Manitoba History: Usually Live, Sometimes Local, Not Always First: Radio Journalism in Manitoba, 1922-1950

by Garry Moir
Winnipeg, Manitoba

Number 70, Fall 2012

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Manitoba’s radio history contains many national “firsts,” from broadcasting Canada’s first radio coverage of a major news event to airing the first aboriginal language broadcast.

“Broadcasting performs its most important function in transmitting the spoken word … those who consider broadcasting should function as nothing better than a form of variety entertainment show a lamentable lack of vision.”

Darby Coats
First Announcer and General Manager, CKY Winnipeg

On the evening of 18 July 1922, hundreds of Winnipeggers flocked to the movie theatre. Chaplin was not scheduled to be on the silver screen; nor was Buster Keaton or Mary Pickford. No, on that particular night the patrons were there to hear the latest provincial election results via a mysterious new technology known as radio.

Only a few months earlier the Manitoba Free Press and Winnipeg Tribune had established their own radio stations, primarily to promote the newspaper business. Since relatively few Winnipeggers had their own receiving sets, the Lyceum and College theatres set up equipment allowing the public to listen to the returns as they wafted magically over the airwaves. The election turned out to be historic as the United Farmers swept to power, catapulting John Bracken to the Premier’s chair—a position he would hold for more than twenty-one years. It was also a monumental night for broadcasting in that it was the first time in the nation’s history that radio had provided full coverage of a major news event.

Premier John Bracken, making a radio address, 1925.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Foote Collection 118, N1718.

According to newspaper accounts, those first election broadcasts were a success. Free Press radio offered bulletins throughout the evening to supplement four extra editions of the newspaper. The Tribune reported its more powerful station “maintained continuous transmission service from 5:20 until 11 o’clock. During [intervals between] returns and announcements interest was kept up by musical selections on the latest gramophone records.” [1] The length of the broadcast itself was no small feat. Up until that time, the longest either station had stayed on the air was about two hours.

One politician, no doubt recognizing the public relations potential, managed to get himself on the air. Fred J. Dixon, a successful Independent Labour candidate showed up “and gave a brief address to electors over the Tribune radiophone.” [2]

Radio was by no means the prime source of election information that night. The newspapers reigned supreme as thousands flocked to the Free Press and Tribune buildings to hear results blared out through a megaphone. Still, the new medium of radio had made its mark. Calls from people who had heard the broadcasts came from as far away as Manitou, Gladstone and Grandview. A Winnipeg judge called the Tribune to report “he had heard everything with perfect distinction and he considered the service all that could be desired.” [3]

No longer were newspapers the sole source of information. Radio news had arrived. Over the next three decades, Manitoba would break much new ground in the development of broadcast journalism.

The Free Press and Tribune quickly realized that running their own radio stations was a costly and labour-intensive undertaking. By March of 1923, a deal was reached with the Manitoba government. The newspapers would get out of the broadcasting business. The Manitoba Telephone System would be in charge of radio, setting up a new station known as CKY. It would be Canada’s first publicly owned broadcasting station. The federal government, still trying to work out its own broadcasting policy, gave the Telephone System a virtual monopoly over radio in the province, plus a portion of the licence fees people who owned a radio receiver had to pay. No new stations could be set up without MTS approval.

Radio in the 1920s was very much in its formative stages. Stations were on the air only a few hours a day. Programming was a mish-mash of educational talks, farm markets, church services and the occasional drama. Music could range from opera to down-home country, almost all of which was performed live. While CKY did offer some newscasts, there was no formal newsroom or provision for news gathering. The news that listeners heard on CKY, and a CNR “phantom” radio station which shared the frequency, was mostly the same wire copy used by newspapers. [4] It was not long, however, before local broadcasters faced fundamental journalistic decisions about balance and fairness.

CKY was barely on the air when it found itself in the middle of a bitter controversy involving the Winnipeg Grain Exchange and the newly formed, farmer-owned Wheat Pools. Wheat prices had collapsed at the conclusion of the First World War and the Pools represented a significant challenge to the way the Exchange did business. A publication called the Grain Trade News, with close ties to the Exchange, purchased time on CKY to broadcast farm markets and editorials trumpeting the virtues of the Exchange. Not to be outdone, the Pools purchased the time slot immediately following, to offer their version of farm news and to condemn all things connected with the Grain Exchange. As the rhetoric heated up, Premier Bracken jumped into the fray, suggesting that such programming on the government-run station be cancelled. The market reports continued, but the editorials ceased. [5]

Politicians were quick to recognize radio as a political asset, and for radio stations, making airtime available to Members of Parliament, MLAs and city councillors was easy, even if it did not always make for the most entertaining programming. For publicly owned CKY there was the obvious risk of the station’s being perceived as an arm of the governing party. One of the early policy decisions set out by station manager Darby Coats dealt with that very issue. In an unpublished manuscript cited by historian Mary Vipond, Coats explained his policy:

CKY’s microphone must be available to all political parties on the basis of equal time and equal payment … on the day prior to an election free and equal time would be allowed for each of the local candidates to state his or her platform in a period to be arranged. The order of introduction at the microphone would be that in which the candidates arrived at the studio. [6]

This was almost certainly the first attempt by a broadcaster to spell out some basic journalistic policy.

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, radio very much deferred to newspapers when it came to covering news events and digging out stories. By 1928, the Manitoba government had established a second station in Brandon with the call letters CKX. Much of the programming originated in Winnipeg. By this point CKY was offering two newscasts a day, with news and mining reports at 12:15 and 4:40 in the afternoon. Each ran approximately 15 minutes. In 1936, three newscasts were heard on CKY, with the most popular being provided by the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission, the national radio network formed in 1932 and forerunner of the CBC.

Publicly run radio now also had a private competitor. Winnipeg businessman James Armstrong Richardson, dissatisfied with the way radio served rural Manitoba, had found a way around the Manitoba Telephone System monopoly. He set up a studio in Winnipeg’s Royal Alexandra Hotel and a transmitter in Fleming, Saskatchewan, only three miles from the Manitoba border. Programs were sent out by telephone to Saskatchewan and transmitted back into Manitoba. The new station was known as CJRW and would later become CJRC, and then CKRC.

The news heard on all stations tended to be wire copy or stories gleaned from the newspapers and read by a staff announcer. None of the stations had anything resembling a formal newsroom with newscasters and reporters. CKY did offer editorial opinion in the form of commentaries by long-time newspaperman C. E. L’Ami.

From time to time listeners would voice their opinions about what they heard on the air. “While we all make mistakes,” wrote one listener to CKY, “that does not excuse some of the blunders we hear, many of which must be attributable to simple ignorance, or to be less harsh, inexperience. Announcers should be versatile, familiar with the best of good literature, and should have adequate cultural background.” [7] Another listener complained about a lack of local content. “All of the circle this letter speaks for agree that international news gets far too much prominence. We think the international should be cut short and we should hear more of the everyday occurrences in our own province.” [8]

For the most part, however, Manitobans seemed quite satisfied with the service radio was providing. A survey done by CKY in the mid-1930s cited news as the most popular program. In reality, radio was offering a great deal of information, although not always formalized into any kind of specific content packages. The latest farm market reports and mining news were regular features. News about the latest developments in agriculture was coming via “talks” by professors at the Agricultural College.

In March 1938, St. Boniface City Council passed a resolution thanking CKY for its role in “gaining support and sympathy” for the victims of an apartment fire on Provencher Avenue. [9] On at least one occasion, radio was involved in not only reporting a crime but helping solve it. CKX radio, in co-operation with the RCMP, broadcast a description of two horses alleged to have been stolen. According to an account in the Manitoba Calling magazine, “twenty minutes after the announcement went on the air the Mounted Police made an arrest fifty miles from Brandon, this result being directly attributable to the Brandon station’s contact with a wide audience.” [10]

Developments to the north saw radio taking more new strides in the dissemination of news and information. In 1937, a group of businessmen was able to start a small station in Flin Flon with the call letters CFAR. Soon after that, an Anglican minister came up with the idea of putting together a short program in the Cree language. The Reverend Ray Horsefield had taught himself to read and write Cree and had even obtained a special typewriter with Cree syllabic keys. The fifteen-minute segment offered fishing and trapping news and other information relevant to life in the north. The program known at the time as “TeePee Tidings” was believed to be the first aboriginal language broadcast in Canada. [11]

A pivotal year for the development of local radio news came in 1939 because of two events. The first was the Royal Visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. The second was the outbreak of war.

CBC threw huge resources into coverage of the Royal Visit. Only three years earlier, CRBC’s J. Frank Willis demonstrated just how dramatic live radio coverage could be as he reported on the collapse of a mine in Moose River, Nova Scotia in which one man was killed and two were rescued. At that time Willis was the only employee the CRBC had east of Montreal.

For the Royal Tour, close to 100 CBC staffers were assigned to the broadcast team. [12] The King and Queen arrived in Winnipeg in pouring rain. CKY and CJRC, by now both CBC affiliates, devoted their entire day to Royal coverage. There were live reports from the Canadian Pacific Station and the Legislature, but the highlight of the Victoria Day visit was a speech to be made by the King to the entire Commonwealth. For weeks in advance, CBC and CKY engineers had been setting up a makeshift studio at Government House next to the Legislature. All broadcast telephone lines, wiring and other equipment were duplicated in an effort to prevent technical failures. The tiny studio had only a single desk and a chair. On the desk were two gold-plated microphones. Only one would actually be used but the other was ready to go in the event the first one did not work.

The speech was timed to begin at exactly one o’clock so that it could be heard at 8 pm in England. The King, who had long suffered from a severe stutter, spoke to a potential audience of 500 million people and by all accounts, the event went off without a hitch. It was an enormous technical feat for radio coverage. Much of what was learned during the Royal visit would be invaluable when it came to covering the war. [13]

The King’s Speech. On 23 May 1939, King George VI gave a speech to his subjects throughout the Commonwealth using radio broadcast equipment at Government House in Winnipeg.
Source: Government House Collection

The Second World War marked the first time radio would seriously challenge the supremacy of newspapers. Although severely censored, radio news became a must-listen. With Canadian troops on the front lines, there was a need and demand for news as never before.

In 1940, the CBC made the decision to establish its own radio news service with four regional bureaus, including Winnipeg. A young newspaper reporter named William Metcalfe was lured from the Free Press to head up the Prairie division. He was given a total of one week’s training in writing for radio. In his autobiography, Metcalfe recalled New Year’s Eve, 1940. Not one to pass up a party, he celebrated throughout the night. At about 4 AM he left a downtown restaurant and trudged through the drifting snow on Portage Avenue to the CBC studios in the Telephone Building on Main Street. Not having been to bed yet, he sat down at his typewriter and pounded out the first prairie regional newscast aired by the CBC news service. [14]

Radio newscasts would run 15 minutes, three or four times a day. The main source was British United Press Wire copy, all of which was rewritten. Bert Dentry, one of the first CBC news staffers, estimated he and two other writers would produce up to 24-thousand words per newscast. [15] Once written, the news was handed off to a deep-voiced announcer who would read the copy over the air in the proper tone. The war presented endless challenges when it came to pronunciation, as on-air staff were faced with foreign names and places many had never heard of. The CBC, in its wisdom, offered the following advice:

Consult the best available authorities and pronounce foreign names with such an approximation to correct pronunciation that will leave the announcer free from the charge either of conscious superiority or careless ignorance. [16]

Well-intentioned sentiment, but of limited value when announcers were faced with names like Ypres or Pieter Sjords Gerbrandy.

Radio stations CKY, CKRC and CKX in Brandon were by now firmly ensconced as CBC affiliates and picked up many CBC and BBC newscasts. These stations were also, however, moving to establish a greater news presence. In the late 1930s, CKRC had hired a veteran newspaper reporter named Ev Dutton who would become known as the dean of western radio journalism. At CKY, a broadcaster named Dudley Patterson was beginning to hone his skills as a newscaster. He would eventually be one of the best known news voices in the city.

Several locals made names for themselves as war correspondents reporting directly from the front lines. A truculent young lad named Stewart Macpherson could not get a job interview at any Winnipeg radio station. He took a cattle boat overseas and got a job as a hockey broadcaster and war correspondent for the BBC. In 1942, he was voted “male voice of the year” by the British public, edging out another well known war figure named Winston Churchill. CBC Winnipeg’s John Kanawain was another correspondent who reported on numerous battles. The following dispatch from Kanawain during a mission over the North Atlantic speaks volumes as to how war correspondents perceived their duty:

We had been instructed to wipe out enemy submarines and destroy them … The submarine hunt was already on. The Sutherland would dive on it, the front gunner would wipe out the deck guns crew, and depth charges would be shot out and down to it. … I felt a strong and justifiable thrill of joy, for I was in a Canadian manned aircraft guarding these precious sea lanes without whose control Britain could not survive. [17]

Wartime technology would bring changes to the way news was presented. Magnetic wire recorders allowed for the recording of sound directly from the fighting. Bombs exploding, sometimes heard in correspondents’ reports, were the real thing—not sound effects. With sound, radio could bring an immediacy and authenticity to news reporting never experienced before. The CBC’s London bureau outfitted a van with recording equipment that would follow the troops. By the end of the war, CKY had its own mobile device, modelled on the CBC unit, which travelled around Manitoba.

Radio and newspapers co-existed in an uneasy relationship. For the most part, broadcasters were not highly regarded by their print colleagues. Indeed, the newspapers could make some valid arguments for their frustration. Radio, after all, was a competitor, but at the same time, depended heavily on print journalists to produce much of the news heard on the air. A front-page newspaper story could be rewritten and broadcast over the airwaves often before the paper was ever delivered to the front step of a subscriber. This was a bone of contention that existed for years.

For a short time, Canadian Press established a policy that no wire service copy would be available if radio news was going to be sponsored by advertisers. Radio stations were quick to point out there was no shortage of advertising in a newspaper. The Winnipeg Press Club refused to allow broadcasters as members until the mid-1950s, in a battle that pitted two brothers and prominent media personalities against each other: broadcaster Jack Wells was for it, Tribune journalist Eric Wells was against it. [18]

The economic boom that followed the end of the war brought new radio stations and more innovations in news coverage. In 1946, a young entrepreneur from Alberta arrived in Winnipeg with visions of starting his own radio station. While John Oliver Blick had little money, he was able to convince a group of local business leaders to invest in his dream. On 11 March 1946, CJOB went on the air.

A 1946 ad by CJOB Radio in the Press Club’s Beer & Skits Program described its broadcast facilities in the Lindsay Building in downtown Winnipeg.
Source: Winnipeg Press Club

Blick and his staff composed exclusively of war veterans, turned radio news on its head. CJOB was the first radio station in Manitoba to stay on the air twenty-four hours a day, providing newscasts every hour on the hour. This was a first in Canada and eventually became standard practice in the presentation of radio news. “Working for Winnipeg” was the station’s motto, which translated into an emphasis on local news coverage. Whether it was a fire, a traffic accident or even a bank robbery, CJOB’s highly visible news cruiser was on the scene, often providing live reports.

One of the newsroom’s biggest challenges came only six months after the station went on the air. Civic Election Day was 22 October 1946 in Winnipeg, and CJOB management decided the station would provide results directly from City Hall where the votes were being counted. It would be the first time a radio station would not depend on a wire service or newspaper to provide election numbers. Newspaper advertisements announced a “Special Broadcast Tonight” and “Men and Microphones Move to the Tabulation Room in City Hall for Flash Election Results.” [19]

It was no small undertaking for engineer Reg Drurie and the CJOB news staff. Telephone lines had to be arranged, while news director Alan Bready, announcer George Kent and other news staff had to come up with a plan to keep the broadcast going until the results were definitive. As the results were posted, Kent read them live over the air. While the broadcast no doubt contained the usual glitches that are part of live election coverage, the concept worked. Within two years, CJOB had established itself as the “go to” station for breaking news and in so doing carved a base that would ensure its lasting success. In time, CJOB would lay claim to the largest audience share of any radio station in North America. [20]

While CJOB was working to establish itself as Winnipeg’s news leader, radio history was being made east of the Red River in St. Boniface. After years of effort, francophones finally received permission to start their own radio station. CKSB went on the air in May 1946, and for the first time in Western Canada, news and programming were provided in the French language. The newsroom focused on issues affecting the local francophone community and served as a training ground for young francophone journalists, many of whom would go on to very successful careers. Among those who worked in the CKSB news room were Rene Chartier, who would become a senior adviser to Premier Ed Schreyer, newscaster Leo Remillard, who rose to become director of CBC radio for the Prairie provinces, and Maurice Arpin who emerged as one of Canada’s most prominent lawyers and a close confidante of Premier Duff Roblin. [21]

The final two years of the decade witnessed still more changes in the Manitoba radio landscape. After years of jurisdictional infighting, Ottawa announced a policy that would bar provincial governments from owning commercial radio stations. As a result, Manitoba was required to sell the two radio stations it owned. CKY was purchased by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and became CBW. CKX in Brandon went to a private group headed by local businessman John Craig. In less than two years, a new CKY was back on the air, this time a private operation set up by broadcast mogul Lloyd Moffat. As the calendar was about to turn on a new decade, there were six radio stations in the province. Each had its own news director and small staff dedicated to providing news and information on a regular schedule. Yet, on New Year’s Eve 1949, Manitoba’s radio journalists had no idea what they were about to face or how vital their reporting would become.

The 1950 Manitoba flood was local radio’s finest hour. A heavy rain on 5 May pushed the swollen Red River to the limit. Eight dikes protecting the city of Winnipeg gave way to the pressure of the waves. Already, most of the Red River valley south of the city had been evacuated. Now Winnipeg was headed for a full-scale disaster. The province was about to launch the biggest mass evacuation in Canadian history. Although radio stations were no more prepared for the magnitude of the flood than anyone else, they adapted quickly and became the vital communications link in the battle against the raging Red.

CBC reporter Maurice Burchell covered the 1950 flood in downtown Winnipeg from a rowboat.
Source: Winnipeg Press Club

From the moment the dikes broke until the crisis had passed, every radio station in Winnipeg went on the air 24 hours a day. Brigadier R. E. A. Morton urged Manitobans to keep their radios on constantly as the military took over the flood battle. More than a few radio employees were facing threats to their own property, while CJOB and CKRC saw their transmitters inundated by the flood waters. Simply staying on the air became a struggle of gargantuan proportions. Local newspapers even gave radio its due. The Free Press carried a page-three story describing the service radio was providing which included:

Urgent calls for volunteers, appeals for food, requests for cars, and when the situation grew more critical—thousands of personal calls. … Offers of accommodation from relatives all across Canada, long lists of telegrams piling up for untraceable Manitobans, pleas for dike workers to return home to evacuate their own families—and for teenagers whose parents have not seen them in days. [22]

When the worst was over, radio’s efforts did not end as all stations played an integral part in raising money for victims of the flood. It is safe to conclude that radio came out of the flood with a trust and prestige it had never held before. The work done by Manitoba radio in the 1950s became a model for the way other emergencies were covered—events such as the blizzards of 1966 and 1986, and the “flood of the century” in 1997.

In only a quarter of a century, radio had come from being a novelty to a daily source of information for a large portion of the Manitoba population. Over time, a Winnipeg diaspora would impact broadcasting in both Canada and the United States. Brian Hodgkinson, who joined CKY in the 1930s, would become one of the top news voices in Cleveland. Stewart MacPherson emerged as a senior journalist at WCCO, a CBS affiliate in Minneapolis. During the Second World War, CKY hired a young broadcaster named Earl Cameron. Canadians would come to know him as anchor of CBC national television news. Bill Metcalfe left radio to become managing editor of the Winnipeg Citizen, Winnipeg Free Press and the Ottawa Journal.

Throughout the 1950s, 1960s and into the 1970s, virtually every radio station had a full-service newsroom. While small by newspaper standards, stations during this era made considerable effort to gather their own news. As the industry evolved, stations narrowed their focus to attract a specific target audience. News, talk and information programming became a format unto itself. The theatre patrons of 1922 would have been proud.

Radio was the only link to the world for some residents of Winnipeg during the flood of 1950. CJOB founder Jack Blick was, at one point during the flood, the only broadcaster on the air.
Source: Winnipeg Press Club


1. “Tribune Radio Broadcasts Election Results,” Winnipeg Evening Tribune, 19 July 1922, page 1; “Radio Broadcasts—News Bulletins and Four Extras Supply Details,” Manitoba Free Press (hereafter, MFP, 19 July 1922, page 1.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Herb Roberts: CNRW and CKY Scrapbook. (Privately held)

5. Austin Weir, The Struggle for National Broadcasting in Canada, McClelland and Stewart, 1965, pages 87–88.

6. Mary Vipond, “CKY Winnipeg in the 1920s; Canada’s Only Experiment in Monopoly Public Broadcasting”, Manitoba History, Number 12, Autumn 1986.

7. “The Listener Writes”, Manitoba Calling, September 1938, page 2.

8. Ibid.

9. “Appreciation,” Manitoba Calling, March 1938, page 4.

10. “Radio Finds Lost Horses,” Manitoba Calling, July 1938, page 3.

11. Valerie Hedman, Loretta Yauck, Joyce Henderson, Flin Flon, (Flin Flon Historical Society), 1974, 229 pages.

12. Sandy Stewart, A Pictorial History of Radio in Canada, Gage Publishing, 1975, pages 47–51.

13. “King George Talks To All The World From Winnipeg”, Winnipeg Tribune, 23 May 1939, page 47.

14. William H. Metcalfe, The View From Thirty, (self-published), Winnipeg, 1984, page 88.

15. Agatha Moir, CBC Radio in Manitoba: The Sounds of Our Times, CBC Radio Winnipeg, 1988, page 12.

16. CBC Annual Report 1941.

17. A. E. Powley, Broadcast From the Front, Hakkart, Toronto, 1975, pages 76–77.

18. Interview with John Cochrane, former General Manager, CJOB.

19. Winnipeg Free Press, advertisement, 22 October 1946.

20. R. H. Maclennan, original member of CJOB, 1946. Personal papers (privately held).

21. Bernard Boquel, Au Pays de CKSB: 50 ans de radio française au Manitoba, Les Éditions du Blé, 1996.

22. “Radio Stations On Air Eight Days Continuously,” Winnipeg Free Press, 13 May 1950, page 3.

Page revised: 15 January 2017