Radio Broadcasting History

Newspaper headline from The Halifax Herald April 22, 1936, declaring 'Entombed Men Hear Rescuers Near Underground Vault'

Media at Moose River

Late on Sunday evening, April 12, 1936, three men became trapped in an eastern Nova Scotia gold mine. Along with the rescuers, word of a cave-in brought media to the remote village of Moose River. Mostly newspapermen, they filed daily stories with headlines expressing the urgency of the situation, such as “Miners Struggle to Reach Three Toronto Men Entombed in Black Depth of Goldmine” and “Trapped In a Black Hell”. However, newspapers could not deliver up-to-the-minute reports of the situation and the public ached for more news. Live radio had the potential to deliver this immediacy, but had never been used in this way.

Early Radio

Replica of a ribbon microphone.

A replica of the style of microphone J. Frank Willis used at the Moose River mine site to capture the voices of those involved in the rescue effort. The ribbon microphone was invented in the 1920s and was a breakthrough in sound technology. The clarity and realism of this microphone was unmatched by any other microphones of the day and set a new standard for audio recording and broadcasting.

In April 1936, radio was in its infancy. It was seen as a source of entertainment, with listeners tuning in for soap operas, music and dramas. As hard as it is for us to believe now, radio was not used for reporting news.

Making broadcasting history

CRBC radio reporter J. Frank Willis interviewing rescue workers, Moose River, 1936.

J. Frank Willis (holding microphone) interviews Billy Bedaux from Stellarton, NS about the rescue operation.

CBC Still Photo Collection

On April 20th, 8 days after the incident at Moose River, Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission (CRBC) radio reporter J. Frank Willis finally received permission from his superiors to go there. Using the single shared telephone line available, J. Frank Willis made international broadcasting history. For 69 hours straight, he aired live 2-minute updates on the unfolding events every half hour, making it North America’s first 24-hour news event. Soon an estimated 100 million in North America and around the world were listening. When Willis finally reported "this is for the world, they have been saved," it truly was for the world.

You can listen to Willis’ broadcasts from Moose River on the CBC Digital Archives .

Capturing our Imaginations

A photograph of a family sitting around a radio in the 1930s.

Still Picture Records Section, Special Media Archives Services Division (NWCS-S), National Archives at College Park, MD

With Willis’ evocative reporting style, the listener could feel what it was like to witness the highs and lows of the rescue effort, where life hung in the balance in a lonely place:

The torture of doubt, the Calvary of mental and physical anguish, the nerve-destroying sound of dripping water, the rattle and splash of falling rock chips in their prison as another gigantic charge of dynamite is set off to get to them. What must have been the strain, the agony of these past weeks? You can imagine. It proved too much for Magill.

It is said that J. Frank Willis was so successful that listeners refused to leave their homes for fear of missing one of his reports. Only when merchants installed radios in their stores to make the Moose River reports available, did shoppers venture out.

Willis’ Achievement

Considering how long he went without sleep, it was amazing that J. Frank Willis could be so articulate. Here is what the experience was like for him:

You did without (sleep). And you got your second wind, and then you got your third wind, and then you found yourself in a semi-comatic state. You were alert enough in certain ways, you could still do the old biz, you know, picking up any news that was going – but in the meantime, you were not physically that well.” J. Frank Willis, CBC Radio Interview, 1968, CBC Digital Archives.

Once its potential for reporting the news and for live reporting was demonstrated by J. Frank Willis at Moose River, radio was never the same.

Later, the Canadian Press voted Willis’ broadcasts the top news story of the first half of the 20th century (an era that also included World War II).