One of a series of posts about working in radio back in the day.

(Here’s some more).


Iconic CBC Logo

Radio is a tiny, white, battery-operated device I snuck into my bed at night at the age of eleven to hear static and people and music from distant lands.

It’s also a clock radio I got for Christmas when I was twelve.

It’s the shortwave radio my grandfather listened to after a hard day’s work in the fields. It’s the one that kept my father company in northern New Brunswick during the long cold winters of the forties. It’s the radio my parents kept on our kitchen counter when I was growing up, that played our local radio station before school, that played top forty music and told us the news and the weather and the ferry schedule and that regretted to make the following announcement (“in lieu of flowers a donation to a society of your choice would be appreciated”). 

Radio is all the stations that ever broadcast my voice, or anyone’s voice, via radio waves that are now up to two hundred light years away from the Earth the last we checked, and that surely some alien race has heard by now (and who, I like to think, are busy crafting a polite response). 

Radio is communicating with sound via radio waves, a type of electromagnetic radiation, but don’t worry because it’s non-ionizing radiation, meaning that it doesn’t turn atoms into ions, and it isn’t sufficiently powerful to cause the molecules in human cells to break apart and burn us and give us cancer. No, radio employs benign electromagnetic radiation, the friendly kind, the non-ionizing kind, the kind that our radios, televisions, and mobile phones (and microwaves) use in the comfort of our homes. Radio wields sound like a sorcerer, displacing invisible particles of air that tickle the diaphragms of microphones, converting energy into electrical currents that, amplified, become radio waves that antennas fling to receivers that transmute them back into electricity that vibrate speakers to create sound waves to journey once more through the air to our ears.

We know all this because Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell began figuring it out back in the 1870s, proving that electric and magnetic fields, properly choreographed, make excellent dance partners, performing sophisticated pas de deux in electromagnetic ballets.

We know it because German physicist Heinrich Hertz, who lived a tragically short life, a mere thirty-six years, made good use of his abbreviated time on this earth, applying Maxwell’s theories in 1886 to successfully transmit and receive radio waves for the first time in human history, though to what end, he could not say: “Nichts denke ich,” he replied, when asked what good it all was. (Translation: “Nothing, I guess.”)

In 1893, Nikolai Tesla demonstrated a wireless radio to the fine people of St. Louis, Missouri. Three years later Guglielmo Marconi patented wireless telegraphy technology. Four years after that, in 1900, Canadian Reginald Fessenden spoke over the radio for the first time, over a distance of fifty miles. The following year, not to be outdone, Marconi sent radio waves all the way across the Atlantic Ocean, from Cornwall in the United Kingdom to Signal Hill, overlooking St. John’s, Newfoundland, in the form of Morse Code. (That’s not why it’s called Signal Hill, though. It’s actually been called that since 1762, when Lt. Colonel William Amherst changed its name to “Signal Hill” from “The Lookout” after the role the hill played in signaling the forces under his command during the defeat of the French during the final battle of the Seven Years’ War.)

Six years after Marconi’s transatlantic Morse Code feat, Reginald Fessenden topped it by making the first ever two-way radio broadcast using the human voice across the Atlantic Ocean, from Boston to Scotland. Still, it was a while before radio really caught on. Darby Coates worked for the Canadian Marconi Company in 1920. He gave public demonstrations of radio and telephone radio equipment that had been built for troops in France for the First World War.

“People were skeptical,” he recalled later. “They could accept the idea of sound waves but couldn’t see how they could come through the walls of buildings.”

Coates went on to become the manager and announcer for the first publicly owned radio station in Canada, CKY, set up by the Government of Manitoba in 1923, and run by the Manitoba Telephone System. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation was still a few years away.

Graham Spry was a journalist and Rhodes Scholar from St. Thomas, Ontario. He was also the national secretary of something called the Association of Canadian Clubs, which had been formed in 1897 by a journalist from Hamilton to “to foster interest in matters affecting the welfare of Canada.” In 1927, at twenty-seven years of age, Spry, in his capacity as Secretary of the aforementioned association, made a bold proposal. He suggested a Diamond Jubilee broadcast originating from Parliament Hill in Ottawa to celebrate Canada’s fiftieth anniversary. It would be broadcast from coast to coast using telegraph and telephone lines to hook up many of the fifty-seven private radio stations operating in Canada at that time.  

 Prime Minister William Lyon MacKenzie King participated in the broadcast, which was a huge success. Impressed, King wrote, “On the morning and evening of July 1st all Canada became for the time being a single assemblage, swayed by a common emotion, within the sound of a single voice… Hitherto for most Canadians, Ottawa had seemed far off but henceforth all Canadians will stand within the sound of the carillon and within the hearing of the speakers of Parliament Hill.”

The bit about the carillon was made possible by the intrepid engineers who comprised the recording team, such as Jack Carlyle. In 1986, the CBC Radio show Ideas interviewed Jack for an episode celebrating the network’s own fiftieth anniversary:

“I remember going up in that tower and the clock struck, just when I got near the bells,” he recalled. “And of course, it was carbon mikes in those days, and you couldn’t put it on the ground and pick up the sound. So Charlie Findlay, the chief engineer, he climbed out among the gargoyles, you know, the gargoyles on the clock and the Peace Tower. He climbed up and sat out there for an hour with the microphone in his hand. He was never allowed to do it again, of course.”

By 1929 religions had discovered that independent radio stations were really handy for publicly bashing one another over the airwaves. Jehovah’s Witnesses were particularly fond of hammering Roman Catholics via their independent stations. The federal minister responsible for broadcasting revoked the Jehovah’s Witnesses broadcasting license, making religious censorship a hot button political issue.

With this in mind, along with warm memories of the Diamond Jubilee national broadcast, Prime Minister King asked John Aird to set up a Royal Commission on Radio Broadcasting. And you might think, of course! That makes complete sense. It’s Canada. That’s what we do. We set up Royal Commissions to figure out this sort of thing. But the Aird Commission was actually the first ever public consultation of its kind in this country; we only started doing cultural governance this way after the Aird Commission.  

A banker by trade, Aird set up his commission with Augustin Frigon, an electrical engineer, and Charles Bowman, editor of the Ottawa Citizen. They were asked whether a public broadcasting entity should be a private enterprise with a government subsidy, a federally owned and operated system, or provincially owned and operated. The Aird Commission delivered a nine-page report to King. In it, they shared King’s concerns about religious radio. They were also worried about US radio stations gobbling up radio frequencies before Canadians could get their paws on them. And like King, they were especially interested in the ability of a national radio broadcasting network to foster Canadian unity. They recommended a federally owned and operated national public broadcasting system. This at a time when fewer than forty percent of Canadians outside Toronto and Montreal could hear any Canadian radio station at all.

Six weeks after the Aird Commission delivered its report, the stock market crashed, plunging the world into the Great Depression. The creation of a national radio network became less of a priority for Prime Minister King. On July 28, 1930, he was booted out of office. Richard Bedford Bennett, known as R. B. Bennett, replaced him. Bennett led a majority Conservative government, one not interested in the Aird Commission’s recommendations, at least not right away.

In 1930, Graham Spry and fellow broadcasting pioneer Alan Plaunt created the Canadian Radio League. Its goal? Pressure Bennett’s government into implementing the Aird Commission’s recommendations. Spry believed that “Radio broadcasting is no more a business than the public school system, the religious organization or the varied literary, musical and scientific endeavours of the Canadian people. It is a public service.”

In 1932, Bennett’s government formed the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission, at least partially because of the Canadian Radio League’s efforts. (Bennett’s government also created the Bank of Canada and helped Canada fend off the worst of the depression. Bennett himself claimed to have given away 2.3 million of his own dollars to families in need during the depression.)

In May 1933 the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission (CRBC) began broadcasting nationally an hour a day. This grew over time. So did the network. Eventually the CRBC came to consist of eight network-owned and operated stations and fourteen privately owned stations operating as network affiliates.

Unlike its modern-day incarnation, though, the CRBC did not operate at arm’s length from the government. Before the October 14th, 1935 federal election, the CRBC broadcast a series of fifteen-minute soap operas that the opposition Liberals were pretty sure were making fun of their boss, William Lyon MacKenzie King.

On October 14th, 1935, the Liberals trounced the Conservatives. On November 2nd, 1936, King’s government reorganized the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission as a Crown Corporation, perhaps in part to address concerns over this perceived lack of impartiality. The CRBC became the CBC, or the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which promptly got on with the business of making “…the home not merely a billboard, but a theatre, a concert hall, a club, a public meeting, a school, a university,” in the words of Graham Spry.