The Voice of Newfoundland

Susan NewhookSusan Newhook reviews a new book by author Jeff Webb.
The Voice of Newfoundland chronicles the decade-long social history of the Broadcasting
Corporation of Newfoundland.

Jeff Webb’s social history of the Broadcasting Corporation of Newfoundland is an engaging read for any student of Canadian broadcasting or public broadcasting history. Reading The Voice of Newfoundland, I was struck repeatedly by how the story of the BCN offers case studies in a range of related areas. These include the early development of  mandates, business models and program plans for public broadcasting; the broadcasters’ struggles to balance elitist goals with mass tastes, and the public interest with the bottom line; and the stew of creativity, drive, technology, personalities, shameless self-promotion and serendipity that goes into forging connections with any audience.  

The BCN must have been one of history’s smallest public broadcasters, serving fewer than a half-million people for a mere ten years before handing its license,  resources and many of its employees to the CBC under the Terms of Union with Canada in 1949. 

Webb traces the evolution of the BCN from its first days as a tool of reconstruction, driven by the British-appointed Commission of Government. (In 1932, the commissioners – three men from London, three from St. John’s – had taken over the running of a government bankrupted by the Depression, corruption, mismanagement and the human and financial toll of the first world war.) The station was not the first for the island: in fact, it took over one of several outlets which had been broadcasting for a number of years in the St. John’s area. The BCN had ambitions to reach beyond the capital and its neighbouring communities, to the hundreds of small and remote outports along the coast, where most people lived.  

Unlike Canadian politicians, with their worries about US encroachment on the country’s airwaves, Newfoundland’s “habitually tight-fisted Commission” was driven to spend money on a radio station because it saw the new medium as a chance both to publicize its projects, and to prepare Newfoundlanders for a resumption of self-government. Webb shows how, in setting up the BCN, civil servants and consultants drew heavily on the examples of the BBC and the CBC. They adopted the CBC’s policy on commercials and pasted parts of the CBC Act directly into their draft mandate for the BCN.  

BBC executives advised that since “there was little talent in Newfoundland…any government-owned broadcaster would have to rely exclusively on imported entertainment” as seasoning for its educational and information programming, but most local officials felt otherwise. Webb notes that the governor himself “suggested that the best way to ensure listeners would hear the government’s messages was the use of Newfoundland talent to create programs with a ‘character distinctive of the country’.” Programming overall would be a mix of in-house educational broadcasts, and those produced with or by commercial interests. The result was a distinctive mix of “entertainment and enlightenment” which helped to create a popular culture reaching beyond the few urbanized areas. This is one of several content debates outlined in the book that will ring bells for students of public broadcasting.

Journalism was something of an afterthought in the founding of the BCN. Newscasts were left largely to the BBC’s Empire Service and to local sponsors, and coverage of major local events might be handed to whoever was available: among many anecdotes in the book, the story of how the  station manager and a BCN board member covered the 1939 Royal Visit is great fun to read. At a time when party politics were on hold, the BCN’s founders seem to have defined non-partisanship as avoiding direct criticism of the government. Journalism policies, such as they were, were developed by the bureaucrats and massaged by columnists, managers, and on-air hosts, one of whom would build a political career and a province in the process.

Local news programs were sponsored by local businesses: at the BCN, the NBC News came courtesy of the Newfoundland Butter Company. The most popular were the The Gerald S. Doyle News Bulletin, and The Barrelman, hosted by a local newspaper columnist named Joe Smallwood.  In both cases, the term ‘news’ was often loosely defined. As Webb explains, “The (Doyle) program was somewhat like a bulletin board in a public space upon which people could post notices…Doyle paid for the collection of local news, which could be gleaned from newspapers or contributed by the public…It also contained personal messages of the sort that often were transmitted by telegraph or telephone” for people in communities with ready access to neither. The Barrelman also included input from listeners, along with Smallwood’s often tall tales aimed at “making Newfoundland better known to Newfoundlanders.”

The war years brought a growing appetite for news and entertainment ‘from away’ but the BCN’s crowning achievement came afterwards, when it undertook the massive task of serving as a loudspeaker for the debate over the country’s very future. Night after night, from the fall of 1946 through January of 1948, it aired the entire National Convention, a congress of elected representatives charged with deciding what would follow the Commission of Government. The debates were recorded in the legislature and played back at night, when radio signals reached into the outports. Entire communities gathered around one radio to hear the cases for a return to responsible government, a form of economic union with the United States, or confederation with Canada.

The job was huge and expensive: the BCN had to cancel regular programs, including money-making sponsored shows. Further, manager William Galgay reported, “The recording and subsequent broadcast of the Convention requires the full time services of practically all the studio operating staff and the shortwave transmissions of the same material (to the BCN’s second station at) Corner Brook further complicates matters.”

Nonetheless, the BCN became the conduit for a marathon debate without equal in North American radio or television: for months, Newfoundlanders hung on every word of the debates broadcast each night. At first, the idea of broadcasting the entire convention had been dismissed as impossible, but Webb says Smallwood, the well-known BCN broadcaster turned pro-Confederation politician, created a demand for it with his remarkable combination of oratorical skills, savvy political timing, and media sense. In the final, run-off referendum, St. John’s voted against Confederation, but the outport vote carried the day.

Just as John F. Kennedy said of television after the 1960 presidential election, “We wouldn’t have had a prayer without that little gadget,” so did Joseph R. Smallwood “credit that (narrow winning) margin” in the Confederation vote “to the use of radio…Many of the (anti-confederate) debaters at the Convention disdained the microphones. They wouldn’t go near them, with the result that my point of view was heard loud and clear.”

Smallwood’s is just one of many stories that stand out in this book. One reason is that the BCN’s compact size and timeline make it easy to follow them. Another is that Webb, an associate professor of history at Memorial University in St. John’s, has collected a wealth of information and anecdote in writing what he describes as a sequel to his Ph.D. dissertation. My journalist’s bias is to wish for new interviews in academic books such as this one: a very few pioneers from the time are still around, a fact in which I hope student readers of The Voice of Newfoundland will find a follow-up project or two.

It’s no criticism of Webb’s work to say I want to know more about some of the subjects he touches on in The Voice of Newfoundland; quite the contrary, it suggests how much more there is to be done in his wake. One example would be a look at how Smallwood’s communications skills and media-management knowledge compare with that of another legendary broadcaster-turned-politician, Rene Levesque. In the area of cultural and media history, the BCN’s decision to cultivate local talent seems to have helped create a widespread popular culture which otherwise might not have existed. This may help to explain why, three generations later, so many of Canada’s best-known entertainers come from Newfoundland and Labrador. As well, the BCN broadcasters’ relationship with their audience – the listeners’ sense of ownership and participation in BCN programming – is worth studying in the context of any public broadcaster’s mandate. As someone who grew up in and around the CBC, my own sense is that this relationship was inherited by CBC Newfoundland and Labrador, and contributed to its influence and programming success in the province, at least into the late 1980s.

However, Webb’s goal is to chronicle the BCN’s life, not reflect on its aftereffects, and his archival research is thorough and rigorous. He has ferreted out letters, memos, scripts, transcriptions and other documents from university and provincial collections as well as those in Ottawa, Washington and London. The material is vital to reconstructing the story of any broadcaster, especially since, as Webb notes, “we have little evidence to examine for the tone and inflections of voices, the character of the music and dozens of other aspects of the content. A fraction of the programming of the Broadcasting Corporation was recorded, given the difficulties and expense of recording, and only a small portion of that has survived.”

While it may well  “reveal what the Corporation judged to be worth the trouble to preserve”, it’s also a reminder of how much of Canada’s broadcast history lies unstudied and unarchived in back rooms and basements across the country, when it survives at all. The Voice of Newfoundland is a valuable addition to the history of Canadian broadcasting beyond the Golden Horseshoe.