Rankin Inlet is quiet, in the way it only can be during a blizzard in the middle of January. But tucked above the hockey arena and community centre, Enrique Iglesias is playing and Molly Ugjuk is listening.
She’s an announcer at the local radio station, but she does a lot more than program the selection of country and dance hits that blast across the Nunavut community’s airwaves. In a place where not everyone has internet at home—and the connection can be slow even when a storm isn’t battering the window panes—the local radio station is a lifeline.
“I enjoy it,” she says, switching between English and Inuktitut as people call the station’s open phone lines. On a day like today, Ugjuk is more than a disc jockey; she’s the community’s verbal bulletin board while people are stuck indoors.
“Everyone looks to the local radio,” she says. “Very important to keep the community updated with what’s open, what’s closed, with what’s going to be happening and to make sure the community is safe, and for the elders too.”
The phone rings and Ugjuk puts the caller on air. It’s an older lady, speaking in Inuktitut. “She’s saying she does not know her sister’s phone number,” Ugjuk translates. But that’s OK, the caller can talk to her sister over the radio. “She can walk better now, that’s what she’s saying on air. ‘Haven’t heard from her in a long time. Telling her I’m OK.’”
The day Ugjuk is manning the fort, the local CBC affiliate isn’t answering its phone. “Maybe they were closed today because of the blizzard,” she says. CBC broadcasts cover the whole Kivalliq region of Nunavut. Her station is just for Rankin Inlet and the area around it—which makes it local. Really, really local. Everyone in town listens to the radio, and it’s even played over store intercoms.
Ugjuk works six days a week, taking shifts alongside two other announcers. During blizzards, she still comes in, no matter the weather. “You’ve got to dress up warm to come by walking,” she says. She knows how crucial the radio is when her community is stuck inside, not just to keep people safe but to keep them entertained.
“If someone called, because it’s really quiet right now, if they want to do a guessing game while the whole community is listening, right away there will be calls,” she says. Games like guessing a number from 1 to 100 (for a cash prize someone in the community is offering up) are popular. So is radio bingo.
As the elder continues to speak, another call comes in—this one to the off-air line. It’s someone from Whale Cove, who wants to say hi to the lady speaking on the radio. Ugjuk cuts into the broadcast to relay the message to both the elder and all the other listeners. “The words I said in Inuktitut are their names, that said ‘hi’ to her. Inuit have Inuktitut names, so when an elder calls, they say their Inuktitut names instead of using English names.”
Stuff like that happens all the time. “Their puppy is missing, or their dog can’t be found, and they’ll use the radio,” she says. “If there was a hunter out before the blizzard, or trying to go out and never came back, we’ll get a call from their family members or their friends, and then have to get ahold of the search and rescue officers and keep the radio station open until that person is found.”
She’s a switchboard operator in the style of old movies, but instead of switching wires she’s connecting cellphones and the slightly battered cordless phones in the studio to the community.
The elder says goodbye, and as she hangs up, the queue of songs pulls up “Wonderful Tonight” by Eric Clapton.