Museum Musings: 900 CKBI Radio

The current transmitter building pictured here was constructed in the early 1940s. It is located south of Prince Albert on Hwy 2. Photo courtesy of the Bill Smiley Archive.

“Knock, knock.  Who’s there?  It’s the Happy Gang!”

Those of us of a certain age and who are life-long residents of Prince Albert and area may recall listening to the syndicated “Happy Gang Show” on CKBI radio.  Other syndicated shows included Mos and Andy, Lux Radio Theatre, and Fibber McGee and Molly.

In the 1960s, you may have listened to Larry Christie broadcasting from his hospital bed in the old Victoria Hospital during ratings week, or Canada’s “oldest living teenager”, Harold Mallwitz, and newscaster Merv Samborski.  Or, if you are older, how about the comedic Bob Hildebrandt who used to do the evening show until sign-off?

You may also recall listening to George Prosser’s “Mixing Bowl” on morning radio.  His Saturday morning children’s show was popular with the youngsters, especially those who were asked to join him in the studio to read their favourite short story.

Bud Dallin eventually took over that show, at about the same time that he used to do the “Saturday Night Barn Dance”.  I wonder if you might be one of the frustrated individuals who drove east of Prince Albert looking for that non-existent big red barn?

Radio has, since the early twentieth century, been an important form of communication.  Listening to your transistor radio, or perhaps your car radio, helped keep you informed during power outages.  Remember Helga Reydon and Harold Reid on Northern News?  The programme would seem quirky in these days of social media, but northerners relied on that programme to pass on messages to their families about important matters, such as the health of hospitalised individuals or when and where to meet them when they returned home.

I had never really considered the history of Prince Albert radio until recently when I came across a newspaper clipping dropped off by a friend who now lives in Saskatoon.  The clipping told the story of Bill Hart, an early member of the CKBI family, and his work raising money for charities on the ACT Amateur Hour.  Although not old enough to have known Bill Hart, I do recall J.J. Cennon hosting the show on Saturday nights when I was a youngster.

The clipping provided some background about the history of the radio station, but not enough to satisfy me.  What it did do, however, was encourage me to search for more information.  I admit that what I found surprised me.

The birth of radio in Prince Albert occurred just prior to the first World War.  Spark transmitters broadcast dots and dashes, and young men with names such as Taylor, Agnew, Pickering, and White would sit listening through earphones attached securely to their ears.  But with the advent of the war, the government found it necessary to confiscate those few sets which existed in Prince Albert.

Although during the war radio communication was eliminated in the local community, advances in technology brought on by the war made it increasingly accessible after the war.  Radio tubes – audions – facilitated the transmission and reception of radio signals, and the improved technology and, as well the reduced prices for it, resulting in more people at greater distances being able to send and receive the sound of voices through the air.

Individuals such as Ralph Leadbetter, Ted Grimes, Bill Hart and Harry Davys grouped together to form a local radio club with a 15-watt transmitter in W.A. Johnson’s store at 907 Central Avenue where a DeForest broadcasting set was installed.  The Prince Albert Radio Club received its licence in 1925, and officially went on the air.  Bill Pickering sat at the microphone for their first broadcast which was heard as far away as Minnesota.  This handful of radio enthusiasts provided hours of entertainment each week to Prince Albert listeners.

Canadian 4BC, initially located in the old Legion club rooms, eventually moved to the Burns plant, and then to a studio in the Empress Hotel at the corner of 11th Street and 1st Avenue West.  The transmitter was relocated to the Leadbetter residence on the 300 block of 20th Street West.  By this time, the station was known as 10BI.  Its power had increased, the quality of its tone had improved, and its signal was being heard even further away.

Eventually the excitement and the commitment of the radio club members dissipated, and the club went out of existence.  But the equipment was still available, and its management was taken over by public spirited citizens such as Milt Lundlie, a farm implement dealer, a feed and seed dealer named J.A. Klein, and Ralph Leadbetter, a farmer.  Unable to sustain it, these individuals sold the equipment and licence to Lloyd Moffat and Bob Price in 1929 for $500.  Moffat, who had been an operator at the Orpheum Theatre, was to be the chief engineer.  Price, who had been the janitor in the Canada Building, became the business manager. They made an application for a commercial licence which, when granted in 1933, led to the change in the call letters to CKBI.  New equipment was purchased from Northern Electric and installed under the direction of Pete and Walter Dales.  At the same time, the transmitter was increased to 100 watts with a new operating frequency of 1210 kilohertz.

Initially, Moffat and Price established their studio in the Canada Building, but in 1937 moved it to the Sanderson Block.  At the same time, the transmitter was boosted to 250 watts.  Further changes occurred in March,1941 when CKBI was moved to 900 kilohertz, and in July of that year power was increased to 1,000 watts.  At the same time as the transmission site was moved from the corner of what is now 2nd Avenue and Marquis Road to a site south of the city.  A new technician, Tom van Nes, arrived in August of that year, the start of nearly 35 years of dedicated service to CKBI and the Prince Albert community.  Van Nes would be responsible for the ongoing maintenance and development of the radio transmitter and equipment, as well as establishing the television transmitter and control room facilities.

Lloyd Moffat had become the station manager when, in 1942, it was chosen as Canada’s top station by Billboard magazine.

By the time that Central Broadcasting Company bought the station in 1946, the transmission power had increased to 5,000 watts.  Hugh Sibbald, the city’s former mayor, was president and Ed Rawlinson, a local chartered accountant, became managing director. Rawlinson moved the station out of the Sanderson Block to the new $75,000 studios on 10th Street West in 1955, and in 1957 the station had yet again increased its power to 10,000 watts, becoming Saskatchewan’s most powerful private station.

By 1957, Ed Rawlinson owned 51% of the company and became president.  Sibbald owned 33.4%, and Ed’s brother, Frank owned 15.6% and was named manager of the station.  The following year, a survey group found that the station was heard by 93,344 people every day.

The Rawlinson family continued their ownership and management of CKBI through the 1960s into the new century.  In 2002 ownership came firmly into the hands of Ed’s son, Gordon, through Rawlco Radio  Ltd. and Lobstick Investments Inc.

The Rawlinson connection to CKBI, begun in 1946, ended when approval was given in December 2014 for the Jim Pattison Broadcast Group to purchase the station along with Rawlco Radio stations in four other communities and associated transmitters throughout Saskatchewan and Alberta.