Mass Media

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.

Royal Gazette, 1828
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, NL.

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
Voice of Wesleyan Radio (VOWR) Station
Courtesy of The Rooms Provincial Archives Division (A 42-75), St. John's, NL.

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 were 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 Labrador.

'The Budgells,' ca. late 1980s
"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 Archives and Special Collections, Queen Elizabeth II Library, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, NL. 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 advertisers.

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