Music at the CBC | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Music at the CBC

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) is a publicly-owned national broadcasting system created as a crown corporation in 1936. Throughout the years, the CBC's music programming has succeeded in connecting musical communities in rural and urban locations, creating employment opportunities for musicians, commissioning Canadian compositions and providing exposure to a wide range of musical acts and genres.
Clyde Gilmour of Gilmour's Albums a CBC radio program. Image: CBC Library and Archives Still Photo Collection. \r\n

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) is a publicly-owned national broadcasting system created as a crown corporation in 1936. Throughout the years, the CBC's music programming has succeeded in connecting musical communities in rural and urban locations, creating employment opportunities for musicians, commissioning Canadian compositions and providing exposure to a wide range of musical acts and genres. Whether as a performance medium, an employer, a sponsor or a discoverer of talent, no other single organization has played so large a role in promoting Canadian cultural pursuits through music.


The CBC’s primary function, as decreed in the Broadcasting Act of 1936, was to provide a public service that would “safeguard, enrich and strengthen the cultural, political, social and economic fabric of Canada.” The CBC took a varied role in the development, promotion and propagation of Canada's musical landscape, through numerous radio and television programs, recordings, competitions and other initiatives.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the emphasis shifted from studio broadcasts to the airing of public performances by such groups as the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Montréal Symphony Orchestra, as well as live CBC-organized performance events, such as independent festivals and recitals. Other significant trends that have had an impact on the CBC's operations include advancements in broadcasting technology, the increasing diversity of Canada's population and dwindling government funding.

\u00a0Seiji Ozawa conducting the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, 1965. Image: CBC Library and Archives Still Photo Collection. \r\n

As a result of these trends, the CBC's programming underwent changes that were often met with fierce opposition. In the mid-1980s, the federal government began making substantial cuts to the CBC's budget, which led to the amalgamation of radio departments, staff cuts and, in the 1990s, a significant decrease in regional programming in favour of national broadcasts.

In the Broadcasting Act of 1991, the CBC’s mandate was amended to “provide radio and television services incorporating a wide range of programming that informs, enlightens and entertains.” Since launching into the digital age in the mid-1990s, the CBC's services have grown to include: three radio channels (CBC Radio One, 2 and 3); television, Internet and satellite-based services; broadcasting in English, French and eight Aboriginal languages; as well as broadcasts in seven languages on its worldwide network, Radio Canada International (RCI).

Further changes to programming began between 1997 and 2000, when the CBC became increasingly invested in the promotion of popular music through initiatives such as CBC Radio 3, a youth-oriented network that promotes independent Canadian artists through audio, video and social networking. In keeping with its changing mandate, in 2008 the CBC made major revisions to its radio programming, which included cuts to its classical music programs, the cancelling of performance and composition competitions, and the disbandment of the 70-year-old CBC Radio Orchestra. Despite these changes, the CBC has remained the country's primary purveyor of Canadian music and performance.

Orchestral Programming

Formed in 1938 and disbanded in 2008, Vancouver’s CBC Radio Orchestra was the longest-running radio orchestra in Canada. At the time of its demise, it was the last radio orchestra in North America. It premiered hundreds of works by dozens of Canadian composers, including John Beckwith, Malcolm Forsyth, R. Murray Schafer and Norman Symonds. The orchestra won Juno and Grammy Awards, and was one of the most recorded orchestras in North America.

The Choristers, a Winnipeg-based chamber choir, began broadcasting an eponymous program nationally on CBC Radio in 1942, featuring such singers as Gladys Whitehead, May Lawson, Reginald Hugo and Lorne Betts. In 1952, the show’s format was changed to exclusively feature church music and the name of the program was changed to Sunday Chorale. The group disbanded when the program was cancelled in 1974.

The CBC Winnipeg Orchestra, conducted over the years by Eric Wild, Arthur Polson and Boris Brott, played standard light classics and was broadcast in regular 13- and 26-week series on CBC Radio from 1947 to 1984. The CBC Opera Company was founded in 1948 to perform on the radio series CBC Wednesday Night, which ran until 1963. It featured popular operas and acclaimed singers, such as Mary Morrison, Jon Vickers and Jan Rubeš, and was administered by producer Terence Gibbs and conductor Nicholas Goldschmidt.

Jon Vickers, CBC Radio promotional material, undated. Image: CBC Library and Archives Still Photo Collection. \r\n
Goldschmidt, Nicholas
Nicholas Goldschmidt's administrative talents have made him the country's leading festival organizer.

The Little Symphonies/Les Petites Symphonies was a radio series broadcast from CBC Montréal that featured music performed by the classical orchestra, The Little Symphonies. Founded in 1948 by Roland Leduc, who remained the regular conductor until the end of the show in 1965, the weekly half-hour program was originally broadcast only on the French network, then in English and for a few years on the MBS network in the US.

Formed in Toronto in 1952 and active on the radio until 1964, the CBC Symphony Orchestra was a broadcast orchestra comprised primarily of TSO musicians. It performed under the guidance of musical director Geoffrey Waddington and producers Terence Gibbs, Carl Little and Keith MacMillian.

The CBC Québec Chamber Orchestra was founded in Québec City in 1954 as the regular orchestra for the CBC French FM concert series Les Petits Concerts, which ended in 1988. The orchestra was headed over the years by conductors Sylvio Laccharité, Edwin Belanger and Alexander Brott, among others.

Alexander Brott, musician
Brott is known for musicianship, artistic flair and innovative programming (courtesy SSC Photocentre/Phototeque).


Beginning in 1945, CBC recordings were issued through CBC International Services (CBC-IS), which also began a music transcription service in 1947. In 1966, CBC-IS was divided into two labels responsible for two different categories of music: CBC-SM (serious music); and CBC-LM (light music). CBC-SM focused on orchestral, ensemble, opera and chamber music (e.g., Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Hamilton Philharmonic, Jon Vickers), while CBC-LM was devoted to jazz, pop and folk music (e.g., Peter Appleyard, Guido Basso, The Travellers). CBC-IS was renamed Radio Canada International (RCI) in 1972. CBC Enterprises worked to commercialize CBC recordings from 1982 to 1991, when it was reincorporated as CBC Records.


Beginning in the late 1940s, the CBC programmed various talent shows to identify, support and promote Canadian singers, musicians and composers. Early competition programs included Nos futures étoiles (1947–55), Opportunity Knocks (1947–57) and Singing Stars of Tomorrow (1953–56).

In the late 1950s, CBC Radio expanded its focus somewhat, sponsoring competitions to provide career development through cash awards and broadcast, performance and recording opportunities, holding national CBC radio competitions for young performers (1959–2008) and amateur choirs (1976–2008), as well as composition competitions for composers and songwriters.

Young Composers CBC radio program promotional material. Image: CBC Still Photo Collection.\r\n

Radio Broadcasting Structure

In 1974 CBC launched La chaîne culturelle, which focused exclusively on music, arts and culture programming. La chaîne culturelle was the French equivalent of CBC’s FM English radio network, which in 1975 was rebranded CBC Stereo to distinguish it from CBC Radio, the broadcaster’s AM network. CBC Radio did include some arts and culture programming, but focused primarily on news, current affairs, light entertainment and regional interest programs, while CBC Stereo focused primarily on music, arts and culture programming.

By the mid-1990s, most of the regional AM stations had moved to FM, and in 1997 CBC Radio was rebranded CBC Radio One, CBC Stereo became CBC Radio Two (CBC Radio 2 as of 2007), and Radio-Canada became Première Chaîne. Radio 3 was launched as an internet radio station in 2000 with a focus on youth-oriented indie and alternative music, and was rebranded CBC Radio 3 in 2003. It was launched as a channel on Sirius Satellite Radio in 2005. In 2004, La chaîne culturelle was rebranded Espace musique, and its arts and culture programs were shifted to Première Chaîne to give it an exclusive focus on music. Espace Musique and Première Chaîne were rebranded Ici Musique and Ici Radio-Canada Première in 2013.

Radio Programming

In addition to the orchestral programs mentioned above, CBC’s radio broadcasting has offered an array of music programming over the years. By 1941, the CBC had established an effective network of school music broadcasts, offering music education and music appreciation programming across the country. In addition, the lunchtime music/variety program The Happy Gang (1937–59) featured such instrumentalists as Bobby Gimby, Cliff McKay, Jimmy Namaro and Bert Niosi. The Happy Gang toured Canada in 1947 and 1951, and reunited for two popular concerts at the CNE in 1975 before touring Canada in 1978. A French version of The Happy Gang, Les Joyeux Troubadours (1941–77) was broadcast from Montréal and was the longest-running program of its kind in the country. À Propos (1988–), which airs on CBC Radio One and 2, presents French-language music to English audiences.

Happy Gang members. (L to R) unidentified man, Kay Stokes, Blain Mathe, Bert Pearl, undated. \r\n Image: CBC Library and Archives Still Photo Collection. \r\n

Gilmour's Albums, a weekly one-hour program hosted by music critic Clyde Gilmour, was the longest-running music show in CBC history (1956–97) and the network's highest-rated music show. It was broadcast 52 weeks a year with no holidays or re-runs, and maintained a listenership of around 500,000 people. Gilmour's Albums was the model for Finkleman’s 45s (1985–2005), hosted by Danny Finkleman (brother of Ken Finkeman) and broadcast Saturday nights from 8–10 pm. It was succeeded in 2005 by Vinyl Tap, hosted by Randy Bachman of The Guess Who and Bachman-Turner Overdrive, and broadcast on CBC Radio One and CBC Radio 2.

Clyde Gilmour of Gilmour's Albums a CBC radio program. Image: CBC Library and Archives Still Photo Collection. \r\n

In 1997, Night Lines (1984–97), which profiled independent and alternative music, was combined with the pop culture magazine program Realtime (1994–97) to create RadioSonic (1997–2003), which featured indie rock and alternative music. The long-running overnight program Brave New Waves (1984–2007) also showcased alternative and indie music, as does George Stroumboulopoulos’s The Strombo Show, which CBC Radio 2 acquired in 2009 from the Corus Radio Network.

stroumboulopoulos, george
canadian radio and television personality george stroumboulopoulos is best known as the host of cbc's The Hour (photo by Dustin Rabin).

As mentioned, CBC Radio 2’s programming underwent a major restructuring in 2008, resulting in a reduced focus on classical music. The programs to be cancelled included: the afternoon drive-time show DiscDrive (1985–2008), which featured a mix of classical, bluegrass and jazz; the classical music request show Here’s to You; the weekday morning classical music program Music and Company; the weekday afternoon program Studio Sparks, which featured classical, jazz and world music, as well as interviews with the artists; and the light classical music program Northern Lights. Tempo, which runs weekday mornings into the early afternoon, was launched in 2008 as the primary purveyor of classical music on CBC Radio 2.

Television Programming

CBC Television’s music programming has included a broad range of genres, from folk and country to classical and pop. The broadcaster’s first regular series of any kind was the music/variety program The Big Revue (1952–53), directed by Norman Jewison. The series’ first episode was the first ever aired on television in English Canada, and featured a performance by pianist Glenn Gould.

The opera program L'Heure du concert/The Concert Hour (1954–66) was devoted to the performance of operas, operettas and ballets as well as symphonic works and concertos. The music/variety programs Country Hoedown (1956–65), Don Messer’s Jubilee (1957–69) (see Don Messer) and The Tommy Hunter Show (1965–92) (see Tommy Hunter) were popular, long-running platforms for folk, country and old-time music; while The Irish Rovers (1971–78) (see Irish Rovers) and Rita and Friends (1997–99) (see Rita MacNeil) put Celtic, folk and pop music in the spotlight.

The contemporary pop music program Singalong Jubilee (1961–74) helped launch the careers of Catherine McKinnon, Ken Tobias and Anne Murray. Music Hop (1963–67), hosted by Alex Trebek, and Let’s Go (1964–65; 1967–68) catered to the tastes of 1960s youth culture; the latter was the first to bring national attention to such acts as The Collectors (see Chilliwack), The Guess Who and Terry Jacks. Good Rockin’ Tonite (1980–93) and Video Hits (1984–93) featured music videos and interviews with rock and pop acts. CBC TV also routinely airs holiday music specials and returned to its talent competition roots with the reality TV program Cover Me Canada (2011).

Archival Work

The CBC's numerous and substantial music and record libraries, and program archives are addressed in entries on Libraries and Archives. Among the librarians have been Perry W. Teale and Caroline Grant in Halifax; Michelle Bachand, Marie Bourbeau, Claude Gagnon, André R. Martin, Térèse Rochette and Conrad Sabourin in Montréal; Sabourin and Jeannette Trépanier in Ottawa; Helmut Kallmann, Pat Kellogg, Edgar Knapp, John Lawrence and Erland Misener in Toronto; Laurie E. Thompson and Mary Worobec in Winnipeg; and Ruth Levy and Judy Knox in Vancouver.

Additional Resources

For CBC executives concerned with music, see: Louis Applebaum; Jean-Marie Beaudet; Hugh Davidson; Ira Dilworth; J.-J. Gagnier; Denis Regnaud; John P.L. Roberts; Roy Royal; Robert Sunter; Jean Vallerand.

For prominent CBC producers, composers and performers, see: John Adaskin, Jeffrey Anderson, Pierre Beaudet, Norma Beecroft, Françoys Bernier, Jacques Boucher, Pierre Boutet, Norman Campbell, Albert Chamberland, Gabriel Charpentier, Robert Chesterman, Paul-Émile Corbeil, Paul Crawford, Georges Dufresne, Srul Irving Glick, Denis Harbour, Gary J. Hayes, Benjamin Horch, Margaret Ann Ireland, David Jaeger, Franz Kraemer, Larry Lake, Gérard Lamarche, Jean-Yves Landry, Carl Little, Keith MacMillan, Pierre Mercure, Pierre Morin, Pat Patterson, R.-O. Pelletier, Eudore Piché, Gilles Potvin, John Reeves, Paul Roussel, Peter Symcox, George Fiala, Dirk Keetbaas; Robert Turner.

See also: Canadian Broadcasting Corporation; Music Broadcasting; Broadcasting; Governments and Music.

A version of this entry originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.

Further Reading

External Links