Radio Programming

Over the past 60 years, radio programming has gone through 3 distinct stages. Radio shifted from being a novelty to becoming a mass medium between 1920 and 1940.

Ferguson, Max
CBC-Radio host Max Ferguson in a clip from the CBC-TV series Graphic, broadcast on 29 March 1957 (courtesy CBC).

Radio Programming

 Radio has proven an extremely flexible medium. The technology of BROADCASTING enabled the radio producer to reach much larger audiences than was usually possible for the journalist. The reliance on sound alone liberated radio producers from many of the constraints that have restricted their counterparts in visual media. The costs of production are much lower. The expectations of the audience are not so demanding. The radio producer can experiment with an array of program types to activate the listener's imagination or engage his mind. Consequently, radio has played many roles in society to meet the changing needs of the public.

Over the past 60 years, radio programming has gone through 3 distinct stages. Radio shifted from being a novelty to becoming a mass medium between 1920 and 1940. During the 1920s, the small, low-power Canadian stations filled their abbreviated schedules with all manner of cheap, live productions: music, comedy, drama, education, preaching, news or poetry or story reading, nearly all of which were amateurish. Audiences preferred the more polished products of American radio and at the end of the decade, 80% of the programs listened to were American. In 1929, 2 stations in Montréal and Toronto became affiliates of American networks.

The solution seemed to lie in the organization of Canadian networks. The pioneers were commercial enterprises intent on self-promotion. The Canadian National Railways Radio Department began broadcasting plays in 1925 and by 1930 was offering a few hours a week of high-quality French and English programming on its own and independent stations across the country: symphony, chamber and folk music; original drama and operas; children's tales; grain price reports, and even health talks. There were national broadcasts sponsored by Imperial Oil and Canadian Pacific Railway. What killed these initiatives was the arrival in 1932 of public broadcasting, to which the government granted a monopoly of network broadcasting. The Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission created the initial national service which was much expanded after 1936 by the new CANADIAN BROADCASTING CORPORATION. Indeed, the CBC organized separate French- and English-language networks using its own stations and private affiliates.

By the end of the 1930s, listeners could already enjoy a wide range of programs. Much American material was available because of the widespread use of recorded popular music and transcribed programs, because of the service of a few Canadian affiliates of American networks, and because of the CBC itself, which offered popular, sponsored American programs in the evening hours. American daytime soap operas, such as "Ma Perkins" and "Big Sister" and evening comedy shows such as "Amos 'n' Andy" and "Fibber McGee & Molly," were enormously popular. Private radio broadcast much live programming in the form of big-band music from hotels, adult and children's drama, and talk or commentary shows. The CBC carried more and more national programs: hockey broadcasts, variety shows such as "The Happy Gang" from Toronto, dance-band programs such as Mart Kenny's group from Vancouver, the farm family drama "The Craigs," and round tables and forums. Even so, public radio was still too novel to attract large and devoted audiences, except in Québec where the appeal of its French-language programming was enormous.

The war years changed the situation. Suddenly a vital instrument of propaganda, the CBC developed a balanced schedule of programs to inform, inspire and entertain the mass audience as well as more select publics. The first initiative was the creation of a special news department, which supplied eager listeners with bulletins and reports on the war effort abroad and at home. News was supplemented with talks and education: the famous "Citizens' Forum" and FARM RADIO FORUM, war-related miniseries such as "Let's Face the Facts" and "Arsenal of Democracy," and the French network's "Radio-Collège." Much effort was put into developing musical programming, such as "Les Joyeux Troubadors,""Victory Parade" and feature variety broadcasts studded with American stars for the assorted Victory Loan drives. The CBC's most memorable achievements, however, were in the field of radio drama.

Many series were linked to the war, such as the "Theatre of Freedom,""Fighting Navy,""L for Lanky" and "Soldier's Wife" (a soap opera sponsored by the Wartime Prices and Trade Board!). In a different vein was the "Stage" series of radio plays, many of them written by Canadian playwrights, begun by Andrew ALLAN in 1944 for discriminating listeners. In order to carry the wealth of Canadian and American entertainment, the CBC launched a second, evening-only network in English Canada, the "Dominion," to supplement the full-day "Trans-Canada" network.

The success of the war years had inaugurated the golden age of Canadian radio. Radio news and views were able to attract a huge cross-section of listeners, much to the chagrin of NEWSPAPERS and MAGAZINES. Programs such as "Les Idées en marche" probed topics which ranged from child discipline to price control, and from the St Lawrence Seaway to Canada's international policies. CBC broadcasts of serious music and opera made the networks renowned as great sponsors of high culture. The many plays of producers such as Allan, Esse W. LJUNGH, Rupert Caplan and J. Frank Willis made the CBC a national theatre for English Canada. In 1947 the CBC began its grand experiment in highbrow radio, "CBC Wednesday Night": 3 noncommercial hours under the general direction of Harry BOYLE which offered opera, musicals, classical and original plays, even documentaries, and won enormous fame among intellectual and artistic communities in Canada.

The networks, of course, were able to capture much larger audiences for their regular coverage of Canadian sports, notably hockey, which bolstered one of the few pan-Canadian sources of identity in the country. In French Canada the CBC produced some extraordinarily popular forms of light entertainment: serial drama (seeRADIO DRAMA, FRENCH-LANGUAGE), eg, "Un Homme et son péché" (which sometimes won an 80% share of the listening audience), programs specializing in the FOLK MUSIC and FOLK DANCE of Québec, eg, "Soirée à Québec," and talent shows, eg, "Nos futures étoiles." Even in English Canada the CBC had some very popular variety and comedy shows, notably "The Happy Gang" and "The Wayne and Shuster Show." There were also specialized programs for minority audiences: the schools, the regions, women ("Lettre à une canadienne"), children ("Maggie Muggins"), farmers ("Le Choc des idées") and the religious-minded ("National Sunday Evening Hour"). Between 1945 and 1955 the CBC was a central institution serving and nurturing many aspects of the country's culture.

Yet the CBC was only one among a number of sources of radio programming. A survey of one broadcast week in April 1949 showed that the radio scene boasted a range of different styles of programming because of the mix of CBC-owned outlets, privately owned network affiliates and 36 independents. The amount of British material broadcast was minuscule. Canadian-originated programs might be dominant throughout the broadcast day on the public outlets and in the evening hours on all but the independent stations; but Canadian listeners could enjoy American records and programs at any time, especially on private stations, making the US the single most important source of programming in English Canada. The top shows in the ratings were usually American. What was called "local live" programming - news, sports, entertainment, religion and talks - persisted, notably on the independent stations where over one-third of evening air time was devoted to such offerings.

Yet imported popular music had become the most common program ingredient, except on CBC's French network, which still devoted much air time to "serious" music. The CBC's own stations supplied a varied and Canadian brand of programming, notable for the number of sustaining (noncommercial) shows, which explained why the corporation was perceived as a Canadian version of the British Broadcasting Corporation. But the programming of the major private stations, even the CBC affiliates, was designed on the American model to attract large audiences and more advertising revenue. In English Canada then, radio was bringing listeners into closer contact with the cultural mainstream of the US.

 The arrival of Canadian television in 1952 spelled disaster for radio's golden age. As Canadian families acquired television sets, evening radio lost money, listeners and eventually programs. Variety stars WAYNE AND SHUSTER, Don MESSER and his Islanders, and others shifted to television. The popular American hits had been taken off the air by the end of the decade. The radio play series was retired. The CBC officially recognized the change in radio's significance by closing down the Dominion network in 1962.

If radio had lost family and evening audiences, it swiftly regained stature as the companion of the individual. Assisting that renaissance was the spread of transistor radios and car radios which enabled consumers to listen when they pleased and in solitude. Private radio made the transition with ease, actually increasing its ad revenue by two-thirds during the 1950s. Programs as such disappeared in the new radio format, which emphasized the continual playing of recorded music interspersed with newscasts and commercials and which was hosted by disc jockeys who changed every few hours. The exceptions were broadcasts of sporting events and the new "open line" or phone-in programs, both legacies of the tradition of live radio. More and more stations came to specialize in a particular brand of music: "middle-of-the-road,""easy listening,""rock" and eventually "country." This kind of formula programming succeeded on the rising FM stations as well.

The Canadian Radio-television Commission did promulgate various regulations to ensure a minimum of Canadian content on AM and to differentiate programming on FM. American music remained the staple because it was so obviously popular with listeners, even in French Canada where regulations were necessary to protect the broadcast of francophone songs threatened by stations giving too much air time to American rock. As early as 1967 private stations had captured over three-quarters of the radio audience. The listening peaks were now in the early morning and in the late afternoon.

 The CBC was much slower to adapt to the times. Up to the late 1960s its schedule continued to look old-fashioned, filled with short, distinct programs. First in English Canada, and eventually in Québec, audience levels plummeted, suggesting that the network was irrelevant to the needs of listeners. Finally, after 1971, the CBC scrapped the old daytime program format and added 7 hours a day of morning and late-afternoon information programs. New talk and discussion shows, eg, "As It Happens,""Aux 20 heures,""This Country in the Morning,""Présent à l'écoute," were launched on the AM networks. Revamped programs in popular music, arts, drama and criticism remained, especially in the evening hours. Likewise the CBC established its FM stereo network to offer listeners a chance to indulge their taste for high culture, particularly classical music and sophisticated learning. These changes were complemented by the elimination of all advertising in 1975.

 The renaissance of CBC programming almost doubled the audience share of the network's own stations in English Canada between 1967 and 1977. "This Country in the Morning" (later "Morningside") and "As It Happens" won substantial numbers of fans. CBC radio gained a North American reputation as a showcase of excellence. Nonetheless, the revival did not seriously challenge the dominance of private radio in French or English Canada, where the CBC's own stations won about 10% of the audiences in both French and English Canada in 1987.

Little has changed in recent years. The growing popularity of FM radio (which by 1988 had an audience share of over 40%), the increased availability of American signals via cable, the timid experiment of an "all-news" FM service, and the re-emergence of radio networking may alter the shape of the radio scene in time. At present, however, radio remains the grand music box (even CBC radio, where the majority of broadcasting is devoted to music), dispensing a range of sounds to serve a variety of different tastes. See also EDUCATIONAL BROADCASTING; MUSIC BROADCASTING.


Further Reading

  • B. McNeil and M. Wolfe, Signing On: The Birth of Radio in Canada (1982); A.E. Powley, Broadcasting from the Front (1975); S. Stewart, A Pictorial History of Radio in Canada (1975).