Walter J. Blackburn (1914-1983)

Year Born: 
1914
Year Died: 
1983
Year of Induction: 
1999

Pioneer - Member of CAB Hall of Fame

Blackburn, Walter J. (1914-1983)

Walter Juxton Blackburn followed the footsteps of his grandfather and father in the family media business. His grandfather, Josiah, bought the weekly Canadian Free Press newspaper for $ 500.00 in 1853, and by 1855 had turned it into the daily London Free Press. His father, Arthur, succeeded Josiah on his death in 1900. Arthur continued his father's policy of updating and expanding the newspaper and keeping abreast of the times.

As radio started to emerge in the post-war era, Arthur put CJGC on the air in 1922. After 10 years of what he and his senior management felt was slow growth in the radio field, he sold CJGC to a consortium in Windsor who had taken over CKOK in that city, and the merged stations became CKLW (London & Windsor). However, London listeners and the former staff of CJGC complained bitterly over the loss of the station, and the Blackburns put CFPL-AM on the air later that same year, 1933.

During his high school years in the 1920s, Walter Blackburn became a radio amateur , a ham operator using Morse Code. Later, in university, he developed an interest in photography and motion pictures. Both of these hobbies would play a part in his business career.

He graduated with an Honours MBA from the University of Western Ontario in June of 1935. His father died in January, 1936. At age 21, Walter Blackburn became the youngest publisher of a daily newspaper in Canada, as he took over the reins of the family empire.

The newspaper had just come through a 14-month printers strike which "W. J." felt took its toll on his father, and this proved to be his motivation that nothing like this would happen again. He spent time with not just the various department managers but with their supervisors and the workers, getting to know the business of publishing from the ground up.

World War 11 caused disruption as many staff members left for service in the armed forces. However, in the years following the war, Walter continued to improve working conditions. The Free Press was one of the first in the area to set a policy of a five-day week. Then a pension plan was introduced, followed by a medical plan. All of these benefits were worked out with the involvement of an employees committee. In 1950, this committee was formalized into the Free Press Employees' Association.

1948 saw the beginning of CFPL-FM, at first simulcasting the AM signal, with some separate programming being instituted in 1958. FM 96 with a brand new contemporary format started in 1979.

Blackburn's earlier interest in photography and motion pictures surfaced again as the U. S. had started to license TV stations. Both Erie and Cleveland stations could be viewed in London, although with a very snowy picture. Edwin Jarmain started one of the first cable TV systems in Canada in 1952 to improve these signals. Blackburn and his radio manager, Murray Brown started to plan for a TV station, and their dream was realized in November 1953 when CFPL-TV came on the air.

When the London Free Press Company celebrated its Centennial, the staff had grown from 184 employees to nearly 400, circulation from 38,721 to 72, 356, and of course profits kept pace, but never without facilities and equipment being updated.

Blackburn was also involved with industry affairs. His peers in the newspaper world called him the "father" of Broadcast News, since he worked so tirelessly to convince his newspaper associates to agree to set up the teletype news Service for broadcasters to be managed jointly by broadcasters and the newspapers. He served on the BN board for nearly twenty years.

Over the years, he also appeared many times before the regulating bodies as well as many government commissions and committees, defending the right of newspapers to own broadcasting facilities in the same cities. He and Murray Brown were successful in all these presentations because all of the Blackburn properties were individually managed with no overlapping "editorial" direction.

Sadly, son, Walter Jr., died in 1968, leaving his two sisters, Martha and Susan, as the only heirs to the Blackburn media empire.

The London Free Press Holdings Ltd. purchased CKNX-AM-FM-TV Wingham, Ontario from the Cruickshank family in March of 1971. 'Doc' Cruickshank, founder of the stations died just at the time the papers were signed.

In 1971, Blackburn bought out "almost silent partner" Southam Newspapers 25% ownership and another small shareholder so that the London Free Press Holding Ltd. was totally owned by the Blackburns.

Walter continued to be active until 1982 when he was diagnosed with cancer, and died in December, 1983, passing control of the company to his daughter Martha, whose untimely death in 1992 ended the Blackburn management dynasty.

Walter J. Blackburn's 47 year career as head of the Blackburn enterprise was heralded by all as "A Man for All Media."!

In 1999, Walter Blackburn was posthumously inducted into the CAB Broadcast Hall of Fame.

Source: Book - Walter J. Blackburn - "A Man for All Media" - by Michael Nolan 
ISBN 30-7715-9200-0

Written by Ross McCreath - December, 2001

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