When CBC Radio took to the air

CBC Radio started broadcasting with an aim to give as many Canadians as possible something good to listen to.

Royal visits, war coverage and tips on tap dancing were all broadcast in the early days

A new era in Canadian broadcasting began when the CBC came into existence on Nov. 2, 1936.

CBC Chairman Leonard Brockington welcomed listeners in this broadcast recorded two days later. 

Speaking of the "ideas and ideals" discussed at the first meeting of the corporation's governors, Brockington laid out the two main tasks of the CBC: "to afford as many citizens of Canada as possible ... the opportunity to listen," and "to see that they can listen ... to the most acceptable programs." 

Here, from CBC Archives, is a glimpse of some of the programming from the early years of CBC Radio.

Royals on the radio

King George VI and Queen Elizabeth on the platform of the Royal Train that took them across Canada in May and June 1939. (Library and Archives Canada / PA-203283)

Fewer than three years after the CBC's birth, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth toured Canada by train for six weeks beginning May 17, 1939. 

The CBC was there, bringing listeners a daily account of their activities, with rebroadcasts every evening. 

For listeners at home on May 20, it was almost like being there after the King and Queen unveiled the National War Memorial in Ottawa.

A nearby CBC commentator surveyed the reaction and captured the sounds as the smiling royal couple unexpectedly plunged into the crowd of First World War veterans, shaking hands and chatting with the soldiers. 

After unveiling the National War Memorial in Ottawa during the 1939 Royal Tour, the King and Queen unexpectedly venture into the surrounding crowd of veterans.

With war, a need for news

September 1939 brought the start of the Second World War, and with that, the news programming of the CBC expanded considerably. 

This article in the CBC program schedule for the week of December 28, 1941, celebrates the first year of the National News Service, which began Jan. 1, 1941. (CBC Programme Schedule/CBC Archives)

An overseas program unit accompanied the first troops overseas in December 1939, and on Jan. 1, 1941, the CBC News Service was established. 

An article in the CBC Radio program schedule for January 1942 justified the network's decision to dedicate 20 per cent of broadcasting hours to news. It said "the daily chronicling of the news" witnessed "the most tremendous drama in the world's history." 

Bringing the story home

Matthew Halton, CBC senior war correspondent, describing artillery barrage being laid down in the vicinity of Ortona, Italy. (CBC Still Photo Collection)

Reporter Matthew Halton was one of the overseas correspondents who brought the news of the war to Canadians at home. 

His description of the Allied battle for Carpiquet, in July 1944, is characteristic of his style, with vivid descriptions of his surroundings as well as of the attack. 

"This is the morning we waited for," Halton told Canadian listeners back home. "A morning in France, a morning in which the fair fields in Normandy are torn and ripped and split apart." 

It's two minutes to five in Normandy and CBC Radio's Matthew Halton is counting down the seconds to the Allied attack on Carpiquet.

It is also an illustration of the many recording feats of the engineers who were part of the overseas unit. 

In a 1944 edition of the CBC staff magazine Radio, recording engineer Alex McDonald described how he made an audio document with Halton. 

Unit No. 4 somewhere in Italy. Shown in the photo, from left to right, are Matthew H. Halton, Capt. John Howard (public relations officer and conducting officer to the CBC in the field), Marcel Ouimet, engineer Alex McDonald (seated on fender), engineer Paul F. Johnson, Peter Stursberg. (CBC Still Photo Collection)

In the magazine, McDonald — shown in the photo above — recounts choosing a stone hen coop as an observation post, and the sound of chickens and ducks that squawked at their intrusion. He ran wires out to the battery of the jeep, his source of power. He recorded the barrage of Canadian guns, and that recording was quickly relayed by short-wave to Canada and played over CBC News Roundup

The 1941 annual report of the CBC detailed the establishment of the news service, the achievements of the overseas unit, as well as the host of "talks" and music programs broadcast by the CBC. 

Tap dancing, too

But CBC also paid attention to the area of "Variety and Light Entertainment," because "the lighter and more humorous side of entertainment has not been forgotten."

Fireside Fun is a perfect example of such programming. 

In the Friday night program, the announcer promised listeners "a wide variety of suggestions for things to do at home ... and to thus help you in the saving of gasoline, tires and money." 

In this brief excerpt, Toronto dance instructor Cecil D'Costa spelled out the importance of having "a parlour stunt that will keep the party humming" because "every member of the party likes to experiment with tap dancing." 

Other episodes in the series promised to teach soap carving and how to start a glee club.

Dance instructor Cecil D'Costa prepares to teach CBC listeners how to tap dance in 1941.

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