On July 29, 1939, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation added another voice to its cross-continental radio broadcast network. CBK Radio 540 boomed onto the air with 50,000 watts of RF power. Watrous was chosen as the ideal location for such a transmitter for several reasons: (1) the same mineral that is responsible for Little Manitou Lake is found in the surrounding soil which makes it highly conductive; (2) the local altitude coupled with the hundreds of miles of virtually flat land is excellent for radio transmission; (3) In those early years telephone was unreliable and close proximity to the rail line--namely the telegraph--made the important communication link. The power of CBK even amazed the engineers, far exceeding expectations of serving the three prairie provinces. It has been estimated that to equal the coverage of CBK, a radio station in Eastern Canada would have to be four times the power. The original transmitter was water-cooled. Therefore, CBK was the only facility licensed to operate a still to purify the water before being circulated through the conductive-sensitive tubes. During those days of prohibition, it was subject to frequent inspections.
From 24-hour local broadcasting to audio feeds wired in from Winnipeg and later Regina, CBK has seen many changes. 1964 and the Cold War brought a fall-out shelter and standby diesel generator complete with 10,000 gallon underground fuel reserve. The generator and transmitter controls were all duplicated in the shelter so the technicians could continue to broadcast round the clock to give instructions to
nuclear bomb survivors. Floodlights and armed guards were in place as well as a large sandbox built around the tower's fragile porcelain base insulator to protect it from a sniper's bullet which could shatter the insulator and bring down the tower. Surviving all this, a severe storm with plough winds of over 100 mph on the night of June 4, 1976 did bring the tower down. It was reduced to a mass of twisted angle-iron and tangled cables. This was the only time in its history that CBK was off the air for more than a few hours for transmitter maintenance or tower relamping. Only several days after the storm, a 300-foot temporary tower put CBK back on the air. In 1983, a new permanent tower was erected, reaching the height of 465 feet, the same electrical length as the original quarter-wave antenna.
Conversion to a newer air-cooled vacuum tube transmitter with a 10 kilowatt standby took place in the late 1960's and then in the early 1980's, a new solid state remote-controlled transmitter brought CBK into the modern electronics age. Controlled from Regina by computer via modem through telephone lines meant that 24-hour staff were no longer required. It now operates with only regular maintenance visits by technicians and weekly inspections and meter readings by a local monitor. The old stucco building still stands proudly on the outskirts of Watrous with the tower beacon still visible for miles, and its voice heard for hundreds of miles.
This is the original CBC Radio logo designed in 1940.
Article by Dwight Kornelsen, Watrous. Dwight is the local monitor for the CBC building and equipment.
Pictures: (1) CBK in 1960's; (2) Control console with RCA water-cooled tube transmitter in the 1960's; (3) The original 465' tower was blown down in the big wind of 1976.