I still remember riding my bike downtown as a kid in ’75, to watch the giant twin-rotor Sikorsky sky-crane helicopter “Olga” lift the final sections of the CN tower into place, making it the tallest freestanding bit of inhabitable engineering in the world, for some 32 years. It no longer holds that crown (3rd now, behind the Burj and Canton), but it remains mighty impressive as an epic concrete-pour and a slick bit of mathematics both. It is also a truly excellent broadcast antenna.

Most of the big stations in Toronto have their primary over-air transmission based here – though I hear there are still a few radio stations broadcasting from atop the first Canadian place downtown for better rates (college radio must economize, and seventy-two stories ain’t bad).

But while it’s really nice to get more than thirty TV channels usefully clear and HD over-air (no cable bill), I’m even more impressed by a tiny station that surprises most, just by managing to exist in a digital TV age at all.

Anyone remember the original “All night show” on channel forty-seven? The gag was that “Chuck, the security guard” snuck-into the broadcast booth and ran the station for fun all night when everyone else had gone home, playing whatever odd stuff he found most amusing (The Prisoner, Danger Man, The Avengers). Great fun from the early eighties (also first music vids, for many)

Nowadays, for similarly unpredictable thrills over-air, you want channel fifteen on the dial, at least for those who are like me, still using an antenna, and located in the central core of the city (even then, it comes and goes with bad weather).

Why try for it? Because StarRay TV is a genuine pirate television station broadcasting into a major metropolis with the taste insight and curation of human beings, not corporations. As far as I can tell, the owner repairs broadcast equipment, and figured – since they had so much around, why not use some of it?

Highly eccentric programming to be sure – including extended documentaries about railways and the long vanished local inter-urban rail (streetcar) systems, with a minor in Muskokan steam-boatery and northern development. Along with this really striking (and unique to them) historical train-spotting footage (which also reveals huge swathes of how it was, laid-out end to end), they run a ton of classic CBC and CTV documentaries about Toronto, many decades ago.

Just being able to sit back and listen to Bill Cameron’s good humour and sharp insight for awhile, or Harvey Kirk’s benchmark newsman style on-tour is a distinct pleasure. Long departed voices, but never forgotten.

They also have a fine collection of NFB documentaries about Canadian history – and the great thinkers who they repeatedly air (with no commercials interrupting the brain-bliss) include Marshall McLuhan and Noam Chomsky (no such thing as too much of either).

They run beloved NFB (national film board) shorts like the insanely charming “The hockey sweater” by Roch Carrier, and “The log-driver’s song,” with the McGarrigle sisters. Classic Canadiana. Plenty of Richard Condie, too (“The Snit” may just be the best-ever cold-war commentary). They even air McLaren’s still-briliant multiplying ballet-dancer!

Late at night you might stumble across a wacky over the top low-budget Italian detective film from the seventies, or a black and white sci-fi classic.

But the greatest joy in their whole nifty lineup is the resurrection and frequent airing of “the Hilarious house of Frightenstein” – no cuts, no commercials. For those who are fans of Pee-Wee’s playhouse, this is it’s true madcap-design antecedent – Vincent Price even shows up to open and close the show, and reads ghoulish comedy-poetry in between!

Billy Van’s range of characters are a comedic marvel (great under-recognized early genius of TV comedy) – and while the arguments for top-spot abound, Griselda and the Librarian still crack me up every darned time – just as they did when I was five years old!

And did anyone ever dance more joyously than Igor? (Or want to keep the weekly pet more?) Funny, morbid, zany, crazy, super-rich brew.

Coolest pirates in years – long may they sail!
(Nice tower, but my money’s still on Davy)

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