|Availability||National (along CNR rail line), through stations owned or leased by the network|
|Owner||Canadian National Railway|
|Sir Henry Thornton (CNR President),
W.D. Robb (Radio Dept. Head),
W.H. Swift, Jr. (Dept. director)
|Dissolved||1933, assets sold to Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission|
CNR Radio or CN Radio (officially the Canadian National Railways Radio Department) was the first national radio network in North America. It was developed, owned and operated by the Canadian National Railway between 1923 and 1932 to provide en route entertainment and information for its train passengers. As broadcasts could be received by anyone living in the coverage area of station transmitters, the network provided radio programming to Canadians from the Pacific coast (at Vancouver) to the Atlantic coast (at Halifax).
During its nine-year existence, CNR Radio provided music, sports, information and drama programming to Canadians. Programming was produced in English, French and occasionally in some First Nations languages, and distributed nationwide through the railway's own telegraph lines and through rented airtime on other private radio stations. However, political and competitive pressure forced CNR Radio to close, with many of its assets and personnel migrating to a new government-operated agency, the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission (CRBC), which ultimately led to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
The network's origins were in the establishment by CNR president and chairman Sir Henry Thornton on June 1, 1923 of the CNR Radio Department after the CNR began installing radio sets in their passenger cars and needed stations to provide programming that passengers could listen to along the CNR's various routes, particularly its coast-to-coast transcontinental line. The general public could also receive the broadcasts if they lived in the vicinity of a CNR radio station.
On October 9, 1923, the network made international news when it carried a broadcast of former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George being interviewed by reporters travelling with him on a Montreal to Toronto train. The first regularly scheduled coast-to-coast network program produced by CN Radio was broadcast December 27, 1928. By the end of 1929 there were three hours of national programming a week.
In comments to the Canadian House of Commons, the radio service's aims were:
|“||... to provide a means of communication between the executive officers of the railway and the public - to advertise Canada and the Canadian National Railways - to furnish entertainment to passengers on long-distance trains and guests at the company's hotels - and generally to make the service of the railway more attractive to the public. As an advertising medium, radio telephony is unsurpassed, and the administration believes that in the establishment of a radio department, it has taken a unique and constructive step in railway operations.||”|
|— Minister of Railways and Canals, |
In 1929, the CNR's brief to the Royal Commission on Radio Broadcasting stated that the radio service had five aims.
- to advertise the railway
- to publicize Canada's attractions to tourists
- to entertain passengers
- to "create a proper spirit of harmony among [CNR employees] and a broader appreciation of Management"
- to assist colonization of Canada by providing radio service to remote settlers.
CNR president Thornton saw CNR Radio as a device to diffuse "ideas and ideals nationally by radio".
While most programming was produced locally, increasingly there was a trend towards centralization and producing content with a national scope. Programming consisted largely of live music, drama, educational broadcasts, children's programming and simulcasts of American programming. Canada's first regular radio drama was CNRV Players produced at CNR Vancouver station CNRV by the CNR Drama Department from 1927 to 1932.
Romance of Canada was a series of radio plays written by Merrill Denison and produced at CNR's Montreal studios. Renowned BBC radio playwright Tyrone Guthrie was director of the first 14 episodes. Broadcast over two seasons in 1931 and 1932, Romance of Canada recalled epic moments in Canadian history. Thornton hoped Romance of Canada would "kindle in Canadians generally a deeper interest in the romantic early history of their country".
What is now Hockey Night In Canada originated on the network in 1931 as the General Motors Hockey Broadcast and was also known as Saturday Night Hockey featuring games of the Toronto Maple Leafs in Ontario and the Montreal Maroons and Montreal Canadiens in Quebec.
Music programing included Old-Time Fiddlers contests which were broadcast to the full network from Moncton. CNRT in Toronto broadcast performances by the Hart House String Quartet, and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra for a series of 25 broadcasts. CNRV Vancouver produced several shows celebrating Beethoven's centenary. CNRM Montreal staged full productions of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas with full orchestras. The network also had its own radio orchestra conducted by Henri Miro in 1930 and 1931.
Other programming included broadcasts in French beginning in 1924 with the opening of CNRM in Montreal. Some programs were also produced and broadcast in some Native Canadian languages from 1927 over CNRO Ottawa and CNRW Winnipeg. CNR Radio also conducted Canada's first simultaneous nationwide broadcast on 1 July 1927 from Ottawa to mark the 60th anniversary since the country's confederation. Regular network distribution of CNR programming to all its stations and affiliates began in 1928.
By 1930, the network consisted of 27 stations, 87 amplifiers, eight studios as well as 27 radio engineers and many telegraph engineers and line repair staff. Three of the stations, CNRA, CNRV in Vancouver and CNRO in Ottawa, were owned by the CNR and transmitted at a strength of 500 watts. The CNRO station in Ottawa was located in the towers of the Chateau Laurier hotel. The rest of the network consisted of "phantom stations", or existing privately owned radio stations on which CNR leased airtime. A CNR call sign would be heard on the phantoms during times of the day when it was leased by the railway, after which the CNR station would "sign off" and the regular station would resume broadcast. The radio network broadcasts could be received by train passengers through headsets or loud speakers aboard specially equipped train cars as well as by anyone living within signal range of a station. CNR stations and affiliates were linked by the CNR's telegraph lines that ran alongside the rail track. The network owned studios in several cities where it used "phantom stations" for transmission including Toronto where it had studios located in the King Edward Hotel, Halifax with studios in the CNR owned Hotel Nova Scotian and Montreal where it had studios in the King's Hall Building.
In 1928, the Liberal government of William Lyon Mackenzie King commissioned a Royal Commission on Broadcasting (the Aird Commission) to study the future of radio in Canada. The Aird Commission issued its report in late 1929 calling for the creation of a public broadcasting system in Canada along the lines of the British Broadcasting Corporation and other national broadcasters around the world in order to prevent U.S. domination of Canadian airwaves and to promote national objectives. To this end, the report called for the creation of a Canadian Radio Broadcasting Company which would build high-powered radio stations across the country as part of a public radio network.
Meanwhile, CNR's radio network was a target of its commercial rival, the privately owned Canadian Pacific Railway. CNR Radio was a commercial venture with the primary purpose of attracting riders to the CNR by offering them entertainment as well as, beginning in 1929, providing direct revenue to its parent by selling advertising. The CPR complained intently that by allowing government-owned Canadian National to operate a radio network, particularly one that sold advertising, the government was allowing CNR to engage in unfair competition. In 1930, the CPR began construction of its own radio network — CPR Radio — but due to financial difficulties during the Great Depression it was closed in 1935.
The 1930 federal election resulted in the defeat of the Mackenzie King government and the assumption of power by a Conservative government led by R.B. Bennett who, as a corporate lawyer who had had the Canadian Pacific Railway as one of his clients, proved sympathetic to its arguments and opposed any government competition with the CPR and was determined to strip the CNR of its radio network. A group of Conservative Members of Parliament successfully pressured Thornton, the radio network's principal champion, to resign as president of CNR in 1932 - he was also stripped of his pension.
In November 1931, as a result of intense pressure from the Railway Committee of the Canadian House of Commons, the CNR ended its on-train radio reception service. The Canadian Radio League lobbied heavily for the implementation of the Aird Commission report creating a public broadcasting system under the aegis of a new government agency, and in 1932 the Bennett government agreed to set up the CRBC. In early 1933, the CNR sold its radio stations and studios to the CRBC for $50,000; many of the CNR's radio staff went to the CRBC as well. In turn, the CRBC's facilities and much of its staff were taken over by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation when it was created in 1936.
CNR owned and operated stations
CNR leased "phantom stations"
- CNRC Calgary leasing CFAC and CFCN
- CNRE Edmonton leasing CJCA; CKUA was the network's affiliate beginning in 1930-1931
- CNRW Winnipeg leasing CKY
- CNRT Toronto leasing CFCA
- CNRX Toronto leasing CFRB and CKGW
- CNRM Montreal leasing CKAC
- CNRQ Quebec leasing CKCV
- CNRR Regina leasing CKCK
- CNRS Saskatoon leasing CFQC
- CNRD Red Deer leasing CKLC
- CNRL London leasing CJGC
- CNRH Halifax leasing CHNS
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- "Hockey Night in Canada", Museum of Broadcast Communications, accessed January 22, 2008
- "Saturday Night Hockey / Hockey Night in Canada", Sports on Radio & Television, Canadian Communications Foundation, accessed on January 22, 2008
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- "Henri (Enrique) Miro, composer, conductor and critic (1879-1950)", Library and Archives Canada, accessed September 25, 2016
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- CKUA History from the Canadian Communications Foundation