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Over the course of nine decades, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has become an integral part of the Canadian identity. It has brought us shows that have shaped the culture of Canada, covered the events that became part of our heritage, and served as a repository of our past.
Today, I am looking at the start of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
To get to the very start of the CBC, we need to go back almost 100 years to 1929 when the Aird Commission on Public Broadcasting was held. This commission would recommend the creation of a national radio broadcast network.
At the time the Aird Commission was held, there were only a few dozen radio stations in Canada, and very few Canadians actually had radios. The first radio station, XWA Montreal, had only been set up in 1919. By 1923, the Canadian National Railway started to use radio on its trains through three stations, while some newspapers had stations, as did universities, churches, the Manitoba government and a few private individuals. These were often only on for a few hours a day, sharing frequencies.
Most people just listened to American radio at night, but things began to change in 1928 when the Bible Students Association began to bitterly attack the government and the Catholic Church over the airwaves. This would cause Arthur Cardin, the Minister of Marine and Fisheries, to revoke the licence of the association.
Cardin said quote:
“The reasons for the cancellation of that license were the same as those advanced for the cancellation of the others. Representations have been made both for and against the cancellation of this license.”
This caused a heated discussion in the House of Commons with J.S. Woodsworth, a Labour MP, to accuse Cardin of censoring religious opinions and putting limits on free speech. Woodsworth would complain that the majority of complaints came from the area of Toronto, rather than the Canadian Prairies.
In response to this debate, on December 1928, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King formed the Aird Commission to come back with a report on policy. From April 17 to July 24 of 1929, the commission heard 164 oral statements and 124 written statements from all nine provinces. The commission members would also travel to Germany and the United States to see those networks. In all, it was estimated commission members travelled 48,000 kilometres to 56,000 kilometres, good for a trip around the world and a bit.
The commission would release its report on Sept. 11, 1929, recommending the national public radio station. The commission proposed seven high-powered stations be set up, costing $2.5 million, with funding through radio set licences, advertising and government subsidy. The reason a national network was recommended was due to the growing influence of American radio stations broadcasting into Canada. There was a concern that this could erode the Canadian identity without any intervention.
In one letter to the editor sent in to Macleans on June 1, 1930, it would state quote:
“Judging by my own experience, I might say the experiences of all listeners in this part of the Dominion, I can certainly say that the Aird report states the truth. I can tune in regularly to stations at Seattle, Oakland, San Francisco, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Denver but consider it an achievement to get a station at Vancouver, Victoria, Calgary or Edmonton.”
Charles Bowman of the Aird Commission would reiterate this stating quote:
“Government control of broadcasting is the only means by which we can prevent United States domination of the Canadian air. There is no prospect of anything but radio subordination to the United States unless Canadian stations are nationally owned, controlled and operated.”
There was not universal support for the commission’s findings though. La Presse in Montreal would be openly against it, saying that the Aird Commission menaced the trade and commerce of radio. It would state in an editorial quote:
“Because of the conclusions of the report of the Aird Commission on radio in Canada menace directly their interests, representatives of the industry and commerce throughout the Dominion owe it to themselves to prevent and oppose all attempts to put these conclusions into effect.”
The government of William Lyon Mackenzie King would lose the 1930 election but new prime minister, Conservative R.B. Bennett, did not scrap the recommendations of the report, but it was delayed due to the economic crisis of The Great Depression.
Graham Spry and Alan Plaunt would lobby heavily for the new national network on behalf of the Canadian Radio League. The organization had been founded in 1929 so that it could lobby for the implementation of the recommendations of the Aird Commission. The two men would use their organization to influence public opinion, making their case across Canada to trade unions, farm groups, businesses, churches, the Royal Canadian Legion, universities and more. They would even meet with the Governor General on Dec. 8, 1930.
After meeting with Alfred Duranleau, the Minister of Marine and Fisheries, he would say quote:
“To this end the government has been studying the whole radio problem and hoped to be able to present a solution that would serve the best interest of the country.”
The two men would use young people to help get the message out as well. The Ottawa Citizen would write quote:
“It is largely because of the vision of young Canada that such promising headway has been made in the crusade to save the Canadian radio realm.”
By this point, 500,000 Canadians had radios.
Due to the efforts of the Canadian Radio League, the government of R.B. Bennett created the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission through the Canadian Broadcasting Act on May 26, 1932. Bennett would say on the day of its creation quote:
“This country must be assured of complete Canadian control of broadcasting from Canadian sources. Without such control, broadcasting can never be the agency by which national consciousness may be fostered and sustained and national unity still further strengthened.”
There would be high praise for the new radio service. The Drumheller Review wrote quote:
“Harmony reigned in the House of Commons when the radio control bill was under review. Party lines were forgotten, suggestions and advice flew back and forth across the Chamber and in complete unanimity, the measure was given a second reading and all but one or two clauses passed through committee.”
Bennett would also state that politics would play no part in selecting the personnel of the commission, suggesting the Liberals present a list of men acceptable to them. It was also stated by Bennett that the provinces would have a say in program selections on the radio commission.
The Canadian National Railways radio network, which kept passengers entertained and gave the railway a leg up over its rival, Canadian Pacific, would become the basis of this new radio network.
Hector Charlesworth, the editor of Saturday Night magazine, was made the first chairman of the CRBC. His salary would be $12,000, or about $214,000 a year, no small amount during The Great Depression.
The CRBC then bought radio stations in Ottawa, Vancouver and Moncton for $50,000, along with some other stations in Toronto, Windsor, Montreal and Quebec City. Most of these stations had been owned by the Canadian National Railways. At first, the commission had two hours of national programming a week, from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays. By the fall of 1935, the commission was broadcasting on weekdays for a total of six hours, and longer on weekends. The Ottawa Citizen reported quote:
“It should be possible for the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission also to make arrangements through the British Broadcasting Corporation to take some of the Empire broadcasting from overseas. The desire in Great Britain is to come to an exchange arrangement with Canada, to have reciprocal broadcasts.”
While the Canadian Radio League was instrumental in the creation of the CRBC, they were unhappy with how it was set up. The league expressed regret that a salaried commission was to be appointed to oversee the CRBC. The Owen Sun Times reported quote:
“It had been felt by the League that the Commission should be composed of volunteer workers to ensure greater freedom from political interference and constituting a buffer between the Government and the operating organization.”
The league stated it would remain in existence as a watch-dog and critic of the CRBC.
The first programs to be broadcast on the network would be the Metropolitan Opera from New York, Radio Theatre Guild and The Youngbloods of Beaver Band. One program created early in the life of the CRBC was Saturday Night Hockey, which became The Imperial Oil Hockey Broadcast in 1934 and would eventually become known simply as Hockey Night in Canada.
The North Bay Nugget would say of the Snyder family who listened to the broadcasts, quote:
“Saturday Night Hockey broadcasts always finds the two boys glued right tight to the Snyder family radio and their dad says that when King Clancy goes tearing down the ice, there is just no holding Jack.”
Northern Messenger was a weekly show that was aimed to the Canadians who lived in the far north, with personal messages from the RCMP, missionaries, trappers, family and friends. This show consisted of listener letters, messages from loved ones, news and recorded music. In the winter of 1934-35, 933 messages were transmitted. Of those 466 were correctly received, while 14 were not heard at all and 453 were heard with difficulty due to atmospheric conditions. During the first winter-spring period, 1,754 messages were sent out. The next year, 2,854. The following year, 6,250.
An example of a message appeared in Macleans in January 1937, which stated quote:
“And here’s a message for Corporal Paddy Hamilton, Craig Harbor: Thanks for letters. They were great. All very disappointed that you did not come out. Sorry you won’t have Christmas box. We can make up for that next year. Glad you and Mac are so happy together. Good luck to you both. Anne and Pete. . . And here’s another for Corporal MacWhirter away up on the same roof: Letters received via Denmark. Many thanks. Hope you received box. Glad you are well. Many happy returns of November 5. Love and best wishes from all the family. Father and Mother.”
By 1937, this was increased to nearly 8,000 messages. This program would run until the 1970s.
In 1935, the CRBC would provide national radio coverage of the 1935 federal election. This was the first time that Canadian election results were broadcast across the country. During the election, the CRBC broadcast a series of 15 minute soap operas called Mr. Sage, which were critical of William Lyon Mackenzie King and the Liberal party. Robert Lucas played Uncle Sage, who told the public that the Liberals were scoundrels. The Liberals demanded that the sponsor of the Sage series be identified in each episode. This was done, with R.L. Wright, an employee of a Conservative ad agency, being listed as the sponsor.
King would write in his diary quote:
“I learned this afternoon that at this morning’s special committee meeting, it was disclosed that Bennett had been present in the studio and listened to Mr. Sage broadcasts when they were being rehearsed.”
Not surprisingly, the network was criticized by the Liberal opposition for being biased towards the governing Conservatives.
In April 1936, the Moose River Mine Disaster occurred. Three men were trapped in a mine 141 feet below the surface and rescue crews were working to save them. The CRBC arranged to send an engineer with announcer Frank Willis to the mine head to report on the scene every half hour for five days. Willis would earn high praise for his work during the disaster. The New York Daily News wrote quote:
“Willis, the Canadian Radio Commission announce, has done a job which surely places him in the forefront of his profession. Willis’ work has been free of maudlin and sensational drama. It is a matter of opinion of course, but all will agree that he stuck to his job and gave the best he had.”
The Leader-Post would report that one woman from Indian Head wanted him to be recognized for his work. It stated quote:
“An Indian Head woman, sending a donation to the Red Cross, wrote that she hoped that Frank Willis, the radio announcer who reported the rescue, would be recognized as well as the miners.”
After the Liberals won a landslide victory in 1935, King made it one of his priorities to replace the CRBC with a new entity.
The Windsor Star reported quote:
“Even though the Conservatives did not gain much, if anything, in the way of votes through the radio broadcasts of a certain Mr. Sage, they at least succeeded in arousing the indignation of not a few Liberals, including Prime Minister Mackenzie King. Still smarting under the words of wisdom that poured from the lips of this Conservative oracle, Liberals are planning to make these broadcasts one of the subjects of an inquiry by a select parliamentary committee.”
Legislation would be introduced to create the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as a Crown Corporation with an arm’s length relationship with the government. The management of the CRBC was then dismissed and the new CBC launched officially on Nov. 2, 1936.
The Ottawa Citizen wrote quote:
“It is gratifying that Canada has acted in time to save the broadcasting service in this country for the benefit of the people of Canada. It can be developed through the years as an enduring cultural heritage rather than as an opportunity for commercial exploitation.”
The first show to be broadcast on the CBC the day the organization was created was The Fundy Singers out of Saint John, followed by a music program out of New York. A few days later, there would be a nationwide reunion of the Canadian Corps over the radio. Broadcast out of a banquet from Toronto, it would run from 9 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. and be opened by Lady Currie, the widow of Arthur Currie. It would also include addresses by officers who served in France, broadcasting out of Halifax, Quebec, Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, Regina, Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver.
This new network was funded through a licence fee on receiving sets of $2.50, and there was a strong focus on ensuring that it was not subjected to political pressure.
The eight network owned-and-operated radio stations and 14-privately owned network affiliates would then transfer to the CBC. Leonard Brockington would become the first head of the CBC.
One year later in 1937, the first French station, CBF Montreal, opened. New transmitters were also installed in Toronto and Montreal, boosting coverage in the country from 46 per cent to 76 per cent.
The CBC would become an important source of news and entertainment during the Second World War and into the post-war era.
On Sept. 6, 1952, television broadcasts began on the CBC with the opening of CBFT and CBLT in Montreal and Toronto.
On July 1, 1958, CBC’s television signal was extended from coast to coast. In 1963, The Forest Rangers became the first CBC show broadcast in colour. In 1978, CBC became the first broadcaster in the world to use an orbiting satellite for television service.
While there is criticism of the CBC in various sectors of the government today, the impact of the Crown corporation on Canada is undeniable but it all began in 1929, with a commission and an idea.
Information from Macleans, Canadian Encyclopedia, Library and Archives Canada, Wikipedia, Broadcasting History, Edmonton Journal, Red Deer Advocate, Windsor Star, Vancouver Province, Montreal Gazette, Ottawa Citizen, Drumheller Review, Owen Sun Times, North Bay Nugget, Regina Leader-Post,