by Jean Kirkman
On 21 November 1927, in a basement room of the Power Plant Building on the University of Alberta campus, a dream came true for H.P. Brown and A.E. Ottewell. After many years of hard work convincing, coercing, and begging for the chance to reach Albertans through the University's own radio station — CKUA was on the air.
The first broadcast over CKUA was barely noticed by Alberta and world press. The beginnings of this first educational radio station in Canada were of minor importance in a world dominated by the return of vaudeville to the New Empire, the assumption of party leadership by R.B. Bennett of Calgary for the Conservative Party of Canada, and the announcement that a woman would be running for Edmonton city council. Department of Extension staff member cum radio announcer, H.P. Brown, informed listeners that they were listening to CKUA, station of the University of Alberta, and the station was on the air. Even at this point, CKUA never would have managed to make its first broadcast were it not for the help of its friends. CKUA was unable to broadcast on its own frequency of 580, so W.W. Grant took his own station, CFCN in Calgary, off the air so that CKUA could be heard on that frequency for its maiden broadcast.
That first winter, CKUA was on the air for a total of only eight hours per week, Mondays and Thursdays. Lectures by University professors were alternated with symphony performances and a special "Women's Hour" with Miss Mable Patrick, head of the Household Science and Economics Department. "Taking the University to the people" became a reality instead of just a catch-phrase of hopes to form Canada's first educational radio station.
One of the biggest fights that faced the existence of CKUA was convincing the Department of Extension management of the worth of this new medium in education. Furnishing a studio with pieces "borrowed" from various department offices was a lot easier than acquiring the money necessary to build a proper studio. Even as CKUA went on air that first evening, everyone involved knew that a studio held together by "chewing gum and prayers" wouldn't last indefinitely, and a permanent studio would require more funds than those available in 1927.
In his book, We Have With Us Tonight, the Department of Extension's E.A. Corbett describes his first impression of CKUA and the people connected with it: "I, as Assistant Director of the Department, was sceptical and slightly contemptuous of the whole undertaking.... I could see no use for such a treacherous medium. But the children of darkness are wiser in their generation than the children of light — I, of course, being one of the children of light — so Brown and Ottewell persisted in their enthusiasm and continued to experiment with a program of recorded music, lectures on agricultural problems, short one-act plays, etc. It was not until 1928 when Ottewell became Registrar of the University and I took over as Director of the Department that H.P. Brown was able to enlist my support for the expenditure of funds from our overworked budget to build a studio, install new equipment, and generally take an interest in what he rightly believed to be one of the most important educational instruments of all times."
With this change of heart, CKUA was assured of adequate facilities, at least for a few years, and the people behind CKUA were free to concentrate on offering listeners the sort of programming not heard anywhere else. The original eight hours per week were gradually increased with additional programming including one-act plays, science programs, and French language lessons. By the late 1930s, onair time had reached forty hours per week. The studio, by now on the second floor of the Department of Extension's building, was divided into a concert studio large enough to hold a twenty-piece orchestra plus a grand piano, a speaker's studio, a control room, and an extra room with a loudspeaker where waiting artists might listen to the program on the air.
There were also direct lines to Convocation Hall, the University Hospital, and the rink so that remote broadcasts could go on the air. Organ recitals were broadcast as they occurred in various city churches. Religious plays on Sunday afternoons and a series of musicappreciation programs by Vernon Barford helped to attract listeners. As well, through the direct lines, CKUA could broadcast remote a play-by-play description of University basketball and hockey games — broadcasts that proved immensely popular.
In the 1930s, CKUA was featuring numerous popular programs and items which at the time were not even considered by commercial radio stations. The CKUA Players attracted national attention with their series of one-act radio plays that eventually were also carried on the CBC network. The Foothills Radio Network grew from an informal liaison between stations in Red Deer, Calgary, Lethbridge, and CKUA in Edmonton, and in 1929 when CN Telegraphs organized the first national network, CKUA became its Edmonton outlet.
By 1940, steadily deteriorating transmitting equipment threatened to put CKUA off the air, and the Board of Governors was "naturally most reluctant to even contemplate the closing of CKUA because of its historical position as a pioneer in educational broadcasting in Canada, and because of the increasingly important part which radio is playing in the work of the University." The provincial government was persuaded to finance the necessary costly repairs under a new agreement of management. A new committee of management would be represented jointly by the University's Board of Governors and by the provincial government, and was the body to which the administration of CKUA was responsible. By 1944, the new equipment had on-air operation to a total of sixty-three hours per week, the maximum on-air time reached during the eighteen years that CKUA was entirely a University station.
As the years passed, CKUA continued to lead the field of broadcasting in innovative and educational programming. It became the first station to broadcast an Alcoholics Anonymous program. It was the first to develop specially a program for sourdoughs in the far north, with a mixture of weather, fur prices, and other news of interest to trappers and miners. CKUA was the first station to cover the legislative sessions on a regular "beat," and was also the first to broadcast commentary from the press gallery during house sessions. Another innovative program, the play-by-play broadcast of football games, has since been adopted by practically every commercial station in Canada.
In spite of all the innovation, financial problems again began to plague CKUA's operation, and in 1945, Alberta Government Telephones agreed to assume responsibility for the operating costs incurred by CKUA. This agreement was subject to the condition that the University could still have as much time on CKUA as it wanted. After CKUA operational costs were assumed by AGT, the station was free to continue year-round as a full-time, non-commercial station. This operation included programs like the "Music Hour," which was carried over CKUA five times a week every week from 1927 to 1956. The contribution of University students and faculty continued to be invaluable.
CKUA continued to operate full-time, and in 1955 the studios were moved from the campus to the station's present home in the Alberta Block on Jasper Avenue. Even then the University involvement didn't end, since many programs produced by the various University radio societies were broadcast over CKUA as well, even as recently as 1970. Numerous students who first got their taste of radio with the University radio societies graduated to become part-time and fulltime CKUA staff members.
A change in government licensing regulations left the future of CKUA in grave doubt in the early 1970s. Strictly speaking, CKUA was operated for many years in contravention of federal regulations which stipulated that only the licensee could own and operate a station and that no licenses could be issued to provincial crown agencies. Because of this irregularity, the Canadian Radio-Television Telecommunications Commission ruled that CKUA's license would lapse on 31 March 1974, unless its operation could be legitimized. The establishment in 1973 of the Alberta Educational Communications Corporation (ACCESS Alberta) offered a solution to the problem.
If the government would approve the transfer of CKUA's license to ACCESS, the station could continue to concentrate on the educational aspects of broadcasting. At the time of this proposal, the University Senate voiced strong concern that the provincial government should ensure "the continued independence and integrity of CKUA." The University's Academic Staff Association questioned whether a radio station was a suitable medium for educational programming, and whether the existing widely based programming would be maintained. This concern on the part of University of Alberta faculty indicated the proprietary interest still shown for the radio station that had to fight to be born, and also indicated to CKUA management that the station had hundreds of friends in the educational community.
In 1974, the license transfer was approved, and ACCESS Radio CKUA launched upon a new era of expansion and growth. From the original 500 watts of AM power, CKUA celebrated its Golden Anniversary with 10,000 watts of AM power, and a network of 100,000 watt FM transmitters. The fifth major transmitter was scheduled to go on the air in Peace River at 6:00 p.m. on 21 November 1977-exactly fifty years after the first CKUA broadcast was heard. A sixth major FM transmitter at Grand Prairie also began operation before the end of 1977, making the original "Voice of the University" within reach of eighty-five percent of the entire Alberta population. A seventh transmitter at Red Deer eventually will complete the over-all coverage, and smaller "step-out" transmitters will fill the "holes" left in total provincial coverage.
On its Fiftieth Anniversary, CKUA has much to be proud of - and many of the proudest people are those who helped in the early days when the station was part of the University of Alberta's Department of Extension.
Jean Kirkman (BA'76) is a history graduate who now works as a writer in Promotions and Publicity for ACCESS Alberta.
Published March 1978.