History Trails

CKUA is on The Air

by A. E. Ottewell

On November twenty-first, 1927, the above announcement was made for the first time. It marked a definite point in the history of radio. When in the early twenties, radio broadcasting became practical, the Department of Extension of the University of Alberta realized that a new educational tool of immense value had been produced. Previously the university extension lecturer had reached limited local audiences, by laborious travel with, in many instances, primitive methods of transportation. Now, with comparative comfort from the university studio, mud, snow-banks, below zero temperatures, and time spent in travelling were overcome. Instead of being restricted to audiences which could be assembled here or there, the speaker could address thousands at once as they sat by their own firesides.

At first, the University had no radio station of its own. But in those days each station had to be self-contained in the matter of program production. Therefore, any contribution likely to interest the radio audience was appreciated. Amos and Andy, Charlie McCarthy, soap dramas, and other such features were still far in the future. Even lectures by university professors were welcomed.

In 1923, through the generosity and co-operation of Station CJCA, the University of Alberta went on the air with regular broadcasts several evenings each week. Remote control equipment was set up in the office of the Director of the Department of Extension, and excellent results were obtained.

There were various and sometimes amusing incidents. Experienced lecturers were often "mike shy." Nowadays, radio lecturing has become a commonplace. Then, it was a startling novelty. The lack of audience reaction embarrassed some speakers. One such confided to his audience: "If you would like to know what it feels like to talk to you over the radio, go out to the barn, find a knot-hole in the wall and talk into it." On another occasion after his first effort, the speaker added the remark, "Thank goodness that's over," while the "mike" was still open. We do not know whether or not the listeners endorsed his comment.

As time went on, the commercial value of radio as an advertising medium became more and more apparent. Educational broadcasts and pay programs competed for the best listening time. A station which had a heavy budget to meet could not reasonably be expected to continue indefinitely to assign some of its best time to non-revenue producing features. Although the management of CJCA was willing to continue its help for some considerable time, the writer, then Director of University Extension service, became convinced that education should enter the radio field in its own right with unlimited choice of time. This could only be done by the University securing its own station. So, after three and one-half years of pleasant association with CJCA and especially with Mr. Rice, the pioneer of radio broadcasting in Edmonton, the University of Alberta decided to embark on its own venture in this field.

As always, the question of ways and means was most important. The writer, with the cordial support of Dr. H. M. Tory, then President of the University, and a pioneer in spirit and action, went to work. The transmitter and license of a local station of fifty watts capacity were purchased for six hundred dollars. Authority to step up the power to five hundred watts was secured, and the new call letters, CKUA, were assigned, the last two of which, as should be obvious, identifying the station with the University of Alberta.

Then the real struggle began. It soon become clear that to build a "tailor-made" station was beyond available resources. Estimates for construction on that basis were near twenty-five thousand dollars, a dream figure so far as we were concerned. One very difficult problem was that of masts to carry the antennae. This was solved by securing the highest windmill towers available and surmounting them with twenty-foot masts ingeniously guyed in place. These are still standing on the original site near Pembina Hall. But the real sticker was to find the necessary apparatus, transmitter, tubes, control board, and studio equipment. So friends were called upon for advice. Mr. H. P. Brown, first announcer and program director, who is still with the Department of Extension, worked tirelessly. The Department of Electrical Engineering and especially Professor H. J. MacLeod, gave invaluable help, and Mr. H. W. Grant of Calgary made the studio control equipment. Finally by purchasing various items piece-meal and assembling them under the skilled direction available, the entire station including a grand piano and the license fee of fifty dollars and the original purchase price, was made ready for broadcasting at a cost of slightly over five thousand dollars. The actual station cost less than four thousand.

Naturally many economies were necessary. A sound-proof studio was out of the question. But a reasonably satisfactory result was secured by draping an available room with burlap at a cost of less than twelve dollars.

And then the great night came, that of the formal opening, November twenty-first, 1927. On this occasion, in addition to musical features, there were addresses by the Minister of Education, the Hon. Perren Baker, Doctor Tory, President of the University, and others. The general tenor of all statements was to emphasize the historical nature of the occasion when the radio was coming into its own as an educational agency with almost unlimited possibilities.

One unplanned episode helped to add variety to the program. As remarked before, the studio was far from sound-proof. At one point, an off-stage effect was to be bag-pipe music. But because of some slight hitch, when the announcer said, "Now we hear the music of the pipers," the pipes were substituted for by the shrill whistle of a train crossing the high-level bridge, an effect which even the lustiest of pipers could scarcely hope to surpass. The public reaction to the new departure is well expressed by the following editorial from the Manitoba Free Press of Winnipeg, under date of February 12, 1928:

It begins to look as though the "dreaming towers" of the modern university were the radio spirals. In the archives of Manitoba's institution are numerous letters expressing appreciation of the radio evenings taken charge of at the provincial station by the university. In Alberta the university has set up a station of its own, CKUA, and every Monday and Thursday the "U" is on the air. And out of the air its message is picked up north to the Yukon, south to Texas, east through Saskatchewan and west to the Pacific — an extension department of some size.

The course for the year is laid out and it ranges from lectures on the diseases of field crops, principles of insect control, beef cattle outlook, how to make and care for hot beds, plows, their operation and adjustment, co-operative marketing, efficient winter dairy rations, feeding in relation to the ultimate bacon type, helpers to the dairy business, bee-keeping, the world's fertilizer trade, to Bunyan and his pilgrim, Robert Burns, why we study classics, romance of English words, Greek idea of democracy, early history of western Canada — in three lectures, dimensions in astronomy, etc.

Providing that the lone homesteader does not weaken, and the rhythm of the wolf's howl — or the polar bear's — does not interfere with the wave length, by the time the season is over he will be by way o f achiev-ing a university culture of no mean order. And he should be a better farmer. The difficulty of the farm home of today is not its isolation but how to get a moment to itself, with the "local" and the "institute" to attend, the college bulletins to read and the cattle's rations to be scientifically mixed. If the farmer is not aware his is a profession, it is not the fault of the orator, the mail service and the university radio. Along its other pathway runs the sure connection of the farm and the university, and it goes on its course unlocking not only new doors in the vast halls of science, but opening also windows in millions of minds. The university of today has a new ally and the boundaries of its day are no longer physical to any degree, but conditioned only by the mentality of the receiver. The university has left her dreaming towers and becomes a house by the side of the road — perhaps she has taken her dreams with her."

From the beginning until now the effort of CKUA has been to provide a program which is "different." While entertainment features have not been absent, even those have had a purpose of entertainment plus in-formation and culture. And experimental programs designed to test the value of the radio in various fields have been offered. One of these was a special Empire Day Program for schools on Empire Day, 1929. By special authority conveyed to all teachers in a circular issued by Mr. J. T. Ross, Deputy Minister of Education, all schools were directed to co-operate in securing the best results possible in the reception of a special Empire Day Program. The circular began with the following statement:

"The Department of Education in co-operation with the University of Alberta, The Edmonton Journal, The Calgary Herald, and the radio dealers of the province, is undertaking to broadcast a program to every school in the province on the afternoon of Empire Day next. This experimental broadcast is being undertaken at this time for two purposes: first, to provide, under the auspices of the Department, a common Empire Day program for all the children of the province, and second, to determine how far it may be possible to reach all our schools by radio. Obviously, if this program can be broadcast in such a way as to reach every school child, wonderful possibilities in the way of programs are at once opened up."

In addition to suitable musical selections, addresses were given by the Lieutenant Governor, the Premier of the Province, and the Minister of Education, and special Empire Day messages from Their Majesties the King and Queen were read.

The experiment proved a distinct success and from this beginning school broadcasts have become regular features with all Departments of Education. There are many problems in this field, but one by one they are being solved, and it is safe to say that more and more the radio will be accepted as an indispensable means of instruction in the schools.

From the beginning, CKUA has been interested in experimental broadcasting of drama, symphony and other classical music and in presentation of young artists seeking to broaden their experience. Continually the idea of developing the use of radio for education and culture has been the dominating feature of all its work.

How the program has expanded from the modest beginnings of 1927 to the present time is indicated by the following statistical summary for the period October 4th, 1943, to March 31st, 1944:

Total number of quarter hour periods was 9,042, made up of CBC programs, 4,034, and local programs, 5,008. These were distributed as follows:

General Talks

And now a new chapter has begun. Hitherto practically all local pro-grams have been made by voluntary effort. But it is difficult to continue to provide a satisfactory offering in this way. The ownership and management of CKUA has therefore passed to the Department of Telephones of the Provincial Government. A generous amount of time has been reserved for educational broadcasting. While to the pioneer of CKUA the old thrill has departed, we may still confidently expect to hear regularly, "The University is on the air."

Published July 1945

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