Rolf Hougen (1928-)

Year Born: 
1928

Pioneer

Hougen, Rolf (1928- )

Rolf Hougen was born in Burns Lake, B.C., on December 17th 1928.  He went to school in Prince Rupert, and later for three years in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, when the family moved there in 1944. On leaving school at age 17, Rolf worked fulltime in the family business, a local store which started out selling gifts, novelties and drug sundries, and which under Rolf’s management was to grow by 1960 into a 40,000sq.ft. department store.

As the years passed, Rolf’s entrepreneurial spirit made him more and more conscious of broader horizons.  In 1955, with lawyer George van Roggen (later Senator) he visited Ketchikan, Alaska, where he had heard of a new system which delivered television signals to remote areas by cables strung pole to pole.  Rolf then checked out cable signal amplifiers in Seattle, and on his return to Whitehorse, he, Van Roggen and partner Erik Nielsen (who was later to become the Yukon Member of Parliament for thirty years, and Deputy Prime Minister of Canada, 1984-86),   made a deal with the Yukon Electrical Company to use their poles for a similar cable system there. But when not enough potential subscribers were prepared to pay for this new service, Rolf and his partners shelved the idea for the time being.

In 1956, Roy Marshall and Doug Kasper from Vancouver revived the project, with access to Rolf’s files and contracts, and the cable system was launched, delivering a black-and-white service of 6-month-old CBC kinescopes and old 16mm films, augmented with a small live studio operation. In 1958, Hockey Hall of Famer Neil Colville was brought in to shore up the shaky finances of what was now known as the Northern Television Company Ltd., which owned the cable system under the call letters WHTV.  Rolf continued to work closely with Colville and Bert Wybrew, the other half of the two-man operation that between them did everything from climbing poles to reading the news. The Hougen stores had sold hundreds of TV sets in the community, so for Rolf, keeping the system going was crucial.

Rolf eventually bought back the Northern Television business, and by 1964 the cable system finally broke even. By then, WHTV had become the first cable system in Canada to provide local news and weather, and interviews and coverage of local social events, and additional revenues were being generated by the advertising which was permitted under their licence.  WHTV would later provide live coverage of the Yukon Legislative Assembly, and provided regular opportunities for local service clubs to get exposure for their efforts and opportunities to seek support.

In 1969 Rolf’s Klondike Broadcasting opened CKRW radio, the first Canadian radio station north of the 60th parallel, in new facilities which it shared with WHTV. Hitherto, Rolf had been working with licences from the DOC, but in 1971, Rolf applied to the CRTC to expand the cable system to import US signals as well as to carry the CBC-TV Frontier package and  BCTV’s Channel 8 signal from Vancouver, which included the CTV Network service. The Canadian programming services were videotaped in Vancouver and trucked to Whitehorse. The expanded service began in September 1972, and would eventually carry CBC’s full schedule live via Telesat in the fall of 1973.

In August 1979, Rolf went back to the CRTC and the DOC with a proposal for the use of satellites to provide a broad range of broadcast signals to remote and underserved communities elsewhere in Canada. This proposal resulted in the appointment by the government of a Commission headed by Real Therrien, charged with the responsibility for examining and making recommendations for the future delivery of broadcast services to northern and remote communities.

Late that year, after having failed to persuade the cable industry to support his endeavours, Rolf was successful in getting Charles Allard (CITV Edmonton), Ray Peters (BCTV Vancouver) and Stuart Mackay (Selkirk Communications) to work with him on a new CRTC proposal to serve remote and underserved communities.  Later, Philippe de Gaspe Beaubien (Telemedia) joined the group, and the outcome was the formation of Canadian Satellite Communications Inc. (CANCOM).

At a CRTC hearing in Ottawa in March 1980, CANCOM made their formal application for a Canadian satellite service, which would include  English and French radio and television services, as well as Indian and Inuit multi-lingual radio programming.   The licence was granted in April 1981, and the new service was launched within ninety days. American network signals were subsequently added.  In 1984 Rolf sold some of his shares to BCTV, as did the other shareholders, with BCTV becoming the majority owner.  Rolf stepped down as Chairman and CEO, but remained as a director of CANCOM and a member of the Executive Committee until 2002.  What had started as a Northern service had become available in communities across Canada, large and small, that were beyond the reach of conventional microwave signals.

Rolf’s unique role as a pioneer in the fields of cable television and broadcast service to remote communities earned him many accolades and honours.  He was named Yukon Businessman of the Year in 1986, and made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1987. He was a recipient of Canada’s 125th Anniversary Medal, was named to the Canadian Cable Television Association Honours List in 1986, and received the Commissioner’s (Yukon) Award in 1994.  He was also made an Officer of the French Ordre National du Merite in 1992, for his years of service as French Consul from 1980.  He served as Chairman of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce 1989-90, and served on the Boards of Alberta Power Ltd., Cominco Limited, Finning International and Northwestel.

As part of his work in the community,  Rolf is a member of the National Council for the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award in Canada, and was a Trustee of Nature Conservancy of Canada and of the Asia Pacific Foundation,  as well as being a member of the Yukon Historical and Museum Society.

Written by Pip Wedge - December, 2006

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