|The State or the
States: On the CBC
It is typical of this country that one of the potent political forces
in Canada during the 1930s – that time of seismic social convulsion
– was called the Canadian Radio League. It sounds quirky, like
so many of our other national institutions. But the cultural battle
has always been focal in our national machinations, and never more than
since the advent of broadcasting.
The first radio broadcast (transmission of a voice and not a signal)
was made in Massachusetts in 1906, by a Canadian chemist working for
Edison Laboratories. Regular radio broadcasting began in Europe, the
U.S. and Canada around the same time – 1920 – though the
oldest station broadcasting regularly seems to have been CFCF in Montreal.
Most of the early stations were set up by radio manufacturers to create
a market for their sets, or by newspapers promoting themselves.
By 1923 there were 34 stations operating in Canada and 556 in the U.S.
Interference was common; no international allocation of the 95 available
channels had been made. Many American stations were high-powered and
half of these bordered the Great Lakes and reached Canada easily.
In 1924, Maclean’s wrote,
Nine-tenths of the radio fans in this Dominion hear
three or four times as many United States stations as Canadian. Few
fans, no matter in what part of Canada they live, can regularly pick
up more than three or four different Canadian stations; any fan with
a good set can “log” a score of American stations.
In 1925 the Toronto Telegram held a “Radio Popularity Ballot.”
The first seventeen places went to American stations.*
The broadcasting situation in Canada had reached its first crisis by
the late 1920s. Canadians were hooked on radio. In 1929 they owned 300,000
sets – and these were expensive: in 1930 85% of sets cost over
$100, and 44% over $200.
Network broadcasting had begun in the U.S. in the mid-twenties. This
brought expensive, centralized programming to the majority of listeners
by linking up stations. Amos ‘n’ Andy became the first national
media heroes. Radio not only appealed to popular taste; as probably
the first mass medium, it created its audience and their tastes.
There were no Canadian networks. There was not the private capital to
finance them, as had been done in the States. American networks spread
towards Canada. In 1929 CFRB in Toronto joined the Columbia Broadcasting
System, and CKGW joined NBC. The Toronto Telegram predicted happily
that this was “but the forerunner to other Canadian stations being
added to the network.”
In this situation the CBC was born.
THE FIRST BATTLE OF THE CBC
The first battle over national broadcasting policy in Canada was fought
between 1929 and 1936. Until 1929 there was no broadcasting policy,
national or otherwise. In 1929 the Aird Commission reported on a national
broadcasting policy to the federal government. They recommended a government
monopoly. In 1930 the Radio League was founded by Graham Spry and Alan
Plaunt, to gather support for the views of the Aird Commission. In 1932
the Conservative government of R.B. Bennett established the Canadian
Radio Broadcasting Commission – a public body to oversee broadcasting
in Canada. In 1936 the Liberal government of Mackenzie King replaced
the CRBC with the CBC.
The issue was the role of government in broadcasting. Was it to be total
control, partial control or none at all? The Aird Commission had recommended
government ownership, operation and control of all broadcasting. That
meant producing programs and running stations. The main opposition to
this came from private broadcasters and certain sections of the business
community represented in, for example, The Financial Post. The main
support coalesced through the Radio League. The Radio League side won
a relative victory by 1936. A key provision was the prohibition of any
network operation in Canada except by the CBC.
The struggle over broadcasting in Canada has often been presented as
a conflict between socialism and private enterprise, but it is more
revealing to ask: Who were the people who pushed for the CBC? Whose
interests did its victory represent?
Take first the business community. They were split on this question,
but what is striking is the high level of support there was within the
business community for a CBC or CBC-like policy. Aird himself (Sir John!)
was president of the Canadian Bank of Commerce. The Radio League included
on its national Council two past presidents of the Canadian Chamber
of Commerce, and twenty general managers or directors of banks, insurance
companies and trust companies. Supporters included Brooke Claxton, Vincent
Massey (Massey-Harris), Joseph Atkinson (Toronto Star) and Louis St.
Laurent, a highly successful corporation lawyer. A majority of newspapers
in the country supported the League’s general position –
partly out of fear of radio as a rival for advertising.
The opposition in the business community came from the Canadian Manufacturers’
Association, in support of its member station-owners; from the Canadian
Association of Broadcasters, which represented the owners directly;
the CPR, which had its own plans for a national network; The Financial
Post, which saw the CBC as “another step towards communism,”
as well as the Globe and Telegram in Toronto and La Presse in Montreal.
In both major political parties there was strong opposition to subsidized
national broadcasting: among the Conservatives this continued for decades;
in the Liberal party it included the eminence of C.D. Howe; and yet
successive Conservative and Liberal governments established national
broadcasting bodies. The support must have come from very high up, including
Bennett and King themselves.
How are we to explain this support by a significant section of Canadian
Businessmen, and their political factotums, for a system of broadcasting
not run by business itself?
Canada existed between the wars in an interregnum. The British hegemony
was fading; the Americans had yet to apply their chokehold. For a rare
moment Canada was relatively eased of imperial control. The business
class sensed this; suddenly profit-taking seemed available to the locals
– including the profits of broadcasting.
But the Canadian business class at this time was in no shape to capitalize
and operate a broadcasting network. They had visions but they were not
yet ready. The profitability of broadcasting was still uncertain - and
they were weak and inexperienced. Furthermore it was the worst period
of the Depression and private enterprise was getting a bad name. Some
day they might see their vision realized, but at the moment the choice
was, as the Radio League put it, “the State or the States.”
The businessmen supported government broadcasting not because they were
anti-capitalist but because they were anti-imperialist. Their nationalism
and their self-interest collaborated to push for the CBC. The CBC they
created never did – either in word or act – oppose the existence
of private interests in broadcasting; on the contrary, it nurtured them.
The opposition to CBC in the business community came from those oriented
to foreign business control. In the classic term, they were compradors.
For instance, the Toronto Telegram, which hailed the arrival of NBC
in Toronto, said, “Could there be a finer way of proving international
good-fellowship?” They headlined, “Program Dedicated to
Canada, Broadcast from New York, Heard over Whole Continent,”
but neglected to say that the program was a scheduling crumb, broadcast
from twelve noon to one o’clock on a Friday.
It was a rare period in Canadian history: when a significant section
of the national business class was not in hock hand and foot to foreigners.
As Frank Peers laments,
It had not been difficult to enlist the country’s
elite to support the idea of a national system, publicly controlled.
There was Sir John Aird himself, direct from the boardroom of the Canadian
Bank of Commerce; Sir Robert Borden, Newton Rowell, Arthur Meighen,
John Dafoe, two members of the Southam family, Louis St. Laurent, Vincent
Massey, George Wrong. In 1951 it would have been much harder to enlist
so representative a group from the “establishment”, certainly
from the business establishment.
They had followed other leads.
The impetus for the CBC came from this “elite” but the
support and the pressure came from the far greater numbers of people
rallied by Spry and Plaunt to the Radio League. Spry and Plaunt (who
were both young, well off, well connected and recently returned from
Oxford) gained the support of, among others, the National Council of
Women, the IODE, Hadassah, the YMCA and YWCA, the Trades and Labour
Congress, the Canadian Congress of Labour, the Canadian Legion, several
boards of trade, the Civil Service Institute, the United Farmers of
Alberta and Manitoba, sixteen university presidents, eight provincial
superintendents of education and leaders of the Roman Catholic, Anglican,
United, Baptist and Presbyterian churches.
This was a varied constituency, mainly of the middle, lower-middle,
and upper levels of the working class. The Radio League was not a mass
movement; it did not bring people into direct action. But it achieved
their support on paper through the endorsement of organizations to which
they belonged – to a number of well over one million. Notably
missing from this constituency were native peoples and all the working
people who did not belong to trade unions.
Why was the concept of a national broadcasting system able to rally
such wide support from around the country?
The Aird Report had concluded that “Canadian listeners want Canadian
broadcasting,” and the Radio League called its first pamphlet
“Canadian Radio for Canadian Listeners.” They appealed to
the national sense of Canadians and found a response. There was a thirst
for a Canadian broadcasting culture.
Whether the CBC, once achieved, provided the kind of broadcasting for
Canadians which had been its appeal – that is another question.
CANADIAN RADIO FOR CANADIAN LISTENERS?
The trouble with the relative autonomy of the interregnum was that
it did not come out of a self-conscious assertion of independence; it
was just the happenstance result of a temporary lapse in empires, a
little breathing space between masters.
There had been no rejection of empires and their cultures; far from
it, the myth of the happy colony was maintained. Accordingly CBC programming
showed a heavy sycophancy to both imperial cultures.
During the Royal Tour of 1939, the CBC broadcast ninety-one royal programs
occupying fifty-one hours during May and June. E.A. Weir writes,
When King George VI and Queen Elizabeth arrived at Quebec,
the CBC had thirty engineers and fifteen commentators on duty using
more than forty microphones and a hundred units of equipment. There
were fifteen pickup points, and the system had to be duplicated to provide
for both French and English commentaries. Before the broadcasts began,
an intensive search was made for the best announcers. A hundred candidates
were tested, and a team of thirteen young men was selected to work .
. . At Ottawa they were schooled in pronunciation, knowledge of technical
terms and the many other formalities associated with a Royal Visit.
American programming had less of a special events nature. It filled
the prime evening hours with entertainment like Edgar Bergen and Charlie
McCarthy, Fibber Magee and Molly, Lux Radio Theater, Bing Crosby, Jack
Benny, Bob Hope, Kate Smith, Rudy Vallee, Fred Allen, Roy Rogers, Milton
Berle, Ozzie and Harriet, Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, Major
Bowes’ Amateur Hour, Information Please, Carnation Contented Hour,
Kraft Music Hall, The Aldrich Family, Ford Theater, Twenty Questions
. . ..
Or the CBC attempted a native voice. But often it came out mealy-mouthed.
It had not said the definitive NO that is required as a preliminary
to a self-confident YES. The “Canadian” programming tended
to be sentimental, like the Christmas special described by Weir:
Christmas Day of 1935 saw the apogee of network broadcasting
by the CRBC. At 3:00 p.m., Canada Celebrates Christmas, which was the
greatest effort of the Commission to date, took the air . . .. The most
striking feature of this broadcast was the forging of a choral chain
from Halifax to Vancouver. Eight choirs at eight key cities each contributed
a link in the chain of good tidings. The singing opened with “Good
King Wenceslas,” the solo parts being sung by a soprano in Halifax
and a tenor in Vancouver. A band stood by in Montreal to play the introductory
music and fill in should anything go wrong. On a given cue, the band
commenced playing at a pre-arranged tempo, which set the beat to which
all eight choirs were required to sing. Commencing with Halifax, each
choir sang in turn one line only, east to west, until Vancouver was
reached at the end of the first stanza. The Vancouver tenor then sang
the first half of the second verse, and the Halifax soprano completed
it. Again the Vancouver tenor sang the first half of the third verse,
and the Winnipeg choir finished it. Once more Halifax and Vancouver
alternated with the fourth verse, and then all the choirs joined in,
one line each, from west to east, thus completing the carol.
This is very touching. It is a striving. But it has no real content,
merely a will to be Canadian. We are because we are because we are.
But what are we?
CBC programming reflected those classes and interests which had been
behind it. From the start it tended to aim at middle and upper class
audiences. Even the many original radio dramas about farmers and miners
were not directed at farmers and miners. The goal was to bring everyone
up to the level of the educated middle and upper classes – or
leave them to the other media: movies, private radio, the press.
The CBC attempted to bring Canadian Radio to Canadian listeners, but
it was seized in the consequences of its own foundations: an obsequiousness
to the imperial centers, and a distance from the mass of ordinary working
people. Its programming reflected this.
DECLINE AND FALL
The first battle of the CBC ended with a somewhat victory for Canadian
broadcasting. A national, publicly financed network was set up and commercial
and/or non-Canadian networks were prohibited. The clear intent of the
Aird Commission and of parliamentary committees was to move towards
monopoly of the broadcasting field.
Today? In the age of TV, in addition to the CBC we have not one but
two private networks – putting us in the absurd position of supporting
more networks than the U.S. CBC radio has shrunk to about 7% of the
radio audience. The World Series passes for Canadian content. Commercials
are more rampant on Canadian TV than on American.
Whatever happened to broadcasting in Canada?
It was the casualty of a series of factors that were all operating
by the end of the 1930s.
1. The increased profitability of broadcasting, through
sponsorship of shows. This occurred relatively late, but swiftly.
Total revenue from advertising in radio went from $2.5 million in
1938 to $4.5 million in 1940. CBC’s gross billings from advertising
went from under $2 million in 1939 to over $3.5 million in 1945. Broadcasting
had proven up in its profit potential. The market had been established,
the listening habits created, a pool of skills was there – and
now the profits stood to be reaped.
The advent of TV. Television broadcasting actually
began in Britain and the U.S. in the late 1930s but was delayed by
the war. By the late 1940s it was going in both countries. It came
later to Canada; the first stations opened in 1952. But Canadians
bit eagerly. In Sudbury, in the first month after the opening of the
station there, 4500 sets worth more than $1 million were sold. In
the peak year 776, 500 sets were sold in Canada. By December of 1955
there were 35 stations; by December of 1957, 42. The rate of set-expansion
was about twice that of the U.S. and the market for new sets was saturated
within five years.
The coming of the American empire, mainly through
economic takeovers. More and more Canadian businessmen sold out at
prices they couldn’t refuse and stayed on as the executives
and managers of the new subsidiaries. Their vision of an independent
Canada led and bled by its own business grew pale – and with
it their support for national cultural institutions.
The CBC had from the start been a compromise; its mandate to monopolize
broadcasting in Canada was never serious. The national business interests
who had pushed for the CBC had never been opposed to private broadcasting
– they had simply wanted to control it themselves. By the Second
World War they felt more confident of their ability to do so. They
fell more or less in line with the previously comprador interests.
The common objective now was to continue to keep American networks
out, and to increase the role of private Canadian interests.
The CBC had nurtured these private interests from the start. Most radio
and TV stations on the CBC net are not CBC-owned. They are privately
owned and affiliate with the CBC so as to use it as a program source.
In 1962 only 21 of 95 radio stations and 12 of 60 TV stations on the
CBC net were publicly owned. Private broadcasting could not have survived
without the CBC. Weir says, “Almost every radio station licensed
between 1937 and 1958 sought basic affiliation with the CBC network.”
As for TV, “During the first three months of the life of most
private TV stations, up to 85% of their programs were supplied by the
CBC without cost to them.”
Furthermore the CBC, which was also the regulatory agency in broadcasting
until1958, never once failed to renew a licence which came before it.
The “nationalized” CBC served not as an alternative to
private broadcasting, and certainly not as an antagonist, but as an
aid to the development of private broadcasting. And this was entirely
in line with the aims of the people behind the CBC.
Gladstone Murray was the choice of the Radio League and other supporters
of the CBC for first general manager. He was a Canadian who had been
with the BBC. When he left the CBC in 1943, he became policy counsel
in a firm called Responsible Enterprise. Its aim was to foster and promote
free enterprise and it was backed by the heads of the Royal Bank, Inco,
Imperial Oil, Massey-Harris and others. In later years he wrote bitterly
of a conspiracy within the CBC to abolish private broadcasting in Canada.
Spry, who had been involved in the founding of the CCF, in 1937 shifted
directions, became an executive of Standard Oil of California, and went
to London where he became managing director. In 1942 he accompanied
Stafford Cripps on an imperial mission to India. He remained in London
for many years.
Nationalized broadcasting does not mean national broadcasting. Government
ownership assures control not by the people, but by the people in government,
and by the people who control the people in government. The CBC was
the child of those groups who conceived and pressured for it. As they
blew with the winds, so did the CBC.
It is a tale of the Canadian bourgeoisie. It has been told and retold
in our history. They have taken hold of national causes before –
and let them lapse. They are an unreliable lot.
One of the first widely popular Canadian radio programs – back
in the days of the CRBC – was George Wade and His Cornhuskers.
At the end of its first ten shows, six-thousand fan letters came in.
One listener wrote,
We roll up the carpet and pile up the chairs,
Then pick out our partners, get set for the squares;
When the music commences and George starts to call,
We dance to the tune of “Old Lannigan’s Ball.”
The Music’s a tonic to hearts that are sair;
Your broadcast’s the best that comes over the air.
The CBC has always had some programming that was popular in this way.
In the late fifties the most popular TV show was the Aylmer Holiday
Ranch. In the sixties it was Don Messer – who was dropped while
still very high in the ratings. Today it is Tommy Hunter.
But the CBC has never considered such programming – for such
an audience – a central part of its mandate. It has been our major
national cultural institution, but it has not accepted responsibility
for creating a popular culture in the country. In its programming it
has, for the most part, served an elite of educated middle- and upper-class
Canadians. It has generally failed to provide programming of its own
for the large numbers of ordinary working people. It has left the provision
of culture for them – popular culture – to the (largely
American-dominated) private media.
During the radio agitation of the thirties, the Toronto Telegram opposed
a public network because it said it would give people what was good
for them rather than what they wanted. An early counter-proposal by
CBC opponents like the CPR was for two networks, one owned privately,
the other, by government. The private network would give people what
they wanted; the government net would carry educational and “uplift”
programs. In a way, this is what we got.
To the extent that the CBC has delivered popular culture it has usually
been through American-produced shows in prime time – both in the
age of radio and now on TV. Aside from hockey and the perennial country
show, it has offered little that ordinary working people can relate
This failure is even more serious today – when movies are ceasing
to be a form of culture accessible to many ordinary people. In the U.S.,
movie attendance has dropped from 80 million each week to 14 million
each week in the past twenty years. Neighbourhood movie houses have
become rare. Admission prices are prohibitive for families, or even
working – and certainly welfare – couples. The entertainment
medium for most such people is TV. B-movies are now made for the tube
instead of the screen.
But what is popular culture in this country? It is for instance an
ebullient native tradition of country and western music: Stompin’
Tom Connors, for example. In the course of an evening he creates –
song by song, and alone – a national culture. But he is one of
the few who have broken through to a national audience and are living
The rest of our country and western artists go – like Hank Snow
and Lightfoot – to the States to contribute to American popular
culture; or they stay here, make albums like Prairie Sings by Cal Cavendish
and Straight North by Ted Wesley – and hustle every weekday morning
to make it to their jobs at the factory or the sawmill. Have you ever
heard of a c&w singer getting a Canada Council grant?
Time was when CFRB and CBL competed in Toronto to be the most-listened-to
station in Canada. These days CFRB has more listeners each weekday morning
than does CBC’s top-rated show across the country. (And it is
not that radio is dead. In the U.S. there are 100 million more radios
than people. The average Canadian spends the same three hours a day
with radio that he does with TV.) According to CBC’s own report,
CBC now ranks eighth or ninth in Toronto, and I can only find six other
stations on the dial. The average CBC radio listeners are widows over
fifty and practically no one between eighteen and twenty-four is out
there. CBC radio has become a big LIP project: a façade of service,
but really there to provide work for the people in it. The Meggs-Ward
report on what the hell to do with this unjustifiable public expense
asked for more attention to getting audience. By this they meant upping
CBC share of Canadian listener-hours from 7% to 10% “where it
may level off.” In other words, permanent surrender of the mass
of Canadians to private radio stations who get almost everything they
use from American transcription centers. It is confirmation that CBC
radio is for an elite, though they do not call it that; their term is
THE SECOND BATTLE OF THE CBC
In a fantasy I concocted several years ago for a CBC radio show called
Inside from the Outside, several CBC producers are lying about hatching
the ultimate program for a radio series called Conceptions.
They conclude that the epitome of their programming would be a show
on which Ashley Montagu, anthropologist, and Margaret Mead, sociologist,
get married on the air, and instead of exchanging wedding vows they
trade lectures on the crisis in contemporary sexuality.
At that very moment a clamour arises outside. One of the producers rushes
to the window, gazes down and reports, “It’s a bunch of
guys dressed up like farmers and miners and fishermen.”
“Tell them we haven’t got any parts for those types. Send
them over to TV drama,” instructs a colleague.
“Wait a minute,” replies the first. “ I don’t
think they are actors. I think they’re for real – why they
are – it’s – The Canadian People!”
(Mad rush to the window.
- Is that what they look like!
- I’ve never seen them before!
FX: beginnings of a battle.
Follows the storming of the CBC by the Canadian people, determined to
take back – or take for the first time – their main national
To be culminated.
*The basic sources for the history of the CBC are The Struggle for
National Broadcasting in Canada, by E. Austin Weir (Toronto: McClelland
& Stewart, 1965) and The Politics of Canadian Broadcasting, 1920-1951,
by Frank Peers (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1969).