Public Service Broadcasting and Winnipeg Listeners in the 1930s

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Radio broadcasting began in Canada in the early 1920s under the auspices of private enterprise. A mixture of department stores, newspapers, electrical retailers and entrepreneurs established and built up about eighty stations across the country by the end of the medium's first decade. From a very early date, these stations were also financed by advertisers who sponsored programs that publicized their wares. A similar process occurred in the United States, where by the end of the 1920s two networks, CBS and NBC, were linking stations across the country (and into Canada) by telephone lines to increase the size of the audience and thereby amortize the cost of high quality programs. As the industry grew on this basis, it became increasingly important for the advertisers to gather information about the effectiveness of their promotions. How many people had heard the ads? Which were the most popular programs? What were the ages, incomes and gender of the listeners? The first national audience/ consumer survey was conducted in the United States in 1928; by the end of the 1930s, such surveys had become standard tools of the radio and advertising industries. (1) The information produced about listener preferences was of much contemporary public interest as well, and, when used with caution, it has been useful to American historians of the media in their quest to understand the radio listeners of the past.

In Canada, unfortunately for broadcasting historians, systematic national listener surveys were not attempted until the early 1940s. (2) Nevertheless, there were three surveys undertaken in the early 1930s which, while local rather than national in focus and methodologically imperfect in various ways, are helpful to those trying to examine the history of Canadian radio from the point of view of the listeners. Two of these, studies of radio ownership and program preferences in London, Ontario, were conducted by undergraduate business students at the University of Western Ontario in 1932 and 1937 respectively. (3) The third, the focus of this article, was a more mature analysis, for it was carried out by a man who had been involved in Canadian broadcasting from its inception. The listener preference survey conducted by D. R. C. (Darby) Coats for CKY Winnipeg in the spring of 1936 is of particular interest because it occurred at a moment of transformation in Canadian broadcasting.

For a variety of reasons, including the limited resources of Canadian private stations, the lack of lucrative national advertising contracts, and the consequent inability to finance a national radio network that could rival the appeal of the American networks, the government of R. B. Bennett in 1932 created a public broadcasting body, the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission (CRBC), charged with creating programs, constructing a coast-to-coast network, and regulating the private stations that continued to exist alongside the new public broadcaster. Lacking the funds to set up more than a handful of its own stations, the CRBC relied on affiliation arrangements with previously established stations like CKY to carry its programs across the country. In its first years the Commission struggled to establish its legitimacy and authority in an environment hitherto dominated by private ownership, advertising sponsorship, and popular entertaining programs. By November 1936, its accumulated managerial and political problems were so great that the Liberal government of Mackenzie King disbanded it in favour of a better-structured public broadcaster, the CBC. The CKY survey thus was conducted at a moment when the public broadcasting experiment lay in the balance. A close analysis of the results can help us understand not only what listeners in southern Manitoba thought about CRBC and CKY programs but more generally what they expected from their radio sets. Moreover, such an analysis can tell us much about the mindset of Darby Coats, the manager of the station, and what he believed to be the mission of public service broadcasting. …