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With malls and movie theatres closed, Carole Winnipeg plays radio bingo with her mother and sister every Saturday near Strathmore, Alta.

Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Carole Winnipeg lost interest in playing bingo a long time ago. She’d rather go to the movies or the mall. But like so many other activities, those options have been closed to her during the pandemic.

So when her sister suggested this year that they and their mother play a bingo game held by a local radio station on Saturday nights, Ms. Winnipeg jumped at the chance. The weekly game is a way to spend time with her loved ones, and break up the monotony of life during these days.

“Other than that, we don’t do much else,” said Ms. Winnipeg, an administrative assistant who lives in Strathmore, a small town in southern Alberta.

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Radio stations that hold bingo games have seen a surge in interest during the pandemic as people look for ways to pass the time and enjoy a physically distanced sense of community in small towns throughout Canada.

The Aboriginal Multi-Media Society of Alberta has run weekly bingo games on two of its radio stations since 1996. With few other entertainment options available, the past 12 months have been the best year in the company’s history, by far, with sales up 90 per cent over the previous year, said Bert Crowfoot, chief executive officer of the company.

“All of a sudden it was like we were the only game in town,” he said.

Canoe FM, a station in Ontario’s Haliburton County, has experienced a similar pandemic boost. It’s run a bingo game on the airwaves for nearly nine years, typically selling about 350 bingo sheets a week. That number has nearly tripled during the pandemic, says Roxanne Casey, the station’s general manager.

“People are lonely and people feel secluded. People feel bored and they just want to be part of something,” said Andrew Dick, who calls the weekly bingo games for 104.9 myFM in Pembroke, Ont.

To encourage that sense of community, Mr. Dick does “shout outs” submitted by listeners during the game, whether it’s birthday wishes or to announce that a particular family is playing that evening. The station also holds contests, and has asked players to submit photos to the station’s Facebook page of them at home with their bingo cards, in their costumes at Halloween, or eating takeout during another contest to help support local restaurants.

Adam Reaburn, the owner and general manager of Moose FM, a radio station in Fort John, a city of just more than 20,000 people in northeastern B.C., was expecting it would take time for the station’s bingo game to find a large audience when it launched in September. Instead, they’ve been selling approximately 1,700 bingo cards each week.

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“If you’re at home with your family it’s something to do,” Mr. Reaburn said. “It’s just as much the chance to win money as it is the camaraderie.”

Most stations sell cards for $5 or $6 and typically offer prizes between $100 and $1,000, although there are some exceptions. Mr. Crowfoot’s stations has had two games during the pandemic with $50,000 jackpots, for example.

Although it is illegal for minors to gamble, radio bingo games have become especially popular for families.

Sue Tiffin lives in Haliburton, Ont., where a local brewery offered a service delivering beer and bingo cards during lockdown. Each week she plays with her parents over Facebook Messenger, and often makes cards for her two small children so they can pretend to play along.

“It brings a sense of familiarity and connection,” Ms. Tiffin said.

Melissa Siegel, general manager of 104.9 myFM in Pembroke, said the station’s bingo game has attracted a “very broad spectrum” of players since launching in September.

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“It’s something to do that’s fun and safe,” she said.

The station’s bingo night, held every Wednesday, offers cash prizes of up to $2,000 spread out over four games, with winners calling in to the station to verify their wins through serial numbers printed on each card.

While the chance to win money is certainly part of the appeal, Ms. Siegel said many bingo players are simply drawn to the opportunity of connecting with loved ones they are unable to spend time with in person.

“We have people who will Facetime their family while they’re playing so they’re all playing together,” she said.

Connecting with friends and family, and the possibility of pocketing cash, have both helped make radio bingo popular, but as Mr. Dick is the first to admit, people are desperate for anything fun to do right now.

“You can only go for so many walks. You can only play so many board games,” he said.

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