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100 years of radio: Meet the people keeping VOWR on the air

This plaque outside of Wesley United Church commemorates the historical significance of the building being host to Newfoundland's first ever radio broadcast.  (Mike Simms/CBC - image credit)
This plaque outside of Wesley United Church commemorates the historical significance of the building being host to Newfoundland's first ever radio broadcast. (Mike Simms/CBC - image credit)
This plaque outside of Wesley United Church commemorates the historical significance of the building being host to Newfoundland's first ever radio broadcast.
This plaque outside of Wesley United Church commemorates the historical significance of the building being host to Newfoundland's first ever radio broadcast.

This plaque outside Wesley United Church commemorates the historical significance of the building being host to Newfoundland's first radio broadcast. (Mike Simms/CBC)

Ron LeDrew slips his earbuds into his ears and raises the microphone as he prepares to introduce a song.

Ron is one of 50 volunteers at the Voice of Wesley Radio, or VOWR, a church-run, non-profit station known for its local charm and eclectic choices in easy listening music. In July, the station will mark 100 years on the air.

"We can go from gospel to blues to jazz to pop, classical, instrumental, Irish Newfoundland folk and it goes on and on,"  said LeDrew. "In a given hour you could hear all of those genres of music."

LeDrew had dreams of becoming a radio announcer from the time he owned his first transistor radio as a boy. He was 18 when he started volunteering at VOWR.

But long before LeDrew had his radio dream, there was another man at Wesley with a curiosity about the power of the airwaves.

Ron LeDrew started volunteering at VOWR when he was eighteen. Being a radio host was something he dreamed of since childhood.
Ron LeDrew started volunteering at VOWR when he was eighteen. Being a radio host was something he dreamed of since childhood.

Ron LeDrew started volunteering at VOWR when he was 18. Being a radio host was something he dreamed of since childhood. (Mike Simms/CBC)

Rev. Joseph Joyce of Carbonear began his ministry at the church in 1922.

The following year the Canadian government started issuing commercial radio licences.

As LeDrew tells it, Joyce had a vision to bring Sunday church sermons to the most vulnerable members of the community, elderly people and those who were too ill to come to the sanctuary to pray.

In 1924 the government of Newfoundland issued the church a licence and on July 20 of that same year, the church held its first broadcast, which doubled as the very first radio broadcast on the island.

There was a morning service from St. Thomas Anglican Church and an evening service from Wesley.

One hundred years later, listeners can still hear church services every Sunday on VOWR.

Reverend Joseph Joyce began his ministry at Wesley United Church in 1922.
Reverend Joseph Joyce began his ministry at Wesley United Church in 1922.

Rev. Joseph Joyce began his ministry at Wesley United Church in 1922. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

Today, the non-profit station is run by 50 volunteers. Kay Donovan is one of the DJs.

"It's a beautiful concept that we could be on the air with no money … after all these years and still rely on people who keep on donating to us and keep us on the air. It says a lot about what's happening here. VOWR reaches people, and not just old people either," said Donovan.

At 35, Justin Oakey is among the younger listeners tuning in daily. Oakey says he became a regular listener when VOWR first became available online. He was feeling homesick while living in Toronto and VOWR helped him connect with his roots.

WATCH | Tune in to the history of VOWR: 

 

"You're listening to Newfoundlanders talk about the dinner at the legion on Blackmarsh and you're in Toronto. So it … helped give me a little bit of nostalgia and … that sense of wanting to listen to home," said Oakey.

Oakey has since returned to live in Newfoundland and has introduced friends of his outside the province to VOWR.

"I have friends from Toronto and New York and even in Europe," said Oakey. "They will tune into it from there because they can, and because they just think it's just a charming station and the music is good."

Rayna Ford hosts a weekly night time program at VOWR.
Rayna Ford hosts a weekly night time program at VOWR.

Rayna Ford hosts a weekly nighttime program at VOWR. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

In her late 40s, Rayna Ford is one of the youngest DJs at the station. She said it's no surprise that VOWR appeals to all ages.

"People want to feel connected in a world so disconnected," said Ford. "Everybody just wants to feel and and be heard and know somebody's out there and the people care and that there're still genuine people out there."

As for LeDrew, he said he often receives heartwarming feedback from listeners, which he said is proof that the 100-year-old radio station is still very relevant in the community.

"A lady said that her husband was suffering from terminal cancer and that's what kept him going overnight," said LeDrew. He couldn't sleep, she said, and he was racked with pain.

"He said the music from VOWR just kind of kept him going."

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