The Call Letters of Canadian Stations
Beginning in 1922 and for several decades, Canadian radio (and later, TV stations) were assigned call letters (or call signs) beginning with "CF", "CH, "CJ", "CK" or "10", followed by two letters which would be exclusive to one station. (exceptions: CKY Winnipeg and CKX Brandon licensed to the Manitoba Government Telephones).
An exception was also made in the case of the Canadian National Railways three owned-and operated stations and the CNR's "phantom Stations" (the latter used only when time was leased by the CNR on privately-owned stations). Thus, the owned stations became identified as CNRA Moncton, CNRO Ottawa and CNRV Vancouver. (see "Phantom Stations")
When the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission took over the CNR stations in 1932 and CRBC began to buy some of the existing private stations, the prefix "CRC" was reserved for its exclusive use (examples - CRCT (formerly CKGW) Toronto, CRCY (formerly CKNC) Toronto; etc.
On succeeding the CRBC in 1936, The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reserved for itself the prefix "CB". CRCT became "CBL" Toronto - the "L" because of its location in the Great Lakes region; CRCY became "CBY". As the CBC began to build its powerful 50 kW transmitters, the station calls usually related to their region or purpose, CBF Montreal - French language, CBK Watrous, Saskatchewan, in honour of Kelsey the explorer, CBH Halifax, etc. Many private stations asked for call letters that included the initials of their original owners, and other examples of creative thinking included CHIC-AM radio in Brampton adopting the slogan "Where The Girls Are" and using an all-woman team of on-air DJs for a while.
Early FM stations which simulcast the programming of the AM station, were identified by adding "FM" to the AM call sign. However, when the Board of Broadcast Governors (BBG) authorized separate (from AM) programming in 1961, some owners applied for approval of separate call signs, while others decided to retain the parent station call, with the FM suffix.
TV stations owned by a radio station in the same city, usually added "TV" to the radio letters, while new companies entering the TV field tried to find the most promotable call sign and applied for permission to use it. The prefix "CI" was introduced with the proliferation of new stations both in the TV and FM spectrum in the 60s.
In the early years, not everyone appreciated the value of a promotable call sign and merely accepted four letters that were assigned to them by the Federal authority. However, the government had no objection to stations choosing their own set of call letters, provided they conformed to those assigned to Canada. The letters "W" and "K" were reserved for USA stations, followed by three others. With some "grandfathering" (eg. KDKA Pittsburg and KYW Philladelphia), "W" was designated for stations east of the Mississippi River and "K" for stations to the west. This practice was abandoned in the 1980s.
The "10" stations (eg 10AB) were not licensed to broadcast commercials, but were reserved for what were termed "Amateur Radio Stations" transmitting on the regular broadcast band. These were mostly operated by community groups or experimenters. It was an inexpensive way to get into radio - the license fee was $ 25 as opposed to $ 50 for the commercial station. All but one of these stations - coincidentally there were 10 of them - ultimately obtained commercial licences, and by 1935 all the "10" call signs had disappeared from the spectrum.
Before Newfoundland became Canada's 10th province in 1949, the call sign VO-was allocated to the island. Three stations began operating in St. John's - VOCM, VOAR and VOWN and these identifications were "grandfathered" in when Newfoundland entered Confederation, however, stations licensed since were given call signs similar to the rest of Canada.
While call letters continued to be allocated to new stations into the 21st Century, a trend began for stations to diminish their use of those letters in favour of "branding" themselves with distinctive words to describe their formats, or to brand themselves through sharing a conformity of format with other stations in Canada and sometimes also in the US, where many such formats originated.
One of the earliest examples of branding was when sports-oriented station CKFH-AM Toronto, the former Foster Hewitt-owned station whose call letters reflected his original ownership, rebranded itself as The Fan, as did stations in several other markets. In 2009, CFRB-AM Toronto dropped the use of its call letters almost entirely in favour of the brand Newstalk 1010, and as time passed groups of stations across Canada took to promoting their particular program formats with such names as The Wave, The Bridge, Kiss, Boom, Jack, Jewel, Kool, Magic and Rock.
J. Lyman Potts - September, 1997
Updated: Pip Wedge September 2016