Commercials – as advertising announcements became known – started in radio the day radio stations came on the air. Pioneer broadcaster Darby Coats, who was with CFCF radio when it came on-air in Montreal in 1920, recalled going down to the local record store to “borrow” a phonograph and some records. In return, he promised the store a mention on the air, and the first commercial (or contra, as such exchanges of goods for airtime came to be called) was broadcast. That was in 1922, and as each new station came on the air, nearly all of them followed CFCF’s example.
Yet to stay in business, stations needed hard cash as well as contra. Early regulations prohibited station from carrying commercials between 6pm and 11pm, and daytime airtime was a hard sell for local owners. In the major markets, enterprising independent salesmen were beginning to make deals with advertising agencies, and then contacting their local stations to place the clients’ ads.
There quickly emerged a clear need for a way for local stations to get their share of the dollars available from national advertisers, and that meant those stations being represented by salesmen operating in the cities where the major agencies were located.
A pioneer in this field was Harold Carson, owner of CJOC Lethbridge, Alberta, who persuaded Hugh Pearson at Edmonton’s CJCA, and friends at the Calgary Herald’s CFAC Calgary, to join him in forming United Broadcast Sales, and sending Guy Herbert to Toronto to open an office. As the group brought more stations on board, they added offices in Montreal, Winnipeg, Calgary and Vancouver, and became All-Canada Radio Facilities Ltd. in 1936.
More “rep houses” (as they came to be called) soon followed: Radio Representatives Ltd was formed by Gordon Love‘s CFCN Calgary, Dick Rice‘s CFRN Edmonton and “Pappy” Murphy‘s CFQC Saskatoon, and in Quebec, Paul L’Anglais Inc. also became a key player, selling time on behalf of both English and French stations. All these organizations, and those that were to follow, were to play a vital role in the emergence of radio, and later of television, as crucial media for both national and local advertisers. Horace Stovin Ltd. entered the arena in 1940.
Some national advertisers were buying time in the programming originated by the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission (later to become the CBC). Local stations had a hard time getting their share of national dollars until the welcome arrival of electrical transcriptions of U.S. half-hour sponsored syndicated dramas, which agencies placed with stations with advertising already embedded. Shows like The Lone Ranger and Fibber McGee and Molly were demonstrably popular with Canadian radio audiences, and some syndicated Canadian properties also began to generate advertiser dollars.
As the radio advertising business grew, it brought a demand from advertisers and agencies for some proof that people were really out there listening. In 1940 a Toronto based research company, Elliot Haynes, began doing telephone surveys to try to measure audiences, first in Toronto and later in 20 cities across Canada. In 1942, a consortium of advertisers, advertising agencies and radio stations formed the Bureau of Broadcast Measurement (BBM), which began to carry out regular mail surveys across Canada, and sold its research to interested parties.
As stations became more creative in their programming – and their approach to selling time – local spot advertising became a more attractive proposition for advertisers. The Canadian Association of Broadcasters, which had been formed in 1926, made a significant contribution at this time by coordinating the development of standardized rate cards.
By now, there were no less than 73 radio stations across the country. World War II had arrived, and with it increased radio listening as Canadians tuned in to get news of the progress of the fighting. The demand for news was matched by a demand by advertisers for airtime, and the rep houses conducted their own skirmishes as they fought for their share of those dollars to serve the stations they represented.
The war ended in 1945, and between then and 1952, when television was to change the broadcasting landscape, another 61 radio stations were launched, and with them came new sales companies to represent them – among them Andy McDermott Ltd and Joseph Hardy Ltd. Their jobs were made somewhat easier by the relaxation of some advertising restrictions by the CBC (which at that time was still the regulatory authority for all broadcasting in Canada). Spot announcements could now be carried in prime time, and product prices could now be mentioned in commercials.
The advent of television in 1952 had little initial impact on radio, but by 1956-57, by which time a total of 36 TV stations were covering 60% of Canada, radio had had to find new ways to retain listeners, and help its sales companies sell time, by developing specific music formats for target audiences, as had already been happening in the U.S. At the same time, many of those sales firms expanded to handle television airtime, and some firms were changing their names. Horace Stovin Ltd became Stovin-Byles), Radio Representatives became Radio & Television Representatives, All-Canada Radio Facilities Ltd became All-Canada Radio and Television Ltd., and Paul Mulvihill Ltd came on the scene.
Despite the gloomy predictions of many, radio survived not only the initial impact of television, but even the licensing of second private television stations in major markets in 1960 (by which time television was available to 80% of Canadians), and the subsequent launch of the CTV Network in 1961. Indeed, new AM radio stations were continuing to come on the air, and the addition of FM radio to the mix offered further opportunities for individual station program formats to be tailored to local audiences. While television evolved to become the medium of choice for many in the evening hours, radio’s ubiquitous availability in the home, the car and the office enabled it to deliver strong daytime audiences, and with it the ratings to justify strong sales pitches to the advertising community.
It was in the 1960s that the rep companies formed the Canadian Association of Broadcast Representatives. Through their initiatives, the Radio and Television bureaus were created to help coordinate sales activity and enhance the profiles of the respective media. The Association was also the instigator of the Broadcast Executives’ Society, which developed as a valuable forum for the exchange of views and information among its members, with guest speakers being invited to share their thoughts on the current broadcasting scene, and their crystal ball visions of the future. The Telecaster Committee was another initiative of the group; this was formed as a central ‘clearing house’ for commercials, rather than individual broadcasters each having to make their own judgments as to each commercial’s acceptability for air.
While the Canadian Association of Broadcast Representatives lost some members as concentration of ownership brought many individual stations under corporate ownership, new station owners took their places – Global, CTV and CBC, as well as specialty channel owners like Alliance Atlantis and Corus. Thus, the CABR remains an important element on the broadcasting sales scene.
The advent of yet another national television organization, CanWest Global, which started as a “system” and grew to be a full-fledged network, had no perceptible effect on the credibility of radio as a useful advertising medium, and the practice of licensees adding sister FM stations to existing AM outlets grew steadily, with several new stand-alone FMs also being licensed – but still the AM stations survived.
New stations demanded new groups to sell their time, and among the newcomers were Western Broadcast Sales, repping Western International Communications, Alexander, Pearson and Dawson (APD) selling television for several clients across the country, and Telemedia Radio Sales was formed to market its parent company’s expansion throughout western Canada.
Cable’s impact on the broadcasting scene was feared by many, but as time passed it appeared that there were more upsides than down. While more US signals were seen in many more markets as a result of cable carriage, and thus competed for Canadian viewers, the CRTC began to permit simultaneous substitution (link) which helped offset this potential problem, and at the same time, cable enabled domestic signals to cover a much wider area and helped maintain and in some cases increase audiences.
Even the emergence of dozens of specialty cable channels, each offering anything from niche audience material to highly popular entertainment programming, did not do the damage to conventional broadcasters that some had anticipated. Indeed, rather than all the various broadcasting media having to share smaller sizes of the same pie, new dollars seemed to be found from other media to grab shares of the new television program offerings. At the same time, radio went steadily on, focusing on doing what it did best for local audiences, and concentrating its strength on reaching daytime audiences and offering those who couldn’t be close to a television screen a chance to stay in touch with the world.
As the nineties arrived, and the turn of the century loomed ahead, concentration of ownership began to reduce the demand for separate sales organizations. The acquisition of most of its affiliates by CTV Inc, and changes in ownership of broadcasting entities in the Maritimes, Alberta and B.C. eventually resulted in APD going out of business: the sale of Selkirk Communications saw its sales company, All Canada Radio & TV, being folded into Rogers Media, and CanWest Media Sales was formed consequent on the purchase of Selkirk and WIC’s television stations by CanWest Global. Radio and Television Representatives and Telemedia Radio Sales also closed its doors.
Those who pioneered the sale of radio and television time in the early years, before there were research companies, computers or Blackberries, left behind them an amazing legacy for those who followed. They built an industry, validated broadcasting as a must-buy medium, and handed on to those who followed them a history of business conducted with flair and style, and of creative selling and honest dealing. Through their participation in the business of broadcasting, by serving on the boards of broadcasting organizations such as the Radio and Television Bureaus, the Broadcast Executives’ Society and the Bureau of Broadcast Measurement, they were givers as well as takers, and the industry has been the better for their presence.
As the 21st Century unfolds, new technologies have brought new opportunities and new challenges to the broadcast sales business. Computers have made it possible for information and statistics to be available faster than ever before, but this has resulted a consequent demand for new ingenuity in making use of that information, as broadcasters fight to stay ahead in an ever more competitive marketplace.
Standard Media Index (SMI) came to Canada in 2020. It had launched in Australia ten years earlier, and has since been in operation in the U.S., U.K. and New Zealand. SMI was a reliable way to figure out what advertisements truly cost in the market. It accessed real invoices from the world’s biggest buyers of media across all platforms, anonymized and organized that very large dataset in order to create a clear, granular database where its clients could see what was spent to buy a spot, on which show, and which of 35 product and service categories made those buys. SMI also tracked digital platforms, out-of-home, print, direct-to-home and radio and TV ad spending. “In Canada, our products will capture an incredible 94% of all national brand spend. Data collected through Standard Media Index’s relationship with all the major agency holding groups will provide much needed insight into the $7 billion dollars annually that makes up national Canadian advertising spend,” said CEO James Fennessy.