The term "mass media" has become so much a part of our language that we sometimes forget
that the second word is the plural form of "medium", meaning "a means or instrument", and that
the term itself is a shortened version of a longer phrase, "media [or means, or instruments] of mass communication".
For most of human history, communication was limited to the medium of the human voice, and
the size of the audience was limited by the power of the speaker. The invention of writing and,
much later, of printing, allowed a sender to communicate with an audience that was not
physically present, but the audience was limited by knowledge of reading. It was not until there
was widespread literacy that communication to a "mass" audience, in the present sense of the
term, became possible through this medium.
The 20th century, of course, has seen an explosion of mass communications, using the old
medium of the printed word as well as newer ones such as radio, moving pictures, television and,
most recently, computers and the internet. As everywhere, communications media have played
an important role in the development of Newfoundland and Labrador.
The earliest of the "mass media" was the newspaper, which brought information and opinion to its
readers, but the earliest newspapers were not intended for the "masses". Copies of these weekly
papers were purchased by the small number of literate people among the relatively affluent
classes. The first newspapers in Newfoundland relied heavily upon government printing contracts
to finance themselves. They contained international news from foreign newspapers, but little
local content beyond the "official" announcements that the government wanted publicized and
notices of items offered for sale by local merchants. Later papers, especially after Newfoundland
had been granted representative government in 1832, had close ties to political parties or
sectarian factions, and were sometimes mouthpieces for partisan campaigning. They were
unrestrained in their rhetoric, and--to a 20th century eye--the level of partisanship among the
19th century press is surprisingly high.
The Royal Gazette, 1828.
Newfoundland's first newspaper began publication in 1807.
Courtesy of the Provincial Reference Library, Arts and Culture Centre, St. John's, Newfoundland.
Late in the 19th century, the invention of a technology for making paper from wood fibres,
rather than rags, made paper less expensive to produce. At the same time, population growth
and increased literacy raised the potential readership, making it possible for newspapers to
support themselves through advertising revenue, rather than relying upon the financial backing of
a political ally. Over time, newspapers such as the Evening Telegram (founded in 1879) shifted
their editorial policy from serving their financial backers to serving the "public," which meant
that they tried to achieve a "mass" readership that would make the purchase of advertising space
in the newspaper worthwhile to business enterprises. But even these new "mass media"
newspapers continued to rely upon advertising by the government, the railway, or, in the case of
the Fishermen's Advocate, the Fishermen's Protective Union.
During the era of the Commission Government (1934-1949) newspapers lost any direct partisan
role and gained a more "professional" ethos of printing local and international news that they
judged to be in the public interest. Newfoundland newspapers had relied upon international
"wire services" to provide them with news from outside the colony since the invention of the
telegraph, and this continued to fill the bulk of the pages after Confederation. In the late
twentieth century, many newspapers failed to meet the challenges posed by competition from
other media and rising costs. Those that survived were owned by media conglomerates--business
operations whose first responsibility is to produce a profit for shareholders. Critics would
suggest that for such newspapers economic efficiency takes precedence over public service.
The first electronic means of communication to be invented was the telegraph. It was a point-to
point system of communication, from a sender to a specific receiver, but the Newfoundland
Government found an innovative way to use the technology for mass communications. Starting
in 1912 and running until the mid 1930s, the Department of Posts and Telegraphs compiled daily
news summaries from newspaper reports and transmitted these by Morse Code to all of the
telegraph offices on the island. This "Public Despatch" was also carried north into Labrador by
radio. Wherever it was received, the news summaries would be written out by the telegraph
officer and posted on a wall, or read by the operator to local people who could not read.
Not long after the end of the First World War, many technically adept Newfoundlanders began
experimenting with radio technology. It was not a great leap for these people to shift from
communicating with one another individually, to begin transmitting music and words to anyone
who had the equipment to receive the signal. These dedicated amateurs provided the technical
expertise for the first "broadcast" stations. Two churches also began using radio to broadcast
church services to shut-ins. The Wesley United Church sponsored VOWR as of 1927, a station
that undertook to provide entertainment and information under the leadership of a volunteer
committee, and the Seventh Day Adventist Church began VOAC in 1933.
Voice of Wesleyan Radio (VOWR) station.
This early photo shows the interior of the VOWR studio in St. John's, Newfoundland.
Courtesy of the Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador
(PANL A42-75), St. John's, Newfoundland.
In many instances,
retailers paid for the transmission of music. For example, VOAS was founded in 1931 by Ayre's
store so that people who were considering purchasing a radio from Ayre's would have something
to listen to.
By the 1930s, seven stations were operating in Newfoundland, six of which were in St. John's.
Like the mass newspapers, the "commercial" stations raised the money to operate through selling
advertising. To achieve an audience whose attention could be sold to advertisers, the stations
broadcast live and recorded music as well as news and information programming. Two of the
larger stations, VONF and VOGY (founded in 1932) were amalgamated under the ownership of
Newfoundland telephone and electric power utilities tycoon R.J. Murphy. VONF's most
substantial independent competitor was VOCM (which became a commercial rather than amateur
station in 1934).
The Commission of Government began to consider establishing a public broadcasting station
soon after it came to power in 1934. The Commission hoped to improve the quality of the
commercial programming and to use broadcasting to foster social and cultural change that would
make the people self-supporting. In March of 1939 it took over VONF, and the Broadcasting
Corporation of Newfoundland (BCN) was born.
The government continued to allow commercial stations such as VOCM to operate, but refused
to grant that station permission to transmit at higher power in hope that it would go out of
business. With the exception during the war years of allowing the American Armed Forces to
open stations for their own personnel, the Commission Government granted no new licenses. The
BCN accepted advertising on the government-owned station, and broadcast commercial,
educational and entertainment programming.
While broadcasting stations imported programming from Britain and North America, commercial
broadcasters in Newfoundland created several innovative programmes of their own. The Gerald
S. Doyle News Bulletin, for example, combined news with the broadcast of personal messages
("John Smith is doing well and will be released from Hospital soon."). The Barrelman, a very
popular radio programme, made Joseph R. Smallwood a recognizable voice across the island, as
he broadcast bits of information and legends that he hoped would foster a greater sense of
independence among people in Depression era Newfoundland. These commercial programmes
found a home on the government-owned VONF after 1939. When electoral politics
resumed after the Second World War, broadcasting played an important role in public life. The
proceedings of the National Convention were broadcast each evening, allowing thousands of
Newfoundlanders the opportunity to follow the debates on the country's future. Through this
medium many people learned of the benefits of union with Canada and heard nationalist appeals
for a return to Responsible Government.
Unfortunately, the wartime uses of VONF as a navigational aid, for propaganda and recruitment,
and as a tool to coordinate the government services in areas without telephone service, had
prevented the small station from revitalizing its programming and expanding its coverage. The
BCN opened VOWN in Corner Brook in 1943, and after the war, VORG, a station operated in
Gander by Canadian forces, was transferred to the Corporation. However, public circumstances
prevented the BCN from improving their programming. The demands of recording and
broadcasting hundreds of hours of the debates of the National Convention forced the Corporation
to forgo advertising revenue and strained the resources of the small staff. After union with
Canada in 1949, the BCN was taken over by the CBC.
Once Newfoundland became a Canadian province there were no longer restrictions upon the
development of new radio stations. A number of new AM stations opened to serve new markets,
and Newfoundland broadcasters moved into Frequency Modulation (FM) as well. The
combination of a number of media outlets in the hands of entrepreneurs such as Geoff Stirling
(owner of the newspaper and later television guide/magazine The Newfoundland Herald, NTV
television station and OZ FM radio) became a Newfoundland example of a worldwide
phenomenon of media concentration.
After the invention of television, radio lost its dominance of the business of informing,
entertaining and retailing products to "the masses." Radio evolved into specialized formats (such
as country music stations) to counter the competition for audience attention from television and
other forms of entertainment, but its importance continued to erode. Radio stations increasingly
played little but recorded music over the air and often rebroadcast programming from Canadian
and American stations rather than produce their own programming. The CBC radio service, with
stations and transmitters throughout the island and Labrador, has been an exception, providing a
broad range of national and local news and public affairs programming. In the late 1990s,
resources devoted to local production by the CBC have been sharply reduced.
Two television broadcasting systems were established in the decades following Confederation,
the first of which was the privately-owned station CJON (1955). This was followed a few years
later by two CBC-owned and -operated stations, one in Corner Brook and another in St. John's.
These stations produced some of their own programming, but operated mostly as conduits that
brought cultural material from Canada and the United States into the new province while
advertising products. Starting in the 1970s, cable television brought an increasingly large number
of "channels" to Newfoundland, marginalizing the programming produced in Newfoundland and
"The Budgells," ca. late 1980s.
The popular, fictitious family "The Budgells" were portrayed in a comedy skit which was regularly performed
on the weekly CBC television series CODCO during the 1980s.
Photo from the Centre for Newfoundland Studies Archives,
Memorial University of Newfoundland Library, St. John's, Newfoundland.
Photo by M. White. © CODCO. Courtesy of M. White.
This completed a process by which people became less able to market their own
cultural products and more firmly tied into a network that presented the same standardized and
prepackaged culture to Pasadena, Newfoundland, and Pasadena, California. While
Newfoundlanders consume significant amounts of American entertainment programming, they
remain loyal to Newfoundland-produced news and public affairs programming.
In Newfoundland and Labrador, mass communications media have always played a double-edged
cultural role. While they brought in ideas and culture from outside Newfoundland, they also
worked to cement Newfoundland together into a community with a shared culture and political
life. It would thus be easy to conclude that these media fostered the climate that encouraged
Newfoundland to join Confederation in 1949 by making Newfoundlanders aware of the higher
standard of living enjoyed in Canada, but such conclusions should be approached with caution.
The areas with the greatest access to print and electronic media were also the areas that voted
most heavily for a return to responsible government.
In the final analysis, mass media provide a vital public sphere in which people participate in
debating and formulating political policies and social attitudes. But these functions are always
subordinate to the task of creating a mass of consumers whose attention can be sold to
© 1998, Jeff Webb
Sidebar links updated February and July, 2008