Historicist: An Invisible Giant
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Historicist: An Invisible Giant

The Toronto Star's 11 years on the radio airwaves as CFCA.

Artist's rendition of the first live concert from the Toronto Star (March 29, 1922)

Artist’s rendition of the first live concert from the Toronto Star (March 29, 1922).

On top of a table, in the centre of a stage decorated simply with palms and flowers, sat a small square box connected to a great horn like that of a gramophone beside it, with three large batteries on the ground beneath. A wire trailed from the device up a spiral staircase and through an open window to an antenna on the roof.

Over 1,100 spectators from all walks of life—including priest and rabbi—crowded the floor of the Masonic Temple at Yonge and Davenport at 8:30 p.m. on March 28, 1922, sitting as if attending the opera or a Sunday church service. The lucky ones, they’d waited outside in a downpour lined up around the block. Even after eager spectators had claimed every available chair that could be hauled out of storage, hundreds more had been turned away at the door.

The black box’s Audion tubes glowed to life as John R. Bone, managing editor of the Toronto Star, which had organized this public demonstration of new-fangled technology, concluded his opening remarks: “I have great pleasure in introducing you to Mr. Wireless Telephone.”

The rapt audience leaned forward, straining to hear a faint but familiar piano melody onstage amid crackling, as W.A. Fowler of the radio equipment supplier Canadian Independent Telephone Company (CITCO) adjusted knobs and instruments to sharpen and amplify the sound. As one, the spectators rose to their feet, recognizing the disembodied music as the royal anthem “God Save the King” being performed by Evelyn Chelew Kemp in a studio five kilometres away. “As the anthem ceased,” the Star reported (March 29, 1922), “the hall became a babel of voices as people turned to one another and unloosed their tongues at the wonder of it.”

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The program continued with the music being performed live in the CITCO broadcast studio on the top floor of a factory on Wallace Avenue near Bloor and Lansdowne, under the direction of Dr. Charles A. Culver, the company’s chief engineer, who also acted as the evening’s announcer. Some of the city’s leading artists performed, including pianist Kemp, soprano R.J. Dilworth, Romanelli’s Orchestra, tenor Victor Edmunds, cellist Boris Hambourg, pianist Alberto Guerrero, and violinist Henri Czaplinski. Each came forward to play their contributions in front of a “little wooden funnel on a table,” the Star (March 29, 1922) recounted, which carried the notes instantly “into an intricate electric apparatus,” and then “with a speed immeasurable up a hundred feet of wire and leaped into the night sky—into empty space—”

(Right: Toronto Star [March 29, 1922].)

In addition to the listeners at the Masonic Temple, the broadcast was heard by another special audience at the Christie Street Military Hospital, and the estimated 1,000 Torontonians who owned earphones and crystal radios—mostly young male hobbyists who’d assembled their own sets. Despite the rainy weather, the wireless signal could be received as far afield as Napanee, Georgian Bay, and upstate New York.

Whatever genre or tempo of the number, the Star reported, “[t]he quality of the music had its effect on the people, for they sat strangely hushed.” One plaintive Scottish ballad, “Annie Laurie,” performed by soprano R.J. Dilworth, moved at least one listener at the Masonic Temple to tears. This was the first radio broadcast of live musical entertainment in Canada, as far as the Star could ascertain—predating a similar music broadcast in Britain by three months.

The head of the Star, Joseph E. Atkinson, had become aware of wireless technology from his son, an early amateur radio enthusiast. As his newspaper reported the establishment of the earliest commercial stations, like KDKA in Pittsburgh in 1920, the publishing magnate grew intrigued by the new technology’s promotional possibilities. The Star wanted, as Bone noted in his opening remarks that night, to not only report on radio technology, “but to give practical and public demonstrations of the invention.” Under Atkinson’s orders, the newspaper’s promotions manager William Main Johnson opened secret negotiations with CITCO—a radio parts supplier that operated an experimental station under the call sign Nine A.H.—to arrange the necessary equipment, facilities, and expertise for a public demonstration of the technology. News of the upcoming broadcast was kept quiet until announced with a 72-point headline on the front page of the Star the day before.

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“Those who had means to receive [the radio signal] did; those who had not went about their business or their pleasure not heeding, not knowing, that the darkness around thrilled with music that was there to be captured and controlled,” said the Star. “It was if an invisible giant stood at the corner of Bloor and Lansdowne scattering handfuls of invisible silver that was picked up here and there, where people with magic ears heard it fall with a glistening tinkle.” At the concert’s end, Dr. Culver stated matter-of-factly: “This is Nine A.H. signing off. Good night!”—words heard by unseen thousands. At the Masonic Temple, an audience member stood and proclaimed loudly: “I think we should thank the Toronto Star for its enterprise in giving this novel entertainment. Three cheers for the Toronto Star,” and led the crowd in a hearty hurrah. Although music critic Augustus Bridle panned the notion that radio could ever fully capture the soprano voice, the rest of the coverage the next day praised the technical achievement.

(Left: Toronto Star [March 29, 1922].)

The Star continued to utilize CITCO’s facilities and call sign to broadcast live concerts as a regular series from April to mid-June. Then, beginning April 10, it was supplemented by the country’s first daily radio broadcasts with a 30-minute program each evening at 7 p.m. that featured popular music, lectures by prominent speakers, children’s stories read by a librarian, and financial and sports bulletins. Next, the Star became the first radio service in Canada to broadcast church services with Reverend W.A. Cameron’s Easter morning service at Yorkminster Baptist Church. Interestingly, it would still be months before the Star included newscasts as part of its regular programming.

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On the newspaper page, the Star promoted its broadcasts and, more importantly, radio technology in general in daily columns on the topic offering advice on constructing your own unit, program schedules for the few American stations in reach of Toronto, and correspondence from listeners across the region. The column’s editor was a young reporter named Foster Hewitt who would transition to radio announcing and, in time, sportscasting.

(Right: Toronto Star [June 23, 1922].)

In fact, the newspaper had already secured its own broadcasting licence prior to the live concert experiment. It wasn’t long afterward that two 80-foot-tall, reinforced steel antennas were installed on the roof and a broadcast studio constructed at the Star‘s 18 King Street West headquarters, with some assistance from savvy radio enthusiast Ted Rogers Sr. On June 22, 1922, after weeks of testing, the new transmitting station went live as CFCA, broadcasting at a wavelength of 400 metres.

In 1922–1923, the federal Department of Marine and Fisheries, which had regulatory and legislative oversight over the radio waves, would grant 62 licences for commercial stations, with the majority going to either companies manufacturing or selling radio devices, and newspapers. Star rivals, the Globe and Telegram, were awarded licences but wouldn’t begin radio broadcasting for years. And CKCE (the former Nine A.H.) broadcasted only intermittently. So, until 1925, CFCA had the Toronto airwaves to itself with its only competition originating south of the border.

Sandra Gabriele and Paul S. Moore argue in a contribution to Cultural Industries.ca: Making Sense of Canadian Media in the Digital Age (Lorimer, 2012) that the Star was not operating the station purely from a profit-making perspective like other newspapers venturing into radio. Rather, the Star “understood radio as enabling a fulfillment of their mandate of public service.”

Although radio ownership was increasingly common by the end of the decade, there was a limited local audience able to listen on radio sets at home when CFCA took to the air. The Star therefore endeavoured to introduce the new technology to as broad an array of Torontonians as possible. To a large degree, therefore, the Star must be credited with the creation of a radio-listening public in the Toronto area.

Toronto Star Radio Station truck at the Canadian National Exhibition, ca  1920  From the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 343B

Toronto Star Radio Station truck at the Canadian National Exhibition, ca. 1920. From the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 343B.

With CITCO’s assistance, CFCA outfitted a truck with a coil aerial, receiving equipment, and an amplifier, transforming it into the Star‘s Radio Car. Beginning at Sunnyside Park in July 1922, the Radio Car travelled each night to parks across the Greater Toronto region, so that members of the public who didn’t own radio sets at home, or who were simply out of the house on a summer’s evening, could hear the CFCA’s live concerts and other programming. Each day, the mobile receiving station’s scheduled location was listed in the newspaper, ensuring that crowds in the hundreds regularly turned out, and the previous night’s Radio Car excursion was also recapped with eyewitness commentary. Live results on election nights were likewise relayed to public forums by utilizing the Radio Car. Later, for similar purposes, CFCA would temporarily erect loudspeakers in school auditoriums so that students might listen live to newsworthy broadcasts.

Declaring 1922 to be the “Radio Year” at the Canadian National Exhibition that August, the Star constructed a building were CFCA was broadcast over speakers and displays of radio equipment were featured, among other activities. “Beyond being an educational site demonstrating the production of radio,” Gabriele and Moore suggest, “the Radio building was characterized quite literally as producing radio listeners—enthusiastic, dedicated listeners.”

Toronto Star radio building at Canadian National Exhibition, ca  1920  From the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 3048

Toronto Star radio building at Canadian National Exhibition, ca. 1920. From the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 3048.

It was during the CNE in late August 1922 that CFCA finally initiated newscasts and weather bulletins as a regular, daily feature of the radio programming. Although the radio news coverage was largely complementary to material on its own newspaper page (since the Star was an afternoon paper and CFCA broadcast largely in the evenings), it could undercut the sales of its morning paper competition, like the Globe. CFCA’s ability to broadcast on Sundays and holidays, and the fact that radio waves carried far beyond the geographic limitations of the paper’s distribution, increased the reach of and audience for the Star‘s news content.

When a massive winter storm knocked out all other forms of communication in February 1924, CFCA cooperated with the Canadian Press to broadcast summaries of the CP wire service’s regular dispatches for pickup by newspapers around the province. Similarly, weekend CFCA news bulletins corrected distressing but false rumours in February 1925 that Prime Minister Mackenzie King had died when no newspaper would be printed until Monday morning.

Two children listening to a radio, ca. 1924. From the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 8054.

The hours of daily broadcasting continued to increase and the station’s number of staff expanded through the 1920s. CFCA recruited the musical director at Hart House, Reginald Stewart, to form a 50-piece studio orchestra—the country’s first—for a dance program entitled the “Hour of Good Music.” Updates from Santa Claus (interspersed with advertisements of the Timothy Eaton Company) were heard at Christmastime. Reverend Cameron proved to be dynamic and engaging, and broadcasting each Sunday for almost 10 years made him the most famous preacher in the country. Composer Maurice Ravel appeared on air during a visit to Toronto.

CFCA participated in several firsts during the 1920s, including experimenting with remote broadcasting via long-distance telephone with the Champlain tercentenary celebration in Orillia in 1925; rebroadcasting programming picked up by short-wave from London and another from Australia in early 1928; and carrying a speech by the Prince of Wales a few weeks later.

The station’s programming focused on public service, covering such events as political meetings and City Hall affairs, until CFCA reporters were barred from City Hall in 1930 by Mayor Bert Wemp, the former city editor of the Telegram.

(Right: Toronto Star [June 23, 1922].)

CFCA had relocated its studio and broadcast facilities to the top floor of the new Procter & Gamble building at Yonge and St. Clair in 1924. When the Star erected a new Chapman and Oxley–designed headquarters on King Street West, which opened in 1929, Hewitt was tasked with designing a brand-new studio on the 17th floor. It was never built. Therefore, the pioneer radio station never really evolved to keep pace with developing radio technology. By the end of the decade, CFCA still only broadcast at 100 watts of power, while CKGW, owned by the Gooderham & Worts Distillery, had power of 10,000 watts.

The conservative Telegram, which utilized CKGW’s facilities for its programming, criticized CFCA’s antiquated equipment and facilities; the Star, in turn, charged that its rival merely imported American programs—a harbinger, the Star said, of the future of privately owned radio in Canada.

In the early days of radio, the rudimentary transmitting and receiving equipment made it all but impossible to avoid one signal from interfering with another. Additionally, international agreements had not initially provided an adequate number of wavelengths for the Toronto market. So when competition arrived in Toronto—such as CFRB, CKCL, CKGW, and CKNC by the end of the 1920s—the government required that only one station be broadcasting at a time.

By virtue of seniority, CFCA negotiated the preferred evening time slot for itself. This arrangement persisted until 1928 when new international agreements awarded additional wavelengths to Toronto, and word leaked that CFCA was to be granted its own wavelength. This would enable it to greatly expand its broadcasting schedule. The Telegram alleged political favouritism from the Liberal Party, and compared the Star receiving a unique wavelength over CKGW to “a hurdy-gurdy ordering a street piano off the block.” The controversy, along with bickering in the House over the federal government’s revoking licences from a series of stations operated by the International Bible Students Association (linked with Jehovah’s Witnesses), prompted the government to begin investigating a new national radio policy. In his report in 1929, banking executive Sir John Aird, who’d been tasked with investigating options, recommended the cancellation of all private radio licences in favour of a complete government monopoly of the airwaves through the creation of a national radio network. Atkinson and the Star endorsed the proposals unequivocally.

Sherbourne Radio Set, 1925. From the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 4559.

The Telegram dissented strongly, claiming that Atkinson’s support for public ownership was disingenuous because CFCA had just applied for an increase in the station’s wattage, and that the Star was in league with the federal Liberals to sell its facilities for an exorbitant fee for use as the local base of the new nationalized radio system. Atkinson responded by withdrawing the application and promising that, if CFCA received any money from government, it would be donated to hospital charities. The war of words signified little in the end. When R.B. Bennett’s Conservative government passed the Broadcasting Act in 1932, the policy created a national network, but allowed private broadcasters to operate stations of no more than 100 watts.

Just over a year after the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission (precursor of the CBC) began operations, CFCA ceased operations on September 1, 1933. Atkinson claimed he had always intended the station he’d initiated as a promotional tool to have a limited life, and that it had no place competing with a publicly owned alternative. But the cost of upgrading equipment to industry standards was likely to push $100,000, which would hardly have seemed a worthy investment for a 100-watt station. The Star would, however, continue to supply sponsored content (particularly newscasts) to CRCT, the local CBC affiliate until 1946.

Sources consulted: Sandra Gabriele and Paul S. Moore, “Old Media, New Media, Intermedia: The Toronto Star and CFCA, 1922-1933,” in Ira Wagman and Peter Urquhart, eds., Cultural Industries.ca: Making Sense of Canadian Media in the Digital Age (Lorimer, 2012); Ross Harkness, J.E. Atkinson of the Star (University Press, 1963); Bill McNeil and Morris Wolfe, Signing On: The Birth of Radio in Canada (Doubleday Canada Limited, 1982); Gil Murray, Nothing On But the Radio: A Look Back at Radio in Canada and How it Changed the World (Dundurn, 2003); Frank W. Peers, The Politics of Canadian Broadcasting 1920-1951 (University of Toronto Press, 1969); Randall White, Too Good To Be True: Toronto in the 1920s (Dundurn, 1993); and coverage in the Toronto Star (March 29 and June 23, 1922)..

Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.