Ottawa — Just when things looked bleakest for a near-bankrupt radio station in Canada's far north, a most unexpected benefactor -- Radio Moscow -- stepped in recently and inadvertently saved the day.
The station is CFCT in Tuktoyaktuk, a tiny frontier town of 800 residents on the edge of the Beaufort Sea in the Canadian Arctic adjacent to the north coast of Alaska.
Until a few months ago, it looked as if the station's 18-month-long search for a way to avoid shutting down for lack of funds would come to naught.
But then station president John Steen found that the mere mention of Radio Moscow succeeded in doing what all other efforts had failed to accomplish: bringing attention to the plight of the 11-year-old, nonprofit station.
Steen's hints about Radio Moscow's interest in CFCT's problems, in fact, brought more attention that he wanted -- not only from potential backers but from critics all over the US and Canada who accused him of getting ready to "sell out to the communists."
The station is publicly owned and does not carry paid advertising. Its programming consists of material from the government-owned Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, music, messages to trappers in remote areas, and local news in English and Eskimo. Mr. Steen estimates CFCT needs about $2,000 a month to survive.
The Radio Moscow affair started when the station's disc jockeys, who are heard by about 5,000 Canadians and Americans in the oil fields and northern communities, began talking on the air not long ago about CFCT's dire financial problems.
The first substantive offer of help took the station by complete surprise. It came in the form of a letter from Moscow offering free use of a selection of tapes, including "Moscow mailbag," "Soviet press review," "Life in the USSR," and weekly commentaries on relations between the Soviets and the Americans.
In time word of the offer found its way into Canadian and then US newspapers, with Mr. Steen coyly hinting that he might be unable to turn down the Soviet offer. Anything is attractive, he told reporters, "when your back's against the wall."
Political sensitivities are acute in the Canadian north, where potentially huge oil reserves and the native-rights movement have combined to form an explosive mix. Thus, raising the specter of Radio Moscow broadcasting to Indian and Eskimo people sparked an instant controversy.
In the resulting clamor, oil companies active in the region began to show new interest in CFCT's survival, and Steen said in a recent interview that details are being worked out with oil-industry representatives for an aid package to keep the station afloat.
Dome Petroleum, Ltd., a Calgary-based firm with a large stake in northern frontier exploration, says it is pledging $25,000 to support a full-time employee to run the station for 12 months.
"A radio station in 'Tuk' is a good idea," explains Dick Duczek, northern relations manager for Dome. The native and Eskimo people need the station for community reasons, Mr. Duczek says, and it was for this reason -- not the threat of Radio Moscow's influence -- that Dome made its offer of help.
"People were having a little fun with the Radio Moscow idea," he says.
Mr. Steen now says he "never would have touched the political stuff" from the Soviets and admits it was partly a publicity stunt.
He seems as surprised as everyone else about the huge response his station received. The letters about Radio Moscow --mostly "negative," he says -- poured in "from across Canada, from the States, all over the place."
However serious the station was about Radio Moscow, the plot certainly worked , and Mr. Steen is thankful to the Soviet station for unwittingly providing the solution to his difficulties. But the Russians, he said, seem a little angry about the whole thing.
Still, Radio Moscow may not be entirely disappointed. Mr. Steen continues to express an interest in Radio Moscow's programs on the native people in Siberia, a topic that is a natural for C FCT's northern listening audience.