Ra­dio Queens


Canada's History - - CONTENTS - By Nelle Oos­terom and Garry Moir

When ra­dio was as hot as so­cial me­dia is to­day, some fe­male broad­cast­ers had tremen­dous star power.

BACK IN THE EARLY 1920S, when com­mer­cial ra­dio was still an ex­per­i­ment, any­thing seemed pos­si­ble. There were even some women who, per­haps be­cause they had gained the vote and had tasted in­de­pen­dence through wartime em­ploy­ment, saw an op­por­tu­nity in this ex­cit­ing new field.

Jane Gray — a di­vorced war bride from Eng­land with three chil­dren to sup­port — ap­par­ently had no qualms about walk­ing into newly li­censed ra­dio sta­tion CJGC in London, On­tario, in 1924 and pitch­ing for a job. She was hired on the strength of her abil­ity to read po­etry and to dish out ad­vice to lis­ten­ers. How­ever, the job paid a pit­tance, and af­ter a few years she moved to Toronto, where she hit the big time.

Nor was Gray the only one. A sub­stan­tial num­ber of Cana­dian women sky­rock­eted to sud­den ra­dio fame in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. Few re­mem­ber their names to­day.

Among those who have faded from pub­lic mem­ory is Lil­ian Shaw. Shaw was eigh­teen years old and fresh out of busi­ness col­lege when she landed work with CKY Winnipeg in 1923. The sta­tion was owned and op­er­ated by the Man­i­toba gov­ern­ment through the Man­i­toba Tele­phone Sys­tem, and what got her the job was her abil­ity to play the pi­ano. In those pi­o­neer­ing days of early ra­dio, most pro­gram­ming was live, and many of the en­ter­tain­ers re­quired

ac­com­pa­ni­ment. Hav­ing some­one who could an­swer the tele­phone, type, man­age the of­fice, and play the pi­ano would have been an in­valu­able as­set to any early ra­dio sta­tion.

The de­ci­sion to put Shaw on the air as a staff an­nouncer was largely a func­tion of ne­ces­sity. CKY man­ager Darby Coats had to keep the sta­tion go­ing an hour and a quar­ter each day and needed to fill two hours of evening pro­gram­ming three times a week. There was also a Sun­day church broad­cast. Re­sources were scarce, as Man­i­toba Premier John Bracken had made it clear that he ex­pected the gov­ern­ment-owned ra­dio sta­tion at least to break even.

Coats ob­vi­ously needed some as­sis­tance. With the only other CKY em­ployee be­ing a tech­ni­cian, Shaw was the lone per­son avail­able to help. Shaw her­self cred­ited Coats with some for­ward think­ing. “He thought it would be a novel idea to have a lady’s voice” on the air, she said in a CBC Ra­dio in­ter­view at the time of her re­tire­ment in 1971.

Shaw read the news, pro­vided grain and live­stock re­ports, in­tro­duced record­ings, ac­com­pa­nied other en­ter­tain­ers on the pi­ano, and even han­dled tech­ni­cal du­ties. In a 1938 in­ter­view published in Man­i­toba Call­ing, a mag­a­zine published by the Man­i­toba Tele­phone Sys­tem, she ad­mit­ted that her strong­est mem­ory was “the ner­vous­ness I felt at the prospect of hav­ing to an­nounce at the mi­cro­phone.” She ad­mit­tedly found read­ing the farm mar­kets a “dull” chore.

An­other chal­lenge was “the tir­ing job of per­pet­u­ally wind­ing the phonograph. Some­times we would for­get to wind it and it would run down in the mid­dle of a num­ber.”

Pro­gram­ming was noth­ing if not eclec­tic. Church ser­vices and jazz shows proved pop­u­lar. Talks by Man­i­toba Agri­cul­ture Col­lege pro­fes­sors on top­ics like wheat rust may have been hits in the coun­try but did not ap­peal to city lis­ten­ers.

En­ter­tain­ers were ex­pected to work with­out pay. Sound ef­fects were cre­ated live in the stu­dio. “Artists ar­rived when they could (some­times they didn’t)” is the way pro­gram­ming was de­scribed by Man­i­toba Call­ing. Per­form­ers would whis­per the ti­tles of their num­bers to the an­nouncer when some­one else was per­form­ing at the mi­cro­phone. “If the pro­gram ran an hour or so over­time it did not mat­ter.”

Coats re­called how Shaw helped to phys­i­cally re­move from the stu­dio a drunken woman who had showed up to sing. The singer’s morn­ing au­di­tion was “ex­cel­lent,” but when she ar­rived for her per­for­mance in the af­ter­noon she “stood some­what un­steadily by the pi­ano and in­sisted upon hic­cough­ing ‘Star of Eve’ un­til she could be per­suaded to leave qui­etly.”

As to whether lis­ten­ers had reser­va­tions about a fe­male voice on the ra­dio, Shaw re­called twenty-five years later that her re­cep­tion was “very favourable most of the time. I made won­der­ful friends amongst the lis­ten­ers. Over the years they got used to my voice just like any­one else’s.” In fact, Shaw was quite pop­u­lar. In 1926, a widely cir­cu­lated Chicago-based pub­li­ca­tion called

Ra­dio Digest ran an an­nual con­test al­low­ing lis­ten­ers to vote on the most pop­u­lar announcers in the United States and Canada.


Coats nom­i­nated “Lil­ian Shaw of CKY Winnipeg, the finest lit­tle ra­dio an­nouncer in the do­min­ion.”

Shaw ran away with the race. Vot­ing took place over a five­month pe­riod, and by Septem­ber she was de­clared Canada’s most pop­u­lar ra­dio an­nouncer, garner­ing more than eigh­teen thou­sand votes. Worth not­ing is that all seven of her Cana­dian ri­vals were men. Of the top fifty Amer­i­can announcers, there was not one woman. In an­nounc­ing Shaw’s vic­tory, Ra­dio Digest de­scribed her as “the pre­ferred blond of slight build.”

Shaw was just twenty at the time. Over her ca­reer she would wit­ness enor­mous change in the broadcasting in­dus­try, in terms of both tech­nol­ogy and pro­gram­ming. The sta­tion grew, and she even­tu­ally stepped away from the mi­cro­phone to be­come the as­sis­tant to the gen­eral man­ager. “It’s doubt­ful if a lady in Canada is bet­ter ac­quainted with that busi­ness of broadcasting than Miss Shaw,” Man­i­toba Call­ing de­clared in 1938.

Un­for­tu­nately, her rise in the busi­ness stalled af­ter the Man­i­toba gov­ern­ment sta­tion was sold to the CBC in 1948. Never again would she wield the kind of in­flu­ence she had at CKY.

“She was in line for a big pro­mo­tion,” re­called niece Mau­reen Gard­ner in an in­ter­view. “When the time came she did not re­ceive the po­si­tion be­cause it was awarded to a gen­tle­man. She was very up­set. She was very aware of the fight for women’s rights.” Shaw re­tired in 1971, af­ter a broadcasting ca­reer that spanned forty-eight years.

Pri­vate broadcasting was ahead of its time in pro­vid­ing women with on-air jobs, ob­served T.J. Al­lard, a for­mer ex­ec­u­tive with the Cana­dian As­so­ci­a­tion of Broad­cast­ers in his 1979 book Straight Up: Pri­vate Broadcasting in Canada, 1918–1958. In the early days, “Few sta­tions did not have one or more women’s com­men­ta­tors who quite lit­er­ally ran their own show,” he wrote.

In Toronto, sev­eral women got their start at ra­dio sta­tion CFRB in the 1920s and 1930s. One of them was Jane Gray, who had left her po­etry broadcasting job in London to try her luck in Toronto. She was among ninety ap­pli­cants for a po­si­tion as host of a cook­ing pro­gram on CFRB. She got the job, at a salary of twenty-five dol­lars a week. Gray soon hit upon a way to in­crease her earn­ings by pay­ing for air­time and then sell­ing com­mer­cials on the shows she hosted. Since her pro­grams were pop­u­lar, she quickly made a profit.

In 1928, she founded the Jane Gray Play­ers, an act­ing troupe that per­formed ra­dio dra­mas such as mys­tery plays. Not only did she write, pro­duce, and act in her plays, she also ran a drama school on Satur­days.

Ever re­source­ful, Gray be­gan pitch­ing mir­a­cle elixirs and pa­tent medicines dur­ing the De­pres­sion. One pop­u­lar prod­uct, called Mus-Kee-Kee, was a mix of Seneca root, pine needles, and al­co­hol. “Along with the tonic, she’d hand out doses of ad­vice, horo­scope read­ings and fore­casts based on nu­merol­ogy,” her 1984 Toronto Star obit­u­ary said. Mar­ket­ing her­self as the “Wise Lit­tle Lady of the Air,” she toured ra­dio sta­tions across Canada, of­fer­ing au­di­ences ad­vice on ev­ery topic, from fam­ily tragedies to ill­nesses and fi­nan­cial dif­fi­cul­ties

“I’m not a fa­natic, and I am not a for­tune teller,” she said in a 1967 in­ter­view. “But I do know there are cy­cles in na­ture. The farmer knows when to hire men, and he’s no for­tune teller. There are cy­cles in peo­ple that af­fect their lives.”

She be­came a tele­vi­sion host for CHCH-TV in Hamilton in 1953 and was still broadcasting well into the 1960s. Ac­cord­ing to the Cana­dian Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Foun­da­tion, “Jane Gray was a ‘born show-woman.’ As she has been quoted — ‘I’ve done it all.’” In 1988, she be­came the first woman ra­dio per­former to be in­ducted into the Cana­dian Broad­cast Hall of Fame.

An­other CFRB hire was Kate Aitken — com­monly known as Mrs. A. She was prob­a­bly the most ac­com­plished Cana­dian fe­male broad­caster of her time and at­tained a world-class pro­file. Her ra­dio ca­reer be­gan in 1934 when CFRB asked her to fill in for an­other an­nouncer who had suf­fered a bro­ken leg.

At forty-three years of age, Aitken al­ready had a high pro­file as a gov­ern­ment-spon­sored lec­turer who pro­vided lessons on cook­ing and other do­mes­tic skills dur­ing the De­pres­sion. She honed her skills run­ning a suc­cess­ful chicken farm with her hus­band and op­er­at­ing a thriv­ing home can­ning busi­ness. By 1927 she was the women’s di­rec­tor for the Cana­dian Na­tional Ex­hi­bi­tion and a del­e­gate to a world wheat con­fer­ence. The lat­ter led to a meet­ing with Ital­ian dic­ta­tor Benito Mus­solini, whom she per­suaded to buy wheat from Canada.

CFRB syn­di­cated her show — which was later picked up by CBC Ra­dio — and she trav­elled Canada and the world to re­port on cook­ing and eti­quette as well as much weight­ier top­ics. Aitken in­ter­viewed many of the fa­mous — and in­fa­mous — of her time, such as Adolf Hitler, King Ge­orge VI, Eleanor Roo­sevelt, and Pope Pius XII. Dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, her fa­mous Make Over and Make Do work­shops taught women to bud­get and to con­serve ma­te­ri­als that were in short sup­ply.

“Kate held the na­tion’s women to at­ten­tion with her calm ra­dio man­ner and com­pas­sion­ate na­ture,” On­tario au­thor Pat Mestern wrote. “While bombs were fall­ing in Europe, Kate’s coun­sel that ‘it looks bad at the mo­ment, but it can­not help but get bet­ter’ gave re­lief to wor­ried moth­ers and wives.”

Her trav­els took her to Europe in the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of the war as well as to the bat­tle­fields of Korea in 1952. She was in Kenya dur­ing an up­ris­ing in the 1950s, in Hun­gary dur­ing the 1956 revo­lu­tion, and toured famine-stricken re­gions of In­dia.

Among Aitken’s spon­sors were the Bri­tish Min­istry of Food and the In­ter­na­tional Tea Bureau. The two groups ar­ranged for her to stay with lo­cal fam­i­lies. When asked in 1949 why she em­barked on these trav­els, Aitken replied in her warm voice: “I be­lieve, and I’ve al­ways be­lieved, that women have more power than men, more power to shape pub­lic opin­ion, and if women be­lieve in any­thing in­tensely, and go out and do it, they can rev­o­lu­tion­ize the world.”

Ac­cord­ing to the Cana­dian Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Foun­da­tion, Aitken at­tracted up to three mil­lion lis­ten­ers in the 1940s and 1950s, mak­ing her Canada’s most pop­u­lar broad­caster of the time. At her peak, she re­ceived as many as a thou­sand let­ters a day, ne­ces­si­tat­ing the hir­ing of more than twenty sec­re­taries just to an­swer her mail. She re­signed from ra­dio in 1955 to con­cen­trate on writ­ing her many books. Kate Aitken’s Cana­dian Cook

Book re­mains a clas­sic.

“Kate Aitken was cu­ri­ous, en­er­getic, and al­ways pro­fes­sional,” wrote Jerry Fair­bridge of the Cana­dian As­so­ci­a­tion of Broad­cast­ers. “She said she just hopped from job to job like a grasshop­per hav­ing a good time. She ad­vised peo­ple to try new things, to treat them as an adventure, and, if they failed, to try again.”

Like Aitken, Claire Wal­lace got her start with Toronto ra­dio sta­tion CFRB in the 1930s. Be­ing di­vorced, and with a son to sup­port dur­ing the Great De­pres­sion, Wal­lace needed the work. Her evening show, Teatime Top­ics, was a spinoff of a col­umn she wrote for the Toronto Star. She joined CBC Ra­dio in 1936, and by 1942 she was host­ing They Tell Me, a pro­gram that was suc­cess­ful in pro­mot­ing sales of war bonds and savings stamps.

As the host of They Tell Me, she be­came one of Canada’s high­est paid broad­cast­ers, earn­ing $170 a week. When the Na­tional Ra­dio Com­mit­tee rec­om­mended her for a raise due to her heavy work­load, there was a huge back­lash from news­pa­per­men, many of whom earned only $40 or $50 a week. “The pay­ing of so much pub­lic money to any fe­male artist of the air­ways sug­gests ‘pull’ and fa­voritism,” said one ed­i­to­rial. Ac­cord­ing to Mar­jorie Lang, au­thor of Women Who Made the News, the con­tro­versy led the “tim­o­rous Na­tional War Fi­nance Com­mit­tee” to shut down her pro­gram in June 1944.

Wal­lace’s jour­nal­is­tic ca­reer con­tin­ued, how­ever. In 1946 she re­ceived the Beaver Award from Broad­caster Mag­a­zine as Canada’s top woman com­men­ta­tor. She even­tu­ally re­turned to CFRB. Wal­lace was a dare­devil who took risks to bring her lis­ten­ers ex­cit­ing sto­ries, once climb­ing into a Mex­i­can vol­cano. She later wrote books and started a travel bureau, tak­ing vis­i­tors be­hind the Iron Cur­tain at the height of the Cold War.

Writ­ing about her great-aunt Claire Wal­lace on her blog, Jeanie MacFar­lane of Hamilton said: “Claire stressed mod­esty, dis­ci­pline, and plan­ning. She was for­mi­da­ble in per­son and yet, a CBC col­league of hers once told me, she trem­bled a bit as she fought through mic fright at the start of ev­ery broad­cast.”

French Canada had its own fe­male ra­dio stars, and few shone as brightly as Michelle Tis­seyre of Mon­treal. When her hus­band went over­seas to fight in the Sec­ond World War, the mother of one ap­plied for a job with Ra­dio-Canada, the French-lan­guage arm of the na­tional pub­lic broad­caster.



She be­came an an­nouncer in 1941 and was soon an­chor­ing the Grand Jour­nal news­cast, mak­ing her the first woman to present a ra­dio news­cast for CBC French ser­vices.

Tis­seyre worked for Ra­dio-Canada’s in­ter­na­tional ser­vice from 1944 to 1946, spe­cial­iz­ing in in­ter­views and re­port­ing. She also co-hosted, with René Lévesque and René Garneau, La voix

du Canada, a show broad­cast to French-Cana­dian troops over­seas. By 1953, she had made the switch to tele­vi­sion, be­com­ing the host of Canada’s first tele­vi­sion talk show — Ren­dez-vous

avec Michelle — which was on the air for nine years.

She also wel­comed some of the most fa­mous mu­si­cians of the era when she hosted the pop­u­lar Que­bec va­ri­ety show Mu­sic-Hall from 1955 to 1960. The multi-tal­ented Tis­seyre also per­formed in theatre, trans­lated clas­sic Cana­dian nov­els from English into French, edited L’En­cy­clopédie de la femme cana­di­enne (En­cy­clo­pe­dia of Cana­dian women), wrote for var­i­ous pub­li­ca­tions, and won many awards.

“I only knew the good side of be­ing a woman on TV and on the ra­dio,” she said in a 2002 in­ter­view with the French-lan­guage news­pa­per Le Devoir. “On the ra­dio I was ex­clu­sively sur­rounded by men, and they were al­ways very kind to me, al­most pro­tec­tive even, among other things be­cause I had a tod­dler and my hus­band had gone to war. On TV, I never ex­pe­ri­enced any prob­lems be­cause I was a woman. It must be said that there was much less com­pe­ti­tion than to­day. I was the only one. In fact, I was spoiled by fate, and I loved my ca­reer.” Tis­seyre died in 2014 at the age of ninety-six.

Not all of the pi­o­neer­ing women of ra­dio en­joyed long ca­reers. Some, like Martha Bowes of CJWC in Saska­toon, spent only a few years in the busi­ness — but long enough to make his­tory. At age twenty-two, Bowes left her job as a trained nurse to work as a sec­re­tary for Wheaton Elec­tric, the owner of CJWC. In 1922, she be­came Saskatchewan’s first fe­male ra­dio an­nouncer.

In her 2012 book, Ra­dio Ladies: Canada’s Women on the Air

1922–1975, Peggy Ste­wart de­scribed Bowes’ work­load. A typ­i­cal day be­gan at eight o’clock in the morn­ing with a cou­ple of hours of lo­cal news, weather, mu­sic, and event an­nounce­ments. Af­ter a few hours off, she re­turned with the noon-hour news, fol­lowed by a pro­gram on lo­cal events and per­son­al­i­ties. Dur­ing the sup­per hour, she co-hosted a re­li­gious show with a lo­cal priest. She worked into the evening three nights a week, host­ing a tal­ent show and a mu­si­cal show with per­form­ers who worked for free.

Some­times Bowes did re­mote broad­casts from Saska­toon’s Zenith Café or Hud­son’s Bay Com­pany de­part­ment store. By 1928, she ap­par­ently had had enough. She was by then Mrs. Earl Ward and had moved with her hus­band to Detroit, then to Whitby, On­tario. She never re­sumed her ra­dio ca­reer.

It has been al­most a cen­tury since the first ra­dio sta­tion in Canada — XWA, short for ex­per­i­men­tal wire­less ap­pa­ra­tus — was li­censed to broad­cast com­mer­cially in Mon­treal in 1919. As we scan the hun­dreds of sta­tions avail­able to us to­day, with their many for­mats, it’s worth re­mem­ber­ing that it all started out pretty sim­ply. As they do now, women broad­cast­ers have long played a ma­jor role in ra­dio’s pop­u­lar­ity.

From left to right, Lil­ian Shaw, circa 1920s; Tro­phy won by Shaw for be­ing the most pop­u­lar ra­dio broad­caster (Shaw’s name is fre­quently mis­spelled. She her­self signed it Lil­ian); Shaw ac­cepts a gift at her re­tire­ment cel­e­bra­tion in 1971.

A post­card im­age of Jane Gray broadcasting in 1936.

Top Left: The cover of Kate Aitken’s Cana­dian Cook Book. Top Right: Kate Aitken with a chicken. Bot­tom: Kate Aitken speaks with a boy dur­ing a ra­dio broad­cast.

Top Left: Claire Wal­lace in­ter­views Her­bert Anungazuk, Toby Anungazuk, Martha Anungazuk, and Nel­lie Anungazuk. The fam­ily lived in Wales, Alaska, the north­ern­most vil­lage in North Amer­ica. Top Right: Martha Bowes. Bot­tom Right: Michelle Tis­seyre on her ra­dio de­but at the Cana­dian Broadcasting Cor­po­ra­tion.

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