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From Novelty to Network

From Novelty to Network - Edmonton's Radio Days

In 1922, Edmonton was a bounding "metropolis" of 60,000 people. In that year, the novelty of radio would arrive in Edmonton, thanks to a combination of local businessmen and The Edmonton Journal. One frequency would be used by three stations, but then, by the time Alberta's first radio station signed on, Edmonton contained all of 200 radio receivers. 

young listeners tuning in On May 1, 1922, Alberta's first radio station CJCA went on the air, its studio located beneath the linotype machines in the newsroom of The Edmonton Journal. The early days of radio were experimental, and professionally produced radio sets were a rarity to be grabbed immediately. After all, it had been only since 1919 that the Canadian Marconi Company of Montreal had initiated Canadian broadcasting with test programs, and in December of that year, began continuous broadcasting.

In Edmonton, facing a lack of an audience capable of receiving CJCA's radio signal, The Journal ran a series of articles on how to build a crystal radio set for $3.

A simple cylindrical Quaker Oats box was the hardware of the Twenties. Wound with 120 turns of fine copper wire, and connected to a "cat's whisker" - a wire moved across a piece of crystal to capture radio waves - these early radio sets enabled not only Edmontonians, but farmers outside the city, and prospectors and trappers in the Far North to hear news and entertainment from the Alberta capital.

Edmonton radio clubs became popular, and included the Igloo Hut founded in 1922, to be followed by the Night Fliers and the Radio Ramblers.

In those early days, three Edmonton stations, CJCA, CHCY (operated by the International Federation of Bible Students) and CFCK (operated by Radio Supply Co. Ltd.) all shared the same radio frequency, taking allocated blocks during the broadcast day. This could lead to confusion for listeners and broadcasters both, as when one evening in 1926, CJCA and the bible students' station hit the airwaves at the same time.

It took a world heavyweight fight between boxers Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney in 1926 to breakCKUA carries Alberta's first School Broadcast, on May 23. the era of radio frequency cohabitation - and in fact, it appeared as if CJCA and the bible students were engaged in a bout of their own. The fight ran long and, depending upon the source, CJCA found its broadcast either cut or garbled - along with the final rounds - when the students' station CHCY took its usual sign-on time. Regardless, in this second of three Dempsey-Tunney fights, Dempsey lost - not unlike CHCY, which had its licence revoked. CJCA was given its own frequency.

One multifaceted CJCA employee would move on to become a moving force in Edmonton radio. From 1922-34, George Richard Agar Rice - popularly known as Dick - had worked for CJCA as news reporter, announcer, engineer, manager, and even janitor. In 1934, with his partner Hans Neilson, he would found Sunwapta Broadcasting. The pair bought radio station CFTP, and changed the call letters to feature their last names. CFRN went on the air in 1934, broadcasting at 100 watts from the top floor of the Royal George Hotel for 13 hours a day with a staff of seven. In 1935, the studios moved to the second floor of the CPR Building. From 1941-61, CFRN's signal increased from 1,000 watts to 50,000 watts. In 1951, an FM station was added, and the company was transformed to include television broadcasting. 

And though 1922 marks the sign-on for Edmonton's first commercial station, in that year as well, the first stirrings of radio as an educational resource surfaced at the University of Alberta. Harry P. Brown - nicknamed H.P. - the newly appointed head of the U of A's visual-aids department discussed the matter with his colleague Professor Albert Edward Ottewell, the director of the Faculty of Extension. "It'd be a smart idea if our own university got in on the deal … like the U of A operating as station of its own."

Brown was rebuffed for another five years, due to a lack of funding available from the university, and the ongoing development of broadcasting equipment.

"Taking the university to the people" - as Brown put it - would take until Nov. 21, 1927.


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