From Beacon Fires to Broadcasting: A Salute To CBA

newspaper published a photograph of something new on the Tantramar. It was described as an arresting sight of beauty in steel… you’ll see the towers immediately, their red lights giving the atmosphere of a carnival at night. Still today, the network of Canadian Broadcasting Corporation towers brighten the Tantramar skyline; a landmark for all who travel the highway between Moncton and Amherst.

In 1939 the CBC was still in its infancy. Modelled on the British Broadcasting Corporation, it had evolved from the Canadian Radio Commission created by the Bennett government in 1932. On Nov. 2 1936, Parliament established the CBC as a crown corporation, and public broadcasting came to this country.

A problem from the beginning was Canada’s geography. Urban areas would soon become well served; however, large sections of rural Canada were beyond the range of CBC stations. As a partial remedy, it was decided in 1938 to build two new stations, one on the Prairies, the other in the Maritimes. In addition, plans were made to establish a series of low power transmitters to increase the range of CBC programming.

Following an extensive search, a decision was reached to construct the new facility for the Maritimes in an area known as Cole’s Island, on the Tantramar. Close to the geographic centre of the region; careful testing had revealed that the open expanse of marshland roundabout was ideal for radio broadcasting. Construction began in July 1938 and the new facility was completed a record nine months later. In addition to the towers, a building to house transmission equipment was erected.

At nine o’clock, Tuesday evening, March 28, 1939, an on air test was conducted. For the very first time the call signal: This is CBA, Sackville, New Brunswick, went out over the marsh and beyond… reception was deemed perfect. Many readers will notice that this call signal differs from the one that later became familiar to regional listeners: — This is CBA Maritimes.

There was a reason for the change, instituted a few weeks later. Since CBA was a publically opened facility designed to serve all three Maritime Provinces, a small town in New Brunswick ought not; [so the argument ran], receive all this free radio advertising. Political correctness prevailed even then; and CBA Maritimes was substituted.

The new station was officially opened on Friday evening, April 8, 1939. Honors were shared by Hon C. D. Howe, federal Minister of Transport; Leonard W. Brockington, first chairman of the CBC; along with all three provincial premiers: Thane Campbell PEI; A. Allison Dysart, NB and Angus L. Macdonald, NS. To draw attention to the miracle of radio none of the dignitaries were actually on the Tantramar. Howe and Brockington spoke from Ottawa; while the premiers were in different locations: Summerside PEI; Moncton, NB and Halifax, NS, respectively.

Once official pronouncements were over, the CBC got down to what it continues to do so well today, the presentation of a radio drama, especially commissioned for the occasion. Written by William Strange and produced in the Montreal CBC studios by Rupert Lucas the play highlighted links between past and present on the Tantramar.

In introducing the play a narrator commented: The powerful new transmitter, through which this inaugural program reaches you, is located on ground rich in historic lore and hallowed by the blood of two races. For close by stands Fort Beauséjour, an ancient landmark, where gunshot and cannon once sounded, and where armies clashed in a struggle for its possession.

Two contemporary (1939) engineers then start discussing their location on the windswept marsh. Drawing the attention of his companion to the nearby Beauséjour Ridge one engineer said: Did you know that soldiers at Beauséjour used to signal to the inhabitants around here to come to the Fort when there was an enemy approaching, by lighting a beacon fire on the highest point of the ridge? His companion replied: You mean there used to be signals from that hill way back then? Yes, two centuries apart… once messages were sent out from beacon fires… and now from radio… the wheel of fate completes the cycle!

A final postscript on the evolution of CBA Maritimes. The 1960s were years of expansion for the CBC in New Brunswick. In 1964, CBZ Fredericton and CBD Saint John, went on air. Four years later, on Dec. 9, 1968 CBA Maritimes, became CBA Moncton. The first studios were located at the corner of St George and Archibald Streets. A 472 foot tower and transmitter were installed at Pré-d’en-Haut. Later in 1970, the station moved to new CBC facilities adjacent to the Dr. Georges-L. Dumont Hospital.

Tomorrow, April 8, 1999 marks the 60th anniversary of the historic inaugural broadcast of CBA. It’s time for everyone to salute the presence of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on the Marsh! From Semaphore to Short Wave will continue the story on April 21 when we’ll Flashback to the beginning of the International Service of the CBC — better known today as RCI — Radio Canada International.