When John (Jack) Worthington Hagerman celebrated his 90th birthday last July, he took the opportunity to reflect on the good fortune he’s experienced in his life.
“I’ve been a very lucky individual,” says Worthington, reflecting on his decades-long career in radio. As a broadcaster, his own history ended up entwined with Canada’s first public broadcaster, CKUA, quite by chance. Born in 1927, Worthington is a mere four months older than the station, but in time came to be a key player in its growth, evolution, struggles and successes.
In 1949, as a young man in Saskatoon, Worthington had spent three years working as a junior broadcaster, but had plateaued in the local market. With nothing to lose, he climbed aboard a train bound for a city with three times as many radio stations: Edmonton.
“I was only 21 at the time. How I could have been as audacious as to just hop on a train with no job in place is a credit to my youth,” Worthington laughs.
The gamble paid off. Within a few days, he began working as an announcer on CKUA, a station formerly operated by the University of Alberta that was then run by Alberta Government Telephones. “It was intended to be a commercial station at the time, but it was a commercial station with no commercials. It was quite peculiar,” he says. The station, like Worthington, was just hitting its stride – in its early 20s and facing an uncertain, but exciting, future.
CKUA was evolving rapidly and Worthington grew quickly along with it. He worked his way up as chief announcer, then program director and to manager by 1955. In the 1960s, Worthington convinced the owners to change CKUA from one station on AM radio to an FM network – what he calls the “proudest moment in his career.” He continued working in management until his retirement in the 1980s, but has stayed active at the station well into recent years as a broadcaster, as well as taking on the role of operations manager after the station’s brief closure in 1997.
Now, as CKUA reaches its milestone age, Worthington looks back fondly on his seven-decade labour of love. “I think what has been key to CKUA’s longevity is that we’ve long had a completely different view of what radio should be,” says Worthington. “We created a station that was what our people and our listeners wanted.”
Kevin Wilson, CKUA programming director, agrees. “As a public radio station, we have the license to craft radio in a way that no one else can.”
Wilson looks to the future with bright eyes. He, along with station CEO Marc Carnes, recognizes the importance of CKUA’s past.
“We’re not just celebrating our history – we’re celebrating 90 years of connecting with our audiences and supporting Canadian and Albertan artists,” Carnes says. “Media is changing, and we’re certainly not immune to that – the way people experience music is changing. Now we’re in a position to say, ‘How do we take what we’ve learned over the last 90 years and use that to prepare for our 100th?'”
For Worthington, the future of CKUA is as intriguing as ever. “Yogi Berra is purported to have said ‘The future is not what it used to be.’ He was talking about baseball, but the future ain’t what it used to be in radio either. I have a sneaking
feeling that radio – both AM and FM – will be around for quite a long while yet,” he says.