Radio – from Crystal Sets to Satellites

Nowadays, the availability over the air of crystal clear sound and high definition pictures is taken for granted. Both audio and video signals are prevalent in virtually every home, through a multitude of devices. But it is perhaps worth remembering that, not all that long ago, things were very, very different. News and pictures of the outside world were only available through the newspapers, and the piano and the violin were the prime sources of in-home entertainment.

But as the nineteenth century moved into its second half-decade, in various parts of the world history was beginning to be made, as scientists and inventors were conducting experiments in the field of communications which were destined to revolutionize the ways by which the people of the world were to be entertained and informed. One such important area of experimentation was to result in the invention of what came to be known as “radio”.

There are many “Fathers” of radio, from Maxwell in England in 1864 who demonstrated that energy could be applied without the aid of a metal conductor, to Hertz in Germany 30 years later who discovered that magnetic waves could be sent through space. Then Marconi developed a transmitter in Italy and a few years later at the start of the twentieth century, sent his dots and dashes across the Atlantic, while Fessenden and others brought the voice of radio into our homes.

After the distractions of World War I, the inventors turned their ideas back to developing the potential of Radio. In the 1920s the first stations started to come on the air. This new “gadget” radio was about to turn Canada literally “on its ear”!

One of the early home sets came from the “Popular Mechanics” magazine with its guide for making a “Crystal Set”, a device anyone could make for under $10.00 complete with earphones. Those who could afford them bought the larger living room style radios (operated by several automobile type batteries – that had to be recharged every week), still with earphones, although they soon started to use horn type speakers.

And what did they get to listen to? Most stations in the early `20s were on the air for just a few hours in the evening. They presented local musicians and choral groups and some concerts, all live of course, (electrical recordings were years away). Some stations borrowed a few recordings from the local music store to complete the evening’s program schedule. This was before talking pictures had arrived in the local theatre, if there was one – Radio was the talk of the town.

As more stations came on the air in the mid-1920s inventors were making progress with loudspeakers and improved microphones, and in 1927 Ted Rogers, Sr. made the use of batteries obsolete by inventing a system using household electricity. These inventions helped to make radio more than a toy.

The CNR Radio Network was formed using a base of three owned stations and the railways telegraph lines, and leased time on other stations, to offer a couple of hours of programming each night – mostly live music which was heard by all listeners but was arranged specifically for those traveling by train in parlour cars on those long trips across the country. (It took seven days to go from Vancouver to Halifax).

Radio had arrived.

More stations brought more programming and longer hours on the air. Those homes close to the U. S. border (and, at night, many much further away) had the advantage of listening to American stations giving them more program variety, a competitive problem for Canadian stations that would exist for many years.

The U. S. Market crash of 1929 and the resulting depression years that followed slowed the development of Canadian radio.

Despite the depression many new stations came on the air, but more importantly, stations extended their programming hours into the afternoon and all evening long.

There was the first government network – the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission (CRBC) consisting of the three former CNR stations plus 4 new government stations that were put into service during the networks four years of operation, as well as all the private stations (originally 7 private stations and by 1935 – 18 private stations).

The 1936 Moose River Mine disaster covered by J. Frank Willis for CRBC was one of the first remote broadcasts on radio – broadcast on 69 radio station in Canada and over 650 of stations in the U. S. and also in Great Britain.

Later in the year, the government established the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to establish a network of CBC-owned and privately owned affiliated stations to serve all of Canada – the CBC Radio Network.

World War II saw News Broadcasting become a necessity in every household – as families searched for news of loved ones abroad. Many names became famous during these trying times – perhaps the most notable among them being Lorne Greene ( known then as the Voice of Doom) reading the CBC evening news. Many years later he would become “Pa Cartwright” on the U. S. TV program ‘Bonanza”.

After the war Television became a factor, first in the U. S. with Canada following some years later. As with radio, those Canadians living along the U. S. border could view TV and by the time Canadian TV started there were 75,000 homes already watching U.S. TV.

With the advent of television, many pundits forecast the demise of radio, but radio still had some tricks up its sleeve. As elsewhere in the world, radio in Canada started to change, and the medium found ways to adjust, and to take advantage of its greater portability and accessibility away from the home. Gradually, as the dramas and musical shows largely began to switch to TV, radio began to develop diverse formats, including “News/Talk” and various different music styles, to attract different demographic audiences.

Inventions such as audio tape and later stereo helped radio to make the transition, as music moved on from Big Bands to Top Forty and the music of the younger generation, who grew up with this new era which was to last through the new millennium.

FM (Frequency Modulation) which had started as an experiment in the 60s and had been slow to catch on (due to the fact that homeowners had to buy new receivers), became well established by the mid 1980s, and offered widespread high quality reception.

And then, to finally give the lie to any suggestion that radio was finished, the advent of the 21st Century saw the introduction of Satellite Radio, which added an even newer and more exciting dimension to a Canadian Radio Industry which had no intention of rolling over and playing dead.

written by Ross McCreath – 2006