WINNIPEG – It’s 6 p.m. on a Friday night and the call lines of one of Canada’s largest Indigenous radio stations are all flashing.

This will be the case for the next four hours as hundreds of listeners across Manitoba attempt to access NCI FM’s flagship program, “Friends on Fridays.”

The live demand show started in 2004 and is a staple in many Native homes. Some listeners wait over a year just to drop by and send a special shout out to their loved ones.

“Basically, getting along is like winning the lottery. Cousins ​​brag all the time. It’s a level of love for the show that has totally blown the community away,” says Davey Gott, one of the show’s co-hosts.

On any Friday night, listeners may hear song requests, shoutouts to “cuzzins” in other communities, or stories of big bingo wins. The heart of the show, much like the station it airs on, is to depict the daily lives of Indigenous communities.

NCI FM celebrates 50 years of connecting and advocating for areas of the province not often included in mainstream media.

“You can listen to it and you hear some language, but it’s also about community. You hear from people you may know. You hear names of communities and you hear stories that you can relate to as well,” says David McLeod, the station’s general manager.

Native Communications Inc. or NCI was born in the fall of 1971 in northern Manitoba. At the time, there was a thriving media scene in the town of Thompson, but McLeod says there was a “biased” portrayal when it came to Indigenous peoples.

A group of northern Indigenous communities decided to form a committee to create a station that would offer Indigenous language and culture programming, which later became NCI, McLeod says.

Part of that included passing on messages to those working in the field, says original board member and former NCI broadcaster Sydney McKay.

“People needed to send messages to trappers, hunters and fishers, and to have a one-way communication system,” he recalls.

McKay was living in Thompson when, at age 21, he was asked to serve on the NCI board.

“It was an honor. It was right in the middle of something new. It wasn’t done in the North at that time, not in the native language.

McKay and his co-host, Arnold Dysart, recorded shows using a single microphone on a folding table. NCI purchased airtime from local radio stations and aired half-hour shows featuring Cree music and content. It later expanded to include religious programs and interviews with politicians and indigenous leaders.

The station’s main growth occurred in the 1990s when it began buying transmitters to broadcast its own content. NCI officially went on the air in Winnipeg in the fall of 1998.

McLeod says it now operates 57 transmitters that serve nearly every corner of the province.

“We venture into communities that commercial radio doesn’t pay attention to. It is something that is at the heart of what we do.

Originally from the Chemawawin Cree Nation, about 440 kilometers north of Winnipeg, Gott has worked at the station for about three years. Some of her earliest memories include NCI playing in the background while her grandmother made bannock in their home community.

“NCI is like the sound of home. It’s like the community theme,” says Gott.

The station’s other full-length programming includes “Métis Hour x 2,” a two-hour show hosted by Métis music legend Ray St. Germain; the “Indigenous Music Countdown”, a Cree country show; and weekly bingo games.

Roz McIvor, who is from Sandy Bay Ojibway First Nation, is the voice of the “Native Music Countdown” and afternoon drive program. She says NCI’s hosts connect with audiences in a way not seen at other stations because they understand the complex challenges that many communities face.

“NCI is a really safe place for everyone to forget all the negative and bad things in their lives, and just have fun on the air with their favorite music.”

McLeod says the station’s future includes a push to expand its online reach to urban audiences, but he notes that much of what it does will never change.

“Indigenous communities want to hear (themselves) and want to connect, and I think radio will always be there.”

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on December 21, 2021.

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This story was produced with financial assistance from Facebook and the Canadian Press News Fellowship.