WHEN RADIO WAS AS HOT AS SOCIAL MEDIA IS TODAY, CERTAIN FEMALE BROADCASTERS HAD TREMENDOUS STAR POWER.
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.
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.” — LILIAN SHAW
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.
IN 1946 CLAIRE WALLACE RECEIVED THE BEAVER AWARD FROM
BROADCASTER MAGAZINE AS CANADA’S TOP WOMAN COMMENTATOR.
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.