Radio Drama, National Exposure
and the Depression
By the Thirties, Edmonton's population had grown to 79,000. While CKUA was based on the city's U of A campus, many of its listeners lived in rural areas. The station's programming reflected this, with such shows as The Music Hour and The Homemaker's Hour. However, CKUA also showed its ability for broadcasting on location. Organ recitals from city churches were popular, as were those from Convocation Hall, which at the time was home to one of the best concert organs in Canada. Even dances from the Old Timers' Society were broadcast from Memorial Hall.
Provincially, CKUA's influence was growing via the Foothills Network, which by 1934 was carrying Edmonton programming in combination with CFAC Calgary and CJOC Lethbridge. A popular citizens' radio forum called The Round Table alternated between Edmonton and Calgary; Farm Radio Forum was a variation on the theme.
CKUA was also becoming something of a national concern, thanks to the Canadian National Railways' own radio network that was piped through the parlour cars of its transcontinental trains. Edmonton hit the rails from CKUA studios with a concert by a choir conducted by the station's music appreciation show host and organist at All Saints Cathedral, Vernon Barford.
Arts Alberta #100
Writer Elsie Park Gowan discusses her life as an actress and
English teacher. She talks about her childhood, writing, the creative
writing program at the Strathcona Seniors Centre, as well as some of
the people she has met throughout her life, including Peggy Holmes.
Yet, while CNR could provide a moveable feast of a national radio medium, a new development proved to make far better use of CKUA's resources and productions. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, then in the early years of operation, chose CKUA as its Edmonton outlet. Among the 235 programs offered by CBC's Western Regional Network were CKUA live-to-air radio dramas such as the New Lamps for Old history series, and Plays on CKUA by the Edmonton writers Elsie Park Gowan and Gwen Pharis Ringwood.
Gowan and Ringwood took part in perhaps the chief entertainment function of radio during the
Thirties. While the radio drama was a common source of weekly entertainment in the United States - particularly with serial dramas such as The Lone Ranger, The Shadow and Little Orphan Annie - in Canada, homegrown radio plays were in early development. Yet, according to Ringwood, in the Thirties and Forties, "for most people on farms and small prairie villages throughout the West, radio was their theatre."
The CKUA theatre both entertained and educated listeners. Gowan and Ringwood each wrote 10 30- to 60-minutes scripts for the New Lamps for Old series, earning the princely sum of $5 per script. Gowan would go on to write more than 200 scripts in all for CKUA, CJCA and the CBC. These would include the ambitious series The Building of Canada, first broadcast on CKUA in 1937 and 1938, and then given national exposure on the CBC in 1939. Ringwood, on the other hand, wrote primarily for the stage; in 1937, she left Edmonton to study playwriting in Chapel
Hill, North Carolina, and when she returned to Alberta, focused her energies on writing "folk plays" for the theatre: her portraits of this province's communities.
With both writers, the discovery for listeners of the world both inside and outside Alberta cannot be overstated. And with both writers, perhaps the first views of Alberta artists and their world of reality and make-believe were given to the rest of Canada.