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The strange legacy of Whistler's unapologetically grassroots cable TV provider

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Lance Bright still remembers the first time he saw a TV.

At the time, there wasn't much in the way of distractions for a precocious child in 1970s-era Whistler, so, sometimes, Lance had to find ways to entertain himself.

"I was jumping around on the TV one day and I remember getting in trouble for it. I got yelled at and didn't understand why. I was like, 'What's a TV?'" he recalls with a laugh.

That was the reality for most Whistlerites of the time, who tended to shun modern conveniences in favour of the more rugged, outdoor past-times that continue to appeal to millions of visitors and residents today.

But a few years prior, a small group of resort pioneers that included Walter Zebrowski, Harold Cullen and Lance's father, Whistler Mountain's first general manager, Jack Bright, realized the importance of bringing television to the growing community, and formed the Whistler TV Society.

That led, in 1966, to the erection of a TV repeater at the top of Sproatt Mountain that would eventually beam three different channels into local homes—something it did for more than 30 years.

Using a giant mirror that bounced a signal down into the valley, the repeater was placed inside two old refrigerators, a set-up that society caretaker Paul Burrows, in a Pique article from 1999, said could only be described as a Rube Goldberg machine.

"The world has changed dramatically since the advent of the TV society," he explained at the time.

There was no way they could have foreseen it then, but the members of the Whistler TV Society helped chart a path for another local TV provider that mimicked the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants resourcefulness that went into the erection of that makeshift repeater on Sproatt: Whistler Cable TV.

'Wayne's World before Wayne's World'

Whistler Cable first went on air in 1983, four years after owners, the Saperstein family, were granted a licence from the CRTC. (Through an intermediary, the Sapersteins declined to be interviewed for this story.) Details are scarce on programming from those early years, although by most accounts, it consisted primarily of ad listings and a channel guide.

Longtime resident Tim Smith worked for the company at that time—despite not owning a TV set.

"I was a squatter in Whistler from 1977 until 1994," he writes in an email. "I was also an employee of Whistler Cable in the fall and winter of '84/'85. Yes, the guy with no TV and no power was their installer and technician."

By the late '80s, Whistler Cable's subscriber numbers had hit the point where it was mandated by the CRTC to produce local content. (It would eventually operate three proprietary channels: Cable 6 for community programming, the Cable 13 channel guide and the Cable 19 Action Sports Network.) Enter Paul Fournier, another years-long Whistlerite who parlayed his friendship with the Sapersteins into a gig at the station.

With little experience in the medium, Fournier picked up some of the tricks of the trade from broadcast veteran Collin Podgorenko, and before long, he was the station's first on-air host, programmer, and general jack-of-all-trades.

"Podgorenko had quite a bit of experience, he'd had some formal training, so he schooled me," Fournier recalls. "Collin was pretty serious about it and he taught me a lot of broadcast techniques and how to do things like not popping my Ps and having that great broadcaster voice."

Especially in those early days, the station's locally produced content was "really loose," Fournier says. Armed with a camera and a long creative leash, he would cover local events, interview business owners, and, working on a volunteer basis, snag some free swag whenever he could.

"We kinda used the station to our advantage," Fournier says. "We weren't getting paid anything, there was no money in it, but if we could have fun doing a tour, or get a free meal or some free drinks, then it was like, 'Game on!'"

But there was also a strong philanthropic bent to the station. Along with scoring free drinks, Fournier would use the station's reach to raise funds for causes near and dear to his heart.

"We did things not only for personal gain, but there were other opportunities," he says. "I was the first president and chairman of WAG (Whistler Animals Galore), so we did stuff for WAG, or the Whistler Community Services Society—whatever was going on."

The station was hampered by its early technical limitations. Shooting in the Super VHS format, there were initially no editing facilities, so Fournier and his team had to capture everything in one take. It wasn't unusual for him to pose his interview questions from behind the camera, before jumping in front of the lens with his microphone to capture the answer, filling the roles of both host and cameraman.

"We had a camera, we had two VCRs, but no editing," he explains. "It was very primitive. It was Wayne's World before Wayne's World."

In one segment from 1996 during Whistler's Canada Day celebrations, the camera starts rolling as Fournier pedals his bike along Northlands Boulevard, much of the townhomes that stand today still under construction. He weaves in and out of groups of revellers, past a marching band, scanning several floats readying for the parade along the Village Stroll.

Then, about three minutes in, Fournier runs into an RCMP officer decked out in his full Red Serge regalia. The camera captures what appears to be a candid conversation between friends.

"I tell you, you guys must be chick magnets with those outfits on," Fournier jokes to the young Mountie.

A smile beaming across his face, the officer responds without a moment of hesitation: "Hey, you know it's law that you ride with both hands on the handlebars?"

The loose format lent the segments, which would often repeat on loop several times a day to fill airtime, an almost surrealistic quality that was more akin to a home movie than a cable station. It was quotidian. It was boring. But it was the real Whistler.

For many residents, it was the first time they would have seen the minute details of their day-to-day lives reflected back at them.

"I think it gave a little snapshot of what community life was like here," explains Bradley Nichols, executive director of the Whistler Museum. "Yeah, there were major events that were happening, but it also looked at smaller events or smaller issues. There were a lot of videos on WAG. It kind of gave a better perspective of what the town was like during this time."

Before the advent of the modern internet, Whistler Cable served as an important source of information for the community. It was where residents tuned in to get their daily weather report, to hear about the latest events taking place that week, watch televised council meetings (much to the chagrin of local officials of the day), and, years prior to the free-for-all that is the Whistler Buy and Sell Facebook group, where locals went to sell and purchase their wares. The public would call in with the items they were looking to sell, and then callers would phone in their bids to the station's answering machine. Fournier would update the bids in real time, typing them in as fast as they came in.

Even with all the exposure the station gave the growing resort town, Fournier says he didn't fully grasp the reach that Whistler Cable had.

"I didn't realize the power of the medium that we were playing with," he says. "It was such a captive audience, because, again, there was no internet, there were no blogs, there was no Netflix. You had only a few channels and we were like channel 6. You still had televisions where you had to walk up to the set to change the channel. I look back now, and it was a voice for Whistler."

A creative launchpad

As the years progressed, so too did the equipment and type of content Whistler Cable had at its disposal.

Moving away from the fixed-camera longshots and lack of narrative that marked the station's early programming, by the late '90s, Whistler Cable TV had officially moved up in the world, acquiring a state-of-the-art editing suite that allowed for more episodic television and even live sports broadcasting.

"At one point, we were broadcasting live hockey games. That was 25 years ago—with commentary," remembers Dean Cote, who served as producer, salesman, and sometimes-voice-over guy for the station in the late '90s and early '00s. "The men's league would have a game, these guys would go down there, set up and then broadcast live. It was such a cool thing—Shaw Cable doesn't even do that right now."

Ask any regular viewer from that time and they're likely to have strong opinions about what their favourite Whistler Cable show was. If you worked in the restaurant industry, it was probably Cooking with Ross, a culinary series featuring a litany of local chefs that was hosted by Whistler Conference Centre Executive Chef Ross Smith. If you were a dog lover, it might have been the WAG-hosted series that featured local pets performing their best tricks. If you were a Whistler youngster—or a bleary-eyed adult looking for some late-night entertainment—the show of choice would have been Uncle Kramer's Farm, a hybrid kids-adult series that aired both in the mornings and after midnight in an attempt to capture both audiences.

Produced by Jamey Kramer, who declined comment for this story, the show blended childlike humour with stoner irreverence that led to what sound like some of the stranger moments on Whistler Cable TV.

Kirk Paterson was roommates with Kramer and was tapped to appear in a couple episodes of the show. "The first one I appeared on, Jamey had a Telletubby and a Pikachu for his props and he just told me to stand there so he could throw them at me one at a time," he says. "He made a song to go with it."

That little ditty—which apparently repeated the line, Kirk Paaaaaterson, Kirk Paaaaaterson, look he's a Pikachu!—became Paterson's calling card for a time. "Suddenly, it was like a short segment and then everyone was singing that song every time I saw them," he explains. "When you work at ski school and you know 100 people, it felt like everyone would greet me like that."

Uncle Kramer's Farm perfectly encapsulates the artistic freedom many of the station's showrunners were granted. Like many of the shows airing on the station, it was entirely self-produced; Kramer would write and film the episodes, cut them himself, and drop them off at station's dimly lit studio, ready for broadcast.

"The ownership of Whistler Cable was pretty hands-off in terms of content; they said here's your budget, go cover the community however you want to," says Jacki Bissillion, the former VP of Resort Television Network, who also worked at Whistler Cable for a spell in the early '00s.

"It was a lot of creativity; it was a lot of artistry."

Like a lot of the producers who cut their teeth at Whistler Cable, Kramer would go on to take part in the 72-Hour Filmmaker Showdown. Between its high-tech equipment and the expertise of its staff, Whistler Cable TV served as a launching pad for scores of local filmmakers in town.

"There was so much talent in the valley, and, really, it was about giving all that talent that we had in this valley, and still do today, an opportunity to get involved and express themselves," says Cote.

"Back in those days, someone buying an editing suite was onerous for most. We put together the funds to buy an editing suite, and then it was like, 'Build it and they will come.'"

Local writer and performer Michele Bush remembers how Whistler Cable agreed to broadcast her very first stand-up set when she was fresh out of comedy school in 1995.

"Back then, before everyone had an iPhone filming everything, this was like your shot at fame. That's what it kind of felt like," she says. "If you were on Cable 6, you felt like you were on your way to the big time. It was your gateway to fame."

The end of an era

Whistler Cable TV would broadcast its last signal in 2006, following Shaw Communications' purchase of the station. It marked a dramatic shift in the community cable landscape, and Whistler Cable today is remembered as the last independent cable provider in Western Canada. But the legacy the station left behind goes far beyond that distinction. "My thoughts are that we'll miss the community we've served since 1979, and it will be sort of sad," owner Ron Saperstein told Pique after the sale was announced.

While today Shaw serves as the Sea to Sky's community voice on TV, there's no question that the grassroots, DIY ethos that was such a big part of Whistler Cable has been lost to some degree, due in no small part to tightened broadcast regulations.

There's no way a local TV station would get away with the devil-may-care approach to programming that Whistler Cable did these days. (Amazingly, in the '90s, Whistler Cable would sometimes broadcast segments from other major news networks, such as Global, that featured Whistler in them.)

Fournier left his post in the late '90s as the station began to modernize. After his last day on the job, he heard that his replacement had begun recording over some of the station's master tapes. This didn't sit well with him.

"I still had a key, so I went in there and I took a big box and stole all the tapes. Then it was like, 'Hey, do you know what happened to the tapes?' Oh geez, I dunno," Fournier says. "It was totally the wrong thing to do: it was theft, it was illegal. But hey, you know, there were no security cameras and no way to prove it."

It wasn't his explicit goal at the time, but Fournier says, in hindsight, he's glad he played a part in preserving a piece of Whistler history. Boxes of tapes containing hours of old footage were donated to the Whistler Museum in 2014, and digitized the following year. (The museum actually had to purchase an old Super VHS player from a seller in Texas in order to watch the tapes.) Nichols, the museum's director, says he's hopeful to release more of the footage to the public in the future.

"The thing is, we always preserve things, but it's not just for the next 10, 15 years," Nichols notes. "We're preserving this footage so someone can watch it in 300 years and get a perspective and an idea of what life and culture was like in Whistler."

The cameras may have improved, and our surroundings have gotten a little glitzier, but there's no denying that Whistler, as a community, has always enjoyed watching itself, basking in the unique outsider perspective that its residents have been fostering for decades.

Nichols, for his part, sees a through-line between the Whistler of today and the squatters, rebels and visionaries who helped forge a tiny ski town in the Coast Mountains into the globally recognized destination it is today.

"The same kind of thing you were seeing in this footage, you were seeing with the people living here in the '70s. It's a common narrative you can actually trace back to Whistler, from Rainbow Lodge onwards," he muses. "There's always been a very strong sense of community in this valley over the past 100 years, and this is just another chapter of that going forward. That spirit is still here today."

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