Friday 29 July 2016

Catholics in the Golden Age of Radio

In today's world, we are very used to instant communication. The Internet makes it possible for us to learn about events almost as they are happening. Twitter keeps us in the loop about what's happening on the ground, and we can even stream live video to Facebook with our cell phones for all of our friends to see.

100 years ago, it was very different. Sure, we had telephones and telegraphs, but there wasn't really a way to get a message to many people at the same time until the early 1920s, when the first radio stations began operating and radio sets became common household fixtures. The Golden Age of Radio had begun.

The Catholic hierarchy were quick to adopt the technology as a way to reach their flock. Personalities such as Archbishop Fulton Sheen and Father Charles Coughlin became household names with audiences of millions of listeners.

Here in the archives, we have many documents from the early days of radio. A few are highlighted below:

In 1929, a report was issued by the Royal Commission on Radio Broadcasting (known as the Aird Commission) that recommended the creation of a national broadcast system. A lobby group called the Canadian Radio League was formed to pressure the Canadian government into implementing the Aird report. In the Archbishop McNeil fonds, we found the map below, which was created by the Canadian Radio League and shows radio coverage in Canada in the early 1930s. The map shows that the Archdiocese of Toronto was well covered early on:

"Map I. Shows the range of existing Canadian broadcasting stations. The circles represent the assured normal daylight range. It will be noticed how the larger stations are near the centres of population, where the best advertising market is found, and how whole areas of Canada are outside the range of Canadian stations. The list of stations and their power is further evidence of these conditions. It is also true that where there are the most Canadian stations there are the most licensed listeners"

MN AP02.201
Archbishop McNeil Fonds

Alan B. Plaunt of the Canadian Radio League wrote to Archbishop McNeil to ask for his support for a national radio system. The letter shows that from the beginning, the public broadcaster was intended to be politically neutral:

"Firstly, it is one of the cardinal propositions of the League that the proposed national company should be free from political and other interference. This has been achieved by the British Broadcasting Corporation in England and we believe that it can be achieved here. It is true that the Aird Commission is not sufficiently specific on how this is to be done. The Radio League is now, through one of its committees, investigating the question of how the national company can be placed outside of party politics. The view of the committee at present is that this could, possibly, best be done by making the directorate of the company responsible to a Committee of the Privy Council, that is, to more than one minister. This is the method by which the National Research Council functions."

December 29, 1930
MN TA01.88
Archbishop McNeil Fonds

Archbishop McNeil was quick to use radio to address Toronto Catholics. Both he and Cardinal McGuigan regularly spoke on the air about a variety of topics. The letter below from Frank P. O'Connor (Founder of Laura Secord candy store, senator, and Catholic Philanthropist) praises McNeil for one of his broadcasts:

"Your Excellency: No doubt you have heard from a great many of your unseen audience of Sunday evening last. I just want to add my congratulations and tell you how good it was to hear you over the air and how much I enjoyed our broadcast which I think was one of the finest I have ever heard."

June 6, 1933
MN AH22.54
Archbishop McNeil Fonds

Any time someone speaks in public, someone else will disagree. Sometimes that person will complain. Below is a letter to Archbishop McGuigan regarding Father Charles Coughlin, who had by that time become a controversial figure because of his antisemitic, pro-fascism views:

"You will pardon this suggestion, which is made in the best interests of Catholics generally, but especially Canadians.

"I listened with a degree of utmost pleasure to your splendid Saturday night address, the nicest part of it being that yesterday in contact with a number of gentlemen of other faiths than our own, it was a subject of discussion and most favorable comment.

"Approaching the thought underlying my first paragraph, the Rev. Father Coughlin harangued the multitude on Sunday afternoon in one of the most castigating radio talks emanating from a Christian to which I have listened.

"Monday morning several of our Catholic staff approached me to the effect that they had turned it on for a little while and immediately turned it off.

"Is there not something that can be done to eliminate this broadcast from Canada, if it is not possible in the U.S.? I think a copy of the broadcast should be sent to the Prime Minister. It simply arouses feelings of murder in the hearts of listeners. If he would only confine himself to religious doctrine.

"I feel confident that you know how to eliminate this objectionable hour, also I believe that his pamphlets which are passed out at some of the Churches here might well be discarded in these trying times. He is a menace and a black-eye to the Catholic Church.

September 12, 1939
SW GC01.14a
Cardinal McGuigan Fonds

As time went on, more and more religious programming was heard on the air. The pamphlet below from the 1950s details the schedule of religious programs on CBC Radio:

CBC Religious Program Schedule

AL PB01.05
Bishop Allen Fonds

In 1933, Archbishop McNeil inaugurated the Radio League of St. Michael. The League sponsored such programs as The Catholic Hour, which consisted of Sunday mass from the Cathedral followed by news and talk. Leadership of the League eventually transferred to the Paulist Fathers, under whom it eventually became the Catholic Information Centre. The form letter below details a "radio school" for priests that the League offered:

"A year ago this fall, we began a brief "radio school" for priests. Apart from studying the technical matters involved in broadcasting, we hope to develop a growing interest in radio and television as modern methods of communication. The commercial world is well aware of this medium. The Protestant Churches have regular schools across Canada in which every aspect of radio and television is studied. As Catholics, we have been invited to attend these schools. Many of the ministers have put the suggestion to their organizing committee to invite the Catholic Church to send representatives. There is no question about the importance or radio and television as a method of communications today.

"As a year ago, the school this fall will be held on three consecutive weeks, Tuesday evenings at 8 o'clock. This year we will add work on television. Fortunately we have the professional assistance of the CBC. The enclosed program outlines the schedule. Kindly return to us the enclosed registration form, if you can find your way clear to attend the Workshop."

July 6, 1960
MG SU03.88a
Cardinal McGuigan Fonds

In his 1957 encyclical letter Miranda Prorsus: On Motion Pictures, Radio and Television, Pope Pius XII explains, 

"...We rightly think that the most excellent function which falls to radio is this: to enlighten and instruct men, and to direct their minds and hearts towards higher and spiritual things. 

"But there is in men, though they may be within their own homes, a deep desire to listen to other men, to obtain knowledge of events happening far away and to share in aspects of the social and cultural life of others. 

"Hence it is not remarkable that a very large number of houses have within a short period of time been equipped with receiving sets by which, as it were secret windows opening on to the world, contact is made night and day with the active life of men of different civilization, languages and races." 

This pope knew how important Radio had become in the lives of people everywhere. He encouraged Catholic programs and stations, and challenged the faithful to only listen to programming which directed their minds to God.

Radio is still an important part of the lives of many, but Catholics have carried on the tradition of being on the cutting edge of communication. They are still involved with media such as Radio and Television, but are using social media more and more. The Archdiocese of Toronto is on Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube. There is also a blog called Around the Arch, and you can listen to podcasts. Even Pope Francis is on Twitter! Our Catholic leaders know that to reach the people, they have to go to where the people are.

For more information about the early days of Catholics on the radio in Canada, read Dr. Mark McGowan's excellent paper, Air Wars: Radio Regulation, Sectarianism and Religious Broadcasting in Canada, 1922-1938 in Historical Papers: Canadian Society of Church History, 2008.

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