It is now just 60 years since CKUA, the radio station of the University of Alberta, first went on the air. Twenty years ago Joe McCallum's CKUA and 40 Wondrous Years of Radio provided a delightful story of the early days of radio and CKUA's role as one of the earliest educational radio stations. Over the years the reminiscences of various people about happenings associated with CKUA have appeared in The Trail and the New Trail (for example, 'The Coming of Sound,' by H.P. Brown in the Summer 1952 edition of New Trail ). As its first control operator (and the last living member of the original staff) it seems timely for me to set down some of my own reminiscences of those early days, and of the pioneering venture that was CKUA.
CKUA started in 1927 on an extremely limited budget but with lots of energy and enthusiasm on the part of the studio and station staff. Harold ('H. P. B.') Brown, the announcer and studio manager, was a genius at building-up and operating the station on a shoe-string budget. With a minimum expenditure of hard-to-get funds, but with a generous contribution of talent from University faculty and well-known Edmonton musicians, the station was able to produce some remarkably high-quality broadcasts that filled a real need in providing educational programs for the people of the province. The list of Edmonton musicians and University of Alberta faculty who contributed their talents and expertise to CKUA would surely read like a Who's Who of that day. It is my intent to recount a few anecdotes relating to some of the programs and participants of those early days.
William Rowan and the Yellow-tailed Crows
One of the most popular lecturers on CKUA was Dr. William Rowan, professor of zoology at the University of Alberta. Whereas most University research is carried on in laboratories or professors' offices away from the view of the general public, Professor Rowan's experiments dealing with bird migration were different. During the fall and winter of one year in the early 1930's people crossing the North Saskatchewan River via the High Level bridge were treated to a spectacle that was certain to arouse curiosity. Below them on the south bank of the river were two very large chicken wire enclosures each containing a hundred crows. In one enclosure the crows were subjected to the normally decreasing hours of daylight as fall changed to winter; whereas in the other enclosure a system of artificial illumination subjected the crowns to increasing hours of 'daylight' as winter came on. The object of the experiment was to verify or disprove the theory that seasonal migration north or south was determined by increasing or decreasing hours of daylight, rather than by increasing or decreasing temperatures.
The plan was to release all the birds in early winter and find out whether they flew north or south. The crows were suitably tagged and hunters were requested to return the tags to the University (with the promise of prizes for the lucky numbers). There remained one problem: among the hundreds of thousands (millions?) of crows in central Alberta, how to spot the prize crows? This problem was solved by having Trudeau's Cleaning and Dye Works dye the tails of the experimental crows a bright yellow! With these ingenious preparations a satisfactory return was achieved, and it proved possible to affirm the correctness of the theory — the crows subjected to lengthening hours of 'daylight' flew north while the others flew south. With this flair for the spectacular it is little wonder that Professor Rowan's CKUA lectures attracted a wide audience.
Vernon Barford and the Gramaphone Needle
A frequent contributor to CKUA's musical program was Vernon Barford, well-known Edmonton choir director. On one occasion when he came back into the control room to listen with me on the earphones to determine the optimum microphone placement he asked me to try to explain to him how the sound produced in the studio was transmitted and reproduced in the home. So this very young control operator undertook to explain radio: how the sound waves impinging upon the microphone produced a varying compression of the carbon granules in the microphone, which in turn caused a varying resistance, so changing the microphone current, and how this varying microphone current was amplified and sent by telephone line to the station where it was again amplified and used to modulate a high-frequency radio signal that was radiated by the antenna, transmitted through space, picked up by the receiving antenna, and rectified or detected to produce the sound heard in the earphones or loudspeaker. Mr. Barford looked at me and shook his head. 'I am sure it is all very wonderful,' he said, 'but it is too far beyond my comprehension for me to understand or appreciate. What I would really like to know is this: how are the various sounds from the orchestra, the tinkling notes of the piano, the singing tones of the violin, the high notes of the soprano to the low notes of the bass viola able to travel up this steel needle (of the gramaphone) and reproduce so faithfully the original sounds?' And with that simple question the perceptive musician had put his finger on a problem that requires all of our advanced knowledge of vibration and acoustics to provide an answer.
Henri de Savoie and Conversation Français
One of the educational experiences offered to CKUA listeners was a course in conversational French given by Professor Henri de Savoie. As was usual for these Extension Lectures, it fell to me in addition to controlling the program, to announce and sign-off the program. In this case there was one hitch. Professor de Savoie insisted that the introduction and sign-off be made in French, a decision he made before he became aware of my complete lack of ear for the nuances of French pronunciation. Nevertheless, he persisted and schooled me carefully on the announcement in French as it ought to be. Came the fateful evening of the first lecture; Professor de Savoie was seated in the speakers' booth and I was at the microphone in the control room where I could watch him through a small window. I began the announcement as best I could, but when I saw the Professor wince, literally wince, I lost what remained of my composure and stumbled through the remainder as quickly as I could. The sign-off went in much the same fashion. I thought, 'At least future announcements will be in English.' But no, the good professor would not give up on me, and once a week for several weeks I went through a hell I had not previously known. During my seven and one-half years with CKUA, I found my work interesting, enjoyable, and at times exciting; but even now, nearly 60 years later, thoughts of trying to announce 'Conversation Français' come back to haunt me.
The Dinner Hour of Music and the Two Black Crows
'The Dinner Hour of Music,' aired week-days between 6:00 and 7:00 p.m. was indubitably one of CKUA's more popular musical programs. Of this I was reasonably sure, as I received much gentle kidding from my fellow electrical engineering students as to why we didn't play more of the 'popular' music of the day on the dinner hour. The program selection was usually made by Sheila Marryat and consisted mainly of classical favorites in a lighter vein than selections for the 'Symphony Hour' which preceded the 'Dinner Hour of Music.' One summer it happened that nearly all the key people took their monthly vacations at the same time, so it was left to me to put on the 'Dinner Hour.' There seemed to be no problem as I was told that the lady in the Record Shop on Jasper Avenue would help make the selection of records as she had always done. Alas, when I showed up on the first morning of the vacation period to pick up the records for that day, it was to find that the record lady herself was also on vacation, leaving in charge a 'sweet young thing' who knew even less than I about what constituted a suitable selection. Nevertheless, we listened to some records and picked out several that appealed to both of us. Then the 'sweet young thing' mentioned that there was a new record out called 'Two Black Crows' which was supposed to be a big hit. So we played it and delighted in the banter and repartee of the Black Crows, with exchanges such as, 'Status Quo? What's dat?' 'Oh dat's Latin for the mess we's in.' With fingers crossed we added it to the selection. That evening everything went well (that is, there were no calls in to the station during or after the dinner hour), but next morning word came down that the boss (Mr. E.A. Corbett) had listened to the program and immediately issued orders that henceforth for the duration of the vacation period, the record selection would be made by Miss Montgomery, long-time librarian for The Extension Division. But even now, years later, I cannot help but feel that that evening's program was one of the best 'Dinner Hours of Music' ever aired over CKUA.
The First British Empire Round-the-World Christmas Day Radio Broadcast
In December of 1928 (or perhaps it was 1929) it became known that the British Broadcasting Corporation would put on the first Christmas Day round-the-world broadcast with segments of the program to originate in different parts of the British Empire. As a member of the CNR radio network, CKUA would air the program in Edmonton. The program opened in London with Christmas Day greetings from the King and Queen, followed by a musical program, after which programs followed originating in Montreal, Vancouver, and then different parts of the British Empire around the world. Because of the time difference the program opened in Edmonton at 6:00a.m., which meant someone had to get up at 4:40 a.m. to arrive at the studio in time to check out the circuits and equipment. Mr. Brown asked me if I would handle the assignment, including the opening and sign-off announcements. I accepted with alacrity as I was most pleased to be allowed to participate in this historic event. It was a thrill indeed to be on the line to hear the London engineer checking the circuits with, 'Hello Montreal. Are you there?' and to hear Montreal reply. When the time came I opened the program In Edmonton with the CKUA announcement, switched lines through to the station, and monitored the two-hour program which proceeded without a hitch. At the end of the program BBC signed off, and finally yours truly signed off for CKUA, the radio station of the University of Alberta. It was an experience I would never forget. When I returned home I learned that my mother and dad had sat up in bed listening to the program on the radio set I had made. Mother told me that when Dad heard me make the final sign-off announcement he stood up in bed with arms above his head and shouted, 'That's my boy!'
I can't conclude these reminiscences about the early days of CKUA without recalling some of the key people associated with its development. E.A. Corbett was the new director of the Extension Department at the time of CKUA's beginning's and he helped determine the directions the new enterprise would take. He was a gifted story teller whose occasional radio lectures established a receptive audience. This young control operator vividly recalls his telling of the 'Merchant of Death,' the story of Basil Zaharoff, the Greek financier and arms dealer who sold the new machine guns and other sophisticated weapons to both sides of any conflict (A double-dealing in arms trafficking now taken over by the superpowers themselves.) A.E. Ottewell, who had preceded Mr. Corbett as director of extension was now the university registrar, but he continued to give occasional radio lectures. He also gave slide lectures around the province, connecting a portable electric generator to a jacked-up rear wheel of his auto to provide the required electricity.
On the programming side, Sheila Marryat (a sister of the Hon. Irene Parlby, Canada's first woman cabinet minister) served as program director and encouraged such talented performers as Elizabeth Stirling Haynes and the CKUA Players.
On the engineering side, Dr. H.J. MacLeod, as head of the electrical engineering department was ex officio director of the station staff. He supervised the 1935 MSc thesis of George Sinclair on 'Measurements of Impedance of a Counterpoise Antenna,' and later my own MSc thesis on 'Automatic Gain Control for a Broadcast Amplifier.' Assistant Professors Wardlaw Porteous and Wilfred Cornish managed the transmitter staff, and Professor Porteous taught one of the few courses in radio given in Canada at that time. Dick Rice, General Manager of the Edmonton Journal station, CJCA, (although nominally a competitor) was often a friend in need in helping to keep CKUA on the air in the early day.
Edward Jordan, ’34 BScEng, the control operator when Radio Station CKUA first went on the air, recalls the pioneering days of educational radio at the University of Alberta.
Published Summer 1987.