Radio officially turns 100 this year — and how Canada was a major pioneer

One of the most robust creatures on the planet is the cockroach. Gross things, I know, but you have to admire its tenacity. You don’t stick around through 280 million years without being tough. Not only can a cockroach hold its breath for 40 minutes, but it can live for a month without food and live up to a week without its head.

Impressive, but nothing compared to a tiny creature known as a tardigrade. Not only will one of these microscopic buggers survive the vacuum and cold out outer space (absolute zero at -273.15 C), but will also handle pressures six times greater than at the bottom of the ocean. Boil one in alcohol? No problem. And if there’s no water, a tardigrade will shrivel up into a little ball and wait patiently for years to be hydrated. No wonder these things are the only creature to survive all five of Earth’s great extinctions.

This brings me to the tardigrade of media: old-fashioned, over-the-air, terrestrial broadcast radio. It is the oldest of all forms of electronic mass media and despite many efforts to kill it off (talking movies, television, satellite radio, streaming), it’s still with us, powerful, popular, and profitable.

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As radio celebrates its 100th birthday, it’s worth looking back on how Canada played a major part in its invention. Yes, Americans will have us believe that the invention of commercial radio was their thing, but I beg to differ on a few counts.

READ MORE: (May 23, 2017) Here’s why you can thank one Canadian for the invention of AM Radio

Newfoundland’s Signal Hill

Overlooking St. John’s, N.L., Signal Hill offers a clear shot across the Atlantic to England. It’s here that Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi took over an abandoned diphtheria hospital to build a receiving station for his wireless transmission experiments. On Dec. 12, 1901, using a temperamental spark transmitter, Marconi received a Morse code signal consisting of the letter “S” (• • •) that was broadcast from his Poldhu Wireless Station on the tip of Cornwall in the U.K., a distance of 3,500 km. As best as we can tell, the signal was broadcast at 850 kHz, roughly in the middle of today’s AM radio band.

Reginald Fessden’s surprise Christmas concert

Marconi’s “wireless telegraphy” was envisioned as competition for telegraph cables that were being laid on the seabed. As amazing as real-time transatlantic communication was, Morse code was not the most practical form of communication. Enter Canadian-born Reginald Fessenden.

While working in his lab at the U.S. Weather Bureau near Washington, D.C. in 1900, about a year before Marconi’s feat at Signal Hill, Fesseden was able to transmit and receive intelligible words through the ether. Those words were, “One, two, three, four.”

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WATCH BELOW: (May 23, 2017) Learn all about the Canadian roots of modern-day radio

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Fesseden continued to work on his technology for the next five years. On Dec. 24, 1906, he sent a Morse code notice to radio operators on ships at sea (many operated by the United Fruit Co.) to tune in to for something special that night. People in radio rooms out in the Atlantic were shocked to hear actual words and music coming out of their sets. Broadcasting from a 420-foot tower in Brant Rock, Mass., Fessenden played a gramaphone record (Oma mai fu by Handel), a quick rendition of him on the violin playing Oh Holy Night, his singing of a song called Adore and Be Still, and the reading of a passage from the Bible (Luke 2:14, for the record). Fessenden thus became the first DJ, live radio performer, and announcer all at once.

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Montreal becomes home of the world’s first ‘proper’ radio station

Radio took off in much the same way as we saw with the early internet. It was a wild and crazy time with no regulations and all kinds of junk being broadcast. But with the onset of The Great War, radio technology was considered too important to leave to amateurs, so a ban was placed on further development in the public domain. Canada and the U.S. banned civilian use of radio in the summer of 1914. However, government-sanctioned experiments with radio were allowed, which is where XWA in Montreal comes in.

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XWA (“X” for “experimental”) was licensed to the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Co. of Canada and was used as part of a training school for wartime radio operators that existed on Rodney Street. It began sporadic broadcasting in Morse code sometime in 1915, but eventually moved to audio transmissions, which were in full swing by the spring of 1919, led by the company’s Arthur Runciman from 173 William St. Using a 500-watt transmitter, engineers were told to count to 100 over and over again. When they got bored of that, they started using audio from a phonograph using records borrowed from the nearby Layton Brothers record store. The store got on-air credit for this, too, making Layton Brothers one of the first radio advertisers.

Later in 1919, pianist Willie Eckstein gave a live performance on XWA as part of these experiments.

The first documented programmed entertainment-based broadcast was Canadian

On May 20, 1920, Soprano Dorothy Hutton sang two ballads from the XWA studios in Montreal. Those signals were picked up in Ottawa, where they were heard by the assembled members of the Royal Society of Canada at the Chateau Laurier, a distance of 175 km. The broadcast also featured the vocal stylings of E. Hawtin, a member of the Naval Radio Service in Ottawa and a message from Marconi chief engineer J.O.G Cann.

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Shortly thereafter, XWA began broadcasting regularly, mainly to promote the sales of Marconi radios — which, by the way, sold for $195, the equivalent of about $2,500 today. The first GM/program director was Darby Coats, who secured record players from a local music store in exchange for commercial announcements. XWA changed its name to 9AM in 1921 and then CFCF (“Canada’s First, Canada’s Finest”) in 1922. It kept those call letters until 1991 when it became CIQC and finally CINW. Alas, the time for AM music radio had passed and on Jan. 29, 2010, CINW signed off for the last time.

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The first proper DJ was born in Winnipeg

In the early days of radio, virtually everything you heard coming out of the speakers was live. Musicians’ unions hated the idea of stations playing records because that deprived them of paying gigs. Record companies detested radio because if people could listen to their releases for free, who would buy them? Eventually, though, agreements were reached and various forms of detente prevailed.

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Enter Al Jarvis, a Winnipeg-born entertainer who is credited with being the world’s first disc jockey. While working at KFWB in Los Angeles, he convinced his boss to let him create a radio show that involved nothing more than him playing records and talking between songs. Called Make-Believe Ballroom, it debuted in 1932. Although the concept was picked up by American Martin Block in New York three years later, it was a Canadian who got things started.

The next time you turn on any radio, note that what you’re listening to began as a very Canadian invention.

READ MORE: The Ongoing History of New Music — 100 years of radio

Alan Cross is a broadcaster with Q107 and 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for Global News.

Subscribe to Alan’s Ongoing History of New Music Podcast now on Apple Podcast or Google Play

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