Look Both Ways: The History of Radio in Canada

How do you begin to re-cap the history of radio in Canada in one brief article? It occurs to me that I had better look both ways before wading into it. Look back to a sometimes lucrative, always entertaining past rich with anecdotes. Look forward to an uncertain future filled with the perils of cultural obsolescence and the promise of reinvigoration.

It all started in December of 1900 when Reginald Fessenden of Quebec first transmitted the human voice. That makes radio older than that fuzzy food item wrapped in tin foil in the bottom of my refrigerator. Let's take a look.

I'll begin by saying that I'm not an historian. Moreover, I can't pretend to do justice to the many heroes from coast to coast who, through their dedication, have moved the medium forward. Instead, as someone who loves radio, Ill relate a few of the significant events I've witnessed along with a few of the telling tales that have been passed down to me.

Fessenden's exploits were followed up my Marconi's first transAtlantic signal between England and Signal Hill, Newfoundland. Even when considering all of the things invented by human beings, this development has to stand out as magical. Music in the air….it's still hard to believe. By 1919 the first broadcast license had been issued to XWA Montreal (later CFCF). In 1922, 34 private commercial stations across Canada were licensed. In 1923 national pastimes merged as play-by-play hockey debuted on radio. Before the advent of television, radio reigned supreme and uncontested. Of course, with the late forties/early fifties, this new kid on the block was getting a lot of attention. Radio adapted and reinvented itself.

By 1957, Canada had its first FM station, CHFI-FM. Because the receivers were initially large and expensive, market penetration was small. In fact, it would take almost twenty years for FM to gain a substantial foothold. One man who wouldn't be deterred was Ted Rogers Jr. After purchasing CHFI-FM in 1960, he set out to popularize this new band. He contracted with Westinghouse to manufacture tabletop FM radios with the CHFI logo and the phrase “98.1-Canada's First Station For Fine Music”. These were introduced at the Canadian National Exhibition in 1961. The most fascinating part of the legend involved attracting advertisers. The story goes that Ted would give them FM radios in order to make them believers. We all know what happened to the value of those FM licenses.

Oddly enough, as late as the mid-sixties there were still broadcasters giving back their FM licenses because they felt AM stations would be the only money-makers. Obviously not everyone in the radio industry was blessed with foresight. Are we beginning to see a parallel with the DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting) rollout and those who say (as one person recently said to me): “virtually everyone I know is happy with FM's fidelity……

(Why) Create a new product or a patch for something that is obviously not broken....?"

It should also be mentioned that Ted's father (Ted Rogers Sr.) invented the “Batteryless Radio" and started CFRB (Radio Batteryless), a station with a formidable history of its own.

In the fifties, one of Canada's rock dynasties was born in an interesting fashion. Alan Waters was working for a man named Jack Q'Part who owned a number of enterprises, most notably a profitable patent-medicine business. When Jack ran into marital difficulties, he had to sell off some of his holdings. Waters had his sights set on the medicine business. No go. But Jack did agree to part with a money losing radio station called CHUM. In December 1954, Waters took ownership. CHUM floundered until Waters took a vacation in Miami in the winter of 1956/1957 and heard a top 40 radio station. While it wasn't his taste, he saw an opportunity. Despite internal protests, CHUM1050 starting rocking around the clock on May 27, 1957. The rest is history captured in weekly CHUM charts.

Major developments which comprise an all too often neglected part of our history took place in a variety of markets across the country. Vancouver's CKLG-FM was a groundbreaking album rock station. Top 40 was launched in 1954 with Red Robinson at Vancouver's CJOR then CKWX in 1957. Another major force behind the adoption of FM was Lloyd Moffat who committed to FM very early in Winnipeg and put in a 100,000 watt station. Lloyd Moffat and Eddie Rawlinson were both pioneers in broadcasting – colourful characters who breathed life into our history. Bill Bellman (CBC News Personality) adopted the format of KABL in San Francisco and opened Vancouver's CHQM - AM & FM simulcast of beautiful music....it was this unique format aimed at the upscale market that helped to drive sales of FM radios.

What would a history of Canadian radio be without mention of CANCON (note to CRTC….I agree to commit 35% of this article to CANCON. For proof of performance I will follow up with a word count. If I fall short, I apologize in advance. Someone in the traffic department must have made a mistake). In 1968, the CRTC was formed to replace the BBG. What would follow would be decades of regulation that would redefine the medium in Canada. In 1971, 30% CANCON was introduced for AM music. Despite some grumbling by programmers in the intervening years, 35% CANCON remains alive and well to this day. It is interesting to note that just prior to the CRTC's ruling, a few of the major broadcasters had banded together in an agreement to significantly promote 3 Canadian cuts at any given time. Few would dispute that certain Canadian artists have benefited from substantially more airplay than they might otherwise have seen. As Chuck McCoy (Executive V.P./G.M. of Toronto Radio Operations: Rogers Broadcasting) noted: while the regulations may have made it somewhat “more difficult to programme”, they certainly contributed to the development of some “significant, world class artists.” Still, he points out, even before CANCON, acts like the Guess Who had worldwide success.

One casualty of CANCON was the legendary Windsor station CKLW. It's huge following in Detroit helped it become a hitbreaker for Canadian acts seeking an entrée into the U.S. With CANCON, the station's playlist was so altered that, after a couple of years, they could no longer remain competitive with stations on the other side of the border.

Another casualty of CANCON is the inclusion of Canadian stations in the U.S. industry music charts. They were dropped some years ago since Canadian playlists (with a significant portion of legislated CANCON) didn't jive with what was coming from their U.S. counterparts and thus threw the overall charts out of whack.

Perhaps the most mystifying part of our history is the discussion of CRTC regulations pertaining to format categories, themed mosaics, spoken word, and hit to non-hit ratios. Until the era of de-regulation began in 1994, programmers had to be mathematicians. FM stations had to be 51% non-hit. Just try to understand what constituted a hit. Or why a cut was rock harder (Love Me Do?) or rock softer as defined by the CRTC. We had AOR stations having to insert jazz or classical programmes for some cultural reason. The requirement for themed programming and certain spoken word minimums led to some of the most unusual syndicated shows anyone could imagine. Ah….those were the days.

These days, radio remains healthy with about $700 million in ad revenues nationally, a 94.0% reach and 21.2 hours tuned per capita (A18+, BBM Spring 2002). Where do we go from here? Internet streaming and station web sites have added a valuable new dimension to the medium. But the idea of audiences abandoning their receivers and running en mass to their computers no longer appears to be realistic. Subscription satellite radio has thus far attracted a lot of press and investment funding. Digital radio (DAB), with its greatly improved fidelity and significant multimedia capabilities appears to be the logical next step to attract a new generation of radio consumers. Duff Roman's (President of Digital Radio Rollout Inc.) passionate struggle to establish the technology despite naysayers will undoubtedly be remembered in the same fashion as the exploits of other pioneers.

Radio continues to be a medium that entertains, perplexes, and inspires. Almost every development provokes heated debate between proponents and detractors. If nothing else, that is a demonstration that radio still matters. Let's hope that the voice Fessenden first transmitted over century ago continues to be heard for many years to come.