While reportedly a dozen top railway executives had declined the job, Thornton accepted with the understanding that he would run the CNR as a for-profit business and without government interference. He proposed a plan to physically weld the old companies and workforces, streamline operations and administration, and aggressively solicit new traffic and revenue. A key element in this program would be promotion. He had to break the public’s perception of the CNR as “Canada’s white elephant” and thrust it into the consciousness of its employees, its potential customers and the taxpayers who owned it. This need for publicity motivated Thornton’s initial interest in the burgeoning field of radio.
Thornton sought to tap the public’s fascination with radio and direct it toward his needs. He saw an invention that would take the CNR’s name and its message right into the homes of Canadians. This would have to be done in an orderly and first class fashion that reflected well on the CNR, setting it apart from radio as it then existed. Thornton saw that it would be necessary to present a radio service that would be as coordinated and homogeneous as the railway he was seeking to create. The rudimentary programming of the early radio stations — which its critics pointed to as proof that radio was just a novelty — had to be replaced with a quality product that could be carried throughout the vast territory the CNR served.
On June 1, 1923, Thornton announced the formation of the CNR Radio Department, to be headed by W.D. Robb, the vice-president of colonization and development. W.H. Swift, Jr., an experienced American radio engineer, was hired as the department’s director. The first employee assigned to the new project was Jack Carlyle, who had started his career in 1913 as an auditor in the freight traffic accounts office of the Grand Trunk, one of the CNR’s predecessors.
Later in the House of Commons, the Minister of Railways and Canals cited the railways’ aims as:
“to provide a means of communication between the executive officers of the railway and the public – to advertise Canada and the Canadian National Railways – to furnish entertainment to passengers on long-distance trains and guests at the company’s hotels – and generally to make the service of the railway more attractive to the public. As an advertising medium, radio telephony is unsurpassed, and the administration believes that in the establishment of a radio department, it has taken a unique and constructive step in railway operations”