Saturday, October 19, 2019



CJRT is celebrating its 70th anniversary this Halloween although the scramble at the birth of both the station and the university that launched it actually produced two openings.
The first words on the ceremonial opening broadcast on Nov. 1 were nothing fancy, just student Bob Leitch saying “this is your educational system CJRT broadcasting from studios in the Ryerson Institute of Technology, 50 Gould St., Toronto.”
After H.H. Kerr, Ryerson's founding principal, spoke cautiously, novice instructor John Barnes broke from the straight and stuffy to become almost lyrical at 7 p.m.
“Today is Nov. 1, known in the church calendar as All Saint’s Day. And so last night was Halloween. You were no doubt visited by certain ghosts who introduced themselves to your home in spectral fashion. Tonight we bring up a new ghost, using radio waves to knock upon your door and enter your home. Like last night's visitors, this one is also useful and the first of its kind in Canada. That infant ghost is Station CJRT, Canada's first education broadcasting station, a new venture in this country...We are licensed to program a wide variety of broadcasts with the only exception of nothing commercial.”
It was a humble start, symbolized by the oddity that the first staff member was a teacher of English who was insisting he return to teaching his subject. The station would stay at Ryerson for half a century and then become the popular non-profit jazz station in Liberty Village which was then just an expanse of factories.  It leaned on music at the start, too, but mostly classical. It was the cheapest format for radio, first 30 minutes of recorded music as a dinner concert, then when it finished at 7 p.m. a 15-minute documentary on broadcasting and CJRT’s history. For the next 45 minutes until sign-off came recordings by little-known composers. You didn't get to hear the big hits of the year like Blue Moon or Baby, It's Cold Outside.
Everyone at Ryerson was proud of the station even if they didn’t really know what FM was. The institute listed it on its official letterhead (CJRT-FM 88.3 meg Education's Own Radio Station) because after all it was a first even if it was unknown.
It was the early FM days and no one then predicted that eventually FM listeners would dwarf those of the AM giants like CFRB. There were few home receivers because legendary media entrepreneurs like Roy Thomson in Timmins and Ted Rogers in Toronto had not yet hit on the strategy to sell FM receivers at cost and gain more listeners. Still, it was rare for a school to operate an AM station for even a few hours, so there had to be an official opening.
Or two!
The bureaucracies of education and politics fiddled the calendar for the public ribbon cutting and finally decided on Nov. 22. Premier Leslie Frost and Education Minister Dana Porter agreed on that date just to get it out of the way because it really wasn't important. Yet Frost did have more than a casual interest since he owned the radio station in his lair of Lindsay.
It all began at the CJBC station just up Jarvis St. and then moved to the historic but uncomfortable gem of an auditorium in the main building surrounded by military prefabs that had been used by the Normal School and even Egerton Ryerson for almost a century. There the equipment that supposedly put the station on the air was activated, although insiders knew the station had really been operating for three weeks.
Then the modest festivities moved to the primitive plywood studio for the station that had been fashioned out of a weird room built originally to train fighter pilots. Mini documentaries and canned dramas were broadcast to show how it would operate.
Kerr didn't want to pick fights with the big Toronto radio stations so he emphasized to anyone who would listen that CJRT was aimed at supplementing existing radio fare by offering a distinctive  service for listeners who were not being served, either because of small numbers or minority tastes.
The station had limped into an early life before Ryerson evolved to an institute of technology after its rehab days for veterans returning from World War Two. A few vets, coached by local radio personalities, ran what was really a major ham radio operation. Then Kerr and his key assistant, Eric Palin, who had laboured to keep the station going after the rehab days that ended the previous year, went before the governing board in Ottawa and were granted a licence because there really wasn't any competition.
Kerr told me for my book Ryerson University A Unicorn Among Horses that Ryerson perhaps wasn't the first in Canadian education to get a broadcasting licence."I think Queen's may have had one for AM and there were one or two out west but we were FM and the first to run a station on a completely professional basis."
The broadcasting industry had big hopes for the station because it worried about what organization would do the training if the expected boom happened. As proof, A. Davidson Dunton, a famous broadcasting name as chairman of the CBC's board of governors, came to the bureaucratic opening. No need to give him one of those rare FM tuners but Ryerson presented one to the premier and one to the minister because it was important to keep them happy. After all, the premier was in the business even though he generally was baffled by anything that Ryerson did, and Porter was the local MPP.
It would be years before FM radios were common even in cars. On some nights, the rookie announcers from the Radio and Television Arts course were heard mainly over the loudspeakers hung in the battered halls outside the studio. Now they are remembered in the CJRT call letters that stand for Journalism, Radio, Technology.
There are many grads in Canada from CJRT/RTA, including some working at the station today. One famous one is Glen Woodcock whose Sunday Big Band show is one of the oldest radio programs in the known world. It goes back so far that Glen claims that Eve was the first Big Band singer.
The Ryerson of today has few traces, other than the facade of the famous building from Egerton's day and pioneer names on buildings, of the historic jumble of buildings and courses  that the early grads like me survived.
Yet it has climbed rung by broken rung to become a major university, and its radio station that started because there was some left-over equipment after a war has climbed even higher to broadcast from the top of the CN Tower and earn an international reputation.
Happy Birthday, CJRT,  let me buy Woodcock and other stars there many beers at Steele's. Oh darn it, it's gone, isn't it, under the Ryerson footprint, and the days have vanished into nostalgia when Lightfoot and Hawkins romped there with Sam the Record Man promoting next door. Lucky days for me when I still had enough money to drink there or at the Edison.
At least I have 91.1 to keep me happy as I contemplate the mists before Ryerson became famous and everyone had several FM radios.

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