Story and Photo by Evelyn Rempel Petkau
June 19, 2014
One of Golden West’s first employees, Elmer Hildebrand has now been leading the company for a half-century
As a young boy, Elmer Hildebrand enjoyed selling greeting cards and garden seeds to his neighbours in the farming community near Altona. He had no idea where these interests and skills of his would lead. All he knew was that he didn’t want to farm.
When he finished high school, he knew that he needed to do something and so he approached the little radio station that was being constructed in Altona, to see if he could be a salesman for it.
“They didn’t think I could sell, but they asked if I’d be willing to be an ad writer,” he recalls. On March 4, 1957, nine days before Golden West Broadcasting Ltd.’s first station—CFAM—went on the air, Hildebrand became one of its first employees, banging out commercials on a manual upright typewriter. By 1964, he was the station manager.
CFAM was launched specifically to serve the rural southern Manitoba population.
“The only time Winnipeg stations would talk about southern Manitoba was when there was a big crisis of some kind,” he says. “The concept was to provide local news coverage and information, as well as Christian programming. That concept really hasn’t changed. We still do that, only more professionally. We still have the same philosophy to provide quality local service. People will get national and international stories other places, and so we focus on local stories.”
When Hildebrand became manager, he took this commitment to serve the local community even further.
“One of the first things I did when I became manager was hire and train local staff,” he says. “Up until then, the people that we hired were coming and going because they were coming from across the province. Once they had experience, they would move on to bigger centres.”
Under Hildebrand’s management, the company has grown to become the largest independent radio broadcaster in the country, with more than 40 radio stations and 500 employees across the Prairies, from Kenora, Ont., to High River, Alta. Today, Golden West continues the practice of hiring local employees in whatever community they are based and training them.
“The biggest thrill for me is seeing local young people hired and then making a career for themselves in our organization,” he says, adding, “Trying to provide wholesome family programming [across four provinces] is what we do, and that concept is directed from here and from Steinbach [Man.].”
Hildebrand, who currently lives in Winnipeg and attends Bethel Mennonite Church with his wife Hilda, says he cannot separate his faith from his work. It is integ-ral to his business how programs are selected, how the stations support and build community, and how staff are treated.
“We are not a Christian station, but a station that operates on Christian principles,” he explains. “When you think of Christian stations, you think of gospel programs 24/7. We have some gospel programs, but not just that. We are a community radio station that gets involved with all aspects of the community and that includes church.”
In its earlier days, Golden West had a ministerial committee to help the board discern which religious organizations’ programs would be aired. Since 2005, though, all company shares have been held by Hildebrand, his family and senior staff, and Hildebrand now describes himself as the “gatekeeper” for religious programming.
“As an organization, we have tried hard to . . . be faithful to our listeners and that whole process has involved the church throughout the years,” he says. “We, as an organization, make sure that we reflect the church across the area. We have done this since the beginning. We carry church broadcasts.”
There are a few Mennonite programs that are regularly aired, but Hildebrand laments that “the Mennonite programs have almost disappeared. Personally, I try very hard to have a strong Mennonite presence, especially on a Sunday morning, but it is harder to maintain because the programs aren’t available. I’m very committed to providing time for those kinds of radio broadcasts.”
Today, at age 77, Hildebrand is still chief executive officer of Golden West and maintains an office at the headquarters in Altona, commuting from Winnipeg about once a week. He is currently giving time and energy to leading the fundraising campaign for the major building expansion underway at Canadian Mennonite University (CMU). He was instrumental in convincing CMU to offer a communications course and continues to underwrite the program.
“We hope that communications students at CMU will have some spiritual grounding that will bring a different perspective to their stories,” he says.
Last year, Hildebrand, who is well respected for his broadcasting acumen, received the Order of Canada.