The real rock radio

Dave Sullivan and Elling Lien tune in to a new book on the history of the Broadcasting Corporation of Newfoundland—The Voice of Newfoundland.

Before the CBC appeared in this neck of the woods, and before Newfoundland was even a part of Canada, we had our own publicly-funded radio station called the Broadcasting Corporation of Newfoundland.

In a new book titled The Voice of Newfoundland, author Jeff A. Webb looks at the social history of that station between the years 1939 and 1949­—a pivotal decade in local history.

War, lack of elected government since 1934, increased economic hardship… it wasn’t pretty. When the first debates on confederation started in 1946, things got really interesting.

Originally, Webb’s research concentrated on the politics of Joey Smallwood and these confederation debates in 1946, but as he spent time revisiting old BCN program recordings, scripts, and letters from listeners, ideas on the influence of radio on the people of Newfoundland started turning over in his mind. …From what music they were playing to how listeners interpreted what they were hearing.

“It got me wondering about the way that people’s national identity and people’s sense of themselves are influenced by radio and mass media,” Webb says.

Although mass media is typically seen as a force that dilutes local culture, Newfoundland radio often turned that idea on its head.

“People assume that one of the things that radio did was, you know, bring in country and western music, and rock and roll, while destroying Newfoundland’s folk music,” says Webb. “But while that is happening, radio is also doing the opposite.”

“Radio is also taking a song—a great example is a song like ‘She’s Like The Swallow’—a song which was collected by one man in Placentia and then rebroadcast through the radio to a whole bunch of Newfoundland listeners who had never heard the song before.”

“Instead of radio eroding Newfoundland culture, what radio did was create Newfoundland popular culture.”

Putting the National Convention debates on air and opening them up to public discussion was pivotal to forming a decision to join Canada.

“Part of the motive to create the broadcasting corporation was so that the non-elected commission of government, which administered Newfoundland from 1934 to 1949, could put forward its view of the public policies that would revitalize the Newfoundland economy,” he says.

But in doing so, they accidentally kick-started a highly democratic medium.

“People were able to criticize government policy on the radio, by sending in letters to the broadcasters which would then be read over the air,” says Webb. “So the intention to create a one-way process, almost like a propaganda apparatus, didn’t work, because broadcasters like Joe Smallwood and individual listeners used the medium in more creative and innovative ways,” says Webb. “They turned it to their own purposes.”

“Radio,” said Smallwood in 1946, “was invented by God especially for Newfoundland, and having done it for Newfoundland, He graciously allowed it to be used in other parts of the world.”

The Voice of Newfoundland, a Social History of the Broadcasting Corporation of Newfoundland, 1939-1949 is published by University of Toronto Press, and available on paperback in local bookstores. Author Jeff Webb will be holding a lecture/launch at the Newfoundland Historical Society on November 27th.

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