On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of French-language radio in North America, The duty explores this changing medium, with a series that begins today and will continue over the next few weeks.
On May 3, 1922, just over a century ago, the first French-language radio station in America was launched at 7, rue Saint-Jacques, in Montreal.
CKAC, according to the letters of appeal granted to it by the federal authorities, is a counterpart of The Press. All over the world, printed matter then acquires radios. In 1900, Trefflé Berthiaume, the owner of the newspaper at the time, had attended demonstrations of wireless transmission in Paris, from the Eiffel Tower. A radio, he wanted one for a long time. Here she is, even though she was born seven years after her death.
It was the Marconi company, a pioneer in broadcasting, which obtained the contract to install this 30-meter antenna. This is first able to broadcast at a power of 2000 watts. By comparison, a private station like CKOI today relies on more than 300,000 watts of power. CKAC, promises its owner, will make it possible to be “in communication with the most remote parts of the United States” and, in certain cases, when the conditions are favorable, with the rest of the world.
The official opening of the station did not take place until October 1922, and only a few hours of broadcasting were planned: Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday evenings. In fact, during the early years of radio, all Montreal stations shared evenings on a single frequency.
As early as 1918, the Canadian subsidiary of the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company, based in Montreal, broadcast experimental programs under the call sign WXA. This branch, known from 1922 under the name of CFCF, moved into the brand new building of the Canada Cement company, in Philips Square. A console, a piano and a gramophone make up the decor, all framed by a thick curtain capable of controlling the acoustics.
CKAC is the first French branch in America, we repeat. But in fact, without even considering the fact that it uses the same frequency as English-language radio station CFCF, this radio station is bilingual, as an analysis of its programming indicates.
What can listeners hear in the early days of CKAC? Music predominates, from classically inspired singing to folklore. We will also listen to tales, “dramatic sketches” and, of course, advertisements. Politicians later will withhold airtime at great expense to address their constituents. From the beginning of the 1930s, Camillien Houde became one of the regulars on this radio station.
Musicologist Luc Bellemare has shown that CKAC divides its musical programming into two trends. On the one hand, that of the evenings “of the good old days”, carried by the tradition of folklorists. On the air, we hear La Bolduc, Ovila Légaré and fiddlers like Isidore Soucy, who are supported by a number of actors and musicians, in a spirit of celebration. On the other hand, there are voices of the classical type, including those of the lyrical trio of Lionel Daunais and La Bonne Chanson of Abbé Gadbois. The latter, in the spirit of a nationalism inspired by the action of Théodore Botrel in France, defends the song as a vector of identity. Between these two poles, there are various bridges. Not everything is on one side or the other.
And information? She’s not on the menu. On the other hand, the weather has its place, as do stock market prices, as well as a few highlights of the day, nothing more.
buy a radio
Radios weren’t available to everyone in 1922—one could be had for around $20, or the equivalent of $325 in 2022. will quietly give way to that of listening to what the radio wants to tell us about its own.
Montreal was then the largest city in Canada and had 620,000 inhabitants. Some 2,000 households there officially own a radio, and a license must be purchased to authorize its use. In these times of beginnings, an annual radio fair is also held in Montreal to encourage consumption.
Ten years later, as the economic crisis hit, an estimated one million French-Canadian listeners tuned in to CKAC, sometimes from as far away as New England.
The pilot of the waves
The first director of CKAC is called Jacques-Narcisse Cartier. Born in 1890, he is the son of a wealthy family. His father, a doctor, is a Conservative MP. On his mother’s side, there are family ties with the family of Conservative MP Nérée Le Noblet Duplessis.
From 1908, in Nova Scotia, Jacques-Narcisse worked for Marconi himself. Having become an aviator, he flew for the British forces; The Press indicates that he was the first French-Canadian airman to shoot down a German aircraft. In the United States, along with David Sarnoff of RCA, Cartier will lend a hand in setting up two radio stations, one in New York and the other in Philadelphia. He would later become one of the heads of the ultraconservative newspaper Illustration ; he will cede it to the Union Nationale of his cousin, Maurice Duplessis, who will make it The Montreal Morning.
In the early 1920s, CKAC was a new means of action for advertisers. The main studio is laid out in the form of a chic living room that emphasizes a relationship with money: soft carpets, velvet drapes, deep-grained wood, crystal light fixtures, casual rattan armchairs… At a time when the practice of music in homes is widespread, CKAC broadcasts recitals from its studios, as well as from theaters or hotel rooms. The station buys a grand piano, installs a Casavant tube organ. CKAC will broadcast for the first time the evenings of the elections, but also the music of the orchestras of the passenger ships then at quay in the port of Montreal.
Jacques-Narcisse Cartier fully exploits the varied musical appetite of the public. He even goes so far as to offer piano lessons over the radio. By the end of the 1920s, one in five households in Canada owned a piano. But this figure is rapidly declining, as are record sales, in both cases because of radio. The very pieces of furniture in which the radios of the time were installed — massive, highly decorated — bear witness to their importance in homes.
The arrival of radio also marks the arrival of a significant amount of American media content.
At night, because the signals carry farther, Montreal listeners can sometimes pick up distant stations. But above all, record companies promise savings to local radio stations by offering to broadcast recordings made in foreign studios.
CKAC’s broadcast hours are increasing as it airs more US-produced content. At the end of the 1920s, nearly half of its content was in English.
Faced with the growing influence of American stations and the rudimentary development of Canadian radio, the federal government created a commission of inquiry in 1928 to study the future of broadcasting. CKAC will vigorously defend its links with the American company CBS and the fact that it broadcasts in English. The French sometimes heard on the airwaves outside Quebec is also the subject of strong criticism: we don’t really want it.
The Aird commission will recommend the creation of a state-owned corporation to operate a federal broadcasting system and ensure better control of this common space. These are the premises for the creation of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, the CRTC.