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Nat’l Post: How the story of Canada before television is the story of radio

January 4, 2017 — 

As the National Post reports:

From its beginnings, broadcasting has caused political and cultural trouble in Canada. Government has always been unsure what to do with it, and at the moment we are still unsure how to handle it, as the current imbroglio over Netflix and other streaming services demonstrates. A discussion of broadcasting is never too late or too early. There are always difficult questions.

Len Kuffert, a University of Manitoba historian, has gone back to the beginnings of this conundrum in his new book, Canada Before Television: Radio, Taste, and the Struggle for Cultural Democracy (McGill-Queens University Press). The word “television” appears in the title, but this is a book about radio and its earliest impact.

When I think about Canada before television, I think about The Happy Gang, which ran for half an hour every weekday at lunchtime from 1937 to 1959, introducing a joyful bunch of singers and musicians and their regrettably unforgettable theme song (“Keep happy with the Happy Gang – keep happy, keep healthy, to heck with being wealthy”). Even in its dying days, crowds of fans created a national uproar when Maclean’s published an article, “The Unhappy Gang,” depicting the lot of them as a nest of vipers who mostly couldn’t stand each other.

But that’s not Kuffert’s story. In a good-hearted and sympathetic way, he charts the impact of radio when it was young.

What delighted people, and sometimes terrified them, was radio itself. It was going to be free, but how free and in what way? It was like the press, but it was also radically different. A newspaper could be read privately by someone alone in a corner, but radio might be heard by a whole family. Maybe it needed to be censored.

Would it be the same on Sunday as on other days? In Kuffert’s account we hear about the Eddie Cantor show, which was imported into Canada. The singer-comedian’s jokes were in questionable taste, according to some listeners. One said “It is hardly the thing to serve up to Canadians on a Sunday night.” This was the era when much of Canada tried to live by the Lord’s Day Act. Radio might corrupt even the Sabbath.

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