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Just as the pandemic shut Vancouver Island’s businesses down, the new owners of Tuff City Radio looked for ways to connect communities who were stuck at home - and what they did really resonated

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A warm glow radiates from Tuff City Radio's window on Main Street in Tofino, B.C., this past January. Station co-owner Cameron Dennison is inside working late.Photography by Melissa Renwick/The Globe and Mail

Under a midnight sky in the dead of winter, Cameron Dennison climbed the radio tower on Barr’s Mountain in Tofino. As sideways rain slapped him across the face, he clung to the damp, metal rails and rose higher. Shaking his fist at the storm that had snapped the antenna, he tried desperately to secure it back in place.

It was all in the name of “keeping the rock alive.”

Last June, Mr. Dennison and his wife, Kimberly Johnston, became the owners of Tuff City Radio – a community radio station that broadcasts to Tofino, Ucluelet and six of the surrounding First Nations communities on B.C.’s west coast. Mr. Dennison likens their venture to a game of poker. “We’re all in,” he said.

After three years of legal proceedings and an investment of their life savings, the couple acquired the necessary radio licences. But it all felt somewhat “anticlimactic,” he said. “All of a sudden we’re in a business that revolves around other people making money so they can advertise their business. And all their businesses were closed.”

As lockdown swept across the country to combat COVID-19, tourists were asked to return home. Businesses in Tofino shut their doors and turned off their lights – a significant change in a town of 2,000 that typically welcomes 600,000 visitors a year. With locals unable to socialize, Mr. Dennison started to imagine how he could use the radio to bring people together. So, for the first time, Tuff City Radio started broadcasting community events and ceremonies. The result was like stepping back in time, where families “were literally having dinner around the radio,” he said. “It was magical.”

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Over 20 years, Cameron Dennison has continued to fall more in love with radio and being part of the Tofino community.

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Items around the studio include a pair of antlers and icons of Jesus and the Hindu goddess Durga.

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When COVID-19 hit, all the DJ and sound-technician work dried up for Jess Rabbit, left, and Tuff City became her outlet. At right, Eliah Holiday broadcasts The Tuff City Jazz Show, a two-hour weekly program. 'For me, jazz has always been like a home,' he says.

On Remembrance Day, O Canada played through speakers outside Tofino’s Royal Canadian Legion branch. Only 30 people gathered where 300 normally stood. Tuned in, the rest of the community commemorated the day through songs, poetry and stories recited by Tofino resident Warren (Whitey) Bernard.

Bill Morrison, long-time Ucluelet resident and musician, joined Mr. Dennison on-air in December for “a very Bill Morrison Christmas.” The show featured carols recorded inside a Ucluelet fish plant in the mid-2000s by locals such as Coral Palm (“the West Coast queen of karaoke”).

And when it became clear that live music shows would be cancelled indefinitely, he launched a singing contest titled “the Screech,” alongside Tofino and Ucluelet Choir director and local musician Sophie L’Homme. They received around 85 submissions – not bad at all for such a small town.

Josie Osborne, a former Tofino mayor and now B.C.’s Minister of Municipal Affairs, said what’s great about community radio is that it “enables us to participate.”

“It can be so unscripted and authentic. We live in an age of digital media – we’ve got Facebook, Twitter, websites and e-mails as ways of disseminating information, but nothing gets into people’s homes the way that radio does.”

For Tristan Raghunan, host of Tuff City Radio’s Aisle Five Live reggae show, the radio definitely became a “unifying” presence during COVID-19. “It was the pulse in the community,” he said. “All of a sudden, everyone was tuning in at certain times of the day. In a small community like this, the radio is something that we can all share.”

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Tristan Raghunan is host of the Aisle Five Live reggae show. 'We spread positive vibrations on Sunday nights - at the end of a long week, or at the beginning of a new week,' he says.

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For Thursday's instalment of Dr. Johnston’s Musical Emporium, Chris Johnston, left, brings notes about the music he will play. 'I want to give a little information about the music. On Spotify, and all the rest, you don't get that information.'

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Cameron Dennison interviews Ucluelet's Mayor Mayco Noel and Tofino General Hospital's chief of staff, Dr. Carrie Marshall, who gives weekly updates on the COVID-19 situation.

Tuff City has a serious role to play as well. Dr. Carrie Marshall, Tofino General Hospital’s chief of staff, has been part of the station’s weekly programming since March last year, translating the health authority’s public health messaging to a local level.

“People have the opportunity to text, call in to ask questions and it has become one of the most gratifying professional experiences of my life,” Dr. Marshall said. “There’s just something relatable and reachable in hearing somebody’s voice that you recognize and have come to trust.”

Chris Johnston, who produces Dr. Johnston’s Musical Emporium every Thursday, said the community gained a greater appreciation of the station. “You had a captive audience who needed information and at that local level. It became an island for all of these people who are trapped in this pandemic.”

And that, ultimately, was Mr. Dennison’s goal with the fresh take on programming. “Send it out there,” he said. “Get a resonance and hopefully create a unified field where people’s hearts can feel safe.”

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The sun sets outside Tuff City's window.

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