Spencer Wood “Spence” Caldwell (1909-1983)

Spencer Wood "Spence" Caldwell
Spencer Wood “Spence” Caldwell

Year Born: 1909

Year Died: 1983

Year of Induction: 1986

Pioneer – Member of CAB Hall of Fame

Caldwell, Spencer Wood “Spence” (1909-1983)

Whiz-kid, radio receiver salesman, broadcasting equipment sales manager, radio station sales executive, CBC Network Manager, syndicated radio/TV program distributor, radio station owner, advertising agency proprietor, entrepreneur, father of a TV network, gentleman farmer, self-made millionaire.

Spence Caldwell built his first radio receiver – a crystal set – in his native Winnipeg. It was there he went to work for The Bay who had created a new department to sell radio receivers. This led to his joining the Marconi Company (headquartered in Montreal) as their broadcast equipment sales manager for Western Canada.

Based in Regina, where he met his future wife Nancy Graham, Spence covered the western provinces, sending back orders to Montreal for transmitters and audio equipment and supplying tubes and replacement parts to established stations. He thus came in contact with the legendary “Sparks” Holstead, the founder of CKWX Vancouver. Sparks had been looking for a partner to expand the station and Spence introduced him to Harold Carson, the GM of the All-Canada Mutually Operated Stations group. ACMO and Sparks made a deal, and later Spence joined ‘WX as General Sales Manager.

When the CBC formed the Dominion Network in 1944, they went looking for a man with commercial radio experience to manage it. Spence was management’s choice but the staff had to be won over. Headquartered at CJBC the key station in Toronto, Spence ran the fledgling network of affiliated stations – all of them (except CJBC) under private ownership. He subsequently left the CBC to take over the management of All-Canada Radio Facilities’ syndicated program division.

Seeking a new challenge, on his birthday in 1949, Spence opened S.W. Caldwell Ltd. as a TV and radio program and equipment distribution business. Spence particularly wanted CBS programs but it took a lucky break at NAB to get things rolling. In addition, he formed an advertising agency to accommodate production and insertion of Canadian commercials in the CBS-TV network show “Westinghouse Playhouse”. He and his long-time associate Gordon Keeble (a friendship formed when both worked for the CBC) bought the Brampton, Ontario AM/FM radio stations, CFJB.

When the Board of Broadcast Governors started to accept applications for the licensing of the first privately-owned tv station in Toronto, Spence Caldwell was one of eight applicants. However, the licence was awarded to a consortium headed by John Bassett.

Briefly daunted by this failure, Caldwell and Keeble decided they would apply for a licence to form Canada’s first private TV network. This application was approved by the BBG and the CTV network came into being  in 1961 to connect and provide programs to the newly-licensed TV stations from Halifax to Vancouver.

In due course, the station owners took over the CTV network and Spence retired to his Caledon farm to concentrate on raising sheep and to act as a consultant to the broadcasting industry.

Spence Caldwell’s illustrious career came to an abrupt end on December 10th, 1983, when he was killed in a collision with a transport truck near his Caledon home.

In 1986, Spence Caldwell was inducted into the CAB Broadcast Hall of Fame.

Written by J. Lyman Potts – November, 1996