Let’s do the show right here.
Early in 1929, Roy Thomson – a salesman for De Forest Crosley, manufacturers of radio sets – moved, with his wife and family, to North Bay, Ontario.
North Bay was the sort of small Canadian town where ‘everyone knew everyone’. In summer, the town struggled to exploit its location on the shore of Lake Nipissingby advertising itself as a tourist resort. In the winter, it often became a freezing, forty-below-zero hell.
Times were tough in North Bay and district. After the Wall Street Crash, later the same year, things would get even tougher.
In this isolated part of Canada, where the nights were long and cold and where there was little entertainment, the comforting sound of music and voices from big metropolitan cities made the idea of owning a radio irresistible. Thomson knew that, if he could only get the sets into local homes on trial, a sale should ensue – provided that the reception was good enough.
However, reception from far-distant transmitters was so bad that what most customers heard were not pleasing sounds, but gratings, whines and cracklings. When Thomson returned, hoping for a sale, he was ordered to “take that goddam yowling thing away”.
Solving the demand problem
To avoid financial ruin there was only one solution. Thomson would have to open a radio station of his own right there in North Bay. He had no licence to do so, no technical knowledge, no equipment and absolutely no capital.
Having been told that a licence was essential, he was informed that no more were to be issued. He would have to obtain one already in existence.
The records showed that the Abitibi [Lumber] Company of Iroquois Falls had one. It had bought it with the intention of maintaining a radio link with its lumber camps but always talked by telephone and had never transmitted a single radio message. For one dollar, the company agreed to loan its licence to Thomson for one year, on condition that it could either ask for it back or, by not asking for it back, allow it to vest in Thomson.
Next, he approached the management of North Bay’s Capitol Cinema and pointed out that, backstage, there was room for a broadcasting studio. If the Cinema would give him this space for nothing, he would allow it to advertise its films and dance-hall free of charge. Probably assuming that Thomson had a rich backer, the management agreed. The space consisted of two floors, one of which was to be the studio, roofed over with old chicken wire and mattresses. Communication between the two was achieved by banging on the heating pipes.
Next he needed a transmitter. Because he bought his radio batteries from them, he enquired at the offices of the Canadian National Carbon Company. The Carbon Company had its own radio station in Toronto. Years ago, it had discarded its first (50-watt) transmitter, about the size of a tea chest, which it happened still to have. The cost would be 500 dollars. “That’s OK,” Thomson agreed, “but I don’t have any cash to pay for it”. “I’ll give you a promissory note for three months”. This unorthodox proposal to sell an old transmitter for which no one had any use and to accept a note that might turn out to be valueless was agreed to. All that was needed was an expert to make the transmitter work. Amazingly the Carbon Company agreed that one of its engineers – Jack Barnaby – should travel up to North Bayand install its ancient transmitter in Thomson’s new studio.
Barnaby was an ingenious young man – and ‘ingenious’ he needed to be when he saw what passed for a ‘radio station’ at North Bay.
A generator was needed which had to be cheap and free from ‘hum’. So Barnaby improvised by stringing together with wire the elements from a number of electric irons – no anxieties about ‘Health and Safety’ in 1930!
Meanwhile, Thomson was in Main Street, selling advertising time. He offered one hundred word ‘spots’ for a modest 35 cents each and having successfully extracted his 35 cents worth from Sol Waiser, the doyen of North Bay’s traders, he soon obtained orders from most of the remaining stores and traders.
Scraping by with local news radio
Broadcasting costs were kept ‘low’. Any music the Capitol Orchestra did not provide free was obtained from records exchanged for a ‘spot’ from the local music shop. Weather forecasts were improvised. Whoever was announcing looked out of the window and guessed; and the result seemed no less efficient than the far-too-expensive meteorological services. Church and local choirs cost nothing and were much heard. Radio was still a novelty and local people – pleased to perform for nothing or nearly nothing just to be heard ‘on air’ – were very versatile.
Thomson had major debts to De Forest Crosley, promissory notes to the Canadian National Carbon Company and salary expenses. So it was as well that the radio station’s costs were low. But, at least, around North Bay, the demand for radio sets had increased. Metropolitan words and music still remained a dream for the future but, for those tuned into Radio North Bay, gratings, whines and cracklings were a thing of the past. And the girl from next door could sometimes sing surprisingly well!
If you want to find out more, see ‘Roy Thomson of Fleet Street’ by Russell Braddon (Collins 1965).