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Manitoba History: Public Service Broadcasting and Winnipeg Listeners in the 1930s

by Mary Vipond
History Department, Concordia University

Number 57, February 2008

Radio broadcasting began in Canada in the early 1920s under the auspices of private enterprise. A mixture of department stores, newspapers, electrical retailers and entrepreneurs established and built up about eighty stations across the country by the end of the medium’s first decade. From a very early date, these stations were also financed by advertisers who sponsored programs that publicized their wares. A similar process occurred in the United States, where by the end of the 1920s two networks, CBS and NBC, were linking stations across the country (and into Canada) by telephone lines to increase the size of the audience and thereby amortize the cost of high quality programs. As the industry grew on this basis, it became increasingly important for the advertisers to gather information about the effectiveness of their promotions. How many people had heard the ads? Which were the most popular programs? What were the ages, incomes and gender of the listeners? The first national audience/consumer survey was conducted in the United States in 1928; by the end of the 1930s, such surveys had become standard tools of the radio and advertising industries. [1] The information produced about listener preferences was of much contemporary public interest as well, and, when used with caution, it has been useful to American historians of the media in their quest to understand the radio listeners of the past.

Isaac Mamott (left) conducts musicians in the newly-opened CKY radio studio, 1937

Isaac Mamott (left) conducts musicians in the newly-opened CKY radio studio, 1937.
Source: MTS Allstream Inc. (Manitoba Calling, Vol. 12, No. 5, May 1948, page 8.)

In Canada, unfortunately for broadcasting historians, systematic national listener surveys were not attempted until the early 1940s. [2] Nevertheless, there were three surveys undertaken in the early 1930s which, while local rather than national in focus and methodologically imperfect in various ways, are helpful to those trying to examine the history of Canadian radio from the point of view of the listeners. Two of these, studies of radio ownership and program preferences in London, Ontario, were conducted by undergraduate business students at the University of Western Ontario in 1932 and 1937 respectively. [3] The third, the focus of this article, was a more mature analysis, for it was carried out by a man who had been involved in Canadian broadcasting from its inception. The listener preference survey conducted by D. R. P. (Darby) Coats for CKY Winnipeg in the spring of 1936 is of particular interest because it occurred at a moment of transformation in Canadian broadcasting.

For a variety of reasons, including the limited resources of Canadian private stations, the lack of lucrative national advertising contracts, and the consequent inability to finance a national radio network that could rival the appeal of the American networks, the government of R. B. Bennett in 1932 created a public broadcasting body, the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission (CRBC), charged with creating programs, constructing a coast-to-coast network, and regulating the private stations that continued to exist alongside the new public broadcaster. Lacking the funds to set up more than a handful of its own stations, the CRBC relied on affiliation arrangements with previously established stations like CKY to carry its programs across the country. In its first years the Commission struggled to establish its legitimacy and authority in an environment hitherto dominated by private ownership, advertising sponsorship, and popular entertaining programs. By November 1936, its accumulated managerial and political problems were so great that the Liberal government of Mackenzie King disbanded it in favour of a better-structured public broadcaster, the CBC. The CKY survey thus was conducted at a moment when the public broadcasting experiment lay in the balance. A close analysis of the results can help us understand not only what listeners in southern Manitoba thought about CRBC and CKY programs but more generally what they expected from their radio sets. Moreover, such an analysis can tell us much about the mindset of Darby Coats, the manager of the station, and what he believed to be the mission of public service broadcasting. The survey is a rare and fruitful resource in Canadian, and Manitoba, radio history.

CKY Winnipeg was owned and operated by the Manitoba Telephone System (MTS). It had been set up in 1923 primarily out of a desire to protect the revenues of the MTS from radio competition. [4] Despite its government ownership, CKY’s management never articulated a public service mission for the station. It functioned in the 1920s much as any private station of the time, programming a mixture of popular entertainment and some educational features with the simple goal of breaking even. The station was financed by a combination of advertising revenues and, by a special arrangement with Ottawa, by part of the dollar-a-year radio licence fee payments of residents of Manitoba. Also by special arrangement with Ottawa, CKY had a veto—which it exercised—on the building of any other radio stations in the province, although James L. Richardson set up a transmitter for station CJRW just across the border in Saskatchewan with studios in Winnipeg to try to evade that ban.

With the creation of the CRBC, CKY became a basic affiliate on the network, which meant that it was paid to broadcast some or all of the CRBC’s programs. Because of its public ownership, its relatively good facilities and its powerful 15,000-watt transmitter, CKY not only carried but produced CRBC programming. During the 1933 - 1936 period, CKY’s evening schedule comprised almost exclusively CRBC network programming, and it produced about 10 per cent of the CRBC’s programs, third (albeit a distant third) behind Montreal and Toronto. While some of these programs were for the national network, many of them went just to the western provinces to cover time-zone incompatibilities. For these services to the CRBC, CKY was paid $30,000 per year by 1936, the most allotted to any affiliate.

One consequence of this involvement with the CRBC is that during the early 1930s CKY increasingly became identified, both to others and itself, as a public broadcaster. Certainly, it still had some characteristics of a private station. While it carried CRBC programs in the evenings and on Sundays (the only periods the network operated), it still created about twelve hours a day of its own programming, most of it the standard private-station fare of records, church services, local entertainers, and so on. Most of that programming was commercially sponsored—in other words it was financed by selling audiences to advertisers, with all the consequences for programming policy and managerial decision-making that that entails. Nevertheless, the prime-time evening hours were now given over to non-sponsored CRBC network programming and it is clear that by 1936, the station’s managers, Darby Coats in particular, were feeling their way towards an overall conception of the station as a public-service broadcaster, with a responsibility towards audiences that differed from that of the purely commercial privately owned stations.

CKY, by virtue of its early establishment, sound financing, powerful transmitter and good programming, was by far the dominant station in Winnipeg and southern Manitoba in the early 1930s (it also had what was in effect a repeater station, CKX, in Brandon). This did not mean, however, that Winnipeggers had no other radio choices. The MTS’s monopoly ended with the creation of the CRBC; after considerable manoeuvring James L. Richardson moved his border station (re-named CJRC) to Winnipeg, although it had only 1000 watts of power, a poor frequency, and more limited hours than CKY. More importantly, a Winnipeg resident who owned a good radio receiver could hear the large American stations from across the border fairly well, despite some problems with static and fading. WGN Chicago and WCCO Minneapolis-St. Paul came in loud and clear after 8 p.m., and KFYR Bismarck, an NBC outlet, was popular enough with Winnipeg listeners that its programs were listed daily in the Free Press.

In this context, what did listeners in Winnipeg and southern Manitoba think of CKY and its programs? The 1936 listener preference survey does not provide complete or transparent answers to this question, but it is nevertheless illuminating. One difficulty is that the survey was not based on a random sample, but on mail-in responses. Moreover, although it engendered some 3000 letters mainly from listeners in Winnipeg and surrounding rural areas, the original letters have not survived. The source of the analysis to follow is a report on the survey, including excerpts from the letters, provided by program director Darby Coats to his boss, MTS Commissioner James E. Lowry. The survey does not give a full picture of Winnipeg listening, because Coats wanted to know what listeners thought of CKY—the other stations people listened to (and we have no idea in what numbers) are present in the survey only as shadows—although as very strong, or perhaps one should say dark, shadows. Finally, a mail-in response is necessarily biased toward the more literate, the English-speakers, and, if the occasional street-name identification is any guide, the better-off.

D. R. P. Coats was an Englishman who immigrated to Canada before the First World War to work with the Pacific Cable Board. [5] During the war he trained wireless operators at the Marconi training school in Montreal. Perhaps his greatest claim to fame in Canadian radio history is that in 1919 and 1920 he was in charge of transforming the Marconi experimental radio station XWA in Montreal into CFCF, Canada’s first real broadcasting station. He moved to CKY Winnipeg as its first manager in 1923, but in 1927 took over the management of James Richardson’s Moose Jaw station, CJRM. By the mid-1930s, however, he was back with CKY as program director, and it is from this period that the survey emanates. Coats was thus someone (and he was not alone in this) who came from the technical end of radio, and went into programming almost by default. His roots were in radio as private enterprise, and in 1928 he in fact strongly opposed the creation of a public broadcasting body, telling the Aird Royal Commission that if Canada adopted public broadcasting he would be heading south. [6] By 1936, however, he had accepted CKY’s status as a public broadcaster, and was in the process of trying to discover how a balance could be found between commerce, entertainment, education, and public service; between CRBC national network executives, his MTS boss J. E. Lowry, the demands of advertisers, and the desires of the local listeners.

The CKY listener survey was unabashedly a public relations gimmick. It was, according to Coats, conducted not only to help the station gather information about particular program preferences but also with the goal of “developing goodwill by indicating a desire to learn what listeners want, thus correcting a prevalent impression that publicly owned broadcasting systems are not responsive to the wishes of the audience”—in other words to try to counteract the image of public broadcasting as elitist, bureaucratic, centralized and costly. [7] Throughout the survey period, a brief summary of the day’s results was broadcast each night at 9:00 p.m., during which the announcer had a “heart-to-heart” chat with the audience and, according to Coats, “endeavoured to convey a feeling of frankness and sincerity.” [8] The explicitly stated purpose of the survey was to ask listeners to get involved, to make suggestions, to air their criticisms—in other words to become something other than passive receptacles for whatever station management and Ottawa bureaucrats decided to offer them. Another motive for the survey, and one Coats had been concerned about for years, was to encourage “a more tolerant attitude on the part of listeners.” [9] Coats hoped that by learning about the varied taste preferences of others, listeners would be less critical of the station when it broadcast programs they did not care for. To encourage frankness, the correspondents were guaranteed complete anonymity.

But the CKY survey was also something loftier than a mere public relations gimmick. Darby Coats, despite, or perhaps because of, his years of experience in the radio industry was, it appears, genuinely struggling with defining his station’s mission during a period of transition, and was anxious to know where he stood with Manitoba audiences as part of that struggle. For Coats, then, it was not the number of CKY listeners that was at issue, it was their desires and their resistances.

Australian cultural studies scholar Ien Ang has argued in her influential book Desperately Seeking the Audience that broadcasters view audiences as objects to be categorized and conquered. [10] Using an analysis based in part on the work of Michel Foucault, Ang argues that because broadcasters need to reconstitute their audiences on a daily and hourly basis they desperately develop survey data to gain knowledge of and therefore power over their listeners and viewers. Commercial broadcasters “make” their audiences into consumers, public broadcasters into citizens—but both see themselves in a struggle with “the recalcitrant other,” never perfectly known and therefore never perfectly controlled. For public broadcasters, the task is made more difficult by the different mission. Commercial broadcasters, at a certain level, only need to know how many people in what demographic categories have tuned in in order to sell the time to advertisers. Public broadcasters, on the other hand, have a more qualitative task: they want, or should want, to know not only how many listeners they have, but what they are learning. Public broadcasters thus self-consciously assign to themselves a greater responsibility and a greater authority in making judgements of program quality and service than private broadcasters do. But this does not abrogate their need to try to understand their audiences—for how else can program criteria be developed or assessed? As we shall see, these were precisely the issues Coats was wrestling with as he gathered his sample and wrote his report.

Whatever the motives behind the CKY survey, listeners seem to have responded to it in all sincerity. The survey was conducted by asking listeners to send in a ballot on which they made two lists: those programs they heard on CKY that were their favourites, and those they most disliked. The survey was designed, it may be noted, to elicit “preferences.” It was based on the prevailing assumption that radio listening was all about individual likes and dislikes, tastes and choices, that the listeners were the “masters of the air.” [11] The survey respondents were also invited to do something more, however. Simultaneously with the poll, Coats created a contest that involved writing a letter on the subject “What I Would Like From My Radio.” Everyone who participated in the survey was guaranteed a lovely souvenir—a night picture of CKY’s transmitter in Headingley. Those who took part in the contest could win one of twelve prizes, the top three being radio sets donated by their manufacturers.

Contrary to Coats’s expectations, many listeners sent in letters, often quite lengthy, rather than just ballots. The response seems to indicate that listeners were indeed searching for ways to let their opinions be known, to replace their passivity with agency, to contest the authority of those who determined what they heard on their radios. Many of the letter-writers praised the station fulsomely for conducting the survey. A Norwood man wrote, for example: “I believe this is the first good step forward your station has taken and I hope it will make you realize that there is a public to whom an organization of your kind should cater ….” [12] A Winnipeg listener offered a rather backhanded compliment: “CKY has itself taken a step which will increase its popularity, by forsaking its high and mighty attitude and consulting its listeners….” Others wrote about having had to “suffer in silence” up to now, about programs having previously been “rammed down one’s throat,” about being left to “curse in silence.” Not very deeply hidden under the surface, it is clear, was a real resentment that radio stations in general and CKY in particular seemed to be neglecting their audience’s needs and concerns, and a great satisfaction that something was finally being done about it.

The survey induced a total of 3,123 letters, of which approximately 2,000 came from Winnipeg, 1,000 from rural Manitoba, and the remaining small number from border areas of Ontario, Saskatchewan and the United States. The program preference rankings were produced by subtracting the negative from the positive votes (see table). The programs listed included anything broadcast by CKY, whether it was a live local production, records or transcriptions, or came (live) from the CRBC network.

CKY Listener Preference Survey: The Top Ten Source: Excerpted from D. R. P. Coats, “CKY Listener Preference Survey.”

Program

Source

Type

Pro

Con

Total

Rank

News

Local & CRBC

news

1160

11

1149

1

Youngbloods of Beaver Bend

Local to CRBC

drama

1226

161

1065

2

Let’s Go a-Visiting

Local

talks

908

11

897

3

British Variety

Local

records

879

74

805

4

Bridget and Pat

Local

comedy

942

157

785

5

Prof. H. L. Stewart

CRBC network

talks

728

12

716

6

Let’s Go to the Music Hall

CRBC network

variety

768

70

698

7

No Mournful Numbers

Local to CRBC

variety

771

193

578

8

Prof. Jackson

Local

talks

529

41

488

9

Church Services

Local

religion

527

51

476

10

Hockey Games

Local & CRBC

sports

573

97

476

10

Simply taking the totals, the number one favourite program of the respondents was “The Youngbloods of Beaver Bend,” a CKY-produced farm serial broadcast to the CRBC Western network on Monday nights, which received 1,226 positive votes. “The Youngbloods” also received 161 negative votes, however, which meant that it ended up in second place in the final ranking. Number one overall, receiving 1,160 positive votes and only 11 negative, was the news, more specifically the CRBC national news broadcast heard in Winnipeg each night at 9:45 p.m. Running down the list of the top ten, the other most popular programs were “Let’s Go a-Visiting,” a local travel talk; the British variety hour, consisting of records of music hall performers; “Bridget and Pat,” a locally-produced domestic comedy with Irish dialogue; the weekly CRBC news commentary from Dr. H. L. Stewart, a philosophy professor at Dalhousie University; “Let’s Go to the Music Hall,” a CRBC variety program from Toronto; “No Mournful Numbers,” also a musical variety program, produced in Winnipeg for the CRBC network; local Professor V. W. Jackson’s long-standing nature talks program; and, tied for tenth, the more generic “church services” and “hockey games.” All told, six of the top ten programs were from the CRBC; so, however, were three of the bottom ten (the network musical shows “Hands Across the Border” and “Ici Paris,” and the Winnipeg-produced comic “Gentleman Jim”).

These totals, then, although they must be taken with several grains of salt due to errors in self-reporting, tell us which CKY programs listeners liked the best. But what of the larger issue the survey addressed—what did they want from their radios? For answers to that question it is necessary to go beyond the numerical listings to the excerpts from the letters sent in to Coats.

First, it seems that the listeners wanted more of what North American radio had offered them from the beginning. They wanted diversity, novelty, “pep,” humour, and professional quality—and they accepted advertising as a necessary evil to pay for all of this. Usually these desires were expressed negatively. So, for example, a respondent from Eriksdale criticized CKY’s announcers: “It would be nice to hear a little more life in the announcing and not so much of that correct Oxford English. It sounds a little stale over the radio. A little slang word here and there would go a long way in pepping up the program ….” [13] A Winnipeg letter-writer added, “CKY is sadly in need of some real good snappy continuity writers ….” [14] Others felt that the drama programs produced by both CKY and the CRBC were inadequately rehearsed, “amateurish and overdone.” [15] Despite “The Youngbloods”‘ overall popularity it came in for particularly negative comments, like this one from someone from the town of Holland: “The greatest piffle I ever heard. Thank heaven the farmers I lived among for twenty-two years neither talked nor acted like that…,” or this from a Somerset listener: “For goodness sake get rid of the No-Goods of Boring Bend as quickly as you can. That is a case where a doctor might employ euthanasia ….” [16] Another frequent complaint was about poorly trained announcers whose pronunciation of words like “Feb-uary,” “Dubba-u,” “Noos,” and “Sun-dee” apparently left a lot to be desired. [17] Listeners also objected to the CRBC/CKY practice (modelled on that of the “tight-laced” BBC—Coats’s words) of maintaining the announcers’ anonymity. They preferred, they attested, the American practice by which announcers became known personalities, individuals one felt comfortable inviting into one’s home every evening, but who also possessed a certain identity as stars. [18]

Of all the programs on CKY, those most disparaged were the talks featuring the “deathless monotone[s]” of university lecturers. “Mumbled words and halting sentences spoil any subject, however interesting,” a resident of Maryland St. commented, and one from Wellington Crescent added “I would humbly suggest that our … professors take a course in public speaking or hand their manuscripts over to those who can deliver them so that one can at least distinguish the words.” [19] To be fair, it was not just professors whose speech habits were condemned; another Winnipeg resident suggested that the station should “disbar permanently all members of the City Council and Legislature; all Aldermen, School Trustees and school children; all grain and stock market reporters, poetry spouters; … all church services and Sunday speakers with messages; … and all social, educational and economical uplifters.” Coats remarked drily to his boss: “I gather that this listener does not like radio talks.” [20] In fact, however, the writer did not say he disliked all talks, only the type of authoritative talks programming, heavy on officialdom, that the CRBC tended to schedule.

A typical CKY broadcast week included a natural history lecture by Professor V. W. Jackson of the University of Manitoba

A typical CKY broadcast week included a natural history lecture by Professor V. W. Jackson of the University of Manitoba.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Government Records 22, page 15.

One subject that elicited considerable comment was the use of advertising on CKY. The station did not carry ads during the evening network programs, but did so as much as possible in its other broadcasting hours. The survey responses indicated that in general, listeners accepted advertising as the normal way by which radio stations financed themselves. Coats’s summary of the correspondence about advertising concluded that “the objections [to advertising] refer not so much to the principle … as to the nature of some of the advertisements, the amount in proportion to music and other entertainment, and to the times at which advertising announcements were broadcast.” [21] The excerpts he included in his report seem to support his statement, for a number of letter-writers voiced their acceptance of advertising as both necessary and normal for broadcasting (and as reducing the cost of CKY to the taxpayer), but objected to its crudeness, ubiquity and especially to patent medicine ads for liver and kidney preparations. “Our luncheon and dinner hour [have become] an unendurable advertising nightmare,” one Winnipeg woman complained, and another wrote: “I hate to hear my internal organs discussed while I am eating my meals.” A Walker Ave. woman put it more colourfully, simultaneously evoking her feeling that she was part of a community of listeners: “If there are any saucepans in the house to be scraped, we have them scraped when that high-pressure, blatant, bally-hoo patent medicine comes on, and I just imagine thousands and thousands of saucepans all over the country being scraped at the same time.”

While advertising was a fixture on all radio stations, some of the correspondents were aware that as a CRBC affiliate CKY had at least the potential and possibly the responsibility to reduce its commercialism. Several reminded the station managers that it was their job to control both the quantity and quality of the ads; one said that he had switched from listening to CJRC to CKY because of excessive advertising. Only one, however, went so far as to say that “If I am ever to get the best out of radio it will only be when the advertising element is entirely eliminated and the cost of the service is provided by the public treasury.” “Then,” he added, “I shall be paying the piper and will have the right to call the tune.” Generally, however, respondents to the CKY survey, while grumbling about ads, were sufficiently acclimatized to the North American commercial radio model that they accepted them as a necessary evil on public as well as private stations. Very few thought to answer the question “What do I want from my radio?” with the reply: “Uninterrupted programming.”

There are some common themes to be found in these and other excerpts from the letters. The most obvious is the call for more professionalism. One may assume that those who criticized CKY’s (and the CRBC’s) drama productions as amateurish were comparing them with the polished serials available on the U.S. networks, that those who disliked university professors’ mumblings and gruntings were comparing them to Lowell Thomas, H. V. Kaltenborn and other experienced American commentators, that those who wished for a sports announcer who wasn’t illiterate were thinking of Graham McNamee and other American star sportscasters. Winnipeg mayor Ralph Webb, a promoter of the rival station CJRC, reported in 1935 that he had been told by many Manitobans that “they were getting very tired of CKY as they [sic] did not measure up to the standards of American broadcasting stations and, therefore, they were forced to go to the Bismarck Station for what they called ‘good programs’ rather than to our own Commission programs.” [22] Even those who criticized the advertisements wished for American ones, as, for example, the listener who commented that CKY’s advertising was “generally not done as neatly as on Jack Benny’s program.” [23] The broader point is that the CRBC generally and CKY specifically were faced with a near-impossible task, especially given their scarce resources – to simultaneously measure up, yet provide an alternative, to the most advanced radio industry in the world.

This speaks to a second general point, namely the frequency with which listeners registered their annoyance with the monotony and repetition of CKY’s programs. One respondent complained that “the programs [are] somewhat like a boarding house [meal], in that we [know] exactly what to expect from day to day and from hour to hour”; “We get the same thing week after week, month after month,” another groaned. [24] Again, these criticisms involved an implicit comparison with the larger and richer American stations, which within the standard format of a well-loved show could provide a rich mix of new characters and new jokes, or new variants on the favourite old ones. Coats seemed to be sympathetic to these criticisms; his footnote comment was: “There is no doubt that some features, particularly those of the CRBC, are allowed to continue long after their popularity has waned, when the same performers are [then] put into a re-vamped show and served up like yesterday’s meal warmed in the oven.” [25] In sum, the clarion call was for more diversity, variety and professionalism on Canadian radio—all unfortunately dependent on more financial and human resources than either CKY alone or the CRBC network as a whole could muster in a large and sparsely populated country in the midst of the Depression. One Winnipeg resident vented his spleen: “Well, you asked for it and it has been smoltering [sic] for a long time. Such a lousy station!—And the programs!—I guess the reason your programs are below par is that the pay to the artists is below the minimum of the Dominion Wage Law.” [26] The challenge of attracting listeners who had regular access to the best of American broadcasting, and for whom it was both the norm and the standard, was huge. A more reasonable complainant wrote in: “The Canadian Radio Commission seems to be trying to imitate the American programs without one thousandth of the capital behind it,” and Coats agreed: “We should shun like the plague all imitations of American programs, not that we dislike them for many of them are splendid programs, of course, but the production of expensive shows is impossible in Canada at present.” We should “learn to walk without stumbling before we break into a trot!”, he added. [27]

But there is another side to the survey results as well. Prior to the 1930s, Canadian stations like CKY were locally rooted, locally owned, and featured local performers—although those “localities” were for revenue and production reasons always cities and large towns. With the arrival of the CRBC, suddenly virtually all of CKY’s prime time evening schedule was taken up with programs from Toronto, Montreal and various other distant metropolitan locations. While none of the survey respondents specifically remarked on this phenomenon, their “wish list” of radio features clearly suggests that they found the station too disconnected from both their personal interests and the local community, particularly its rural component. Thus, for example, there were requests for more programs featuring beauty hints, sports, hobbies, manners, books, movies, recipes and household hints. [28] Rather than demanding more big shows from big stars, these letter-writers apparently felt that CKY should be supplying them with programs that were closely linked to their domestic lives and personal tastes and interests. There were also many calls for more programs featuring local children’s choirs and instrumentalists, for a community sing-a-long program, for a series of local music and drama competitions and so on. [29] Mrs. Linda Hold of Charlesworth, a German immigrant, whose letter was the only one that Coats reproduced in its entirety (of which more later), not only asked for more German-language programs but offered to help arrange them by finding the performers. [30] All of these suggestions implied a desire for greater involvement with the radio station, for a sense that it truly was rooted in and connected to the home and to the community.

A radio transmitter towers over buildings in Brandon, January 1929

A radio transmitter towers over buildings in Brandon, January 1929.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Manitoba Telephone System Collection 2.

Many students of radio and radio history have argued that despite having different tastes and preferences, radio listeners constitute an imaginary community, held together by the sense of a shared experience of listening-in. [31] Despite the testimony of the saucepan-scraper, the CKY survey in some ways contradicts that argument. There seems instead to have been a sharp division in the CKY audience between those who called for more polished and professional programs and those who wanted programs both by and about Manitobans. To some extent, although not entirely, this split also ran along urban/rural lines. Thus the program scoring the very lowest on the ballot—minus 238 points—was the farm market report, which city dwellers found totally tedious. [32] Urbanites were also very snide about lectures on agricultural topics and about country music. One commented: “There’s nothing quite as bad as a yodeller, unless, perhaps, two yodellers.” [33] Indeed, these complaints were so frequent that Coats recommended that market reports and agricultural talks should all be moved off CKY to the Brandon station. On the other side, rural listeners wanted CKY to take advantage of its access to telephone lines to go out into the towns and countryside for new programs. One suggestion, for example, was that a community-produced series on the history of Manitoba’s towns be developed; another was that resort dance bands be featured in the summer. Neither of these proposals, it may be hazarded, was apt to raise the level of polished professionalism on CKY’s schedule.

The most overt example in the report of listeners who contested CKY’s offerings and insisted on their right to have their own tastes recognized relates to this issue, and to old-time fiddler music. Coats wrote to his boss:

In reading the Survey letters, I was somewhat surprised at the small number of requests for Old Time programs. Some years ago, the rural mail would have brought requests for little else. I was wondering [about this] when a delegation came into the office with a petition, signed by approximately a thousand names. The petition … read as follows: “We, the undersigned, consider we are unfairly dealt with in connection with the radio programmes. The radio hours are from 8:00 a.m. until 11:30 p.m. and practically all the music we get is the modern or so-called popular music. People forty years or over, who in most cases buy the radios and licenses, get very little good from them …. We consider one hour a day of good old time music by a real old timer’s orchestra such as Bob Goulet during the hours when the younger people are out would be appreciated by at least ninety per cent of the older people.” [34]

While the petition was presented by two Winnipeg residents, and was phrased in terms of older versus younger listeners, it also represents a feeling that CKY was ignoring those with more traditional rural tastes. Those old-fashioned tastes, these petitioners suggested, around which a sense of community had once been formed, could be—but were not being—fostered by the modern medium of radio. To some extent, then, this evidence suggests, people in southern Manitoba were still defining themselves by their geographical communities, rural and urban, and not as a like-minded “radio community.” Moreover, even the city dwellers expressed a desire for more Winnipeg performers and more personal-interest features. It is very important to note, then, that whether urban or rural, the respondents to the survey believed that radio could and should serve them. Against the attempt by the public broadcaster to establish an authoritative national voice, these listeners asked that it serve more truly as the voice of and for the people. In both cases, it is apparent, there existed the shared underlying assumption that radio has the power to shape both consciousness and society.

In the context of Canadian radio in the 1930s, the main distinction between the CRBC and the private stations was that while the latter were local, the Commission was primarily a national network. That CKY listeners appreciated certain aspects of the CRBC’s offerings, such as the national newscasts, is evident from the poll results. But the more qualitative evidence also suggests that the CRBC had two big problems in terms of gaining credibility: its inability to provide high quality entertaining network programs that in any way competed with what CBS and NBC had to offer; and its inability to provide locally-rooted, domestically-oriented programming that spoke and related to the everyday lives of the listeners. CKY, as a local station with long-standing roots in Manitoba, yet now a key affiliate of the national public network, was caught between mixed demands: its listeners wanted it to be two contradictory things simultaneously.

CKY’s 5,000-watt transmitter was shown in a promotional booklet “C.K.Y. From Your Easy Chair” around 1930

CKY’s 5,000-watt transmitter was shown in a promotional booklet “C.K.Y. From Your Easy Chair” around 1930.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Government Records 22, “C.K.Y. From Your Easy Chair” booklet.

Coats’s report on the CKY survey was filled with annotations and comments for his boss, James Lowry. The program director used the occasion of the survey to ruminate on various topics of interest to him, and to push certain programming proposals. It is in these comments that one finds clues as to Coats’s own view of the mission of CKY. First and most importantly, he expressly stated that he considered CKY primarily a public rather than a private station. Endorsing complaints from listeners that sometimes their favourite non-sponsored shows were bumped by commercial programs, he wrote:

While recognizing that the costs of operating CKY must be met and that revenue is essential, such treatment of features known to interest a large number of listeners tends to suggest that profit rather than public service is our prime motive. This is all wrong, of course. Whatever owners of private stations may do, a publicly owned one must not raise doubts as to its purpose—it cannot do so without becoming vulnerable to attacks by opponents of public ownership. [35]

He proposed, therefore, a scheme that would guarantee certain periods of the day for public service programs while still leaving plenty of room for the necessary commercials as well. More specifically, he agreed with the listeners who complained about advertising: “The profit motive has a strong tendency to lower broadcasting standards through the natural inclination on the part of broadcasters to accept material for its cash value rather than for the contribution it may make to the entertainment or enlightenment of the radio listeners,” he told Lowry. [36] Coats could not and did not completely reject CKY’s entertainment or revenue-generating function, but he did seek to establish its higher goals and its public service orientation more clearly.

Secondly, Coats indicated that as the director of a publicly owned station, he had a responsibility somewhat different from private station managers. One correspondent expressed concern that conducting such a survey implied “the foolish assumption that the customer is always right,” to which Coats responded definitively: “The Survey was not intended as a ‘popularity’ contest to relieve us of the responsibility of using our judgment in selecting program material ….” [37] With respect to the criticisms of talks programs he added:

In my opinion, broadcasting performs its most important function in transmitting the spoken word …. Those who consider that broadcasting should function as nothing better than a form of variety entertainment show a lamentable lack of vision …. This does not mean that we are to make broadcasting the purveyor of dry-as-dust speeches. It is our task to overcome all [the] difficulties which are involved in presenting talks on a wide variety of subjects in a highly interesting manner. [38]

In other words, Coats’s response to the multitude of complaints about the talks programs on CKY was not to cancel them, but to strive to improve their quality, and especially their presentation. [39] Nevertheless, given that virtually all the talks programs on the CRBC were offered by middle-class white men in positions of authority, Coats’s endorsement suggests that he assumed that public service radio inhabited the (masculine) public sphere. Michele Hilmes has argued that in the United States in this period commercial broadcasting was perceived as “feminine”—most consumers and listeners being women—whereas public-service-oriented programming was masculinized. There is no reason to think that this did not also apply in Canada, particularly given that the CRBC left the field of daytime (women’s) programming to the commercial stations. [40] It is not possible to do a gender analysis of the survey because Coats rarely identified the correspondents by name. Nevertheless, it may be noted that the types of programs most requested were in large part those usually offered in the daytime for women—recipes, beauty tips, and so on. Those seeking a more home- and community-rooted local emphasis may also have been disproportionately female.

Further to Coats’s emphasis on talks programs, his decision to reproduce in full the letter of Mrs. Linda Hold, the immigrant correspondent mentioned earlier, was clearly based on her main theme—that through listening to talks on the radio she and her husband had not only successfully learned English, but had also integrated into Manitoba society, or, as she put it, become acquainted with “the land’s peculiarities.” As Coats told Lowry: “[This] is a letter we should remember whenever we may be tempted to neglect the “Spoken Word” in our programs and, perhaps, regard talks as not in keeping with radio as a variety show.” [41] Mrs. Hold’s suggestion for more foreign language programs, however, was met with great caution by Coats; obviously too much of that kind of programming would abrogate the whole integrative mission.

In his newly-assumed role as a public broadcaster, then, Coats’s inclination was not merely to amuse and entertain the largest possible number of listeners, as the private stations bragged they did, but to try to change listeners’ habits and expectations of radio, to teach them to be more accepting of others, and of more educational programs. By 1936 he had adopted an authoritative role for himself as a broadcaster. While he did indeed want to understand the listeners’ wishes and desires, he also accepted his responsibility to override them for what he believed to be the greater good.

The CKY studio looked like a comfortable lounge, complete with potted plants, circa 1930

The CKY studio looked like a comfortable lounge, complete with potted plants, circa 1930.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Government Records 22, “C.K.Y. From Your Easy Chair” booklet.

As a key affiliate of the CRBC, CKY, like the national broadcaster, struggled to find a balance between its own authority and its credibility with listeners whose radio tastes had been conditioned since the early 1920s toward polished and popular entertainment, and who still had access to the offerings of private stations, both Canadian and American. There was little point in building and financing a public broadcasting body unless it offered some alternative to what the private stations broadcast. But on the other hand, if the public broadcasters’ programs strayed too far from listener tastes and expectations, it would lose not only its audiences, but its political support, its financing, its legitimacy, and its authority.

At the time the CKY survey was conducted, the CRBC had been broadcasting a full program schedule on its national network for two and a half years; by the time Coats wrote his report, the King government had decided that there were so many problems with its administrative structure that it would be dismantled and replaced by the CBC. The CKY survey reveals that listeners, at least those who listened to this station, had not yet come to appreciate or accept Canada’s first public broadcaster. While a tiny handful of survey respondents made mention of the public service responsibility of the station, the vast majority made it clear that they expected two things from their radios—high-quality entertainment and local roots. The CRBC was not seen to be offering either, and indeed was not in a position to do so. Any survey that relies on a mailin response is apt to receive more lemons than laurels, but Coats’s careful reading of the letters he received must have discouraged him. He achieved a greater understanding of his listeners, undoubtedly, but his power to use that knowledge to attract their support and interest was severely constrained. The fine balance between serving the public interest and satisfying the listeners eluded CKY’s grasp in the mid-1930s.

Nevertheless, Coats was not totally without hope, and we have in his comments to Lowry a very rare example of a Canadian broadcaster thinking through the implications of providing public service programming in the Canadian context. By 1936 Coats was developing a sense of CKY’s task that encompassed not only commercially sponsored entertainment (a financial necessity) but also public-service programs oriented towards making the station a “cultural, educational and social force.” [42] He was very realistic about the weaknesses of some of the CRBC’s programs, but he articulated a shared mission of providing a radio service that was an alternative to either pure localism or pure Americanism. Most importantly, he advocated that CKY (and by extension the CRBC and CBC) should devote more time and attention to some sort of “perpetual survey” of listeners’ likes and dislikes by means of a regular radio magazine. [43] He also advised Lowry that he should hire a public relations officer whose job it would be to “endeavour to convert enemies to friends and make people feel that CKY is a live, flesh-and-blood organization tremendously interested in trying to please the public.” “His attitude inside the organization,” Coats concluded, “should be not one of satisfaction with our service (the most dangerous disease among public servants) but rather that the best is none too good for our employers – the public.” [44] For Coats, CKY’s listeners were the “masters of the air,” not as dilettantish consumers but as citizens whom he had a responsibility both to serve and to lead.

Verification stamps popular in the 1920s disappeared when radio became oriented mainly towards family entertainment, as was the case in this CKY publication from September 1939

Verification stamps popular in the 1920s disappeared when radio became oriented mainly towards family entertainment, as was the case in this CKY publication from September 1939.
Source: MTS Allstream Inc.

Notes

This article is a revised version of the James A. Jackson Memorial Lecture delivered at the University of Manitoba in March 1999. My thanks to the audience members for their helpful comments and queries, and my apologies for the delay in getting it into print.

1. Beville, H. M., Jr., Audience Ratings: Radio, Television, Cable, rev. ed. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1988, Chapter 1.

2. Eaman, Ross, Channels of Influence: CBC Audience Research and the Canadian Public. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994, Chapter 4.

3. Vipond, Mary, “London Listens: The Popularity of Radio in the Depression,” Ontario History, 1996, vol. 88, pp. 47-63. Two 1934 surveys, of high school students only, are discussed in H. F. Angus, ed., Canada and Her Great Neighbor: Sociological Surveys of Opinions and Attitudes in Canada Concerning the United States 1938; repr. New York: Russell and Russell, 1970, pp. 143-147, pp. 369-370.

4. Mary Vipond, “CKY Winnipeg in the 1920s: Canada’s Only Experiment in Government Monopoly Broadcasting,” Manitoba History 1986 vol. 12, pp. 2-13.

5. See Library and Archives Canada (LAC), R. B. Bennett Papers, M-1294, D. R. P. Coats to R. H. Webb, 19 February 1930, copy, 366173.

6. It is not clear why Coats remained in Canada in the end, but perhaps he was satisfied with the compromise of the 1932 Act, which allowed the continued existence of privately owned stations rather than (as many broadcasters feared in 1928), a public-service monopoly like the BBC.

7. LAC, Records of the Department of Transport, vol. 864, file 6206-162, vol. 4, D. R. P. Coats, “Report on CKY Listeners’ Preference Survey,” 18 June 1936 [hereafter “Report”], cover page.

8. “Report,” Survey Method – 2. Italics added.

9. “Report,” Features; see also Records of the Department of Transport, vol. 864, file 6206-162-1, [D. R. P. Coats], “Something to Please Everybody,” Broadcasting 1923, September, p. 3.

10. Ang, Ien, Desperately Seeking the Audience. London and New York: Routledge, 1991. This paragraph is based mainly on the Introduction and Chapters 2 and 11. The “recalcitrant other” quote is on 152.

11. See Mary Vipond, “Desperately Seeking the Audience for Early Canadian Radio,” In M. Behiels and M. Martel, eds., Nation, Culture, Identity: Essays in Honour of Ramsay Cook. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2000, pp. 86-96. The phrase “masters of the air” is from “National Broadcasting for Australia,” Radio Weekly, 28 May 1932, p. 5.

12. “Report.” All the quotations in this paragraph are from the section entitled “Survey.”

13. “Report,” Announcing – 2.

14. “Report,” Continuity Writers.

15. “Report,” Dramatics – 2.

16. “Report,” Features – 4 and Features – 3.

17. “Report,” Announcing. Susan J. Douglas argues that by the 1930s American listeners expected radio announcers to speak “official” English and that “malapropisms, wrong pronunciations, overly thick regional accents, and dialects marked the speaker, rightly or wrongly, as ignorant, stupid, and low-class.” On the other hand, language was used much more creatively and transgressively on other programs, particularly comedies. Susan J. Douglas, Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination, from Amos ‘n’ Andy and Edward R. Murrow to Wolfman Jack and Howard Stern. New York: Random House, 1999, 103ff.

18. For more on this aspect of early radio listening, see Lesley Johnson, The Unseen Voice: A Cultural Study of Early Australian Radio. London: Routledge, 1988, pp. 82-100.

19. “Report,” Talks – 8, University Lectures.

20. “Report,” Talks – 6, Speakers.

21. “Report.” All the quotations in this paragraph and the next are from the section entitled Advertising.

22. Bennett Papers, M-1292, Webb to Hector Charlesworth, Chairman, CRBC, 22 February 1935, copy, 363545.

23. The integration of commercial messages into the scripts of the major American comedy shows was so skilfully accomplished that audiences came to appreciate and enjoy what they nevertheless recognized as shilling. Benny, for example, commenced his program every week with the phrase: “Jell-O, everyone.” See Douglas, Chapter 5.

24. “Report,” Monotony.

25. “Report,” Monotony.

26. “Report,” CKY – 2.

27. “Report,” Keeping Up with the Jones’s.

28. “Report,” Subjects Suggested. A similar demand for more women’s programming, especially in mid-afternoon, turned up in a survey of 684 individuals and families conducted in all three prairie provinces the following summer, shortly after the CRBC had ceased to exist. See LAC, CBC Records, vol. 338, file 14-4-6, W. E. Ward, “Report to General Manager on Listeners’ Survey,” August 1937.

29. “Report,” Cavalcade of Manitoba Towns, Choirs, Community Songs.

30. “Report,” Foreign Languages, Letter from Mrs. Linda Hold, Charleswood P.O., Manitoba.

31. Among those who have applied Benedict Anderson’s discussion of nationhood as “imagined community” to radio audiences, see Michele Hilmes, Radio Voices: American Broadcasting, 1922–1952. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997, esp. pp. 11-23 and Kate Lacey, “Radio in the Great Depression: Promotional Culture, Public Service, and Propaganda,” In Michele Hilmes and Jason Loviglio, eds., Radio Reader: Essays in the Cultural History of Radio. New York and London: Routledge, 2002, esp. pp. 28-34.

32. The two London surveys had the same finding. See Vipond, “London Listens.”

33. “Report,” Yodellers.

34. “Report,” Old Time Fiddlers.

35. “Report,” Regularity of Programs – 2.

36. “Report,” Advertising – 1.

37. “Report,” Survey – 2.

38. “Report,” Talks.

39. Similarly, the 1937 CBC survey indicated that many listeners were tired of “incessant music” and increasingly favoured talks, although that statement was qualified by the suggestion that the goal should not be to increase the number of talks, but to “raise [them] to a higher standard.” W. E. Ward, “Report to General Manager,” as cited in endnote 28.

40. Hilmes, p. 33.

41. “Report,” Foreign Languages.

42. Testimony of Frank Denton in Canada. House of Commons. Special Committee on the Operations of the Commission under the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Act, 1932, Minutes of Proceedings and Evidence. Ottawa: King’s Printer, 1934, p. 378.

43. “Report,” Publicity.

44. “Report,” Public Relations.

Page revised: 12 October 2018

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