Canadian National Railways herald.jpg

CNR Radio or CN Radio[1] (officially the Canadian National Railways Radio Department)[2] was the first national radio network in North America.[3] It was developed, owned and operated by the Canadian National Railway between 1923 and 1932 to provide en route entertainment and information for its train passengers. As broadcasts could be received by anyone living in the coverage area of station transmitters, the network provided radio programming to Canadians from the Pacific coast (at Vancouver) to the Atlantic coast (at Halifax).

During its nine-year existence, CNR Radio provided music, sports, information and drama programming to Canadians. Programming was produced in English, French and occasionally in some First Nations languages, and distributed nationwide through the railway's own telegraph lines and through rented airtime on other private radio stations. However, political and competitive pressure forced CNR Radio to close, with many of its assets and personnel migrating to a new government-operated agency, the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission (CRBC), which ultimately led to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Origins[edit | edit source]

The network's origins were in the establishment by CNR president and chairman Sir Henry Thornton on June 1, 1923 of the CNR Radio Department[4] after the CNR began installing radio sets in their passenger cars and needed stations to provide programming that passengers could listen to along the CNR's various routes, particularly its coast-to-coast transcontinental line. The general public could also receive the broadcasts if they lived in the vicinity of a CNR radio station.[5]

On October 9, 1923, the network made international news when it carried a broadcast of former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George being interviewed by reporters travelling with him on a Montreal to Toronto train.[6] The first regularly scheduled coast-to-coast network program produced by CN Radio was broadcast December 27, 1928. By the end of 1929 there were three hours of national programming a week.[7]

The CNR used its already-established network of telegraph wires along the rail line to connect the stations.[5]

What is now Hockey Night In Canada originated on the network in November 1931 as the General Motors Hockey Broadcast[8][9] and was also known as Saturday Night Hockey featuring games of the Toronto Maple Leafs in Ontario and the Montreal Maroons and Montreal Canadiens in Quebec.[10]

Operations[edit | edit source]

By 1930, the network consisted of 27 stations, 87 amplifiers, eight studios as well as 27 radio engineers and many telegraph engineers and line repair staff.[5] Three of the stations, CNRA, CNRV in Vancouver and CNRO in Ottawa, were owned by the CNR and transmitted at a strength of 500 watts.[11] The CNRO station in Ottawa was located in the towers of the Chateau Laurier hotel. The rest of the network consisted of "phantom stations", or existing privately owned radio stations on which CNR leased airtime. A CNR call sign would be heard on the phantoms during times of the day when it was leased by the railway, after which the CNR station would "sign off" and the regular station would resume broadcast.[12] The radio network broadcasts could be received by train passengers through headsets or loud speakers aboard specially equipped train cars[3][6] as well as by anyone living within signal range of a station. CNR stations and affiliates were linked by the CNR's telegraph lines that ran alongside the rail track.[12] The network owned studios in several cities where it used "phantom stations" for transmission including Toronto where it had studios located in the King Edward Hotel, Halifax with studios in the CNR owned Hotel Nova Scotian and Montreal where it had studios in the King's Hall Building.[11]

Demise[edit | edit source]

In 1928, the Liberal government of William Lyon Mackenzie King commissioned a Royal Commission on Broadcasting (the Aird Commission) to study the future of radio in Canada. The Aird Commission issued its report in late 1929 calling for the creation of a public broadcasting system in Canada along the lines of the British Broadcasting Corporation and other national broadcasters around the world in order to prevent U.S. domination of Canadian airwaves and to promote national objectives. To this end, the report called for the creation of a Canadian Radio Broadcasting Company which would build high-powered radio stations across the country as part of a public radio network.[13]

Meanwhile, CNR's radio network was a target of its commercial rival, the privately owned Canadian Pacific Railway. CNR Radio was a commercial venture with the primary purpose of attracting riders to the CNR by offering them entertainment as well as, beginning in 1929,[14] providing direct revenue to its parent by selling advertising. The CPR complained intently that by allowing government-owned Canadian National to operate a radio network, particularly one that sold advertising, the government was allowing CNR to engage in unfair competition. In 1930, the CPR began construction of its own radio network — CPR Radio — but due to financial difficulties during the Great Depression it was closed in 1935.[5][15]

The 1930 federal election resulted in the defeat of the Mackenzie King government and the assumption of power by a Conservative government led by R.B. Bennett who, as a corporate lawyer who had had the Canadian Pacific Railway as one of his clients, proved sympathetic to its arguments and opposed any government competition with the CPR and was determined to strip the CNR of its radio network.[5] A group of Conservative Members of Parliament successfully pressured Thornton, the radio network's principal champion, to resign as president of CNR in 1932 - he was also stripped of his pension.[16]

In November 1931, as a result of intense pressure from the Railway Committee of the House of Commons of Canada, the CNR ended its on-train radio reception service.[14] The Canadian Radio League lobbied heavily for the implementation of the Aird Commission report creating a public broadcasting system under the aegis of a new government agency,[13] and in 1932 the Bennett government agreed to set up the CRBC.[17] In early 1933, the CNR sold its radio stations and studios to the CRBC for $50,000;[14] many of the CNR's radio staff went to the CRBC as well.[14] In turn, the CRBC's facilities and much of its staff were taken over by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation when it was created in 1936.[5]

CNR owned and operated stations[edit | edit source]

CNR leased "phantom stations"[edit | edit source]

Phantom stations also existed at various times in Saint John, Fredericton, London/Kitchener-Waterloo, Chatham, Brandon, Yorkton, Red Deer, two in Hamilton, a third in Toronto and one in Michigan.[7]


References[edit | edit source]

  1. CBC/Radio-Canada milestones (1901-1939) , CBC/Radio-Canada Corporate Website, accessed January 23, 2008
  2. Radio Drama, English Language, Canadian Encyclopedia, accessed January 23, 2008
  3. 3.0 3.1 CNR Company Fonds, Provincial Archives of Alberta, accessed January 22, 2008
  4. Broadcasting to promote Canadian National Railways, Canadian Communications Foundation
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 Buck, George H., "The First Wave: The Beginnings of Radio in Canadian Distance Education ",Journal of Distance Education, Spring 2006, Vol. 21, No 1., pages 75-78
  6. 6.0 6.1 Radio rides the rails, Canadian Communications Foundation
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 "Sir Henry's network spans Canada, Canadian Communications Foundation, accessed 31 May 2008
  8. Canadian National Railway, Canadian Encyclopedia, accessed January 22, 2008
  9. "Hockey Night in Canada" , Museum of Broadcast Communications, accessed January 22, 2008
  10. "Saturday Night Hockey / Hockey Night in Canada", Sports on Radio & Television, Canadian Communications Foundation, accessed on January 22, 2008
  11. 11.0 11.1 CNR continues to show the way, Canadian Communications Foundation, accessed January 22, 2008
  12. 12.00 12.01 12.02 12.03 12.04 12.05 12.06 12.07 12.08 12.09 12.10 12.11 12.12 12.13 Canadian Communications Foundation: Phantom Stations
  13. 13.0 13.1 Ingrassia, Joanne,"The Birth and Death of The Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission (1932-1936)", accessed January 22, 2008
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 14.3 14.4 14.5 14.6 Vipond, Mary, Listening in: The First Decade of Canadian Broadcasting, 1922-1932, McGill-Queen's Press- MQUP, 1992, pages 49-51
  15. King out, Bennett in, Canadian Communications Foundation, accessed January 22, 2008
  16. "The Tragedy of Sir Henry Thornton", Canadian Communications Foundation, accessed January 22, 2008
  17. CNR Radio Out - CRBC In, Canadian Communications Foundation, accessed January 22, 2008
  18. CKUA History from the Canadian Communications Foundation

External links[edit | edit source]

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