Sean Graham: How the CBC Began

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Talking History focuses on a wide range of topics in Canadian history, and it consists of articles by Canada's foremost historians and history experts. Our contributors use the power of narrative to bring the past to life and to show how it is not just relevant, but essential to our understanding of Canada and the world today. "Talking History" is a series made possible through a special funding grant from the Department of Canadian Heritage.

Sean Graham is a William Lyon Mackenzie King Postdoctoral Fellow at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University, where his research focuses on the history of national broadcasting and Canadian efforts to situate itself within the North American broadcasting environment. He is also an editor at and host/producer of the History Slam Podcast.


Radio—that thing a lot people listen to in the car when their phone runs out of battery power—hasn’t always been an afterthought in the world of popular culture. During the 1930s it was at the centre of the entertainment industry. In fact, it has been said that radio was so popular during the 1930s that during the summer you could walk down the street and follow the hijinks of Amos n’ Andy through open windows. Coinciding with radio’s growing in popularity were the realities of the Great Depression, which thrust financial hardships on millions of Canadians. While this meant that upgrading to a new radio was often delayed, listeners eagerly gathered around their sets to hear the exploits of Jack Benny or the music of the New York Philharmonic. For some, radio was even a way to economize: one listener wrote to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) that his wife preferred listening to her favourite shows rather than go to the movies, thus saving him a lot of money.

Of course, the CBC was not created to save people money—Canadians actually had to pay a licence fee for their radios—but rather was there to serve as the national broadcaster, providing news, entertainment, and information to listeners. While the CBC first broadcast in November 1936, the story of how Canada ended up with a national public broadcaster goes back to the late 1920s, when radio in Canada was dominated by American programs. American stations were stronger than Canadian ones—on a clear night it was even reported that listeners in Moose Jaw could pick up Mexican stations—and Canadian listeners flocked to popular American programs. In 1928 the Royal Commission on Radio Broadcasting, headed by Sir John Aird, travelled the country, hearing from both station owners and listeners. In its 1929 report, the commission concluded that, above all, “Canadians want Canadian radio.”

The onset of the Great Depression and the change in government in July 1930 meant that nothing was immediately done with the report. This did not sit well with Alan Plaunt and Graham Spry, who founded the Canadian Radio League (CRL) in 1931 to lobby for national public broadcasting. The two were relentless in their efforts, going so far as to find Prime Minister R.B. Bennett during his massages at the Chateau Laurier to plead their case. Their argument was simple: if left to private interests, Canadian radio would be dominated by Americans.

On the other side, the Canadian Association of Broadcasters (CAB) lobbied for the continuation of exclusively private radio. Canadian listeners, they argued, were best served by private stations because they could deliver higher quality programs than a public system. Private broadcasters also championed local radio, maintaining that community stations were better suited to meet the needs of their listeners than was a national system.

In January 1931, the two sides squared off asSaturday Nightmagazine printed articles on the future on Canadian broadcasting—one by Graham Spry and one by R.W. Ashcroft, leader of the CAB and manager of CKGW in Toronto. In his article, Spry highlighted the incessant advertising that plagued private broadcasting, while Ashcroft stressed the descent into political propaganda that would accompany public broadcasting. Despite Ashcroft’s pleas, the efforts of the CRL were too much—it has frequently been described as relentless—and when a 1932 parliamentary committee convened to discuss radio, Spry had built relationships with most of the members as well as three cabinet ministers, two members of the Supreme Court, and Arthur Meighen.

The result was the 1932 Canadian Radio Broadcasting Act which established the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission (CRBC), Canada’s first national public broadcaster. Headed by three commissioners, the CRBC was charged with both serving as a national broadcaster while also regulating existing private stations. For the next four years the commission limped along, hamstrung by a poor funding structure, resistance from private stations, and, dysfunctional relationships between the commissioners.

But perhaps the biggest issue dogging the CRBC was the government interference that compromised its efforts. On both sides of the aisle, MPs attempted to wield power over its daily operations, program schedule, and budget. This contributed to the view, as predicted by Ashcroft, that national broadcasting was simply an outlet for government propaganda, which came to head during the 1935 federal election campaign. The Conservative Party purchased time to air a series of broadcasts. The programs featured Mr. Sage, a man who sat on his porch teaching his friends and neighbours about how the Conservatives were the only party capable of guiding Canada through the Depression. Mr. Sage also attacked the Liberal Party and William Lyon Mackenzie King, arguing that a change in government would exacerbate the country’s financial problems. In the context of modern political programming, this seems quite mild, but the problem was that the programs weren’t identified as being paid for by the Conservatives. Listeners thought they were produced by the CRBC, thus opening the commission up to a litany of opposition. The most significant of which came from the notoriously sensitive, and freshly re-elected, Mackenzie King, who made re-organizing Canadian broadcasting a priority.

Within a few months, there had been another parliamentary committee and the government passed the Broadcasting Act of 1936, thus establishing the CBC. The CRBC’s stations and equipment all became the property of the CBC, but there were critical changes in the organizational structure of national broadcasting in Canada. The CBC kept its regulatory role until 1957 when the Board of Broadcast Governors took over, but an improved funding structure, greater distance from parliament, and strong leadership put the CBC in a position to grow into a viable national broadcaster, something the CRBC was unable to accomplish. Because the CBC could learn from the mistakes of the CRBC, it was in a much better position than its predecessor to, as Bennett had hoped in 1932, create a broadcasting system equal to that of any other country.

When looking back on the establishment of national broadcasting in Canada, it’s interesting to note that both Spry and Ashcroft were right in 1931. Listeners were subjected to plenty of American advertising by private stations while they also came to see the national network as a tool for political propaganda. While these weren’t the only issues confronting the CBC­—building a strong national network, improving program offerings, and strengthening its financial structure were priorities—resolving these core issues were central to ensuring its long-term survival. 

Suggestions for Further Reading: 

Listening In: The First Decade of Canadian Broadcasting, 1922-1932, by Mary Vipond

About the book: In her seminal work on early radio, Concordia University’s Mary Vipond traces the development of the industry during its formative period, culminating in the establishment of a national broadcaster. She describes how and why Canadian radio in the 1920s was dominated by newspapers and explains the process through which nationalists came to be concerned about the amount of American programs that reached Canadian listeners. The federal government’s involvement in radio, following a legal challenge by the provinces, through the 1928-29 Aird Commission and a 1932 Parliament Committee capped the decade that shaped Canada’s broadcasting industry. Vipond beautiful explains how, despite the debates between advocates of a BBC-style radio monopoly and those who supported an American commercial model, Canada put in place a unique system that borrowed elements from both countries. While this may not have satisfied all parties in the debate, it allowed Canada to develop a broadcasting structure that ensured Canadian content for listeners.

Canadian Content: Culture and the Quest for Nationhood, by Ryan Edwardson

About the book: A nation is more than its physical space—the people and their culture ultimately shape our understanding of what constitutes a country. In Canadian Content, Ryan Edwardson explores Canadian efforts to define nationhood and citizenship through popular culture. From Canadian content laws to government subsidies, Canadians have constantly struggled to find the means through which they can express their nationalism. Edwardson traces this process and discovers that there has not been a singular expression of nationalism, but rather that popular culture outlets have gone through several phases of Canadianization. In doing so, they have helped re-define Canada’s nationhood and how Canadians think about national identity. Popular culture has greater meaning than the plots on a show or the lyrics in a song, it can shape people’s understanding of themselves and their identity. In a country that has struggled to come to terms with national identity, there is tremendous value in looking towards our popular culture to help find some answers.

Book Cover The Microphone Wars

The Microphone Wars: A History of Triumph and Betrayal at the CBC, by Knowlton Nash 

About the book: Despite his long career in journalism, Knowlton Nash is best known for his ten year run as anchor of The National on the CBC. From his spot in the anchor chair, he had a front row seat to major events like the 1980 Quebec Referendum and three federal elections. Off camera, however, he also had a great view of the internal machinations and culture at the public broadcaster. The Microphone Wars is not an expose of his career with the CBC, but it is a book that is clearly written from the perspective of someone with inside knowledge. Nash goes back to the establishment of the CBC and traces an organization that has seen its fair share of scandals. The ebb and flow of support for the CBC, which is evident in the sub-title, is mirrored by the people and politics to which most viewers are not privy. With a mix of historical research, first-hand accounts, and personal anecdotes, Nash delivers an entertaining book that takes the reader inside the CBC.

Foundations: Alan Plaunt and the Early Days of CBC Radio, by  Michael Nolan 

About the book: Alan Plaunt always bristled when people called him the father of Canadian broadcasting. He wasn’t a broadcaster, after all. In his mind, he simply argued for what would be best for all Canadians. As a founding member of the Canadian Radio League and as an original member of the CBC’s Board of Governors, he believed that Canadians were best served by a national broadcasting system free from the influence of commercial interests. While his career went beyond radio, he is best known for leading the charge for public broadcasting in the early 1930s and for overseeing its progress in the latter part of the decade. Although he only lived to be 37—he died of cancer in 1941—he greatly influenced Canadian broadcasting and the way in which Canadians consume media. Admirably told by Michael Nolan, his story is one of conviction and determination.

September 18, 2015
Books mentioned in this post
Canadian Content

Canadian Content

Culture and the Quest for Nationhood
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