It’s 6 p.m. on a Friday night and the call lines at one of Canada’s largest Indigenous radio stations are all flashing.
That will be the case for the next four hours as hundreds of listeners across Manitoba try to get on to NCI FM’s flagship show, Friends on Fridays.
The live request show started in 2004 and is a staple in many Indigenous households. Some listeners wait upwards of a year just to get through to send a special shout-out to their loved ones.
“Basically getting on is like winning the lottery. Cousins brag all the time. It’s a level of love for the show that has totally blown away the community,” says Davey Gott, one of the show’s co-hosts.
On any given Friday night, listeners can hear song requests, shout-outs to “cuzzins” in other communities or tales of winning big at bingo. The heart of the show, much like the station it airs on, is about representing day-to-day life in Indigenous communities.
NCI FM is celebrating 50 years of connecting to and advocating for parts of the province not often included in mainstream media.
“You can listen to it and you’re hearing some language, but it’s also about community. You’re hearing people you might know. You’re hearing community names and you’re hearing stories that you can relate to as well,” says David McLeod, the station’s chief executive officer.
Native Communications Inc. or NCI was started in the fall of 1971 in northern Manitoba. At the time, there was a burgeoning media scene in the city of Thompson, but McLeod says there was “skewed” representation when it came to Indigenous Peoples.
A group from northern Indigenous communities decided to form a committee to create a station that would provide Indigenous language and cultural programming, which later evolved into NCI, says McLeod.
Part of it included relaying messages to those working on the land, says Sydney McKay, an original board member and former broadcaster with NCI.
“People needed to send messages to the trappers, hunters and the fishermen, and be able to actually have a one-way communication system,” he recalls.
McKay was living in Thompson when, at 21, he was asked to be on the board for NCI.
“It was an honour. It was right in the middle of something new. It wasn’t done in the north at that point, not in the Aboriginal language.”
McKay and his co-host, Arnold Dysart, would record broadcasts using a single microphone on a folding table. NCI purchased airtime from local radio stations and would run half-hour programs featuring music and content in Cree. It later expanded to include religious programs as well as interviews with Indigenous politicians and leaders.
The station’s primary growth occurred in the 1990s when it began purchasing transmitters to broadcast its own content. NCI officially went on air in Winnipeg in the fall of 1998.
McLeod says it now operates 57 transmitters reaching almost every corner of the province.
“We’re venturing into communities that commercial radio does not pay attention to. That’s something that’s at the heart of what we do.”
Originally from Chemawawin Cree Nation, about 440 kilometres north of Winnipeg, Gott has been with the station for about three years. Some of his earliest memories include NCI playing in the background while his grandmother baked bannock in their home community.
“NCI is like the sound of home. It is like the theme of the community,” says Gott.
The station’s other integral programming includes Metis 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 Indigenous Music Countdown and the afternoon drive program. She says NCI hosts connect with the audience in a way that isn’t seen at other stations because they understand the complex challenges many communities face.
“NCI is a really safe place for everyone to just forget about everything negative and bad in their lives, and just have fun on air with their favourite music.”
McLeod says the station’s future includes a push to expand its online reach to urban audiences, but he notes the core of what it does will never change.
“Indigenous communities want to hear (themselves) and want to connect, and I think that radio will always be around.”