Before television shoves radio into the limbo hark back to the dizzy decade when we all twiddled knobs to get that squeaky music and roared with delight when the announcer forgot the mike was “live”

BOB COLLINS August 15 1953


Before television shoves radio into the limbo hark back to the dizzy decade when we all twiddled knobs to get that squeaky music and roared with delight when the announcer forgot the mike was “live”

BOB COLLINS August 15 1953


Before television shoves radio into the limbo hark back to the dizzy decade when we all twiddled knobs to get that squeaky music and roared with delight when the announcer forgot the mike was “live”


ON THE NIGHT of March 28, 1922, eleven hundred Torontonians queued up in a driving rainstorm outside the Davenport Road Masonic Temple, crowded indoors a full hour before schedule and gathered around a square black box, three squat batteries and a large horn. Outside, police turned back hundreds more who had merely arrived a little early. In Ontario homes as far as one hundred and fifty miles away, in Belleville, Peterborough, Owen Sound and London, families crouched expectantly over complicated little boxes of their own.

This was the district’s first major demonstration of a thing called “radio broadcasting.” There’d been sporadic broadcasts of music and voices before but most people had dismissed them as either a hoax or a freak of telegraphy.

There seemed to be no tricks to this, though. Time and details of the program had been announced. The Toronto Star had assured its readers that “the only wires used at all are in the aerials at the sending and receiving stations and in the instruments themselves.” Could it be that radio wasn’t a fluke after all?

Three miles away in the bare makeshift studio of 9AH, experimental station of the Canadian Independent Telephone Company, a handful of musicians fidgeted nervously around a wooden funnel-shaped microphone. At eight-thirty an official in the Masonic Temple twiddled some controls. The box crackled.

“Men strained forward in their seats with hands cupped to their ears,” the Star reported later. “Women were rigid as if carved from stone.” Suddenly faint piano strains of God Save the King tinkled through the hall. The audience sat spellbound, then belatedly sprang to attention. A soprano sang Down in the Forest and Annie Laurie. Everybody clapped. Luigi Romanelli’s orchestra played Wabash Blues and Moonlight Serenade. Violin, piano and cello solos wheezed over the air waves. The Masonic Temple listeners applauded every number, ended with a rousing cheer and went home chattering like magpies.

Next day the home listeners mailed in compliments like “It was the loudest I have ever heard” and “We could even hear the announcer walking around.”

All over Canada that spring listeners experienced the same excitement over the magical gadget that plucked music and voices out of the air. Canadians finally realized that the “wireless telephone” was more than a plaything and, in that year, radio swept the country.

A month after the 9AH broadcast the Canadian government granted the first commercial radio licenses. By year’s end thirty-four stations were operating from coast to coast and a rollicking slap-happy pioneer decade was under way.

In crude cubbyhole studios a new race of entertainers began to experiment with a challenging new medium, committing ludicrous blunders but building the framework of modern broadcasting. At home a nation of pioneer listeners tuned in to everything and loved it all.

It was a rip - roaring carefree decade agog with exciting things like open-top roadsters, the Charleston and bootleg gin. But nothing was more thrilling in the giddy Twenties than radio. It was the decade when every boy kept a crystal set under his bed or out in the hen house; when father sat up half the night with headphones clamped to his skull; when families invited sceptical neighbors over for an evening of radio, only to have a tube or battery conk out or a program fizzle away in static; when railway coaches had radio sets and Canada had its first network.

It was the decade when radio listeners embraced Amos ’n’ Andy, Rudy Vallee, Dempsey and Tunney, Babe Ruth and songs like Yes Sir, That’s My Baby and It Ain’t Gonna Rain No Mo’.

Broadcasting was actually more than two years old in the spring of 1922. Amateur stations had been transmitting programs of a sort since Decem-

ber 1919 when the Canadian Marconi Company’s transmitter, XWA, in Montreal, began a regular schedule of code practice and phonograph records from a bare factory room.

That same month in a Montreal Star brimming with World War I peace-treaty news, Marconi advertised wireless receiving sets for fifteen dollars: Just the Christmas Gift for Your Boy.

In May 1920 XWA transmitted an experimental program to Ottawa’s Chateau Laurier one hundred miles away. A Royal Society of Canada audience including Sir Robert Borden, the Duke of Devonshire, William Lyon Mackenzie King and Vilhjalmur Stefansson heard a soloist and gramophone records that were recognizable if indistinct.

In the next two years other amateur stations broadcast spasmodically but radio was still regarded as a boy’s hobby. Astonishingly enough, the average boy could master it too. In spite of the clicks, bloops, mysterious squeals and long haffling silences he could coax code and even music from the air with a crystal, a few dry cells, a pair of headphones, a wire-wrapped oatmeal box for an aerial and a wire probe called a “cat’s whisker.”

That first reception was the thrill of a lifetime. Art Mills, a broadcasting pioneer in Yorkton, Sask., recalls the night he pieced together a

receiver, using a wire arm-band for a rheostat. Then “quite by accident I think, I got a squeal from the headphones. With my heart beating wildly and hardly daring to breathe I distinctly heard a voice say, ‘This is the Palmer School of Chiropractics station, WOC, Davenport, Iowa, the state where the tall corn grows.’

The first commercial license went to CJGC, the Manitoba (later Winnipeg) Free Press station, in May 1922. A landslide of stations followed. Most were owned by newspapers or by firms handling electrical equipment. A few of the 1922 pioneers still exist, including the onetime XWA, now CFCF, Montreal, still owned by Marconi.

Launching a radio station was relatively simple in those days. Ernie Swan, now a Toronto television dealer, opened CKPR, Midland, Ont., with an up-to-the-minute transmitter which cost three thousand nine hundred dollars. (Transmitter prices start at forty-four thousand nowadays.) With a five-hundred-dollar aerial and one assistant, Swan was in the radio-station business.

At first stations broadcast only an hour or two a day or perhaps only once a week, generally with phonograph records, news, market reports, sport scores and, now and then, a quavery soprano singing Listen to the Continued on page 34

Remember When Radio Was the Rage?


Mocking Bird. But it was evident that listeners hung on every word and musical note.

Gordon Olive, recently retired director-general of engineering for CBC, operated CFCO, a fifty-watt station near Montreal. Ont; night, informed that an oil tanker was ablaze on nearby Lake St. Louis, Olive broadcast an appeal for help. In a few minutes he learned that the fire was on a lakeshore farm but by then it was too late. A harbor commission fire tug and a fleet of private boats were already wildgoose-chasing about the lake.

Once at CKWX, Vancouver, announcer George Taggart saw a fire truck go by and noticed heavy “smoke” blanketing the city. Taggart, later program director for CBC, creator of the 1 Lappy Gang and today a Toronto producer of stage shows, was eager to scoop the newspapers so he announced that a fire seemed to lie raging at the entrance to Stanley Park.

By the next day Taggart had been chastised by two angry policemen and ribbed by a local newspaper. His fire was merely a Vancouver fog but half the city fire trucks had turned out to be trapped in a king-size traffic jam.

At Unity, Sask., Horace N. Stovin, now head of a firm which sells air time for stations around the country, scraped up ten dollars for an amateur license and ran a ten-watt transmitter, first in his attic then later in the back of his drugstore. He featured a local old-time fiddler group at 5.30 p.m., the traditional farm milking hour. The farmers grumbled but Stovin says radio soon changed the milking time around Unity.

Nobody wanted to miss a program for there was no telling what an artist or announcer would say next. At CKCK, Regina, a bass singer hiccupped on the bottom note of Asleep in the Deep, muttered “Damn” and received several sympathetic letters.

In Montreal, before the broadcast of a stage show, the operator signaled announcer Jimmy McArthur to lead off before the talent took over. An electrician took this as his cue to douse the overhead lights and listeners heard the show open with McArthur’s stentorian “LIGHTS, DAMN IT, LIGHTS. 1 CAN’T SEE.”

In Toronto a hefty female vocalist who specialized in robust Wagnerian numbers had been instructed to ease away from the mike on her top notes and close in for softer ones. In shuffling back and forth on the studio carpet she soon built up a powerful static charge. One evening as she leaned in for a mellow note electricity sprang from the mike to her nose and the solo ended in a startled screech.

Under the circumstances early radio could be forgiven its boners. Working conditions were primitive. Microphones were merely glorified telephone transmitters. Some mikes looked so much like telephones that announcer Owen McGillieuddy, of CFCA, Toronto, once absently blurted “Hello, hello” in the midst of a broadcast.

Announcers were often technicians with good voices. Oneor two-man staffs were common and a radio man had to be versatile. Even on a short broadcasting day the announcer-manager-office boy was busy opening mail, telephoning prospective artists, gathering sports scores, market reports and selecting phonograph records.

On recorded shows the early disc jockeys used mechanical gramophones

which had to be recranked regularly. There were no rehearsals for live shows. Artists arrived when they could and whispered the titles of their numbers to the announcer. Musicians worked long shifts. On one weekly Toronto program pianist Bruce Metcalfe, now a Weston, Ont., music teacher, used to start work at seven p.m. with a violinist and cellist. At eight o’clock the trio added two members and became a quintet. The group grew every hour for different programs until by midnight they were an orchestra.

After a job at one station musicians dashed furiously across town to make another program. Metcalfe says he often trundled a nine-piece orchestra and instruments—including drums— across Toronto in a Whippet roadster.

Studios were usually hotel rooms with sombre drapes added. This acoustical device was so eerie that once at CKY, Winnipeg, a guest speaker looked around during a farm talk, shivered and ran out. Announcer D. R. P. Coats brought his pet canary into the same studio hoping to brighten a routine record show with bird songs. After one day in his gloomy surroundings the canary refused to sing.

Doors and windows were tightly closed to improve acoustics and on summer nights the temperature became unbearable. Metcalfe says he and his fellow musicians generally stripped to their BVD8 during a performance. Most studios were too small to accommodate an audience.

Though programs leaned heavily on music at first, Canadian listeners didn’t really care. “DX-ing,” or distance hunting, was more important than programs then. Stations were aware of this and broadcast their call letters frequently accompanied by distinctive chimes, whistles, even bird calls. Then the listeners twirled hungrily away for another station so they might brag to the neighbors next day, “I got Schenectady” or “Denver was clear as a bell.”

Early Soap Operas Ran For Hours

Radios were dark formidable-looking boxes that bristled with knobs and cost as little as thirty-five dollars or as much as four hundred and fifty. Some had speakers, some only earphones. One set of earphones to a family created considerable strife and some confusion. In one Manitoba home the father used to stand stiffly at attention in his earphones each night while the station signed off with God Save the King. This always baffled strangers who, of course, couldn’t hear a note.

The stations began to strive for more variety. In Winnipeg in 1922 Gerald Bourke, a theatrical performer, wrote and acted in “radarios,” the first Canadian radio dramas. Plays sometimes ran two or three hours. The actors were never paid but once a grateful listener stood them cake and coffee.

Poems and monologues were handy radio fare. If no pianist was available for background music the narrator sometimes pounded on a drum as he recited. To liven up The Shooting of Dan McGrew, a CKY, Winnipeg, narrator kicked over two chairs and a tray of knickknacks then slammed a leather cushion with a ruler for gunshots. Manitobans always phoned in for an encore of that one.

Air waves were relatively uncluttered and Canadian listeners reached far over the border to follow such national heroes as Moran and Mack, the Two Black Crows; singing comedians Billy Jones and Ernie Hare; vocalist Mary Garden; announcer Graham McNamee, the members of Nashville, Tennessee’s Grand Old Op’ry and Sam and Henry, later Amos ’n’ Andy. The

latter two programs are still going strong.

Catch phrases like Amos ’n’ Andy’s “Sho’, sho’, I’se regusted,” Jack (Baron Munchausen) Pearl’s “Vas you dere, Sharlie?” and Joe Penner’s “Wanna buy a duck?” became Canadian, as well as American, bywords. Thousands of Canadian males hung over the loudspeaker for the Dempsey-Tunney fights or the World Series during the heyday of Babe Ruth.

Nearly every station in this country carried sporting events, partly because such programs were ready-made. One

of the first hockey broadcasts was aired over CFCA, the Toronto Star station, on Feb. 9, 1923. Norman Albert, a sports writer, reported the last period of an intermediate game between North Toronto and Midland, via a telephone hookup with the studio. (North Toronto won, 16-4, with six goals by Lionel Conacher.)

The next month Pete Parker, of CKCK, did the first western hockey broadcast, a game between Edmonton and Regina. And at a hockey game in Toronto a slender fair-haired boyish-looking newspaper reporter named

Foster Hewitt launched his radio career in an airtight glassed-in booth four feet high and three feet wide. At intervals during the sixty minutes regulation play and thirty minutes overtime the glass steamed up and Hewitt had to open the door and let the broadcast wait.

Telephone lines were generally used to transmit, those early remote-control broadcasts back to the studio. But not without mishap. Sometimes the operator cut in over the air with “Number, please.” One cold fall day Hewitt broadcast an entire football

game only to learn that the telephone circuit had been broken all afternoon.

Like all early sportcasters Hewitt reported from stadium roofs “with my feet in the eavestrough and one arm around the flagpole.” Once at a baseball game a high foul curved back and tagged him. At a football game in Kingston his trousers froze to the roof of the grandstand and had to be pried loose.

In March 1924 the Canadian National Railways broadcast the firs! network coverage of an NHL playoff. An hour before face-off technician

Gordon Olive was drafted to report the game because he’d played hockey and had a smattering of announcing experience. Montreal Canadiens were playing Ottawa Senators and Olive, a Montrealer, was doing fine until in the heat of the game he referred to “dirty Ottawa.” Montreal listeners loved it but Ottawa was miffed. Olive returned to the technical side of radio.

The CNR was in the thick of radio by then. In December 1923 the line sponsored Canada’s first, commercial network broadcast over CHYC,

Montreal, and OA, the Ottawa Radio Association station. By 1928 the CNR had established Canada’s first coastto-coast network, owning stations at Moncton, Ottawa and Vancouver and buying time in Halifax, Quebec, Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, Regina, Calgary, Saskatoon and Edmonton. The latter were privately owned but became CNR stations for two or three hours a day, using CN call letters and local CN staffers.

President Sir Henry Thornton put radios on CNR trains in 1924 and by 1930 had eighty radio-equipped cars.

Hundreds of Canadians heard their first broadcasts while lounging in leatherupholstered coaches. A uniformed operator went along to twiddle the knobs. The idea was a hit. Businessmen went out of their way to travel CN just to hear championship prize fights or market reports. One Sunday a train picked up a prairie church sermon which so moved the passengers that they mailed a silver collection to the minister. Another time a Mrs. McAdam, on a westbound train, heard her long-lost son singing over CNRW, Winnipeg. Don Roberts, now chief operator of the CBC in Toronto, made twenty-four cross-country round trips as a radio operator that first year. On New Year’s Eve 1924, while passing through Alberta, he located programs from four successive time zones and the passengers sat up until the early hours of the morning to ring out the old year four times. The CNR’s broadcasts were carried on circuits normally used by train dispatchers. On one memorable winter night in 1928, a freight bogged down in a snowdrift near Capreol, Ont., and a trainman shinnied up the nearest pole to summon help with his portable phone set. He accidentally cut in on a radio line, heard a musical concert from Montreal’s Windsor Hotel, and was perplexed. It was then a few minutes before Sir Henry Thornton was due to speak and listeners from Winnipeg to Vancouver heard a voice bellow, “I can’t hear a goddam word. Where the hell’s the dispatcher?” By the mid-Twenties many presentday radio artists and executives were getting their start: tenor Wishart Campbell, now musical director of CFRB, Toronto, who sang Ramona four times one evening by popular request; tenor Ernest Bushnell who later co-starred on a popular breakfast show, the Coocoonoodle Club, and today is aasistant general manager of CBC; John Adaskin, a cellist in 1924, now producer and emcee of Opportunity Knocks; Maurice Bodington, of the current CBC “Bod’s Scrapbook,” used to read kiddies’ stories over the air and announced a children’s talent show on which Bobby Breen made his debut; orchestra leaders like Percy Faith, Reginald Stewart and Jimmy Gowler, who was featured in the network Prairie Schooner program but who started in Winnipeg as a radio fiddler, accompanied by his mother on piano. Jane Gray, now a commentator on CHML, Hamilton, and billed as the first woman broadcaster in Canada, started in 1924 in London, Ont., reading poetry. In 1928 she launched Canada’s first series of radio mysteries over CFCA, Toronto, in spite of manager Foster Hewitt’s conviction that “you can’t kill a man, find the murderer and hang him in thirty minutes.” Members of her group included Ken i-------------------------j ; When You Have Read ! j This Magazine. . . j i please send it to a member of ■ the armed forces serving overi seas. If you know no one in t « the services, enquire locally if ¡ i some organization is collectJ ing magazines for shipment. In most areas some organizai tion is performing this valu! i able service.

Soble, now owner of CHML, and Donald Gordon, CNR president, who played a Scottish detective.

Until the early Thirties radio was under the jurisdiction of the Department of Marine and Fisheries. By 1930 a half million Canadians owned licensed sets. Licenses were one dollar.

The average Canadian station still didn’t offer much variety. A CFCA, Toronto, log for a day in July 1927 reads: 1 p.m., weather, news and

stocks; 5.50 p.m., news, weather and baseball scores; 6 p.m., stock quotations; 7-8 p.m., the Chandler Six Orchestra; 8.30, Luigi Romanelli; 9.30, the Parker’s Dyeworks Orchestra; 10, Salon orchestra; 11, Harold Rich-Morris and the Versatile Canadians orchestra.

But from time to time there were special events: the July 1, 1927,

Diamond Jubilee of Confederation broadcast with the first transmission of the carillon bells from Parliament Hill; election campaigns with the voices of R. B. Bennett and Mackenzie King; the Aug. 1, 1930, landing of the British dirigible R-100, its motors throbbing from coast to coast over the CN network and private stations.

The listeners responded with fan letters and gifts. CNRO, Ottawa, on its birthday received breakfast foods, butter, a pedigreed calf, permanent waves, cases of ginger ale and a month’s free meals at a restaurant. The staff divvied up the foodstuffs because few radio performers could eat regularly on their pay. Seventy-five dollars a month was big money for a manager-announcer. Jane Gray ran her players group on a budget of twelve dollars and fifty cents per broadcast. Singers and actors generally worked free and were glad of the publicity. Musicians’ unions began to demand fees for their members around 1924 but no one knew if radio would last and the unions didn’t ask much.

“I don’t think any artist made a living from radio in the Twenties,” says Neil LeRoy, vice-president of the Association of Canadian Radio and TV Artists.

But though radio life was frugal it was never dull, either for listeners or performers. Programs and announcers were constantly getting into scrapes. During a musical broadcast Wes McKnight, now program manager of CF'RB, and long-time emcee of hockey night’s Hot Stove League, stepped up to a microphone mounted on a low podium and introduced singer Ann Jamieson. Listeners then heard a thud, a flurry of excitement and a long pause. McKnight had stepped back and knocked the singer flat.

Most sport promoters, fearing radio would cut down attendance, refused

to provide proper accommodation for broadcasting so sportcasters continued to cling to the rooftops. One sweltering summer day McKnight broadcast a Canadian championship tennis match from a piano box. Officials ordered him into this makeshift booth so his commentary wouldn’t annoy the players.

But organization was replacing the pioneer helter-skelter. In 1928 a royal commission headed by the late Sir John Aird recommended a publicservice form of broadcasting financed by license fees, a government subsidy and some sale of air time. The Broadcasting Act of 1932 established the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission. In 1936 the present CBC was established to carry on a national broadcasting service with control over all Canadian radio.

Broadcasting had suffered with the rest of depression-ridden Canada. In 1932 the average Canadian station broadcast only six hours and fifteen minutes a day and only two hours and fifteen minutes of this employed original talent. Stations tightened their belts. The CNR, harassed by railwayrevenue problems, turned its stations over to the CRBC in 1933. The giddy days were over and, when prosperity returned, radio had grown up.

But, in spite of today’s polished split-second programs and sleek studios, veteran listeners and radio men often look back wistfully to the old days. Listeners remember the sheer magic of radio reception, the evenings of good music, the absence of soap serials and give-aways.

Artists and staffers yearn for the informality. They recall nights like the one when Reginald Stewart’s orchestra and announcer Charles Jennings, who is now director of programs for the CBC, were doing a musical show and the orchestra, as usual, didn’t finish its program on schedule. Jennings cut the show from the control room and when the orchestra finished a moment later he walked up to the dead microphone and apologized profusely to his “listeners” for the second-rate music they’d just heard. Stewart, thinking they were still on the air, turned livid.

A week later the band ran overtime again. This time Jennings let the show run its course, then entered the studio for his sign-off. Stewart, suspecting a repetition of the previous week’s prank, pounced on the announcer before he could open his mouth and carried him, struggling, from the studio. The sponsor was not amused at the loss of his closing commercial.

“We couldn’t do that sort of thing today, of course,” says Jennings. “Radio is big business now and it wasn’t then. But it was a hell of a lot more fun.” *