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Remember This? Radio station CKCH opens

In May 1920, a live two-way broadcast was transmitted between the experimental naval radio station at 279 Wellington Street and the experimental station XWA in the Marconi Building in Montreal.
The broadcasting room for CNRO (CKCH) radio, roof of the Jackson Building, Ottawa, 1926.

At the beginning of the 1920s, radio was the new technology that was sweeping the world.

And Ottawa was on the forefront.

In May 1920, a live two-way broadcast was transmitted between the experimental naval radio station at 279 Wellington Street and the experimental station XWA in the Marconi Building in Montreal. A secondary receiver with an amplifier and loudspeaker was set up in the ball room of the Château Laurier Hotel where members of the Royal Society of Ottawa listened intently to music and a speech from the President of the Society over the exciting new medium. At the beginning of 1921, the Ottawa Amateur Radio Association was formed. A few months later, the Association listened to a short musical concert put on by the naval radio station. Members also tuned into a time signal from Washington D.C.

This was cutting edge stuff. In an interview, the chairman of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) said that in November 1921 there were only a few radio receivers in the United States, most of which were experimental and in the hands of the military. Six months later, the U.S. Department of Commerce estimated that there were 700,000 receiving sets in the United States, 40,000 in New York City along, with a daily listening audience of more than one million. Sixty-seven broadcasting studios were in operation, covering musical concerts, news, sports, religious services, business highlights and politics.

Canada followed a similar trajectory. In 1921, Ottawa’s experimental naval station with the call letters OA and the Marconi Station in Montreal, which became known as CFCF, were the only radio transmitters in Canada. But by early 1924, there were roughly forty radio stations across the country.

Station OA gave its first public concert in late April 1921, though few people in Ottawa had radio receivers. The few that were around were unpowered crystal sets. Listeners had to use sensitive earphones to pick up the weak signal. OA later transmitted a live concert performed by the Ottawa South Community Centre under the direction of Professor George Berry. 

In 1922, OA began making regular musical broadcasts every Tuesday and Friday night at 8:00 pm for the benefit of local amateur radio operators. A broadcast in late October 1922 included a live performance of Ave Maria, along with a number of popular songs. Additional features included a comic recital, a news bulletin from the Intelligence Branch of the Department of the Interior, and a riveting address titled Safety First provided by the Ottawa Electric Railway Company. The broadcasts were initially transmitted on a wavelength of 2,100 metres, equivalent to a frequency of 143 kilohertz. This later changed to a wavelength of 500 metres, or 599.5 kilohertz. Listeners were asked to write to the department on how the concerts were heard and the quality of the signal. Station OA stopped broadcasting in early 1924.

n 1922, J.R. Booth Jr. began a private radio broadcasting station that operated under the call letters CHXC, and transmitted at a wavelength of 400 metres, or a frequency of 749.5 kilohertz. The station operated out of various locales, including 247 Flora Street, the home of the president of the Ottawa Amateur Radio Association, the Roxborough Apartments in downtown Ottawa, and the offices of the Great War Veterans’ Association, the forerunner of the Royal Canadian Legion, on Cartier Street.

For a time, the station provided a varied musical performance using local talent three evenings per week. Again, listeners were asked to mail in information regarding the range and quality of the station’s broadcast. When asked by francophone listeners if announcements could be made in French as well as English, the station complied, thereby becoming the first radio station to offer a bilingual service. The station later became know for its broadcasts of the card game bridge which was all the rage at that time.  

Ottawa entered radio’s major leagues with the opening of CKCH on Feb. 27, 1924. The station was owned by Canadian National Railway. The state-owned railway network had been established a few years earlier when the federal government took over a number of near-bankrupt railway companies, including the Grand Truck Railway that operated in Ottawa and owned the Château Laurier Hotel. The station broadcasted out of the Jackson building on Bank Street. At the time it was the tallest commercial building in Ottawa. The station’s two 75-foot transmission aerial towers, placed on the corners of the 190-foot building, had an overall height of 265 feet. 

The CKCH studio was on the first floor in room 168, with its operating room located on the roof. The station, which transmitted at a wavelength of 435 metres, or a frequency of 689 kilohertz, was at the time the most powerful station in Canada. It was the flagship of a network of CNR radio stations across the country, built so that the train’s customers could listen to radio programs during long, tedious, transcontinental trips across Canada in a special radio car where each listener was equipped with his or her own earphones.

On that first day, the station was opened during the afternoon for viewing by the general public. Thousands of visitors flocked to see the state-of-the art radio facilities, built at a cost of $18,000. The studio was described as being exceedingly artistic, with nothing omitted for the comfort of performing artists. Its walls and ceiling were covered in heavy, pleated blue fabric to dampen any potential echo or reverberation. Similarly, the floor was covered with a heavy carpet. In the studio were a microphone on an adjustable stand, a telephone, and a microphone control panel linked to the roof-level operating room. The panel had three lights. A red light indicated that the transmitting set on the roof was in operation. A blue light indicated that broadcasting was in progress, while a white light summoned the announcer. The station had four employees: an operator, an assistant operator, an announcer, and a musical director.

That evening, CKCH went on the air for its first official broadcast. It opened with a rendition of O Canada, followed by a number of tunes played by the Château Laurier orchestra, including the William Tell Overture. There were also a number of vocal and other solos. The highlight of the inaugural programme was an address by Sir Henry Thornton, the CNR president, to company employees. Thousands listened in, as did thousands of Canadian and U.S. radio listeners. In his speech, he called the opening of the station the most important event in the development of radio in Canada. He also spoke directly to American listeners, extending “a hearty hand to them.” He stressed the merits of Canada as a tourist destination and expressed his hope that they would come and visit, and, of course, ride the railway. To the company’s employees, he noted with pride that CNR’s net earnings for 1923 had been $20 million, and the company was aiming for $30 million in 1924. He added that the year had got off to a great start, with profits of $500,000 in January 1924 compared with a deficit in January the previous year.

The station promised to broadcast musical concerts each Wednesday and Sunday evening with the occasional church service on Sundays. The Wednesday programmes would be of a serious nature, consisting of “music of the highest type,” addresses, and possibly speeches from Parliament. Saturday evening performances would be “of a lighter vein.” News would also be regularly transmitted. CKCH would be placed at the disposal of the Canadian government at any time desired.

The response to that inaugural broadcast was enthusiastic. Congratulatory telegrams poured into the station. The Ottawa Journal said the radio would “bring Canadians to the capital of Canada with all the comforts of home.” The newspaper fantasized of the farmer sitting with his pipe in hand listening to a debate in the House of Commons. It added that the station could “make Canada real to thousands of benighted Americans who do not travel this way and who have delusions that the Dominion consists of an ice-bound north.”

The station began broadcasting many of the types of programming familiar to us today. It offered a time signal at 9 p.m. supplied directly from the Dominion Observatory at the Experimental Farm in Ottawa. The signal was intended for the use of everybody, but was aimed particularly at scientists, mariners and courts of law. The station also offered a report given by the secretary of the Automobile Club of Ottawa on road conditions leading into the capital. Given the horrible conditions of most highways at this time, this was an important service. And for sports fans, the station was the first to broadcast live the Stanley Cup playoffs, providing play-by-play coverage of a playoff game between the Ottawa Senators and the Montreal Canadiens. Ottawa, the defending Stanley Cup champions in 1924, lost 4-2 in the second game of a two-game, total score match. Montreal went on to play the Western champions. CKCH subsequently broadcast the Canadiens-Vancouver match live from the Mount Royal Arena. Between periods, music was provided by the Château Laurier orchestra.

Paradoxically, the opening of such a powerful station—its signal was picked up as far away as California and Panama—elicited some mixed emotions among Ottawa’s amateur radio enthusiasts. Some were concerned that if the station’s broadcasts were too frequent, they would have less opportunity to receive radio signals from elsewhere. They thought the stations’ twice-weekly broadcast gave the right balance.

With the growing success of radio, local musicians who had been providing their services for free, began in April 1924 to charge commercial stations, such as CKCH, for their services. The fee was $2 per hour per artist and $3.50 per hour for the orchestra leader. In 2020 terms, this is equivalent to roughly $30 and $53 per hour, respectively.

Not surprisingly, the Canadian National Railway coveted the “CNR” radio call letters for its new station. However, under international agreement the “CN” appellation was assigned to Morocco. After a year of negotiation involving the British Secretary of State for the Colonies and the foreign telegraph section of the British Post Office on behalf of the Canadian National Railway, the government of Morocco and the French colonial office agreed to cede the CN letters to the railway. The Department of Marine and Fisheries also agreed that the railway could use the letter “R”. Thus, CNRO was born with the “O” indicating Ottawa. The railway’s other radio stations adopted similar identification letters, with the last indicating the city, for example, CNRM became the railway’s Montreal station, and CNRE its Edmonton station. The CNR’s Moncton station became CNRA since the “M” was already used for Montreal.

CNRO continued to broadcast from the Jackson Building until mid-1929 when it moved to new quarters on the eighth floor of the newly completed east wing of the Château Laurier Hotel.

In 1933, the station was taken over by the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission, the forerunner of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). With the change in ownership, the station’s call letters were changed from CNRO to CRCO. In 1937, when the CBC assumed control of the station it became known as CBO.

CBO radio continued to broadcast from the Château Laurier Hotel until 2004 when it moved to the new CBC Ottawa broadcast centre on Sparks Street.



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