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English Radio in Quebec

CFCF before the Massey and Fowler Commissions of the 1950's

by Melanie Fishbane and Mary Vipond

Microphone CHYC (91 K)


  Sound Clips


Canadian Marconi Company aspires only to reasonable freedom of action. We want no money from the public purse, not even special favours accorded older forms of publication.  We seek opportunity to serve Canada better in company with other broadcasters and to do so in the light of knowledge of the needs and wishes of our community. (Finlayson  1956, 12)


Marconi portable set (135 K)

Canadian Wireless


            By the early 1950s, Canadian broadcasting was in a confused and conflicted state.  Tensions that had been simmering since the 1930s between private broadcasters and the CBC, which was not only the public broadcaster but also the regulatory body for all, reached the boiling point in this crucial decade. Two important Royal Commissions treated broadcasting issues during the 1950s, and came to markedly different conclusions.  Although the first, the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences (commonly called the Massey or Massey-Lévesque Commission), examined a number of cultural and scholarly fields, its section on broadcasting was central to its vision of the future of Canadian cultural life.  The second, the Royal Commission on Broadcasting or Fowler Commission, focused exclusively on broadcasting in the context of the issues raised by the arrival of television.  Both commissions grappled with the same fundamental goal: to ensure that Canadians received the "best and most appropriate programmes from every point of view." (Massey 1949-51,  276)  But  a number of questions remained. Who was most capable of providing the most appropriate programming for the “average” Canadian - the public or the private broadcasters?  Was broadcasting an industry as in the United States, or a public trust like in Great Britain?  What was the role of broadcasting in Canada in the face of the influx of American commercial culture? 

            Various scholars have examined how these commissions responded to these issues.  (See Peers 1969, Peers 1979, Raboy 1990,  Litt 1992)  Here we will look at the commissions from a narrower perspective by examining the representations made by S.M. Finlayson and other officials of the Canadian Marconi Co., the owners of CFCF, Canada's first radio station.  These men went before the two commissions to present the case of the private broadcasters for expansion of their role in the Canadian broadcasting system and against continued regulation by the CBC. The Marconi briefs are interesting because they reflect the concerns of a fairly typical private broadcaster in the fortunate position of having an unequalled history of broadcasting service to Canadians. 

Cartoon (169 K)


Canadian Broadcaster & Telescreen, April 1950


 Massey Commission

            The Massey Commission was created by the federal government in 1949 with the mandate to make recommendations about the state of Canadian culture.  Vincent Massey was the most prominent member of the wealthy Massey family and an influential member of the Liberal party.  He had been an early advisor to the organizers of the Canadian Radio League, an active proponent of the creation of the CBC, ambassador to the United States, and high commissioner to the Court of St. James.  He was later (in 1952) to became the first native-born Governor-General. (Raboy 1990, 95)  The other members of the commission were Norman Mackenzie, President of the University of British Columbia; Hilda Neatby, a distinguished historian from the University of Saskatchewan; Arthur Surveyer, a civil engineer; and Father Georges-Henri Lévesque, the Dominican founder and Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at Laval University. (Raboy 1990, 95; Bird 1988, 209)


            One of the central themes explored by the commission was how radio broadcasting could be used to encourage a Canadian identity. The commissioners began with the assumption that the airwaves are public property and therefore radio stations may only operate with the permission of the (federal) state.  But that left open the question of what the state's policy should be. According to the commission, there were two dominant views about the use of radio.  The first argued that radio was a means of entertainment, “a by-product of the advertising business.”  But the commissioners discounted this view almost immediately by adding that radio "may be regarded as a social influence too potent and too perilous to be ignored by the state which, in modern times, increasingly has assumed responsibility for the welfare of its citizens.” (Massey 1949-51,  276).  They were clearly more favourably inclined to the second view of radio, namely that it was a public trust and thus was to be used for the benefit of society “in the education and the enlightenment as well as for the entertainment of its members.” (Massey 1949-51, 276)  To fulfil this public trust, therefore, the commission recommended that the CBC must remain in control of a single broadcasting system.


            What then was to be the role of the private stations in this "public trust"?  The commission outlined in its report that the function of the private stations was to provide isolated areas of the country with programming, to provide a community service with local advertisers and to encourage and develop local talent. (Massey 1949-1951, 281) Because the private stations had made a place for themselves in the community, the CBC had "allowed" them to remain in operation as long as the CBC remained the ultimate authority over the whole system. (Massey 1949-1951, 281) 


            The commission reached this conclusion despite the submissions of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters (representing most private broadcasters) and of individual station owners like Canadian Marconi's president S.M. Finlayson, who presented a very different vision of broadcasting, one closer to the market-driven entertainment-oriented model.  Most interesting, however, was how Finlayson argued that this approach to broadcasting was also in the interest of the Canadian public, and a service to the Canadian people.


            In his thirty-one page brief, presented at the hearings held in Montreal, Finlayson outlined what he considered to be the main popular misconceptions concerning the role of publicly and privately run radio stations.   He argued that there were five factors contributing to the slow development of radio broadcasting since the commencement of the publicly owned national network in 1932.  The first factor was the misinterpretation of the idea of the “alienation of the public domain” which Finlayson claimed was used as an “excuse or reason for restrictive legislation or regulation” (Finlayson 1949, 5) and based upon the premise that there were only a limited number of channels available.  Finlayson argued that this view was far from the truth, and that the limitations to channels and stations were not technical but only economic. ( Finlayson 1949, 5) He claimed that the only way for the “alienation of the public domain” in AM and FM radio to occur would be if “the number of channels were so severely restricted that only one station could be used where we now have many.” (Finlayson 1949, 5) He also pointed out that the field of FM radio had been “scarcely touched” which meant that there was a full range of channels to be used.  He argued that in the city of Montreal, for example, there were five channels available, two of which the CBC wanted, leaving three for the private broadcasters.  He also mentioned that the Ultra-High Frequency band had yet to be even considered.  Thus, Finlayson urged the public commission to re-examine this concept and to come to the conclusion that their fears were “without foundation.” (Finlayson 1949, 6)


            The second factor Finlayson outlined concerned the terminology used in defining what were “Public” and  “Private” stations.   The so-called “Private Station”, he argued, was completely controlled by the government despite the fact that “its physical being is the result of investment by a group of ordinary citizens” because the licence of operation was issued by the federal government (Finlayson 1949, 7).  He went on to suggest, in an ironic play on words, that a so-called "Private" station could not survive if it did not "serve the public in its own area."(Finlayson, 1949, 8)   This was in sharp contrast to the supposedly public network, he claimed, which despite being paid for by taxpayers was really controlled by the government and could go on indefinitely without informing the public.  Thus, he concluded, "the Private Station is, in fact, much more a public station than the Public Station itself." (Finlayson 1949, 8)


             Finlayson’s third “fundamental misconception” referred to  the  old idea that radio broadcasting must inevitably be some kind of monopoly.  He argued that this view was unsubstantiated and no longer applied because the Department of Transport possessed the authority to prevent a private company monopolizing the industry.  He did argue, however, that the possibility of a monopoly did arise when and if the private broadcaster was not permitted to grow. Here Finlayson continued his theme that the private broadcaster was more a public station than the governmentally funded one.  He argued that the “amusing” references to the “private” station as a “community” station reflected this.  He proceeded to examine the concept of “community” and concluded that due to the fact that radio waves could in fact reach as far as New York City, the idea of a “community” could not be so geographically constricted.  He concluded therefore that there was no “sensible” reason for restriction of the size of a “radio community” beyond the technical limitations of the medium itself and argued against “arbitrary limitations of power” because they were not in the public interest.


            The fourth fallacy Finlayson identified was the emphasis placed by the CBC on public service broadcasting using local talent and the hiring of professional musicians through a limited number of authorized agencies.  Finlayson argued for the middle of the road - he did not want to use too much “immature talent that can make better use of the private practice room or the school auditorium,” but neither did he want to spend a great deal of money on professionals.  (Finlayson 1949, 11).  His point was simply that the CBC was interfering too much in the programming choices of the private stations.  “Too much is frequently said about community service” he concluded, “but all too little consideration, we fear, has been given to the great contribution that has been made by all stations down through the years...” (Finlayson 1949, 12).


            The fifth fallacy Finlayson criticized was the “misconception” that a private network organization was somehow not in the public interest. (Finlayson, 1949, 12) He suggested that a network would help those areas of the country where there were no radio stations as well as greatly improve the standard of listening in other areas. Thus he argued that proper operation of a private network would actually benefit the public and strengthen Canadian broadcasting, not weaken it. (Finlayson 1949, 13)  


            Finlayson recommended that the “Canadian Broadcasting Structure” should be based upon three elements: the (private) enterprise broadcasting station, the nationally-owned broadcasting system and  an independent authority whose agenda would be to “ensure that Canadian listeners get the best and most diversified radio service possible.” (Finlayson 1949, 20)  The private broadcaster, Finlayson outlined, would rely on its own funding, motivated by progress, and would be dedicated to serving the community’s special interests which, as Finlayson argued, was its “natural” role. This type of broadcasting station would only be responsible to a higher authority regarding matters such as the “allocation of channels, the maintenance of proper technical standards and whatever rules may be necessary to insure the maintenance of what can be described as ordinary public decency.” (Finlayson 1949, 18)


            Finlayson argued that there was a need in Canada for nationally owned broadcaster whose primary responsibility would be to create and maintain a Canadian consciousness.He also argued, however, that the national body should be removed from commercial activity entirely in order to stop the “spiralling” deficits in the private stations’ revenues.  But the national broadcaster should not also be the regulatory authority.


            Therefore, the third element Finlayson called for was the“vital[ly] need[ed]” independent regulatory authority which would be the “Custodian of the Public Interest.”  This authority would recognize that “no one group of listeners should be consistently neglected.” (Finlayson 1949, 20) He argued that the creation of this body would straighten out all problems in radio legislation and most espeically the complete lack of “progress” in the field. 

            One of the federal regulations then in place that was contrary to the public interest in Finlayson’s view was the CBC’s foot-dragging on the future development of FM radio.  While the CBC wished to stake its claim to FM frequencies, it did not feel the time was right for the allocation of these frequencies to private entrepreneurs.  As a result, certain major AM stations like CFCF were given FM frequencies, but could not program them independently; instead they had to use them as re-broadcasters for their AM programming.  Finlayson did not agree with this policy at all.  Because ‘Frequency Modulation is tied, as it were, to the apron strings of its amplitude moderated parent and can do nothing but echo the programmes of the AM station, “ Finlayson stated, many opportunities for better radio service were being missed.  (Finlayson 1949, 22)


            Finlayson believed that an independent regulatory authority would act as a “court of appeal” so that disputes such as this one over the growth of FM radio could be “properly assessed.” (Finlayson 1949, 27) The “custodian” would not be a single individual but a “small group” who could be nominated from different departments within the federal government as well as from private enterprise.  The body would be separate from other government and business organizations and would report either to the Ministrer or to Parliament.  In other words, Finlayson believed that what Canada needed was an independent regulatory authority to supervise two separate broadcasting systems, one public and one private.


            As we have already seen, despite acknowledging the "frankness and clarity" of the arguments of private broadcasters like Finlayson, the commission did not respond favourably:


                                    We believe that Canadian radio broadcasting legislation contemplates and effectively provides for one national system; that the private stations have been licensed only because they can play a useful part within that system; and that the CBC control of network broadcasting, of the issue and renewal of licenses, of advertising and of other matters related to radio broadcasting, is a proper expression of the power of the CBC to exercise control over all radio broadcasting policies and programmes in Canada. ( Massey 1949-51,  283)


The commission’s conclusions were based upon the notion that broadcasting in Canada was not an industry but a public service and that while private enterprises could take part in this service, they had to be subservient. Thus the commission recommended that radio regulation should continue to be placed under the control of the CBC.  The commission also rejected the private broadcasters' request to form local networks because it believed that a more lenient approach would lead to further Americanization of Canadian radio and to unfair commercial competition for the CBC at the national network level.

            The commission did recognize that the private stations had some legitimate grievances, however.  It recommended that whenever the CBC Board discussed matters affecting their interests, they not only must be informed, but must have the right to participate, and the right to appeal against a "substantial miscarriage of justice" to a Federal Court. (Massey 1949-51, 289) Moreover, it agreed with the private broadcasters that a three-year licence term was too short, and recommended that it be increased to five years and be subject to cancellation only for "non-observance of clearly-defined conditions." (Massey 1949-51, 290)  Even more significantly, the commissioners recommended that the CBC's local stations cease to compete for advertising with private broadcasters except in the rare instances where no private station existed in a community.  The commission supported, however, the continued use of commercial programs on the national network, on the grounds that the CBC needed the revenues, that many popular programs were available to Canadian listeners only in this manner, and that listeners would turn to American outlets if these programs were not provided by the CBC.   


            In sum, while the commission did respond positively to some of the specific grievances of the private broadcasters, it stood firm on the main point: that the CBC must remain in charge of a single national system.  It did not accept Finlayson's argument that private broadcasters provided a significant public service, but rather concluded that the private broadcasters' real priority was commerce, and that the public service goals of radio could only be fulfilled by the CBC:


                                    We are ... convinced that the policies advocated by the private stations must lead to an extension of the commercial tendencies in radio programmes which are already too strong, and which have been the subject of much complaint.  We were particularly impressed by the fact that few of the representatives of private stations who appeared before us recognized any public responsibility beyond the provision of acceptable entertainment and community services.  The general attitude was that the government might, if it chose, subsidize "cultural programmes" but that the private stations must be left free to pursue their business enterprise subject only to limitations imposed by decency and good taste.  We offer no criticism of this frankly commercial attitude; we cite it only as evidence that those who honestly hold these views are not primarily concerned with the national function of radio.  (Massey 1949-51,  284-285)


 Radio's sponsor (133 K)


 Canadian Broadcaster & Telescreen, Feb. 21, 1951


Fowler Commission:


            In 1956, Finlayson, accompanied by his manager J.A. Hammond, his assistant manager, R. E. Misener, his engineer J.C. Douglass and E.W. Farmer, went before another Royal Commission on Broadcasting,  once again to discuss the role of the private broadcaster in Canada.  This commission was popularly known as the Fowler Commission after the Chairman, Robert Fowler, a lawyer, a Liberal, and a man who had worked on the Wartime Prices and Trade Board and the Rowell-Sirois Royal Commission on Dominion-Provincial Relations. (Bird 1988, 250)  The other Fowler Commission members were Edmonde Turcotte, a newspaper editor who was also from the Wartime Prices and Trade Board and at the time of his appointment was the Canadian ambassador to Colombia, and James Stewart, the president of the Canadian Bank of Commerce. 


            The objective of the Fowler Commission was to recommend a policy for television, including measures to provide an adequate proportion of Canadian programs for both public and private broadcasting, licensing and control of private stations, and the financial and managerial requirements of the CBC. (Raboy 1990, 119) The commission was instructed by the federal government that two essential features of the Massey Commission's recommendations were to remain.  The first was that the granting of licenses would remain under the control of Parliament and the second, that the central feature of Canadian broadcasting would continue to be a public agency for producing and distributing programs. (Raboy 1990, 119)   


            Finlayson’s concerns mimicked many of the points he had made at the Massey-Lévesque Commission in 1949, namely the misconceptions concerning the availability of broadcasting channels, the definition of what was the “public interest” and who was responsible for it, and the establishment of an independent and impartial regulatory body that would control broadcasting in Canada.  There were, however, some new arguments made by Finlayson in response to some of the different concerns of the federal government during the mid-1950s.  By this time, the federal government was much more worried about the “quality” of what would be considered “worthy” Canadian programming.  Another issue was who was responsible for producing this kind of programming - the public or the private broadcasters.  While Finlayson understood that there was a need in Canada for a central body that would be responsible for regulating the country’s broadcasting, he believed that it should have far less direct control over programs than the CBC had or desired to have:

I take the view the government is the servant and not the master of the people.  I also take the view that the less government we have the better.  I admit the need for some government, and I think that when government intrudes itself into a highly controversial and almost undecidable question as to what constitutes a good programme for Canada, and its future, that the government has stepped out of its proper role. (Finlayson 1956, 7-8)


            Using analogies to the “freedom of the press,” Finlayson attempted to provide reasons why the success of a program really depended upon the public.  When the public ceased to be interested in something, argued Finlayson, then it would turn to something else.  He stressed that the private broadcaster believed that “man has the right as an individual to decide for himself what is useful and desirable in his world and to choose for himself the substance of his thoughts and his way of life.” (Finlayson 1956, 5-6)  The government, turn, had the “responsibility” to “guide” and “influence” the people, but not to force certain views upon them.  Finlayson essentially argued that the fate of the private broadcaster should be left in the public’s hands or, to put it another way, that private broadcasters had no responsibility to provide Canadian programs, only popular ones.


            By using a quotation from the Massey Commission, Finlayson continued to dispute claims that it was the government’s responsibility to define what was “worthy” Canadian programming and concluded that there could never be a completely objective arbitrator of “good taste in any art.” (Finlayson 1956, 9) He urged the commission to understand that private broadcasters existed to provide an alternative for the Canadian listener. Finlayson then took this point one step further by arguing that it was a complete misconception to believe that somehow private broadcasters, with their tendency toward American or American-style programs, would undermine the future of Canadian culture and national well-being.  Finlayson did not see the American influence as much of a danger to Canadian national identity; he felt that the greater danger was from our  “poor or clumsy productions.”( Finlayson 1956, 9) .


            Obviously the question of who was responsible for regulating programming was the bone of contention between the commission and the private broadcasters. The following discussion between Finlayson and Fowler represents how problematic this was:

CHAIRMAN: Do you think that government is responsible also to the will of the people?

FINLAYSON: Much less so, Mr. Chairman, than the individual private operator.

CHAIRMAN: I am not thinking about operations; I am talking about policies now.

FINLAYSON: I have the feeling that it is, and I have the further feeling that it is in part due to this unrealistic concept that we have gradually drifted into where a great (“many” handwritten in) people seem to feel that because government does or decides this or that, it is inherently right. (Finlayson and Fowler  1956a,  8)  


It is clear from this debate that the two parties disagreed on who was most responsive - and responsible - to the will of the people.  Here Finlayson again argued, as he had before the Massey Commission, that the private stations had a greater interest than the CBC in catering to the listening public; in other words, that they were closest and most attuned to the real needs of ordinary Canadians.


            In closing, Finlayson made four recommendations. First, he urged the commission to endorse the proposal that radio (and television) licencees be allowed to operate as they wanted without any government interference.  As with the Massey Commission, he asked for permission to create a national private network because he believed that it was “necessary to the development of radio in Canada.” (Finlayson 1956, 13)  


            His last two recommendations concerned the development of the CBC and its future.  He asked the commission to “re-examine” the CBC’s effectiveness and the possibility of changing its programming directives.  By referring back to the Massey Commission’s three objectives for the CBC, Finlayson argued that the CBC as an experiment had failed. For example, regarding the first of these objectives, adequate coverage of the entire population, Finlayson argued that adequate coverage in areas that had none previously had been provided by the private broadcasters and that, in fact, the CBC was just duplicating what was already in existence.   In terms of the second objective, the provision of adequate opportunities for Canadian talent, Finlayson insisted that the CBC network was in fact “inhibiting” Canadian talent by putting programme production “in the hands of relatively few people.”  As a result, he continued, “the number of outlets for talent and self-expression has been held down to the minimum.” He argued that the third objective outlined by the Commission, resistance to the power of American culture in Canada, could not be achieved by limiting the number of (TV) stations because that in fact encouraged Canadians to turn to the United States.  Finlayson stressed that because of the CBC’s failure to reach its goals, it should confine itself to program production only and concentrate on “purely Canadian cultural programmes which might not otherwise be created.” (Finlayson 1956, 15)

            In its conclusions and recommendations, the Fowler Commission was a little more sympathetic to the private broadcasters than the Massey Commission had been.  They outlined four recommendations as follows:

(1) that the mixed Canadian system of public and private ownership is here to stay;


(2) that the state agency may grow, as Canada grows, but its functions are not to be extended to do the whole job of providing radio and television services to Canadians;


(3) that private stations should individually be required to justify the continued grant of a valuable public franchise and that some may lose their licences because of a shabby performance, but private operators should stop worrying about the bogey  of nationalization that has filled them with suspicion and fear in the past; and


(4) that, for the foreseeable future, we will continue to have a single broadcasting system in which all Canadian radio and television stations, public and private, present and future, will be integral parts, regulated and controlled by an agency representing the public interest and responsible to Parliament. (Fowler 1957, 13)


            Most importantly, the Fowler Commission finally accepted the private broadcasters’ long-time plea for the separation of the CBC's operating and regulatory functions.  It recommended the creation of a public agency, responsible to Parliament, which would be in charge of "all elements in Canadian broadcasting."  "It should not ... be part of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation," but should be a "new Board, differently named."  Both the CBC and the private stations would be answerable to the new Board for their performance. ( Fowler 1957, 90)  While some at the CBC took this to mean a sort of splitting of the CBC Board into two parts, it seems more likely that in fact it intended what the private broadcasters had been requesting for years: an independent regulatory agency. Less than a year and a half later, with the Conservatives newly elected to power, the independent Board of Broadcast Governors (BBG), the predecessor to the current Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), was created.


            Mr. Finlayson did not succeed in persuading either the Massey or Fowler Commissions that the private broadcasters best represented the public interest because they were closest and most responsive to the people.  The principle of a broadcasting regulatory agency answerable only to Parliament did not die.  But he and his fellow private broadcasters did succeed during the 1950s in convincing the government that the CBC should no longer exercise that regulatory function.  In this crucial decade which ushered in the dawn of television, the Canadian broadcasting system in fact was broken into two parts, one public and one private, and the way was cleared for the growing dominance of the private sector in the years to come.





Bird, Roger, 1988.  Documents of Canadian Broadcasting (Ottawa: Carleton University Press)


Finlayson, S. M., 1949.  Brief to be presented by Canadian Marconi Company to the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences at its hearing in Montreal, November1949, National Archives of Canada,MG 28, ser. III 72, vol. 77.


Finlayson, S. M., 1956. To the Royal Commission on Broadcasting, April 15, 1956, National Archives of Canada, MG 28, ser. III 72, vol. 77.


Finlayson, S. M., 1956a.  CMC Testimony Before the Radio Commission on Broadcasting, 1956, National Archives of Canada, MG 28, ser. III 72, vol. 77.


Fowler, Robert M., 1957.  Report of the Royal Commission on Broadcasting (Ottawa: Edmond Cloutier)


Litt, Paul, 1992.  The Muses, the Masses, and the Massey Commission (Toronto: University of Toronto Press)


Massey, Vincent, 1949-51. Report of the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences, (Ottawa: Edmond Cloutier)


Peers, Frank, 1969. The Politics of Canadian Broadcasting, 1920-1951 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press)


Peers, Frank, 1979.  The Public Eye: Television and the Politics of Canadian Broadcasting, 1952-1968 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press)


Raboy, Marc, 1990.  Missed Opportunities: the Story of Canadian Broadcasting Policy, (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press)



Projets réalisés
English Radio in  Quebec

CFCF: The Early Years of Radio (see also Anecdotes...)

CFCF before the Massey and Fowler Commissions of the 1950s

In the Name of the "Public Interest": CFCF and some Controversies...

A Brief History of CJAD

Relations among the English Stations in Montreal

Chronological Master List of Quebec's English-Language Radio Stations

Galerie d'images / Gallery Extraits sonores / Sound Clips  





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© 1997 Phonothèque québécoise / Musée du son.
Mise à jour le 29 juillet 2004

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