The making of a Canadian: The Golden Age of CBC radio and me

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The recent Sunday Morning Program's celebration of 75 years of CBC radio -- as hosted by Michael Enright -- was a lovely reminder of this octogenarian's romance with radio.

It started, oddly enough, with Marvel Comics. Every issue had a full page ad on the back cover from a mail-order store in Detroit which sold novelties such as joy buzzers and whoopee cushions. Near the bottom of the page was a little box with the copy: "Crystal Radio -- Really Works! -- 25 cents." I don't recall how the shipping and handling was accounted for. But I taped a U.S. quarter to my order and stuck a three-cent stamp on the envelope.

Eventually, a small package arrived ("Assembly instructions enclosed.") My dad had used a crystal radio when he was a boy and helped me find an earphone and attach wire for a long antenna. He showed me how to tune the thing with the wire "cat's whisker" rubbed over the crystal. We found CKLW Windsor and WJR Detroit (a "clear channel" station). Late at night in my dark room I lay in bed way past bedtime listening to classical music from WBZee Boston -- Boston! Imagine that!

In those pre-television, pre-Internet days, radio portended. All the main events came to us this way. I can remember a day in December 1937 being taken to join neighbours in a living room to listen to the abdication speech of Edward VII.

Without doubt, CBC changed the way Canadians thought about themselves, and CBC changed the way Canadians spoke (for the better, I think!). Like many Canadians, I still frame my days with CBC Radio, starting with the local morning show, and ending with a excerpts from some of the day's previous shows.

Enright spoke of The Golden Age of Radio which came in the postwar years. This was not just with the CBC, which was conceived as an antidote to the influence of commercial broadcasters in the USA.

I, for one, was not immune to that influence. I would race home from elementary school with friends to squat close to the radio so as not to miss a word of The Air Adventures of Jimmy Allen! (As the announcer urgently proclaimed.)

"This series included the boy wonder and pilot, Jimmie Allen, his best teenage buddy, Speed Robertson, and mechanic, Flash Lewis. As a team they would solve crimes, often at the hands of their enemies -- the corrupt Black Pete and the dishonourable Digger Dawson."

In Canada, the show was sponsored by British-American Oil which created the Jimmie Allen Flying Club requiring kids to apply for the club at any B-A gas station. Applicants received a set of wings, a membership emblem, a signed photo and a "personal letter" from Jimmie Allen. Wow!

During my visits with Grandma, eight o'clock Sunday night was absolutely committed to One Man's Family, "the longest-running serial drama in American radio broadcasting."

Most of us youngsters preferred the Comedians, led by Jack Benny and an elaborate cast of supporting players. A running gag had him as always the tightwad. Man with pistol: "Your money or your life!" Benny (long pause): "I'm thinking it over."

Also drama, including spooky shows: "Who knows what eeevil lurks in the hearts of man. (beat) The Shadow Knows."

Enright teased us with sound bites from CBC classics like the Wayne and Schuster Show and... wait for it..."KNOCK KNOCK -- Who's there? -- IT'S THE HAPPY GANG!!!"

For me, CBC Radio's Golden Age began in 1950 with one of the Wednesday night dramas produced and directed by Andrew Allan. I was a college student studying the poetry of Earle Birney when the announcer proclaimed that that night's drama would be Birney's adaptation of the medieval epic poem Beowulf. Beowulf? I recall skimming it in my massive Survey of English Literature. Whatever could Birney do with that?

Then I listened. I sat entranced at the edge of my bed, not daring to move an inch lest I break the spell. I remember I was still there when the program ended.

As scholar Jill Tomasson-Goodwin wrote: "Birney combine[d] two important features of radio -- its large audiences and its intimacy -- to 'bring home,' so to speak, the need for every Canadian to scrutinize his or her values, beliefs, and opinions." 

Perhaps that was what appealed to Andrew Allan. Mounting over 400 dramas, he challenged his audience in many ways, and in doing so introduced Canadians to writers and actors few of us had ever heard of.

CBC's leadership as patron of the arts extended to music.

In my mind I can still hear The Armdale Chorus from Halifax -- ladies who sang like angels! And over the years, as I recall, the Winnipeg Symphony was raised from near disaster to excellence -- thanks to CBC patronage. Canadians also got to hear fine string ensembles from Halifax and Vancouver.

Finally I must mention another of CBC radio's contributions to the culture: Across the country CBC introduced home discussion groups pitched at both rural and urban folks. My wife and I hosted several of these forums in our Vancouver home.

Today, those events from the 50s are echoed in CBC radio's Cross-Country Check-up.

Prof. Tomasson-Goodwin's observation about "the need for every Canadian to scrutinize his or her values, beliefs, and opinions" still seems to be an important part of CBC Radio's mission. I, for one, appreciate that.

Dave Bennett is a writer and filmmaker. Now retired, he lives in Belleville, Ontario.

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