On Air: Radio in Saskatchewan


184 pages
Contains Photos, Bibliography
ISBN 1-55050-009-0
DDC 384.54'097124





Reviewed by W.J.C. Cherwinski

Joe Cherwinski is a professor of History at the Memorial University of


That On Air’s author is an insider is easy to discern: the book’s
lively style and enthusiastic tone could only have come from an active
participant. However, while his intimacy provides the book with
considerable strength, it is also the source of some of its major

After a promising introduction, Schmalz traces the industry’s
initial, halting steps, beginning with the tinkerers and gifted amateurs
who performed most of the functions at the early stations. CKCK, which
opened in 1922, was the first commercial venture, and many others
followed, although all seemed to operate on shoestrings. Ironically,
only with the Depression did the number of listeners increase
appreciably, when alternative sources of rural information, such as
newspapers and magazines, became too expensive. The 1940s and early
1950s marked radio’s heyday. Its approach of providing information and
entertainment with a community focus allowed radio to survive the
onslaught of television in the late 1950s.

Schmalz takes special pains to point out radio’s impact on
Saskatchewan society. Its importance in providing up-to-date information
on weather conditions and grain and livestock prices, as well as
agricultural education, is well known. However, Schmalz asserts that
radio also played a key role in promoting the high degree of community
involvement for which the province’s residents are famous. Moreover,
he claims that involvement reflected itself in greater interest in
politics, contributing to the successes of the Co-operative Commonwealth
Federation and the New Democratic Party.

Schmalz also presents the darker side of Saskatchewan broadcasting: the
business side, characterized by cutthroat competition for market share
and advertising dollars. Specifically, he points to the industry’s
primitive labor relations, the gender bias in the choice of on-air
personalities, and the love/hate relationship private broadcasters had
with the cbc. This picture contrasts sharply with that of the
progressive early practitioners.

Unfortunately, while Schmalz’s book reflects considerable insight, it
suffers from his inability to decide whether it was to be a serious
study of radio’s impact on a rural, agricultural people or a tribute
to its participants and their products. He tries too hard to include
everyone of note, and he too often interrupts his narrative to explain
technical matters to the uninitiated. By trying to be too much to too
many, he falls short on both counts. Also, the absence of an index and
the imprecise footnoting will annoy those seeking more information from
his sources.

Nevertheless, On Air provides a useful nostalgia trip for long-time
residents of the Wheat Province. With Schmalz’s help, they will
remember the celebrities and programs so much an integral part of their
lives—from the time when listening to the radio was an event to the
present, when radio is a day-long companion.


Schmalz, Wayne., “On Air: Radio in Saskatchewan,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed December 7, 2023, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/31622.