MHS Celebrates: Manitoba 150 in the Winnipeg Free Press: Extra! Extra! Hear All About It!
by Garry Moir
The race was on and young Lynn Salton was feeling the pressure.
The city’s two leading newspapers had decided to jump on the technology bandwagon and get into the business of radio. Both the Manitoba Free Press and the Winnipeg Evening Tribune believed radio could be used to boost readership and circulation. At the time neither paper viewed radio as a potential competitor.
The Tribune had decided to go east to develop its radio department by commissioning the Marconi Company of Montreal for technical and engineering expertise. The Free Press had stayed local, hiring Lynn Salton, who at the age of 25 was already one of the country’s leading lights in the field of wireless technology. In March 1922, Salton was facing one of his biggest challenges … to get Free Press radio on the air before the rival Tribune could launch its station. In the process, he made history.
Lynn Vincent Salton came to Winnipeg as a teenager, via Moose Jaw. His father, the Rev. George F. Salton, was a prominent preacher who, in 1913, had been named the new minister of Fort Rouge Methodist Church.
As a youngster, Salton was already tinkering with “wireless technology” and talking about a career in engineering. The Salton family’s move to Manitoba couldn’t have come at a better time for the lad, who quickly discovered Winnipeg was home to a small but thriving amateur radio community.
Salton’s interest in wireless was no passing teenage fad. With the onset of the First World War, however, amateur radio came to an abrupt halt as the Canadian government banned all “amateur” and “non-essential” stations for security reasons.
The war, as it turned out, was a career stepping stone for Salton. Before graduating from Wesley College he joined the Royal Canadian Navy as a wireless operator. The military committed considerable resources to wireless research and development. Lynn Salton had access to it all and gained invaluable experience in wireless communication. His service took him to Gibraltar, the West Indies and Naval Headquarters in London. Always the overachiever, he returned from the war to finish his schooling, receiving the University’s Gold Medal in the Arts.
A month after graduation, Salton was named Radio Licence Inspector for Western Canada. Within a year, Salton had teamed up with another amateur radio colleague named Ralph Foster to form a company known as Salton-Foster Radio Engineering—the only service of its kind in Western Canada. Meanwhile, the family home at 1164 Grosvenor Avenue had become a wireless research centre, with Salton continuously experimenting with new, more sophisticated devices. Manitoba’s long, cold winter nights were ideal for carrying radio signals hundreds, sometimes thousands of kilometres. A favourite pastime was staying up late into the night to see how many signals could be picked up from distant locations.
On 12 February 1922, Salton’s father preached another sermon, but this one had the potential for a far-flung audience. Son Lynn had constructed a transmitter at their Grosvenor Avenue home. Winnipeg’s first radio station was on the air. Newspaper accounts noted that the “wireless telephone” would make it possible “to hear in Winnipeg concerts of great artists in places as far off as Pittsburgh or San Francisco.”
The historic radio station went by the call letters CKCZ. On the air a couple of hours a day, two days a week, programming consisted mostly of recordings. Salton’s father continued to provide Sunday-night sermons. Two weeks after the station launched, Salton estimated about 1,000 listeners were tuning in.
CKCZ had been operating less than a month when the Manitoba Free Press informed readers that its own radio station would be on the air “in about 10 days.” Two 23-metre-tall towers were being constructed on the top of the downtown Free Press building. One article concluded the Free Press had been fortunate in obtaining the “co-operation” of Lynn V. Salton, “one of the pioneers in connection with the advancement of radio in the Dominion.”
The Free Press radio station had all the trappings of a hurry-up job. The Free Press was “desperate” to get on the air before the Tribune recalled amateur radio operator George Reynolds who worked with Salton.
“He (Salton) put in a rush order to Toronto for a small broadcasting set,” Reynolds remembered in a 1982 CBC interview. “This set was the only one available in Canada off the shelf, but it only had a power of 10 watts… you can imagine the Free Press station was a very feeble affair.”
Feeble or not, the newspaper declared the debut broadcast a great success. The first voice heard was that of Lynn Salton: “Hello, hello, hello … Free Press broadcast No. 1.” Salton’s father said a prayer. There were solos and the usual introductory speeches. By the paper’s own account, “citizens from every part of the city telephoned their appreciation, saying not a word or note was missed during the entire performance.”
The Winnipeg Tribune ignored the event altogether and later heaped scorn on the station (and, by extension, Salton’s work), referring to it as the Carlton Street “peanut whistle.” Less than three weeks later, the Tribune had a considerably more powerful and sophisticated radio operation up and running.
Regardless, the Free Press had won the race of being the first commercially licensed radio station on the air. Salton embarked on a public relations campaign to promote radio, staging concerts and demonstrations at local theatres. The Capitol and Allan Theatres both claimed to be the first in Canada to offer radio entertainment. Going to the theatre was the only way most people could experience radio, as very few owned receivers.
Salton’s passion for wireless could lead to flights of fantasy. Speaking to students at Winnipeg Normal School he waxed eloquent about the potential of the radiophone: “that of knitting continent closer to continent and nation closer to nation, of making distance negligible, of engendering in the minds and hearts of men such a feeling of intimacy, friendliness and brotherliness, to make warfare highly improbable.”
On another front, however, the young inventor’s intuition proved highly accurate. By June 1922, Free Press radio was breaking new ground. Salton had managed to hook up a receiver to his automobile which reportedly toured the city at high and low speeds. “For the first time in Canada an automobile equipped with a radiophone has been operated successfully,” the newspaper reported.
Not satisfied with just being able to listen to the car radio, Salton rigged up a transmitter to the vehicle. The first transmission from a moving vehicle turned out to be a much-publicized event. According to a letter written by Salton years later, the first voice heard in the remote broadcast was that of a Hollywood movie star named Louise Lovely, who was visiting the city.
“The broadcast consisted of a short two-way conversation from this portable station and the Free Press station.”
Likely because of Miss Lovely’s notoriety, newsreel film crews from Pathe and Fox were in Winnipeg and recorded the event “which was shown to a world-wide audience.”
Within a year, the Free Press and Tribune radio stations were amalgamated into a single entity known as CKY, operated by the government-owned Manitoba Telephone System. CKY was the first publicly-owned radio station in Canada and eventually became part of the CBC network. It remains on the air to this day as CBC Manitoba.
Lynn Salton was recruited by the T. Eaton Company in Winnipeg to set up its first radio department. He was promoted and transferred to Toronto, where he headed up radio and television sales for stores across the country. Salton died unexpectedly at age 59. Manitoba’s father of radio is buried at Winnipeg’s Elmwood Cemetery.
Page revised: 16 May 2020