Canada’s Rich Radio History

Pictorial Radio History Book

A Pictorial History of Radio in Canada by Sandy Stewart

I found this book at a school library where I was supply teaching last month and it called to me. It’s an old book but the history in absolutely fascinating. I highly doubt that anything like this exists in a more modern work. That’s probably why it is still on the shelf. It was published in 1975.

Museum Radio?

Imagine having to create a radio show about objects in a museum. It doesn’t sound very enthralling, does it? Yet, “Forgotten Footsteps” did just that and was on the air every week. The program was based on artifacts in the Royal Ontario Museum and it captivated listeners for years.

“The success of this series was just another indication that audiences of the time wanted to be educated and uplifted.”

I think at its best, radio still does this. And I tip my hat to the Canadian radio pioneers who recognized this and crafted great programs.

Disaster News

On April 12, 1936 a mine shaft in Nova Scotia caved in and trapped three men 141 feet underground. Frank Willis, Arleigh Canning, and Cecil Landry covered the story and it captured the attention of the entire continent. The news reports were only a few minutes long but they were broadcast hourly until the rescue was complete, sixty-nine hours later.

“Frank Willis captured the sympathy and attention of the entire North American radio audience with his graphic descriptions of the rescue, and many listeners could not sleep for worrying about that trapped men. . . . The broadcasts were carried on all 58 Canadian radio stations and 650 radio stations in the United States.”

Turntables with Two Tone Arms

I had never heard of this contraption before. I also couldn’t find a picture of one online. Still, it is fascinating.

“Playback units have several turntables with two playback arms available to each table, and the turntables have variable speed controls ranging from very slow to very fast. These contraptions come in various shapes and sizes but they are always called ‘Cocktail Bars.’ Unlike the old phonographs, sound-effect pickup arms ave vertical styli so they can be played on a record whether it’s ‘coming’ or ‘going’. This allows a pickup arm between two tables to be used on either table. When a long continuous recorded effect is required, such as the hum of a motor car, a single disc is used but the pickup arms are alternated to provide a continuous sound.”

Vocal Sound Effects

It took entire rooms to create the sound effects that were heard on radio back in the day. Many of these effects were done with a variety of objects that needed to be physically manipulated. So, when some sound effects artists were able to create those sounds with just their voice, it was very economical and saved a lot of space and time.

“In New York there were two famous men who could do almost any sound orally. Brad Barker did ‘big sounds’ like places, trains, and large animals including the lion for the MGM trademark, and the rooster of Pathe’s news. Don Bain specialized in ‘small sounds’ like birds, and smaller animals and was particularly prized for his ability to create sounds or black widow spiders and other tiny horrors.”

The most famous sound man was Mel Blanc who became a legend as the voice of Bugs Bunny and other cartoon characters in the movies.”

All the Way Live

“Dramas before tape were like a theatre experience, with all the elements coming together at one place at one time. As can be imagined, they were hard on the nerves but great fun as well. In present-day productions the producer frequently employs actors to ‘track’ parts of the program and the producer takes the voice tracks and add music, other voices, and sound effect later in the editing session.”

Truly live radio isn’t done much anymore. Radio dramas are pretty much a thing of the past. But they live on in podcasts and old time radio stations online and via satellite.

My List of 2018 Reads – I still have a little bit of catching up to do before I move on to this year’s list