News Broadcasting – “The Early Years II”: A Review of Radio News in Canada – (1937-1952)

The “Moose River Mine” story of 1936 was a defining moment in the history of radio news in Canada. It sent radio out to the story and let the whole country hear the rescue as it happened.

Still, news on the radio was normally broadcast only two or three times a day. The newscasts were mostly from the radio station studios or from editorial offices of non-related newspapers with which the stations had made an agreement. The newscasts were read by announcers. News broadcasters with a journalistic background, like CFRB’s Jim Hunter, were still exceptions.

The announcers did general duties such as station breaks, music shows, commercials and even drama in addition to their news duties. Most had either learned from hearing other announcers or perhaps from elocution lessons. They read summaries from the teletypes of Canadian Press or British United Press, or the Trans World Ticker, virtually unedited and often without much preparation.

Most people in radio were young, not too well paid but full of fun. Practical jokes were common. One trick was to try to “break up” the announcer in front of his unseen audience by lighting a match to one end of the floor-length news summary. Either the hapless news reader beat the flames out without missing a story, or speeded up his delivery to get in a few more items before the whole script went up in flames.

Local news came from the newspaper “blacks” or carbon copies if the radio station had an affiliation with the newspaper. By the late 1930s some newscasters were phoning police and hospitals for local news. A few stations hired a newspaper reporter to gather local stories for their newscasts.1

While news had become an important part of the broadcast schedule, in 1939 the country was still gripped in the Great Depression. Radio was the medium to which Canadians looked for escape from the harsh reality of daily life. “Soap operas”, adventure and mystery shows, musical programs and gospel broadcasts filled the airwaves.

Many of theses entertainment programs originated with the American networks, (NBC, CBS and Mutual), and Canadians obtained some of their news from border stations, (as they tuned to American news commentators such as Gabriel Heater, Lowell Thomas and Walter Winchell), or heard them afterwards on their local stations reproduced from electrical transcriptions (radio’s early version of the audio tape recorder).

The news of the birth of the Dionne quintuplets (the world’s largest multiple birth) was carried throughout Canada and the U.S.A. by radio. Toronto’s CFRB produced a series of live broadcasts from Callander in Northern Ontario which were fed to the CBS network involving the Dionne family and the Quints doctor – Allan Roy Defoe.2

The major news event of the first half of 1939 was the Royal Visit… the first visit ever to Canada by a reigning Monarch. King George VI and Queen Elizabeth arrived by ship in Quebec City and, forty-three days after a coast to coast tour of Canada, sailed for home from Halifax. City-by-city, local broadcasters gave “live” coverage of the Royal couple’s visit to their community, and some stations had their staffers travelling on the train with “the press” to provide continuing coverage.

Part of King George’s farewell address from Halifax (27 seconds)

In the summer of 1939, radio newscasts took on a new and ominous tone. War clouds were gathering over Europe. German nationalism had been reborn under a new philosophy, “Nazism” and its charismatic creator, Adolf Hitler:

Part of Hitler’s address (15 seconds)

Hitler’s tanks rolled over democratic Czechoslovakia in 1938. Britain and France tried appeasement. Hitler answered with an invasion of Poland.

Thus, on September 10, 1939, Canadians heard on their radios that their Parliament had declared war on Nazi Germany.

As Poland fell, and then France, Britain and her Commonwealth allies like Canada, stood alone against the juggernaut of Nazi Germany and her allies. Speaking to the country on radio, Prime Minister Mackenzie King issued both an appeal and a warning:

 Part of Prime Minister Mackenzie King address (50 seconds)

The fury of the Nazi Luftwaffe (air force) was unleashed on Britain’s civilian population in the summer of 1940. Canada’s privately owned radio stations still carried syndicated news from south of the border (mostly Associated Press). Eyewitness descriptions of the London bombing came from one of the first war correspondents on north American radio, American Edward R. Murrow.

But the national public network, the CBC, under the guidance of Ernie Bushnell, was also broadcasting by this time using actual sounds of the bombing from four mobile recorders it had shipped to Britain. In fact, Canadians pioneered in the development of mobile battlefield recording units. CBC made their realistic battle sounds available to British and U.S. broadcasters.

The Royal Air Force and the British people won the Battle of Britain. It was the Allies’ first victory of the war after a series of defeats. Canadians heard the leader of the Commonwealth, Winston Churchill, savour the victory in a speech to their own Parliament in Ottawa:

Part of Winston Churchill’s famous – “some chicken, some neck” address (28 seconds)

Newscasts were more frequent. The war was nearly always the lead story. On New Year’s Day, 1941, the CBC formally opened its national news service. Canadians hung on the words of CBC newscaster Lorne Greene who, because of the rich timbre of his resonant voice, was often referred to as “The Voice of Doom”. Greene later became a famous actor as “Pa Cartwright” in the 1960s TV series “Bonanza”.

To feed radio’s galloping appetite for news and more news, Canadian Press, in 1941, formed a custom service for radio, “Press News” (later Broadcast News).3 They seconded Sam Ross from the Canadian Press Vancouver office and under Ross’s tutelage, writers of the frequent bulletins and news summaries were weaned away from the newspaper and wire service style of writing. They learned to “write for the ear.”4

Radio was everywhere and the war was everything to its listeners. Radios played in shops and taverns as well as in living rooms and dining rooms of virtually every house and apartment in the country. Canadians listened through the Battle of the Atlantic, the desert campaign of North Africa, the Russian front, and the Pacific as Japan entered the war, making it in the truest sense, a WORLD WAR. Some stations started “news on the hour” which later became a regular on a great many stations.

Gordon Sinclair

Most of the news was bad. In the midst of all the anxiety, a new and singular type of news commentator hit the airwaves. His name was Gordon Sinclair and he had made his reputation as a globe-trotting, swashbuckling correspondent for the Toronto “Star”. A patriotic Canadian who understood the gravity of the war situation, Sinclair nevertheless had the good sense to take the radio listeners’ minds off it. His first regular broadcast started in 1942 with a program called “Let’s Be Personal” and while not strictly a newscast, being a newsman, it was about people and events in the news.

He titillated his CFRB listeners across Ontario with controversial opinions and odd-ball stories, delivered in the conversational manner of the local pool hall. The contrast with the stentorian tones of the regular news announcers was unmistakable.

 Gordon Sinclair (51 seconds)

In sharp contrast to Sinclair was another type of radio journalist that had begun before the war but gained greater prominence because of it — the news analyst. Sinclair’s CFRB colleague, John Collingwood Reade, exemplified the breed. He went to Britain to size up the planned Allied invasion of Europe:

 Collingwood Reade (27 seconds)

Matthew Halton

When the invasion came, Canadian radio was ready to cover it right from the front lines with its own correspondents, as it had throughout the conquest of fascist Italy. The most noteworthy was CBC’s Matthew Halton.

Matthew Halton (59 seconds)

The tide had turned. It took most of another year, but Canadians at home finally heard the news of victory in Europe from their own army’s commander, General Crerar.

 General Crerar – Victory speech (24 seconds)

Two technical inventions of the war revolutionised radio news on the home front. The wire recorder and the walkie-talkie two-way radio liberated radio news from the newsroom. By the late ’40s, reporters could drive to a breaking story, go on the air via mobile transmitter, and record interviews at the scene.

Magnetic tape replaced wire on the recording reels. Battery power replaced the first Wired spring-wound recorders which often ran down in the midst of the interview. “Beeper” phone interviews with ordinary citizens at the scene of a crime, accident or fire, also added authenticity and immediacy to the newscast.

Listeners no longer had the news “announced” to them. They could hear it happening. And they could hear it every hour on the hour, another legacy of the war.

The people bringing the news to Canadians were also becoming more professional. Many stations hired news directors who in turn hired reporters and trained them to write for the ear. A radio news style continued to evolve that was conversational and thus completely distinctive from print.

These new professionals saw that news on the radio should go beyond the strictures of the five or ten- minute newscast and the city hall or police headquarters. In 1947, CKWX, Vancouver began covering the British Columbia Legislature. In 1949, CHML started broadcasting Hamilton City Council.

Sam Ross, of earlier Press News and CKWX note, became the first radio reporter in Ottawa’s Parliamentary Press Gallery (and eventually president of the Gallery), as the “Ottawa Correspondent” for the ACMO stations (later Selkirk Communications Ltd.).

In Moncton, NB, Bill Hutton saw the potential of a private radio news network by linking four stations in the Atlantic Provinces into a regional news service. Charlie Edwards would later expand on the concept by organizing the Broadcast News wire service (the successor to Press News) into Maritime, Ontario-Quebec, Quebec French, Prairie and Pacific Regions.

Ryerson Polytechnical Institute in Toronto introduced courses in both journalism and radio broadcasting. Thus came graduating students with some of the basic training that had previously come only from working at a newspaper or radio station.

Ratings began to be a factor in radio news. Stations could tell not only how many listeners they had in total but now many listened to a single newscast. By 1949, where Jack Dennett had replaced the ailing Jim Hunter, over a million people heard Dennett’s resonant greeting at 8 o’clock every morning.

 Jack Dennett (24 seconds)

In the 15 short years since 1937, radio had become the source from which most Canadians got their news first. From the single big console in the living room, they had progressed to radios at their bedsides, office desks or in their cars. They could even buy portable battery radios to take to the beach or summer cottage. Canadians read the newspaper for details, but they had already heard the news first on radio.

The 1940s were truly “The Golden Age of Radio.” Yet, as the decade ended, Canadians began to see the first snowy pictures on a new entertainment medium from south of the border, television. Unless they were affluent, they had to go a tavern or appliance store to see it.

However, in 1952, the first CBC televison programs went on the air. Many thousands who now had home receivers for the new medium, were beginning to see what had only been possible in the newsreels in movie theatres. In their own living rooms, they were beginning to SEE the news.

Radio news was at a new crossroads.

Compiled by Don Johnston, a career radio news director who started in 1951 at CHML Hamilton and later became News Director of CFRB, Toronto.

1.     Bert Cannings memoirs (courtesy Prof. Ken Bambrick, University of Western Ontario Graduate School of Journalism)

2.     CFRB “The Momentous Years” 1927-1957

3.     BN archives

4.     Bert Cannings memoirs

5.     Courtesy CBC RADIO Archives

6.     “Beeper” phone interviews were so named because of the electronic “beep” required by the telephone company and the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) on conversations held over telephones connected to a tape recorder. The party called would then know that he or she was being recorded. Broadcast regulators and the phone company eventually conceded that anybody called by a reporter would be expected to assume they were talking “for the record” and the intrusive “beep” was discontinued.

Don Johnston
Don Johnston

Don Johnston – June, 2001