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Storytelling in stereo

The ongoing history of radio drama in Canada

On May 7, 1931, W.V. George’s voice filled the passenger cabins of railway trains across Canada. “No place in Canada, possibly no place in all America, finds past and present meeting as they do at Quebec,” he began. Such were the opening words of “Montcalm,” an episode from the hit 1931 radio drama series, Romance of Canada. Though the popularity of radio dramas in Canada has declined dramatically since George was on the air, contemporary Canadian radio programs still tread on the same terrain, exploring issues unique to the understanding of what it is to be Canadian. The Canadian National Railways (CNR) established North America’s first national radio network on June 1, 1923. The CNR installed radio transmitters and receivers in passenger-cars, produced the programs that would be broadcast from coast to coast, and soon operated many radio stations across the country. By 1928, the CNR owned stations in almost every major Canadian city.

Romance of Canada was a collection of 24 plays written by Merrill Dennison and based on Canadian historical events. The plays, performed live on air by professional actors, were a huge success. Just as the CNR took travellers from one end of the country to the other, Romance of Canada took listeners on a similar journey through Canada’s past.

Though customers, especially those traveling from coast to coast, appreciated the entertaining programs, the CNR’s national radio network was created primarily as a means of both promoting the corporation on-board and attracting new passengers. The CNR network controlled Canadian radio for nearly ten years before turning into the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission (CRBC), eventually becoming the CBC in 1936.

Since its beginnings, radio drama in Canada has been tied to the formation of Canada’s unity and national identity. Radio Train, one of the first serial radio programs for children, was produced by the CNR’s Vancouver station. The program told the fictional stories of a group of travellers on a cross-country train ride, with each episode providing educational tidbits of history, and geography that was relevant to the CNR train route. By connecting transportation with radio, the CNR was able to define itself as a company that represented Canadian landscape, history, and culture.

Although we don’t expect that historical portrayals from the 1930s be as inclusive as those found in history textbooks today, the Romance of Canada series was a wide-ranging collection that presented history in creative ways. “Montcalm,” for example, told the story of the French general, and his defeat at the Plains of Abraham in 1759. The story would have been familiar to its 1930s audience, but refreshing in that it did not focus on the British victory. The radio play ends with all actors shouting, “Long live the King! – Long live Montcalm!”

Canada’s golden age of radio drama was from the mid 1940s until the mid-1950s, when Andrew Allan was supervisor of drama at the CBC. Allan – a proud Canadian – made sure that the CBC presented “plays by Canadians, performed by Canadians, for a Canadian audience.” His dedication and hard work ensured a high quality of output from the CBC and led to a huge increase in listeners across the country.

According to Concordia professor Howard Fink, Allan’s success fit into an early-40s CBC plan to deemphasize regional production “in the interest of a national cultural network.” During Word War II, programming like Nazi Eyes on Canada was used to promote and justify Canada’s war efforts. Nazi Eyes on Canada was about a typical family living in an imagined Nazi-controlled Canada. Throughout the dystopic five-episode series, the family crumbled as rights and freedoms were gradually replaced with fear and fascism. In the 1940s, Archie MacCorkindale of Vancouver wrote and produced a radio play for CBC called You Might Think It Over, which retold the story of Confederation in order to address a need for Canadian unity. To this day, the station’s radio drama still wrestles with some of the most difficult Canadian issues.

The CBC program Afghanada, (which airs Thursdays at 11:30 a.m. and 11 p.m. on CBC Radio 1) is a radio drama that follows a group of Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan. The award-winning show is now in its fourth season. Greg Nelson, co-creator and former head writer, explains that the nature of radio creates an intimacy not necessarily found in TV and films. “Afghanada is heavily ‘point of view’ storytelling,” he told The Daily. “The fact that we are experiencing everything the way the character ‘hears’ it, and that we are hearing what they are thinking about it all makes us feel very closely connected to the character. We empathize. We care.”

Afghanada’s diverse audience disproves the notion of radio drama as an outdated art form. “Everyone from older listener,s to young guys driving heavy equipment, to mothers driving their kids to school who can’t get out of the car until the episode is over, to military guys – we heard one story of how an entire floor of the Department of National Defense goes quiet when Afghanada is on – they’re all listening,” Nelson said.

Shows like Afghanada are created with the intention of not only entertaining but familiarizing Canadians with national and international issues. Unfortunately for playwrights, the national market for radio dramas today is pretty much limited to the CBC. According to Nelson, there used to be more opportunities. Though he admits that radio drama is somewhat of an “endangered species,” Nelson believes that “Afghanada’s success has proven that drama works on radio and that there is a place for it on CBC.”

Radio-play production is present right here in the McGill community. CKUT and The Yellow Door have combined forces to create The Hidden Gems Project, which is now in its second year. The project matches young writers with elders willing to share stories. The writers then participate in writing workshops and eventually turn the stories they gathered into radio plays.

Radio drama is still a powerful art form in Canada, though its future will depend on the willingness of young listeners and writers to keep it alive. Unlike writing for television, radio writing requires the writer to think visually in order to create vivid scenes for the audience. “If it’s done well, it can be truly exhilarating for the listener,” Nelson said. Shows like CBC’s Afghanada and Wiretap, and CKUT’s The Hidden Gems all show hope for the survival of the genre. Radio dramas are also easier to access today, thanks to the existence of podcasts, which allow fans to archive their favourite episodes and listen to them on their own schedule. Radio drama is far from dead – the only thing needed is for more young listeners, like ourselves, to tune in.