Does Canada Want Government Radio?
NO, says this writer: Government control means political control and curtailed programmes for the listener in
THE Report of the Royal Commission on Radio Broadcasting of 1929, now before Parliament, recommends state ownership of radio for Canada.
From the point of view of Canadian commercial radio interests, and also from the point of view of those thousands of Canadian listeners who, like myself, strongly object to politics in their radio programmes, the deep mystery of the Aird Report is: Who started this, and why?
A Royal Commission is an imposing, costly, and weighty piece of governmental machinery designed to investigate grave abuses and advise remedies. Since Mr. Mackenzie King’s government found it necessary last year to appoint Sir John Aird, a banker, Mr. Charles A. Bowman, a newspaper editor, and Mr. Augustin Frignon, a technical school director, to investigate the condition of radio broadcasting in Canada, it would seem that radio broadcasting in Canada must be in a very terrible condition.
But is it? Was it so monstrous an evil, even during 1928 when the Royal Commission idea first cropped up, or last year when the commission came into being and functioned?
If, indeed, such is the truth, Canadian listeners must be an extremely complacent lot. For, in the seven years between 1923 and 1930, while the number of private commercial broadcasting stations increased only from sixty-two to seventy-eight, the number of receiving sets licensed grew from 10,000 to 300,000. That is to say, Canadian broadcasting was getting
itself into such a mess that nothing but a Royal Commission could correct it, we poor unenlightened Canadians were so stupid as to own thirty times as many radios in 1929 as in 1922.
I am one of those and there are several thousands of us - who, having a modest radio set in my home which, as conditions now are, brings to my family many hours of enjoyable entertainment, some instruction, and a lot of fun, are uneasy about the Aird Report and its possible consequences. As a substitute for the present system, the Commission proposes a government-owned chain controlled by twelve gentlemen, three of them appointed by whichever political party chances to be in power at Ottawa when the change is made, and nine of them—one from each province appointed by whatever political parties happen to be in office in the nine provinces at the same time.
Shorn of verbiage, that is what the Aird Report recommends, and I do not like it. I am old enough to remember the Intercolonial Railway and to have travelled on it extensively—and uncomfortably. I have witnessed the tragic misadventure of the National Transcontinental. I am afraid of state ownership in Canada. We haven’t the
ship temperament for it. The German people enjoy bureaucracy and operate a bureaucratic system with efficiency. Canadians simply do not.
The present organization of commercial stations is by no means perfect—neither Is the state-owned PostOffice. I am by no means convinced that turning radio over to the government will bring better programmes to my loud speaker, or more of them. I think the proba-
bilities are all in the opposite direction. I suspect very strongly that government ownership of radio involves, as an inevitable consequence, political control of radio. When that comes about, the Salvation Army can have my machine and I will take up the study of the harpsichord in a serious way.
Investigations made during the month of February have brought me to the conclusion that hardly a solitary radio manufacturer or retail dealer in the whole Dominion favors the recommendations of the Aird Report. Certainly the owners of broadcasting stations must
oppose it, since to them it means confiscation. With the phenomenal growth of the radio industry in the last seven years the government has had little or nothing to do. Yet it is now proposed, by the Aird Report, to
permit the government to step in, take over the entire development, and say to the men and interests who have built it: “Thanks very much. You must drop in for tea some afternoon.”
As merely an average listener with no connection whatever with the radio industry, I say it isn’t good enough. What the radio industry is saying about it can’t be printed.
One must believe that the Royal Commission tried hard to be fair to everybody, yet analysis of its Report shows some queerly lopsided aspects. In Canada twenty-
five public hearings were held, ten in cities of the provinces from Manitoba, west, and fifteen in cities from Ontario, east. Examination of the proceedings of these hearings brings some peculiar circumstances to light, which seem to indicate that the West was far more concerned than the East in the business of raising a radio rumpus; and further, that the Commission, for reasons which were doubtless sufficient but which are not set forth, chose to pay a great deal more attention to Western than to Eastern opinion.
The natural inference from this circumstance is that in radio the WTest is of greater consequence than the East. The exact opposite is the case.
The Department of Marine and Fisheries, which is the presently constituted Radio Control Board, reports that at the close of the government year in March, 1929, a total of 86,283 licensed radio receivers were owned in the four Western provinces and the Northwest Territories. In the five Eastern provinces the total number of licenses issued was 210,643.
Yet, with two and one-half times as many radio receivers owned in the East as in the West, the Aird Commission received personal evidence on radio broadcasting from eighty-six interested parties at its
ten Western hearings and from only seventy-eight individuals at its fifteen Eastern sittings. Eighty-six people to represent the wishes of 86,283 radio owners in one section; seventy-two people to express the views of 210,643 owners in the other.
If you are interested you may discover details of the hearings in the Report; but a brief comparison of cities
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Does Canada Want Government Radio?
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indicates the general trend. Vancouver with 10,890 licenses provided seventeen witnesses for the commission hearing in that city—the largest number on the record. Toronto with 44,172 licenses was represented by eight personal statements.
At Winnipeg......license registration 9,725
— nine persons made statements; at Montreal—license registration 30,402— only seven witnesses were heard. The I Saskatoon hearing produced fourteen personal statements, representing 1,360 radio owners; but at Ottawa, where there were 7,073 licenses, four individuals only appeared before the commission. In these six cities the commission took evidence from forty individuals in the West, representing 44,172 licenses, and in the East from nineteen witnesses who spoke on behalf of 81,247 owners. Why this discrepancy should appear, I cannot say; but there it is, embodied in the report for any one to read who cares to dig it out.
The Commission’s Comparisons
APPENDIX I, dealing with the Commission’s impressions of the ! broadcasting systems in use in foreign countries, yields nothing but plain statements of facts, and it Is impossible from this meagre material to discover by what process of reasoning the commission arrived at the conclusion which appears ¡ on the first page of the report, to the effect that:
“We found broadcasting especially well organized in Great Britain, under the British Broadcasting Corporation, and in Germany, where the radio service is also under a form of public ownership, control and organization.”
It is interesting, however, to discover that the report considers the United States system on a par with that of Latvia.
; At least, the United States shares with Latvia the unenviable distinction of having its system dismissed in three lines of type. Germany gets twenty-four lines.
I Apparently the commission in its travels I did not discover that under private ownership and operation, under close govern| ment supervision, competitive enterprise ' has brought the United States to a ! position where she leads the world in radio broadcasting for strength of stations, refinement of equipment, and quality of j programmes.
! It will certainly be news to a very large
portion of the British radio audience to learn from Canada that their situation is so eminently satisfactory. Judging from the controversies which are even now raging in the English newspapers, English listeners hold distinctly contrary opinions.
It is impossible, reading the report, to escape the feeling that the Aird Commission was appointed not so much to investigate as to justify an already determined course of action. One cannot but feel that some mysterious guiding power had given secret instructions to these gentlemen to spare no effort in the promotion of the state ownership idea. Without such an excuse, how is one to account for the admiration which the report expresses for the British and German systems, operating in countries so utterly different from Canada in such essential factors as area and population, while entirely ignoring the experience of the United States, so similar to the Dominion in many ways?
How otherwise is one to account for this statement which appears on page six of the report?
“At present the majority of programmes heard are from sources outside Canada.”
It would be interesting to learn the methods by which the commission arrived at so definite a conclusion as to stations “heard.” It is true that the United States has more stations, and stronger stations than the average in Canada, but it by no means follows that more United States programmes are actually heard than Canadian. Certainly the commission did not ask the 300,000 radio owners what stations they most frequently heard. How then were its members able to satisfy themselves that the majority of programmes to which Canadians are listening are of foreign origin?
I know that the majority of programmes which come through my loud speaker are Canadian, for two excellent reasons. One is the uneven character of reception from United States stations, except during the late hours of the night; the other that present Canadian prog ammes which come in perfectly, are often better and generally equal in quality to anything the United States can offer me.
Canadians residing near the United States border are not affected by the first reason; but it is general in the greater part of the Dominion. It is possible that the second did not apply at the time that
the Aird Commission conducted its investigation; but it most decidedly does apply now.
/^\NE of the weaknesses of the report is that already it is out of date. Radio progress is so much swifter than the progress of governmental machinery that the developments of a few months may, and frequently do, destroy the profound conclusions of a year previously. The Aird Report is dated September, 1929. Since that time, Canadian programmes have so vastly improved as to make certain sections of the report appear foolish. This is not the fault of the commission—but it is a serious weakness in the case for the commission’s sweepingly drastic recommendations.
Advertising on the air appears to have greatly agitated the commission, but even on this issue the report is equivocal. In one paragraph the commissioners express the opinion that the ideal programme would be entirely free of all advertising, but in their financial plans for their state ownership scheme they include indirect advertising as a source of revenue.
Speaking as an average listener I am not much worried about radio advertising. True, some sponsored programmes are poor stuff, clumsily presented and entirely uninteresting, but you don’t need state ownership to remedy that condition. You can always tune out. Some of the views gravely set forth in the Aird Report make me wonder if the commissioners ever heard of that homely remedy for radio rheumatism.
Whatever is cheap and tawdry about radio advertising will eventually tune itself out, permanently, of sheer worthlessness. These men are not advertising for fun but for results. Second-class radio advertising will bring them no results save antagonism.
We can see that already. Sponsored programmes bring into my home every week entertainment ranging from grand opera to night-club dance orchestras— and all Canadian, mind youwhich I would sincerely regret were they taken away. I very much doubt that any system of government-owned non-advertising broadcasts could continue them. No sane government would undertake to finance them in such quality and quantity as they
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are now available. This is just another
instance where the Aird Report is already hopelessly behind the times.
Being entirely without experience in the commercial side of radio, I am unable personally to criticize the financial estimates contained in the report. I have enquired concerning them of a number of gentlemen who have, so to speak, grown up with the radio industry. Without exception, these experts react in one of two ways. Either they show a tendency to go off into paroxysms of laughter verging on hysteria, or they display a disposition toward violent rage, tending toward apoplexy. Restored to comparative calm, they declaim in unison; “It can’t he done.”
Who’s Going to Pay For It?
'T'HE report, remarking that the proposed state-owned stations “should be well and powerfully equipped,” estimates that the cost of installing seven highpower units would approximate $3,000,000. In addition, four smaller stations could be established, the commission says, with apparatus “salvaged” from the present stations, at a cast of $225,000. Here is an initial capital expenditure of $3,225,000. A sum, not estimated, would have to be paid to owners of existing stations. This would come out of federal funds; that is to say, from taxation.
Service, the report gravely remarks, would have to be of a high order, and on that basis it estimates that a minimum sum of $2,500,000 annually would be required for operation. As sources of revenue are suggested—license fees, indirect advertising, and that good old government ownership anchor in times of stress, a subsidy. The subsidy, of course, also comes out of taxes.
Radio broadcasting officials tell me that all these estimates are greatly below actual costs for modern equipment and really good programmes. The report itself seems a little obscure on the operations’ end, and concedes that as a starter the annual license fee must be increased from the present sum ol one dollar to three dollars; that is, a 200 per cent increase to begin with.
Manufacturers, distributors and retailers of radio sets gaze upon the idea of a license fee increase with marked coldness. They say it would hurt their business. Dealers are especially hostile to the Commission’s casual suggestion that they should he made tax-collectors, taking responsibility for the issuing of licenses with each set. They say they have trouble enough already.
As an average listener I object to any increase in the present license fee, not for the sake of the extra two dollars a year but for the principle of the thing. There is no guarantee that this bright forward movement will stop at a two dollar raise. The Government may decide to raise the ante to six, or sixteen dollars. In Germany, which the commission views with such profound admiration, the fee is six dollars a year. In Great Britain it is ten shillings.
In the United States, for which the commission has no respect whatever, there is no license fee at all.
What “La Presse” Thinks
TlSTEN to the Hon. P. R. Du Tremblay, director-administrator of La Presse, the great French-Canadian newspaper which owns and operates Station CKAC,
one of the pioneer Canadian stations and one of the most modern and most powerful.
“The Aird Report offers no guarantees that programmes under government ownership would be better than they are now under private competitive enterprise with government supervision. Experiences abroad, and especially in Great Britain, tend to prove otherwise.
“There is a very serious question of provincial rights involved. It is gravely doubtful that the Federal Government has constitutional authority to dictate to the provinces as to what radio stations may be located within provincial borders. Some of the highest legal opinion declares that such an action would be a violation of provincial rights.
“Further, there is a moral question. Has the Federal Government any moral right to confiscate the existing broadcasting organizations which represent a business built up through years of experiment and toil, and in which many millions of dollars are invested?
“It would be impossible to finance the proposed stations on the estimates of the Aird Report with satisfactory results to the public. A license fee of three dollars would prove entirely insufficient, and either the fees would have to be increased, or the taxpayers, of whom only a very small percentage are radio owners, would have to make up the deficit from public funds.
“The number of stations suggested, seven main stations and four supplementary ones, could not provide the diversity of programmes which Canadian listeners have been educated to expect through the seventy-eight stations—including sixteen “phantom” stations—now licensed for broadcasting.
“The proposal to curtail and finally to abolish all advertising from Canadian programmes would work a gross injustice upon Canadian radio advertisers, since by no possible authority could the Government at the same time prevent foreign programmes carrying foreign competitive advertising into this country. Radio recognizes no tariff walls.
“The paramount danger is the certainty that state ownership of radio means political control. The Aird Report attempts to circumvent this by suggesting independent supervision of programmes in each province by provincial radio commissions. That is, the evil of political control at Ottawa would be multiplied by the evil of political control in the nine provinces. Obviously, governments in power at Ottawa and in every provincial capital would appoint their commissioners from among their friends. How could it be otherwise?
“Finally, there is no abuse complained of in the report, which it is not at the present moment within the power of the Government to correct, under authority of the Radiotelegraph Act and Regulations. Nor is there any constructive recommendation made by the commission short of government ownership and the confiscation of private property, which cannot be carried out under the same authority.”
The Mackenzie King administration, in creating the Aird Commission, is using a sledge hammer to swat a fly. It is employing a steam shovel to dig in a flower pot. The best thing for all concerned is to drop this unnecessary and potentially evil document into whatever receptacle is reserved for governmental errors, and let us get back to our radios.