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 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.


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.


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. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 to comfortably.

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 off it.
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 “Boutique Radio.”

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!
- Etc.)
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 cultural institution.
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).