Bill Waiser

Radio opened new world to Sask residents

The 1920s have been called the roaring decade. That was certainly true in Saskatchewan in the latter part of the decade, especially with the return of good weather and higher wheat prices.

In 1928, the province’s farmers harvested an astounding 321.2 million bushels of wheat (almost a third of a billion) with an average yield of 23.3 bushels per acre. The crop, representing sixty per cent of the wheat produced in the three prairie provinces, was the largest ever produced by any province or state in the world.

These kinds of returns brought about the gradual mechanization of agriculture. Trucks, tractors, and the new combine-harvester enabled farmers to get their crop planted and harvested in a shorter period of time, as well as work larger holdings.

Farm prosperity, in turn, energized the provincial economy. There was a sharp rise in retail and wholesale trade in the late 1920s, effectively lifting many urban centres out of their postwar gloom. And with the return of good times, people purchased the latest technology on the market.

Many Saskatchewan homes had a telephone, an innovation that led to a popular, new hobby: listening in to conversations on the party line. There were also new labour-saving domestic devices, such as a washing machine — but only for those households with electricity.

Not as many people owned cars, but those who did were able to get around more easily, if not go to town on a more regular basis. Come winter, the vehicles were often put away for several months.

The most memorable addition to the home, though, was the wireless radio. People recall nostalgically how the wireless opened a new world to them. They would lie on the floor, propped up by their arms before the radio’s speaker, and listen for hours to shows from stations whose call signs were memorized like the ABCs.

Harlo Jones of Dinsmore was one of them: “Just as today’s children would find it difficult to imagine a world without television, I would have difficulty trying to envision our world … without radio. We children didn’t find the news a great matter of import at that age, but Sunday dinner without Jack Benny or Charlie McCarthy was unthinkable. And it was dangerous for anyone to utter a sound during the broadcast of the grain quotations.”

Every family member had their favourite program, but Saturday night hockey proved the most enduring and the most memorable for at least two generations. Regina’s CKCK, Saskatchewan’s first commercial station, made broadcasting history when Pete Parker called the play-by-play between the Capitals and the visiting Edmonton Eskimos on March 14, 1923. Foster Hewitt made his radio debut from Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens nine days later.

Because airwaves were relatively uncluttered at the time, Saskatchewan radio listeners were able to pick up American broadcasts from as far away as Denver and Chicago.

But the medium was also used to showcase local talent. In 1923, Horace Stovin of Unity began broadcasting under the signal 1OAT (later CHSC) from the dispensary at the back of “Our Drug Store.”

That same year, CFQC went on the air in Saskatoon. One of the regular guests was the “Famous Farmer Fiddlers.” Even the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool opened a Regina station in 1927 to convince farmers to renew their delivery contracts.

Most of the local radio announcers were British in origin and regularly mispronounced the name of the province, when not mangling local terms and names such as slough (called “sluff”). Martha Bowes, the province’s first woman announcer for Saskatoon’s CJWC and one of three in Canada at the time, had no such trouble, often assuming several different roles during a day’s broadcast.

Under an agreement with Canadian National Railways, local radio programming was also fed into transcontinental trains as they crossed the province during the 1920s. CFQC radio participated in this service using the call sign CNRS. One Sunday morning, passengers in the observation car listened to a church service being held in Saskatoon, more than a hundred miles away. When the train pulled into the station later that day, the on-board radio operator turned over a collection of almost $30.

That was the power and reach of radio.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Photo: Frank and Jim Bentley listening to a Westinghouse radio in 1926. (SAB S78-102)
Photo courtesy Saskatchewan Archives Board
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