The Birth and Death of The Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission (1932-1936)
Only a few dozen Canadian radio stations existed during the 1920's. Three were operated by the CNR, some by newspapers, a handful were run by universities, a number by churches, two by the Manitoba government and the rest by private entrepreneurs. They were only on the air a few hours a day with some sharing frequencies. Many Canadians close to the border, could and did tune-in to American radio stations, both day and night, but most at night.
With so few stations and a relatively small number of Canadians owning receiving sets, the Canadian government seemed indifferent toward this new communications medium. The government was collecting fees from stations and from radio set owners, but had yet to reinvest that revenue in radio broadcasting.
That indifference changed however, when a public storm arose over bitter attacks on the government coming from stations owned by the Bible Students Association (the Canadian arm of the Jehovah's Witnesses) and on other religions, especially the Catholic Church. These attacks prompted action by the Hon. P. J. A. Cardin, Minister of Marine and Fisheries with responsibility for broadcasting at the time. In 1928 he revoked the radio licences of the Bible Students Association.
In Parliament much heated debate ensued. J. S. Woodsworth, the Labour member from Winnipeg North, accused Cardin of censoring religious opinion and limiting freedom of speech. The debate led the government of Prime Minister Mackenzie King to set up a Royal Commission to help shape the future of Canadian Broadcasting.
King's first hand experience with Radio and its power to reach "his audience" came from Canada's first network broadcast in 1927. He addressed the nation from Parliament Hill during The Diamond Jubilee broadcast using the CN/CP telegraph lines and various local or provincial telephone lines to hook up most of the 57 private radio stations operating at that time. Comments in newspapers and from the mail he received indicated that this new medium could be a valuable way to communicate with the country in the future. This experience influenced the rest of his political career.
Chairing the Royal Commission was Sir John Aird, 73, President of the Canadian Bank of Commerce. Joining him as Commissioners were Charles Bowman, Editor of the Ottawa Citizen who had been very vocal in supporting a public broadcasting system for Canada, and Dr. Augustin Frigon, an electrical engineer and director general of technical education in Quebec. Secretary of the Commission was Donald Manson, a senior official of the government's Radio Branch who would be highly influential in drafting the final report of the Royal Commission.
Prime Minister King gave the Commissioners three options to consider: establish one or more networks which would get a federal subsidy; establish a network of stations supported by provincial governments; or establish government-owned and operated stations. King clearly preferred the latter. The Commissioners traveled to the United States (where they were surprised to learn that American broadcasters were anxious to extend their networks into Canada), to Britain and other European countries, and across Canada to solicit ideas for a Canadian broadcasting system.
Increasingly as they traveled, the Commissioners were worried that unregulated private radio might lead to American domination of the Canadian airwaves. Bowman wanted strong federal control, while Frigon sought strong provincial control.
The Commission made its report on Sept. 11, 1929, recommending establishment of a national public radio system to be called the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Company. The Commission proposed there be twelve board members for the new system, three of them federally appointed and nine other members, one from each of the nine Canadian provinces. Each of the provincial board members would have full control over programs on the stations within their province. The Royal Commission proposed seven high-powered stations be set up across Canada at a cost of $ 2.5 million. Funding would be through radio set licences, increasing the annual fee from $ 1 to $ 3 which was estimated would bring in about $ 900,000; through limited advertising estimated to produce $ 700,000; and a $ 1 million government subsidy.
There was much support across Canada for the recommended public service, although loud protests came from private broadcasters, some advertisers and others. When the stock market collapsed six weeks after the Aird Report was issued, Prime Minister King was hesitant and delayed implementing the Aird Report until after an election he had called for 1930.
But the Liberals lost that 1930 election to the Conservatives, making R. B. Bennett the new Prime Minister. Later that year, two young men who endorsed the Aird Report launched a campaign for public broadcasting. Graham Spry, 30 and Alan Plaunt, 26, formed the Canadian Radio League and began lobbying for support for public broadcasting among influential groups such as the Canadian Club, the Canadian Legion, labour unions, business associations, agricultural groups, corporations, the legal system and highly influential individuals. Most of all they sought to influence Prime Minister Bennett and met with him and others among his associates to encourage them to implement the principles of the Aird Report recommendation for a public broadcasting system.
Radio was becoming an increasingly important part of daily life, offering inexpensive entertainment for a depression-haunted society. Five hundred thousand Canadians were by now paying their annual $1 radio licence fee.
The campaign by Spry and Plaunt gained momentum and Bennett and his colleagues were listening. But a legal issue developed over whether radio should fall under federal or provincial jurisdiction. In early 1932, the Privy Council in London, the ultimate authority, ruled that radio broadcasting was a federal responsibility.
With that, Bennett moved to set up a public broadcasting system. He introduced the Canadian Broadcasting Act of 1932 which was a modified version of the Aird Report, implementing many, but not all, of the recommendations of Spry and Plaunt.
CRBC is Born
The Bennett legislation established the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission (CRBC) and the Prime Minister named the Editor of Saturday Night magazine, Hector Charlesworth, as Chairman of the new body. Thomas Maher, a Quebec Conservative and a director of a private radio station in Quebec City, and Lt. Col. W. Arthur Steel, a technical consultant to the Parliamentary Radio Committee, were the other members of the new Commission. The mandate of the CRBC was to regulate all radio broadcasting in Canada and to provide and deliver to all regions of the country, entertainment and information programs that were primarily Canadian. The first grant for the fiscal year of 1933-1934 was $1 million.
One of the first actions of the CRBC was to buy for $50,000 the CNR radio stations in Ottawa, Vancouver and Moncton (recently closed by CNR). The CRBC established or leased stations in Montreal, Chicoutimi and Toronto, and, to provide coast to coast service, private stations in a dozen cities were recruited to carry at least three hours a day of CRBC network programs. These became known as "Basic Stations". If there were two or more stations in a location, the other stations were given access to the CRBC programs not carried by the "Basic Station".
None of the Commissioners had any radio operating experience and thus most of the staff of the CNR radio network were taken on including E. Austin Weir, who was appointed Program Director. His appointment was short-lived, however, and after a dispute with the CRBC Commissioners over the amount of programming being offered (the Commissioners wanted more and wanted it faster), Weir was demoted and then fired. The CRBC then looked to the private radio sector for the experience needed. Ernie Bushnell of CKNC in Toronto was hired to be responsible for programs originating in Ontario and Western Canada (later to become national program director) while Arthur Dupont, who had managed CKAC Montreal, was put in charge of programs originating in Quebec and the Maritime provinces. Shortly after being established, the CRBC appointed as Western program director, Horace Stovin who had managed CKCK Regina. Earlier all three had spoken out sharply against the efforts of Spry and Plaunt to establish public broadcasting.
On February 23, 1933, the Commission had two hours of national programming a week. They were scheduled for Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9 to 10 pm Eastern time.
From Toronto, on Tuesday, the CRBC brought to listeners from the Atlantic to the Pacific an hour of pleasant music by an orchestra conducted by Geoffrey Waddington, with vocalists Jean Haig, Billie Bell, Stanley Maxted and Wishart Campbell.
From Montreal, on Thursday - "One Hour With You" - an orchestra conducted by Guiseppe Agostini, and featuring a number of soloists. As would be the practice for some time to come, the Montreal announcer introduced the program and each musical selection in both French and English.
As Bushnell, Dupont and Stovin began to tackle their assignment, the number of programs gradually increased, By the fall of 1935, CRBC network time on weekdays was six hours, and was longer on weekends when it added the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts from NBC on Saturdays and on Sundays, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra from CBS. An example of the range of the CRBC programs available in the Mountain Time Zone, for instance, is reflected in a newspaper listing for Friday, Dec. 27, 1935, together with the originating city:
The listings for Saturday night featured Northern Messenger originating in Toronto with news of special interest to Canadians in the far north and personal messages from family and friends. Saturday nights on CRBC's western network saw a heavy schedule of music in the late evening, such as:
In its time, the CRBC network carried many historic and notable programs. A standout among its own productions was a series of dramatized informational programs - Forgotten Footsteps written by Don Henshaw. Another was The Youngbloods of Beaver Bend, the dramatized serial of family life on a western Canadian farm, written by Peter Dales and produced in the studios of CKY Winnipeg by Esse W. Ljungh.
The most memorable CRBC program achievement was the coverage of the Moose River Mine Disaster in April 1936 in Nova Scotia. Three men were trapped in a mine cave-in 141 feet below the surface and rescue crews worked frantically around the clock to save them. The CRBC made arrangements with Halifax station CHNS to send an engineer with announcer Frank Willis to the mine-head to report from the scene every half hour for almost five days. Two of the men survived. The CRBC made Willis's reports available to all Canadian radio stations and over 650 stations in the U. S. as well as the BBC in Britain.
Another major event covered by the CRBC was to provide, for the first time, nation-wide coverage of a federal election.
CRBC Chairman Charlesworth became distressed by the government's refusal to supply enough money which he felt was needed to provide adequate radio service. His budget was far less then the $2.5 million that had been recommended in the Aird Report and he reluctantly turned to advertising to help make up the difference. In its last year, the CRBC brought in $236,000 from sponsored programs.
At the same time, Graham Spry and Allan Plaunt increasingly felt the CRBC programming was poor and the management inadequate. Opposition leader Mackenzie King charged the CRBC had become a Conservative political machine. Debate grew heated, particularly by Plaunt and the Canadian Radio League, which demanded the public broadcasting system be a social force for enlightenment and nationalism rather than pure entertainment.
What finally turned the tide against the CRBC erupted in the 1935 election when the Conservative Party's advertising agency, J. J. Gibbons of Toronto, created a series of 15 minute dramatized political "soap opera" shows called "Mr. Sage". They were harshly critical of Mackenzie King and when broadcast by CRBC, he was furious. When King won the election, the CRBC's days were numbered.
The Commission was assaulted vigorously by Alan Plaunt in his campaign to win King's support for his version of a public broadcasting system. After King's election, Plaunt's ideas for a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) were adopted by the Prime Minister and King assumed Parliament would now approve new laws in line with Plaunt's plans. But one of his Ministers, C. D. Howe, favoured more prominence for private broadcasters and wanted the private stations to be responsible to the Minister (himself), and not the CBC. A special Parliamentary Committee devising the new legislation initially agreed with Howe, but when King heard of this he got the committee to change its mind and endorse most of Plaunt's ideas. Under the new law setting up the CBC, regulator powers were given to the CBC, although licencing and the allocation of wave lengths (frequencies) were given to Howe's Department of Transport. The CBC took over November 2nd, 1936. Charlesworth was dismissed.
Thus, the CRBC ended its life amid controversy, although, for all its faults, it had shown the potential of public broadcasting and had laid the groundwork for the CBC.
"The Microphone Wars" - Knowlton Nash - 1994
The files of J. Lyman Potts CM
Research - Joanne Ingrassia
Updated to July, 2008