Canada. Government has always been unsure what to do with it, and at the moment we are still unsure how to handle it, as the current imbroglio over Netflix and other streaming services demonstrates. A discussion of broadcasting is never too late or too early. There are always difficult questions.
Len Kuffert, a University of Manitoba historian, has gone back to the beginnings of this conundrum in his new book, Canada Before Television: Radio, Taste, and the Struggle for Cultural Democracy (McGill-Queens University Press). The word “television” appears in the title, but this is a book about radio and its earliest impact.
When I think about Canada before television, I think about The Happy Gang, which ran for half an hour every weekday at lunchtime from 1937 to 1959, introducing a joyful bunch of singers and musicians and their regrettably unforgettable theme song (“Keep happy with the Happy Gang – keep happy, keep healthy, to heck with being wealthy”). Even in its dying days, crowds of fans created a national uproar when Maclean’s published an article, “The Unhappy Gang,” depicting the lot of them as a nest of vipers who mostly couldn’t stand each other.
But that’s not Kuffert’s story. In a good-hearted and sympathetic way, he charts the impact of radio when it was young.
What delighted people, and sometimes terrified them, was radio itself. It was going to be free, but how free and in what way? It was like the press, but it was also radically different. A newspaper could be read privately by someone alone in a corner, but radio might be heard by a whole family. Maybe it needed to be censored.
Would it be the same on Sunday as on other days? In Kuffert’s account we hear about the Eddie Cantor show, which was imported into Canada. The singer-comedian’s jokes were in questionable taste, according to some listeners. One said “It is hardly the thing to serve up to Canadians on a Sunday night.” This was the era when much of Canada tried to live by the Lord’s Day Act. Radio might corrupt even the Sabbath.
In the early days people expressed wonderment at the simple fact of radio. “Think of it,” wrote one journalist, “broadcasting permits a man living in Quebec City to speak to a man living in Vancouver as if he were visiting him in his very house.” It seemed miraculous.
Leonard Brockington, the first head of the CBC, fancied himself an orator; I once heard him described as “a road-company Churchill.” Offered the chance of addressing the citizens, or at least everyone who had a radio and cared to switch it on, Brockington rose to the occasion: “I would like to thank each one of you for granting me the hospitality of your house, into which, guided by a sense of duty, I enter with somewhat reluctant feet.” Prime Minister Mackenzie King thought radio a fulfilment of ancient principles, when Athenians thought it important that all the citizens could hear the living voices of their leaders.
In sorting out broadcasting law, the Liberal government made one remarkable blunder. It assigned the CBC to regulate private stations. Since the CBC was competing with them for both advertisers and listeners, this arrangement seriously irked the privates. One of their ads read: “The independent stations want an umpire, but one who isn’t in the game. If you think that’s fair, write your Member of Parliament and tell him so.”
The CBC had the right to censor private stations on matters of taste as well as obscenity. (A typical rule: The word “laxative” could be used only once in a commercial.) Year after year, private stations and their affiliated newspapers made the CBC and the government look like tyrants. It wasn’t until the early days of television that a separate public regulator was set up.
Curiously, the great figures in these early struggles tended to have first names that sounded like last names. If people weren’t talking about Gladstone Murray, they were discussing Merrill Denison. When Brooke Claxton was under discussion, someone might change the topic to Davidson Dunton. It was as if ambitious parents, 50 years or so earlier, had chosen to name their boys in a way that would be properly dignified were they ever to lead the CBC, the CRBC, the CRL or even the CAB.
In those days the culture of English-speaking Canada was known for its vast empty spaces. It had no professional theatre, no dramatic movies and a skimpy literature. Instead, we had Andrew Allan.