing to go that far, and a lot of times we felt backlash for it, but that's why we were here.”
Tsougrianis felt local coverage of news is still very relevant and necessary, also to ensure accountability and openness.
“It's still an important role that we have as journalists that I think people really need to realize, because that's at the heart of our democracy, especially at the front lines here locally,” he said. “It's great if you're working in Toronto or wherever else and you have the resources, but what's happening at the local level?”