Plus de French Radio

Most days at CJBC began in the control room of studio 522. I would break the day in gently with a telephone interview or two for journalists such as Pascale Turbide (now of Radio-Canada’s Enquête). In between interviews, CJBC’s communications manager, Diane Belhumeur, might arrive loaded up with what she called, “les choses plats (boring stuff).”

Toronto Broadcast Centre, Home of CJBC

Toronto Broadcast Centre, Home of CJBC

Les choses plat consisted mostly of recording and mixing Station IDs. Although the work was boring, it was always fun chatting with Diane as we did it. She frequently spoke to me in French. It was while doing les choses plat that I made my first successful French pun. I was dubbing audio one day when Pascale stuck her head in the door and asked me what I was doing.

“Dubbing,” I told her. “Comme D’dubitude.” It was a play on “comme d’habitude”, which means “as usual. I was rather proud of that one. (Not sure Pascale was quite as impressed.)

In between jobs, I would select Studio 521 on my console’s router and listen to music that the morning show tech, Steve Starchev, was playing through his console next door. Steve had a vast personal collection of music from all over the world that he liked to listen to in between shows. He once took all that neat music and turned it into a pilot for a radio show. Sadly, he only managed to get one episode on the air. Steve himself was a terrific musician, playing guitar, bagpipes, and hurdy-gurdy (and probably more).

Steve liked to crack jokes and tell funny stories. One of his favourite stories was about explaining preservatives to a Frenchman. Steve didn’t know the French word for “preservative” so he guessed that it was the same in French, like so many English words. But when Steve explained that North American food contains a lot of “preservatives,” the Frenchman got a funny look on his face. Only later did Steve find out that, for the French, “les préservatifs” are condoms.

Steve died way too young, and I miss him.

After lunch I would move across the hall to Studio 521 to operate a simple half-hour phone show called Les Petites Annonces, basically classified ads on radio. Les Petites Annonces was followed by De A a X, with host Francois X, produced by the lovely Esther Ste-Croix. It was followed by CJBC Express, a fast-paced current affairs show for the afternoon drive slot, produced by Daniel Martineaux, ably assisted by Brigitte Egan.

Sometimes I operated the Saturday morning show as well, Sameplait, hosted by Claudette Gravel. The first time I did Sameplait was back in Studio Z on Carleton street. The show started just after six am. I was decidedly not a morning person and was quite grumpy at having to get up early to do the show.

My mood persisted when I got to the studio and met the producer, Simone Fadel, a francophone from Egypt. I wasn’t surly, exactly, but I wasn’t particularly friendly, either. Until Simone toasted me up a bagel and offered me a cup of coffee and it became simply impossible to maintain a sour mood in the face of someone radiating such good cheer. Once I thawed, I confessed to Simone that I’d started the show a bit grumpy.

“Grumpy?” she said. “What is grumpy?”

I explained the meaning of the word. I believe the entire concept of grumpiness might have been alien to Simone, but she loved the word grumpy. Whenever I worked with her from then on, she would ask me,

“Are you grumpy today, Joe?”

Simone, as I mentioned, was from Egypt, a part of la Francophonie. La Francophonie is a group of fifty-seven states and governments where “French is the mother tongue and/or where a significant proportion of the population are Francophones, and/or where there is a notable affiliation with French culture,” according to Wikipedia.

It includes obvious places like France, Swizterland, Belgium, and Canada. Quebec and New Brunswick are singled out as member states. The Congo, Egypt, Vietnam and Ghana are also a part of la Francophonie. So (I suspect many would be surprised to discover) are Bulgaria, Lebanon, Madagascar, Romania, and Vanuatu, and plenty more.

Working for CJBC, I was fortunate to meet people from all around la Francophonie. People like Simone, mentioned above, and others like author/broadcaster Didier Kabagema. Didier was of Rwandan descent, and spent most of his childhood in Congo and Gagon before moving to Canada, where he worked as a journalist with CJBC. Didier was a bit of an inspiration. He published his first novel during my final months at CJBC, and has since published six others (writing under the nom de plume Didier Leclair), putting my feeble attempts to become an author completely to shame. His first novel, Toronto, je t’aime, won the Trillium Book Award.

Didier Kabagema

Didier Kabagema

Another perk of working for CJBC was exposure to French music. There’s a whole world of fantastic music out there that many Anglophones know little or nothing about. Music from all over la Francophonie.

Most English Canadians already know French Canadian artists such as Celine Dion, Roch Voisine, Mitsou, Gilles Vigneault, and Daniel Lanois. They may not know slightly more obscure artists such as Beau Dommage, La Bottine Souriante, Jim Corcoran, Richard Desjardins, and others, but they ought to.

Across the water there’s Edith Piaf, Jacques Brel (who was Belgian), Serge Gainsbourg, Johnny Hallyday, Vanessa Paradis, Maxime le Forestier, Lynda Lemay, Youssou N’Dour (Senegal), Cesaria Evora (Cape Verde)—the list goes on and on. Myself, I like Francis Cabrel (check out La Fille Qui M’accompagne and La Cabane du Pêcheur), Alain Souchon (Foule Sentimentale), and Laurent Voulzy (Le Reve du Pecheur). I’m missing many, of course—I’m about fifteen years out of date, having been most heavily exposed to French music and culture between 1993 and 1999.

I’ve mentioned before that Radio Techs threw the best Christmas parties. This was true right up until we moved from Jarvis Street to the Toronto Broadcast Centre, where we tried holding the parties in a windowless lounge on the third floor. It just wasn’t the same, and nobody ever came up with a better solution, so tech Christmas parties came to an abrupt and ignominious end.

The French, on the other hand, knew better than to have their parties in claustrophobic rooms with no soul. They booked private rooms at restaurants, and those became the best Christmas parties, but they were by invitation only. Fortunately, working for the French, I got invited. The food was terrific, the music great, and the atmosphere was always a lot of fun.

After four and a half years of working with CJBC and all its wonderful people, I was offered a chance to join the radio drama department. It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. I did my last Les Petites Annonces, my last De A a X, mon dernier CJBC Express. They wouldn’t be my final French productions, though. In the years to come French Producer Gabriel Dube would produce several radio dramas in French, which I would engineer.

Mais c’est un autre histoire (but that’s another story).

French Radio: CJBC

I spent four and a half years working for the French at CBC Radio.

Here’s an incredibly long-winded explanation why:

I grew up in Summerside, Prince Edward Island, amongst French Acadians. Acadians are French who originally settled the Maritimes hundreds of years ago. Back in those days, Prince Edward Island was known as Isle Saint-Jean (before that, it was called Abegweit, by the Mi’kmaq Indians).

Between 1755 and 1763, the British forcibly removed most Acadians from the Maritimes, confiscating all their wealth, possessions, and land. Fifty-three percent of the French Acadian population died, many by disease, others by drowning when three of the ships transporting them sank. (Sadly, the world doesn’t appear to have changed much since those tragic days, as recent headlines attest.) Although the British did not transport Acadians directly to Louisiana, many wound up there, attracted by the language, where they settled and developed the culture known today as Cajun.

Ships Take Acadians Into Exile (Claude Picard)

Ships Take Acadians Into Exile (Claude Picard)

The expulsion is a Big Deal in the Maritimes. I studied the events in high school, and in Grade Ten I played the man chiefly responsible for the expulsion, Governor Charles Lawrence, in a High School play called Evangeline, which was written and scored by a local High School teacher. I remember being roundly booed during the curtain call for the dress rehearsal. I believe the booing was because the character I was playing was evil, though I can’t be entirely certain that it wasn’t a comment on my performance: my English teacher had coached me on how to play the part, and after one of the shows I asked him what he’d thought:

“I thought your character would be much fatter,” he told me.

He declined to elaborate.

The expulsion was well known elsewhere, too. In 1847, the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem called Evangeline: a Tale of Acadie. The poem was about a bride-to-be wandering for years trying to find her fiancé after the expulsion forced their separation on their wedding day. Longfellow based the poem on a story he’d heard; some believe that the couples’ forced separation on the day of their wedding may actually have happened.

Some Acadians escaped the expulsion by hiding in the woods. After Quebec was formally ceded to the British in 1763, the British decided that the Acadians no longer posed a threat and allowed them to return to the Maritimes. By the time I was born, there were about five thousand Acadians on Prince Edward Island (there were more elsewhere: about thirty-three thousand in Nova Scotia and a couple of hundred thousand in New Brunswick). Not all of them spoke French anymore, but some did, and the more time I spent with them, the more it bothered me that I only spoke one language.

Thus was born my thirst to learn French (hey, I warned you it would be a long-winded explanation).

In 1993, I asked for a leave of absence from the CBC to study French in France. My boss at the time, Kel Lack, applauded the idea and was only too happy to accommodate me.

Before going to France, I seriously overestimated my proficiency in French. I had, after all, studied French in school until Grade Eleven. I don’t know what the heck I did in all those classes but it sure wasn’t learn French. My first few days in Aix-en-Provence I couldn’t understand anyone. “Qu’est ce que tu cherche (what are you looking for)?” a girl in a store asked me. I couldn’t understand her. I could trot out a few phrases learned from guidebooks, such as: “un hôtel s’il vous plaît. Quelque chose de bon marché (a hotel, please. Some place cheap)” or “une chambre avec une douche (a room with a shower),” but that was about it.

No matter. I set about making up for lost time. I studied hard at school. Although the school was based in Aix-en-Provence, it was a part of l’université d’Aix-Marseille, called Institut d’études françaises pour étudiants étrangers (years later I saw the actor Bradley Cooper conduct an interview in fluent French; turns out he studied at the same school). I made many ridiculous mistakes. I once asked a street vendor for “un chien chaud avec tout le monde (a hot dog with everybody on it).” One day, when a Frenchman asked me how much French I spoke, I attempted to tell him that I knew a few words. “Je connais un petit mot (I know a small word),” I told him. He asked me which small word I knew.

Garden of l'Institut d'Etudes Francaises, where I went to school.

Garden of l’Institut d’Etudes Francaises, where I went to school.

By Christmas, though, I was able to carry on rudimentary conversations. I began to insist on speaking only French. There for the same purpose, my closest friends were only too happy to oblige. Unfortunately, everyone else wanted to practise their English on me. I began a battle of wills with the French populace. One banker I did regular business with insisted on speaking to me in English. I refused to cooperate. I spoke French while she spoke English. Few things are more ridiculous than speaking French as a second language to someone speaking English as a second language. The loser was whoever was forced to switch to their native tongue first. I always lost. Until the end of the year, when during our final encounter she ran head-long into a word she didn’t know and was forced to switch back to French first. La victoire était douce (victory was sweet).

I resorted to tricks to prevent people from speaking English to me. If I spoke French and they responded in English, I would say “Je suis désolé, mais je ne parle pas l’anglais,” (I’m sorry, but I don’t speak English).

Mais vous êtes américain, vous n’êtes pas (but you’re American, aren’t you)?” (They always thought Canadians were Americans.)

Non, je suis suédois (no, I’m Swedish),” I would tell them, and trot forth a few nonsensical phrases in Swedish to prove it: “Kan jag prata med Eva tack?,” I would jabber. “En hund. Och en annan hund. Sex sardiner i en sardin tenn. (can I speak to Eva please? A dog. Hey, another dog. Six sardines in a sardine tin.) I had plenty of Swedish friends in France who enjoyed teaching me nonsense.

By the time I returned home, my French had improved dramatically (my Swedish not so much). Ironically, I still couldn’t understand Acadians. Acadian French is not quite the same as what I had learned in France. The accent is markedly different. It’s said that Acadian French resembles the French spoken in France about four hundred years ago, when Acadians first settled PEI. I suspect there’s some truth to this.

When I returned to the CBC in Toronto, my boss Kel Lack had retired and Charlie Cheffins had taken his place. Charlie thought it was brilliant that I’d learned some French. It meant he’d be able to place me in the French department. I agreed, and so began four and a half years of working almost exclusively for CJBC.

You might recall from an earlier post that CJBC is an affiliate of the ici Radio-Canada Premiere network, broadcasting to Franco-Ontarians at AM 860. They are a part of the CBC, and broadcast out of the Broadcast Centre in Toronto, but they report to French Services in Montreal. Or you might have skipped over this admittedly dry bit of exposition in both posts (I don’t blame you).

Everyone I worked with at CJBC was bilingual to one degree or another. My French was still very much a work in progress. I continued to improve, but at a much slower pace. My enthusiasm for speaking French had waned somewhat now that I was living my life in English once again. And I was having a bit of trouble with francophone accents in Canada. Not hearing one or two words in a sentence correctly can be enough to make the meaning of an entire sentence suspect. Making matters worse, almost everyone at CJBC was as bad about speaking French to me as the folks in France had been. Just like my banker frenemy, when I spoke French, they replied in English (there were a couple of exceptions).

Still, with all the French floating around CJBC, I couldn’t help but improve my French just by keeping my ears open. Here are a few of the words and phrases burned into my brain during my time with CJBC:

C’est mon lot (it’s my lot in life).” That was Guy Lalonde, the host of CJBC Express. I can’t remember what he was referring to. What I do remember is asking him to repeat what he’d said so I could add it to my vocabulary. I present it here not because the phrase itself is particularly interesting, but to illustrate one of the best ways to learn French, which is to ask people what the heck they’re saying when you don’t understand them. Otherwise it will be your lot in life to remain unilingual. (I learned a good portion of my French this way.)

Il bâille. Dans ma face! (He yawns. In my face!)” Frank Desoer was host of CJBC Express during my second year with CJBC. (I’ve no idea what happened to Guy Lalonde. CJBC Express went through hosts the way the French go through cheese.) Frank was just pretending to be angry, but his words lodged themselves into my brain, and I enjoy trotting them out whenever somebody yawns in my face.

Esther Ste-Croix was the producer of a show called De A a X (from A to X). Esther was a lovely woman, and you’ll have to take my word for it that I didn’t usually tease her, but I must have one day, for she replied, “Tu te moque de moi (you’re making fun of me).” Naturally I asked her to repeat herself, which she kindly did, allowing me to add that expression to my repertoire.

Other staff were fond of exclaiming, “Ben voyons donc!” to express frustration or incredulity. Taken literally it doesn’t make much sense—it seems to me that it would translate as, “well, let’s see therefore!” but francophones use it like anglophones use, “oh, come on!”, which doesn’t really make any sense either. Come where, exactly?

One particularly memorable day I ran into someone from CJBC whose name I must withhold to spare them undue embarrassment. We were on the second floor—not his natural habitat, and he was a little lost. He was also looking a little green around the gills.

“Where are the washrooms on this floor?” he asked me in English.

It was easier to show him, so I led him around a corner. A few steps down the hallway he placed a hand to his mouth and exclaimed, “Ca s’en vient! (it’s coming!)”

A half-second later he projectile-vomited his lunch the entire length of the corridor, a magnificent feat the likes of which I’ve yet to see equaled—and that I think of whenever I hear the words ca s’en vient. (You never know just what might be coming.)

Sometimes I would discern a jumble of words in the middle of an anecdote that I couldn’t quite make out. One day I got frustrated enough to ask someone what exactly they were saying. It took a minute to figure out which words I was talking about, but we finally narrowed it down to “a un moment donné.”

Literally translated, it means “at a given time.” People were using it to mean “at one point.” (It’s at this point that I must advise you to take any translations I provide with a grain of salt. Le français est pas ma langue maternelle—French is not my mother tongue). A un moment donné is (I believe) a rather common phrase, and I mention it here because it’s a terrific example of how understanding a single phrase can, in one fell swoop, render a foreign language infinitely more intelligible. And let’s take a moment here to pause and reflect on what a nifty expression “one fell swoop” is, and how cryptic it must sound to those speaking English as a second language.

More about CJBC in my next post…

Studios From Scratch

Most of the time, CBC Radio shows are broadcast out of special, purpose-built radio studios, all carefully designed, built, and equipped by experienced broadcast engineers. In studios like that all you have to do to get your show on the air is go in, sit down, and turn on a piece of equipment or two.

Other times, studios are built from scratch.

Sometimes this is as simple as a microphone attached to a recording device by an XLR cable, along with a pair of headphones.

Sometimes it’s rather more complicated than that.

When we go offsite and cobble one of these transient radio studios together, whether it’s simple or complicated, we call it a “remote.”

Some remotes are more remote than others. If a remote is just a few blocks away and the tech happens to forget a piece of gear, maybe a microphone stand or a clip, he or she can just dart back to the Broadcast Centre and get it. If a remote is hours away, maybe half-way across the country or in a completely different country, the tech had better have all the right gear.

Some remotes last only an hour or two; others never seem to end. Sometimes a show will broadcast live right from their remote location. Other times they’ll record what they want and edit the content later and broadcast it sometime after that.

My first remote was a music pick-up in the Church of the Holy Trinity in downtown Toronto, not too far away from the Radio Building. Recording Engineer Dave Burnham was recording a choir there to be broadcast later on a show called Listen to the Music. (The Cowboy Junkies had recorded their superlative album The Trinity Session in that same church a few months earlier.) My job was to help Dave, which mainly meant lugging all his equipment. Remotes almost always involved a lot of lugging.

Inside the Church of the Holy Trinity

Inside the Church of the Holy Trinity

It was a simple enough remote, on the surface of it: recording one small choir. Dave’s setup consisted of a handful of microphones connected to a small console. Still, there were several questions that needed to be answered. Just how exactly to make this choir sound as good as possible? What kind of microphones to use? How many? Where exactly to place them? What kind of outboard gear to use, if any? An experienced high-end recording engineer like Dave had plenty of tricks up his sleeves, and employed his own unique strategies. Recording music out in the field was an art, and although I accompanied engineers like Dave out on a few remotes, and did some music recording of my own privately, I never acquired anything resembling the expertise of someone like Dave.

After a couple of years of lugging gear for other techs and learning what I could, I started getting my own remotes. Despite my time observing, I was initially a bit handicapped. Unlike many other techs, I never did a stretch in Radio Technical Stores. Radio Tech Stores was where techs got equipment for their remotes. Working in Stores you assembled equipment for more senior techs and accompanied them on their remotes. If you paid attention, you learned what gear was best and how to make it work.

Motivated by a profound fear of failure, I overcame my handicap by spending time in Stores on my own, hooking up gear and figuring out how to make it do what I needed it to do. Over time my preparation paid off, though the knowledge of gear I acquired didn’t entirely compensate for certain other massive deficiencies, such as an inability to find my way around Toronto.

One of my first solo pickups was for a show on politics called The House. My job was to record the second last Mayor of Scarborough, Joyce Trimmer, on a Nagra in her office for one half of a double-ender. A double-ender consists of an interviewer back in the studio talking to a guest on the phone while somebody like me records the guest out in the field. Afterward, back in the studio, a tech eliminates the poor phone quality recording of the guest, replacing that recording with the high fidelity recording done in the field.

Joyce Trimmer, former Mayor of Scarborough

Joyce Trimmer, former Mayor of Scarborough

I needed to be at Trimmer’s office by two pm. We only had the studio in the Radio Building booked until two-thirty. Unfortunately, I didn’t own a car and wasn’t used to driving in Toronto. I didn’t know my way around the streets of Scarborough at all. Driving a Stores van, I got hopelessly lost. I couldn’t find Trimmer’s damn office. Somebody had told me it was in the Scarborough Town Centre but I couldn’t even find that. When I finally did, I figured there must be offices in it somewhere. Maybe there is, but if so she wasn’t in any of them. Turned out her office was in a building behind the Scarborough Town Centre. Panting and sweating and lugging my equipment, I got there twenty minutes late. Back in the Radio Building the producer and host must have been freaking out. Trimmer herself was the epitome of graciousness. She offered me a glass of water, which I gratefully accepted, and we managed to get the recording done in the time remaining.

My remote skills (such as they are) really came together while working for the folks at CJBC. CJBC is a part of CBC Radio-Canada. An affiliate of the ici Radio-Canada Premiere network, they broadcast to Franco-Ontarians at AM 860 out of studios on the fifth floor of the Toronto Broadcast Centre. I was loaned to them for four and a half years after I took the better part of a year off to live in France. We did a lot of remotes during my time with them.

The first big remote I did for CJBC was for something called a Salon du livres, held in one of the big halls in the Toronto Convention Centre. Basically it was a book fair. We did one of those a year. Because the Salon du livres was a relatively big remote, and because I really didn’t know what the heck I was doing, I asked for an assistant. I was assigned fellow technician Carlos Van Leeuwen, who happened to be working in Stores at the time.

The remote consisted of a host and three guest positions set up at one table in the middle of the book fair, facing a small audience. The guests and hosts would use headphone microphones. There was a PA (public address system) set up for the benefit of a small audience. During the live show I would sit at a separate table with my mixing console and the producer and associate producer at my side. There would be a talkback set up for the producer and the host to be able to communicate with one another. An ISDN unit would transmit the show to the Broadcast Centre and live to air.

Tech Stores had something called a McCurdy Turret System for exactly this kind of remote. Carlos and I decided to give it a try. Only problem was neither of us had ever used it before, and we had only the barest idea how it worked. There were no instructions and we didn’t have access to anyone else who know how it worked, if such a person existed. The only way to figure it out was to plug it all together in various permutations until it finally worked. I would say that it was a completely unintuitive system except that I know people who used to work for McCurdy and I wouldn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.

For some reason that eludes me now, but that I’m sure made perfect sense at the time, we didn’t start trying to figure it out until the day of the remote. There were moments I didn’t think we’d ever get the bloody thing working. But we did, and I will be eternally grateful to Carlos for his help — without him I’d probably still be staring at it cross-eyed.

Once I understood how the McCurdy Turret System worked I began to use it on all my remotes. One day another tech watched me set it up. The connectivity was so bizarre that he couldn’t believe it worked that way. He insisted that I must be doing it wrong. Happy to entertain better ways of doing it, I challenged him to make it work another way, but he couldn’t.

During that first Salon du livres there were many long moments where nothing worked properly, during which I seriously entertained the notion that we wouldn’t make it to air. There is a moment like that on every remote. It can last seconds or it can last hours, but it’s always there. Sometimes it’s dead simple: you have a microphone set to line instead of mic on the console. Fine. You spot the problem and fix it. Sometimes it’s more complicated than that, and you have to troubleshoot your entire setup to find the answer, maybe a bad cable or a faulty mixer, and there are no maintenance techs around to help you (well, sometimes there are, on some big music remotes, but there never was for me). I had a rule of thumb that served me well: it’s never the cable. And it never was. Except for once, when it was.

Sometimes the problem will have nothing to do with your equipment. Once, during a setup for a remote in Welland, I couldn’t establish continuity with Master Control. I wasn’t too concerned; it was an hour before airtime. Forty-five minutes later it still wasn’t working. I was certain the problem wasn’t anything on my end. Nor was the problem in Master Control. Turned out it was in between, with Bell. A Bell tech fixed it ten minutes before air time — someone had patched a cable wrong.

Remotes were usually pretty straightforward once you got everything working. Once I had to deal with a bit of feedback from the PA, and another time a dirty turret developed a bit of a click whenever the host toggled the microphone on or off, but I never had a remote go completely belly-up on me.

I came close, though. The closest was during a remote in Niagara-on-the-Lake. I was working for the Radio Drama Department at the time. We did multiple remote pickups every summer at the Shaw Festival for the Bell Canada Reading Series. They were usually a lot of fun. Sometimes another engineer would tag along; sometimes it would just be you and a producer. On this particular day I was flying solo.

Because I had to be there early, I packed up my gear the night before and drove the CBC van home. Proud to work for the CBC, and proud to be seen working for the CBC, I always liked driving a CBC branded van (yes, I’m aware that pride is one of the seven deadly sins). I got up at five in the morning the day of and made the two and a half hour drive from Whitby to the Royal George Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Someone let me in in the theatre and I set up. I don’t remember what reading I was recording on this particular day. It might have been an adaptation of the French novel Le Grand Meaulnes, or it could have been something about Emily Carr. Whatever it was, it involved eight or so actors lined up in a row on stage reading from scripts on music stands. I typically used AKG 414s on the actors, plugged into a snake, fed to a Sony MXP61 mixing console. We recorded straight to DAT (Digital Audio Tape) in those days. I had two decks; one master and one backup.

I’ve always hated DATs.

When I first started doing remotes I would only bring as much equipment as I thought I would need. I mistakenly thought that sort of economy constituted good planning. And maybe it would if you were travelling to the North Pole. But it didn’t take me long to figure out that it was much smarter to bring as much as I could cram into the van. Extras of everything. Two consoles instead of one. Extra microphones, stands, snakes, whatever I could get away with. But sometimes even that wasn’t enough.

Royal George Theatre

Royal George Theatre

There is no air conditioning in the Royal George Theatre, and it was unbelievably hot that day. I wondered if it might be too hot for the DAT decks. I was parked right outside the theatre. I considered moving the DAT machines into the back of the van and turning on the vehicle’s air conditioning. We’d done that once before. But it was getting a little too close to show time, so I left the setup the way it was.

Patrons filed into the theatre. Soon the place was packed. With all those people it got even hotter. The show started. My top deck was a Panasonic. The bottom deck was a Sony. About ten minutes into the show the Panasonic deck stopped recording. No problem. I still had the Sony. I got the Panasonic going again. A few minutes later the Sony froze. Uh oh. What if they both froze at the same time? It went on like this for the entire hour it took to record the reading. First one deck locking up and then the other. I was sweating bullets, but not because of the heat.

Once the recordings were finished I tested playback. The Sony would play back but the recording was spotty. The Panasonic wouldn’t play back at all. This wasn’t good. It was a long drive back to the Broadcast Centre. I had screwed up the entire remote. How would I break the news to the producer, Barbara Worthy? I had never seen Babs angry before. Well, there was always a first time.

Usually, I would head back to the Broadcast Centre, unload all my gear, return the van, and head home on the GO Train. This time I unloaded all my gear as fast as I could and made a beeline for the edit suites. I needed to know if I could get anything off the DAT tapes or if in fact the remote was a complete failure.

The best way to retrieve material from a DAT tape is to play it back from the same machine it was recorded on. I didn’t trust the machines I’d recorded on so I found the same make of machine in two different studios. Playing back the tapes, I saw that some audio had successfully recorded on each tape. But there were gaping holes in both tapes.

I transferred the contents of each DAT tape into ProTools, then lined them up on separate tracks, allowing me to see visually just what was missing from each tape. Although each tape was missing several minutes worth of material, through some miracle each track compensated for the other. Between the two tapes I had an entire show. What a relief! I resolved to bring seventeen spare DAT machines with me to the next remote.

Fortunately, technology was constantly evolving, and I didn’t have to rely on DAT tapes much longer.

More on that in my next post.


Morningside had several skilled technicians who worked on the show a lot more than I did.

I just filled in from time to time.

But I did work on a summer version of the show with a couple of replacement hosts: Denise Donlon and Ian Brown. I did the actual show with regular host Peter Gzowski three times. The show looms large in my memory, though, and feels worth writing about.

The summer replacement version of Morningside was called Summerside. I was asked to do it and I never said no to opportunities like that. I thought it was appropriate, actually, considering I grew up in Summerside, Prince Edward Island. At the time the regular tech for Morningside was John Johnston. To prepare for Summerside, I shadowed John for a week. During that time John did all he could to convey everything he knew about how to operate a live show like Morningside, skills that I would find particularly useful over the next couple of decades.

Denise Donlon

Denise Donlon

By this time I had a fair bit of experience operating shows like as As It Happens, but Morningside was rather more challenging. As It Happens was microphones, phones, and tape. Morningside was microphones, phones, tape, wireless microphones, 2-ways, 3-ways, live bands, and any number of other weird setups depending on who the guests were on the show.

By the time John was done teaching me I knew every strip on the McCurdy console in Studio R inside and out, every aux and group, every patch point, all the (limited) outboard gear, and every wallbox in the booth. He covered soft skills as well, such as how to make the guests feel comfortable, whether they were physically present in the studio or talking to us down a line from the other side of the country. If they were on a line it was about checking in with them regularly, explaining the process, keeping them up to date. If they were in Studio R it was about teaching them how to control their headset volume, and adjusting their microphone properly so that there would be no popping or sibilance.

Ian Brown

Ian Brown

John instructed me on control room protocol too, advising me to keep the chatter to a minimum during the show, and to insist on clarity of direction. He suggested I keep the monitors in the control room at a consistent level, but I was never able to do that—I considered it a courtesy to turn down the volume if the studio director needed to be on the phone.

I didn’t get the full week of training. My shadowing was interrupted when we showed up Wednesday morning to find the console fried. We called Audio Systems (radio maintenance) and technologist Don Paterson arrived to help. Don quickly determined that the console’s power supply was toast. This wasn’t good as we needed to be on the air in an hour, and an hour wasn’t enough time to fix the problem.

We had no choice—we would have to do the show out of another studio. The logical choice was Studio F next door, which had a similar McCurdy console. Because I’d done As It Happens out of there recently, and was more familiar with the console and the studio, it made sense for me to do the show. So in the fine CBC tradition of trial by fire, I did. I have absolutely zero memory of what happened on that show that day, suggesting that I did the show in some kind of fugue state, but both the show and I appear to have survived intact.

Thanks to the crack Audio Systems team Studio R was back in service the following day. By Monday John Johnston and Peter Gzowski were off playing golf while I flew solo with guest host Denise Donlon. She would do the first two weeks of Summerside and Ian Brown would do the second (or maybe it was the other way around). Memorable guests included Michael Enright (host of As It Happens at the time) and Canadian actor Kenneth Welsh (fresh off Twin Peaks at the time, with more recent credits in The Day After Tomorrow and The Aviator, among others).

Michael was there to demonstrate Tai Chi. Yes, that’s right… Tai Chi on the radio, but if anyone could make that work it was Michael. I had to figure out how to mic him while he was standing up and demonstrating the moves. Tech Stores had recently acquired some wireless microphones so I used a wireless Lavalier. It did the job.

The Kenneth Welsh interview didn’t work out quite so well. The actor was quite pleasant, but a third of the way through the interview his AKG 224 microphone cut out. I punched the mic button on the console off and on and played with the gain but it didn’t help. I could still hear Welsh through Ian Brown’s mic, which meant that the problem was likely limited to the strip on the console, a cable, or the mic itself.

Kenneth Welsh

Kenneth Welsh

I tore out of the control room and into the booth. Brown and Welsh kept on talking even though Welsh sounded like he was in another room. There were four AKG 224s on the table: Brown’s, the one that wasn’t working, and two others not in use, which were presumably fine. Ian treated the nation to a play by play as I swapped out the bad mic for one of the spares. I plugged it in, skedaddled back to the control room, and brought the fader up.

It worked.

This sort of thing was not particularly unusual. It is said that no plan survives contact with the enemy and this certainly applies to live radio. Equipment breaks, bands show up late for sound checks, guests don’t show up at all, or when they do show up they behave erratically, and it’s up to the team behind the show, particularly those in the control room, to deal with it all.

It’s not life or death. It’s not like somebody will die if you screw up. But it sure feels important when you’re sitting in the hot seat. The listener experience is on the line. Ratings are on the line. And if you don’t get it right, your job might be on the line—or at least the plum gigs.

We had a guest in Moncton one day.

About twenty minutes before the interview was to start, when I thought there was a good chance that the guest had settled into the Moncton Studio, I pressed a button on the console and spoke down the line: “Hello Moncton, this is Toronto.“

No response.

The clock was ticking so I didn’t waste any time. I called Master Control and told them I wasn’t getting anything from Moncton. The tech in Master called Moncton. Apparently there was a summer replacement tech in Moncton who didn’t know how to split the console for a two-way. I got his phone number and called him directly. With the show in progress and mere minutes to the interview, the Moncton tech told me what kind of console he was flying. Together we figured out how to make it do what it needed to do. He got it working seconds before we would have been forced to cancel the interview.

It was a tense few moments for both of us, but that’s live radio.

My intent here is not to impress anybody. I wasn’t some kind of super tech, constantly saving the day. John could easily have done Morningside from Studio F. Any tech can swap out a microphone. And the tech in Moncton ultimately figured out his console himself. I am well aware of where I sat in the pantheon of the eighty or so techs working in CBC Toronto at the time and I can tell you with a fair degree of certainty that I was neither the best nor the worst of the lot. These are just a few real-life examples from my own personal experience of the kinds of challenges one faces attempting to cobble together live radio.

Still, despite the occasional bit of stress, I found working on live radio curiously therapeutic. Live radio can be all-consuming, deeply immersive, even cathartic. On a busy show you don’t have time to think about anything else. You’re completely in the moment. Something knocks you sideways and you need to pull a rabbit out of a hat and you’re not sure you can pull it off but somehow you do. It completely clears your mind. Whatever mood you’re in when you go to air, the show spits you out in a completely different mood. If you survive—and you usually do—you emerge calm and happy.

Kim Stockwood

Kim Stockwood

The next time I worked on Morningside was in the new Broadcast Centre. I was working with the man himself, Peter Gzowski. Pop singer Kim Stockwood performed live. Pierre Berton and Dr. Spock both dropped by for a chat.

The first day Gzowski and I never spoke. That seemed to be just the dynamic with him. Halfway through the show on the second day, during a piece of tape, Gzowski finally addressed me from the booth via the talkback.

“Hi,” he said.

“Hi,” I replied.

“You’re doing a great job,” he said.

“Thanks,” I said.

It’s the only thing he ever said to me.

It’s all I ever needed him to say.

Peter Gzowski

Peter Gzowski

As It Happened

The first few years I worked for CBC Radio I lived across the street from the Radio Building. It was brilliant. No commute. Five minutes to work. I could and did eat lunch at home many days. But there was a downside. If someone called in sick you were often the first one they called to replace them.
Or maybe it was a good thing, creating opportunities that night not have existed otherwise.

One morning on a day off the phone rang about eight in the morning, waking me up. I answered groggily. It was Heather from the scheduling department. “The As It Happens tech has called in sick. Can you do her shift?”

The As It Happens shift was from 11am until 7pm. Most of the day was spent recording interviews, followed by an hour and a half long live show. I’d never done As It Happens before, though I’d observed the show. I’d never done any live show with the CBC before, other than the news, which was pretty straightforward.

The thought of doing As It Happens scared the dickens out of me. I was still a relatively new, inexperienced tech. As It Happens has been on the air since the time of Moses (it’s still on the air today). It’s considered a flagship show (many shows are considered flagship shows, especially by those who work on them). It’s broadcast nationally. If I made a mistake the entire country would hear it. Screwing it up would sink my entire budding CBC career, I figured.

“Sure,” I told Heather.

I slept a bit more, by which I mean I tossed and turned for a bit. I got up. Showered. I may have shaved. Five minutes to ten I marched across the street to Studio F, the As It Happens studio.

As It Happens is a current affairs show. Chase producers reach out to guests, usually by telephone, pre-interview the guests, and arrange for them to be interviewed by the As It Happens host while the guests are actually living the news, or as soon as possible afterward. Most of the interviews are pre-taped the day of the show. Those that aren’t are broadcast live during the show, frequently in the first slot (at least when I worked on the show).

When I worked on the show the hosts were Michael Enright and Alan Maitland. Alan introduced the guests while Michael did all the interviewing. Michael would be in and out of the studio all day. Alan pre-taped the odd little bit but was mostly just in the studio during the live portion of the show. Alan was over seventy when I worked with him in my mid-twenties. I remember thinking that he would have been in his mid-twenties during the second world war. You can still hear Alan Maitland on As It Happens when they replay his superb reading of The Shepard by Frederick Forsythe every Christmas Eve.

Barbara Frum, Alan Maitland 1980 ( (Photo: CBC Still Photo Collection/Fred Phipps)

Barbara Frum, Alan Maitland 1980 ( (Photo: CBC Still Photo Collection/Fred Phipps)

I don’t remember a single interview we recorded the first day I worked on the show. For one thing, I was a nervous wreck. For another, technicians frequently finish shows they’re working on with no clue what they just broadcast. This isn’t because they aren’t paying attention. Quite the contrary: it’s because techs are listening extremely closely, just not to the same things as everyone else in the studio. Producers are listening to the content. They want to know if all the information is getting out, whether the narrative makes sense. Techs are listening to the sound. What’s the phone line like? Is it intelligible? Can you make out the guests’ words? Is there too much background noise? Are the levels okay? Why is the host sitting so far back from the microphone? Why is he/her putting his hand in front of his mouth? What’s that sound? Is someone hitting the table with their knee? And so on.

Once we finished recording the interviews on quarter inch tape, the producers would take them back to their desks to edit them for length, clarity, and so on. They would also “top and tail” them—insert leader tape before and after the interview to make it easier for the technician to cue them up for the live show. We also recorded other little bits between Michael and Alan—special segments, end credits, and so on.

At five-twenty I phoned Master Control and lined up. By this point on my first day I was a bundle of nervous energy, more or less convinced that the next hour and a half would be my undoing. Nevertheless, I was prepared. I had the first interview tapes cued up on the four Studers lining the back wall of the control room. I had three carts in the cart machine: the opening theme, Moe Koffman’s “Curried Soul”, edited for As It Happens by producer Volkmar Richter (he also did the closing theme), and a couple of stings that we would use as interstitials between Alan Maitland’s live extros and his intro to the next piece of tape. The studio director was seated on my left (when he wasn’t hovering behind me), and both Michael and Alan were ensconced in the announcer’s booth before us.

Ten seconds before air the studio’s confidence clock counted down the time: ten, nine, eight… when it hit zero a red light would come on and our studio would be live to the East Coast (the Delay System would broadcast to the rest of the nation.) At the top of the clock I hit the opening theme. At the appropriate point in the music, the studio director indicated with a hand gesture that I should lower the theme. Our hosts introduced the show over the music. When they were finished, I brought the theme back up for a few seconds before fading it gradually out as Alan Maitland introduced the first item, which was live on the phone.

While Michael interviewed the first guest, the studio director decided to change the sting music we had picked out to follow the interview. I piped the sound to a tiny “cue” speaker on the console that only those of us in the control room could hear. We auditioned several carts before he finally picked one appropriate to the tone of the interview (this would happen frequently throughout the show) and I loaded it into the top slot of the cart machine.

I was establishing several protocols that would serve me well operating live shows for the next nineteen years. For example, I would always push the fader associated with the next source I was about to play (e.g., cart, tape machine, etc.) up ever so slightly on the console, and only bring it up to full level just before hitting the play button. That way I would always know what I was supposed to play next. It was easy to get distracted in the heat of battle. Also, with the fader mostly down I wouldn’t ever accidentally broadcast something at the wrong time (which could easily happen if I auditioned something such as a sting without realizing that I’d left the fader up).

I soon learned that teching As It Happens wasn’t anywhere near as difficult as I‘d feared. In fact, the show worked like clockwork: intro, interview, extro, sting. Intro, interview, extro, sting (there were always a few extra elements thrown in as well such as caller talkback, a bit called For the Record, and so on). Each interview, whether live or on tape, was like an island, an oasis of calm. I could sit back for five or eight minutes and calmly survey the script for what needed to be set up next. The studio director was crystal clear in his directions, telling me what to play when. There were moments he got distracted; those times I needed to pry the information I required out of him, but as it was pretty important to keep me informed about what was going on usually this wasn’t a problem.

There was a fun little piece of business at the end of the show that I liked. During the extro to the last interview, I faded up the closing theme, which was another Moe Koffman song called Koff Drops (Allegro Sonata II). After a few seconds, I faded it down, allowing Michael and Allan to close the show. Immediately following their last word, I hit another cart, playing another section of Koff Drops at full volume. This other section began with a great drum riff (“BUMPA BUMPA bumpa BUMPA BUMPA bumpa”) that completely took over, allowing me to quickly and discretely fade out the first part of the theme. It was a simple but particularly satisfying piece of business. I would go on to tech As It Happens many times, and every time I did I savoured that moment.

One time, though, when I hit the cart to bring in the drums, the result didn’t sound right. It was not entirely inappropriate, it was just—wrong, somehow. Everyone in the control room went silent as we tried to figure out what was the matter. Then I realized: instead of playing the closing theme, Koff Drops, I’d play the opening theme, Curried Soul. I’d cheated myself (and everyone else) out of that moment with the drums. I was also embarrassed at my mistake. But it didn’t sound all that bad, so we left it, and I’m probably the only one on the planet that even remembers the day As It Happens finished with the opening theme instead of the closing theme.

These days As It Happens uses an updated version of the theme.

I have to be honest: I miss the original.

Here’s the opening theme, Curried Soul:

And here’s the closing theme, Koff Drops. The drums I mentioned happen at 1’18” in (you’ll have to clink on a link to go to YouTube, as the video has been disabled for viewing on other websites):

Studio Q

Most of my time on the second floor of the Radio Building was spent in Studio Q.

Studio Q was a news studio. We did The World Report, The World This Weekend, The World at Six, and short four and a half minute long newscasts called Hourlies out of there.*

Like every other facility in the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Radio Building on Jarvis Street, Studio Q was kind of dusty and dingy. It had an analog console, probably a McCurdy, in the control room. Directly behind the technician were a couple of industrial strength quarter inch Studer A810 tape machines. To cue up tape on these beasts the tech would have to turn completely around. Several news items during the newscast would rely on audio from these tapes, so the tech frequently had his/her back to the console.

This Studer A810 has seen better days

This Studer A810 has seen better days

A news editor functioning as show director would sit beside the technician to the right of the console. A glass window separated the control room from an announce booth big enough to accommodate two news announcers. Hourlies and World Report only had one announcer but a show like The World at Six had two. A small recording room to the right of the control room contained four A810s and a second technician whose job it was to take in audio feeds.

About ten minutes before every newscast, the tech at the console would “line up” with a tech two floors below in Master Control using a dedicated phone line. After checking tone to ensure continuity, the tech in Master would relay the time, counting up a few seconds, to ensure that the clock in Studio Q was correct. Shows switched according to a strict automated schedule in Master Control, meaning that if a tech started the news early, the beginning of the show would be clipped.

Shortly after starting at CBC Radio I found myself observing a particularly chatty technician in Studio Q who forgot to line up one newscast. The phone from Master Control rang: a Master Control technician wondering why the news hadn’t started on time. The tech cursed and leapt into action, hitting the news theme, but it was too late. We already had about a minute of dead air. Afterward the Master Control tech phoned back and asked for the tech’s initials, which would be included on the inevitable fault report. My initials were MO (JM was already taken) and they would wind up on a few fault reports over the years.

There was usually a fair amount of excitement in Studio Q before a major newscast such as The World at Six. Providing the most up-to-date news reports meant that reporters often filed their stories at the last possible instant. As soon as a reporter finished recording a “voicer” an editor would appear and snatch the tape from the tech’s hands to prepare it for broadcast. This meant editing out mistakes and inserting a piece of leader tape—tape upon which it was not possible to record sound—before the actual audio to be played back. This would make it easier for the technician to find the item on the tape and cue it up. Sometimes, if it was seconds before the tape was to air, the recording room technician would simply hand the tape to the tech at the console, who would cue it up as fast as possible before whirling around to stab at the “play” button when the news announcer finished reading the intro.

Studio Q wasn’t my first exposure to radio news. Before joining CBC Radio, I’d spent six years off and on announce/operating in private radio. At my first station, CJRW in Summerside, Prince Edward Island, I worked evenings alone hosting a disc show (country on Friday nights and Top 40 on Saturday nights). During the show I was required to read the news every hour on the hour. Before the news I would put on a long song and then go down the hall to rip the news, sports, and weather off the wire machine. Over the previous hour the news wire machine would have spit out reams and reams of cheap yellow paper. It was my job to scan that (sometimes) thirty-seven foot long piece of paper for the information I was looking for. Fortunately, the news always came in distinctive blocks of print that made it easy to find. I would rip off the sections I required and go back to the studio and read it live.

I never read the copy ahead of time. I was a pretty good sight reader and because I was busy hosting a show all alone I didn’t have the time. Usually this wasn’t a problem, but I did get into trouble twice. Once, glancing up from reading the news, I saw my friend Andrew Fortier (visiting me at the station) making a face at me. I immediately burst into a big belly laugh right in the middle of the newscast. Another time I was reading an item about a contest to come up with a name for a new sports dome in Vancouver. After listing several serious suggestions, I came to the suggestion “the Unknown Dome”, which, coming as it did from out of nowhere, struck me as funny, and once again I dissolved into gales of laughter live on air. I giggled my way through the rest of the news.

A few years later I hosted an overnight show at CFCY/Q-93 in Charlottetown.** There, instead of reading the news myself, I used a news service called CKO. I would open up a line and someone in Halifax or maybe Toronto would read the news for me, after which I would resume my hosting duties live.***

Back to Studio Q.

After my stints in private radio I was rather taken aback by all the effort that went into making news at CBC Radio. I didn’t understand why it was necessary to have two people at the console (one operating, the other directing) while a whole other person—sometimes two—read the news. They made it all seem like such a big deal. There was a real sense of gravity. The work wasn’t actually all that difficult for the tech—the serious atmosphere made it feel harder than it was—but we did create quality newscasts.

Still, mistakes happened:

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In between news casts, when not mixing items and taking in feeds, techs would often create a makeshift tape reclaim around the console. Employing pencils as axles, we’d spin the reels with our fingers and easily spool the tape off. Or we’d take a few minutes to see who could cue up tapes the fastest (an experienced tech could do it in less than eight seconds). Or we’d listen to the yarns of older techs such as Studio Q veteran Fred Park, who once warned a couple of us junior techs about a curious phenomenon that we were bound to experience sooner or later: in the middle of a show we’d push a button or flick a switch and at that exact instant silence would descend—dead air, the arch-nemesis of all makers of radio—and it would seem to us as though we had caused the dead air by pushing that button. But in fact it would have nothing to do with us, and a second or later the show would resume as though nothing had happened, because, in fact, nothing had happened, the silence was just a coincidence, somebody had paused in the middle of a thought, un ange est passé. Fred was right—in the years to come I would experience this all the time, and I would like to say that every time it did I thought of Fred, but I can’t, because, well, I didn’t.

It’s no coincidence that the show q (formerly Q) hosted by Shadrach (Shad) Kabangois (formerly Jian Ghomeshi) is called q. When we were trying to come up with names for that show, one of the suggestions on the whiteboard was Studio Q, from which the final name of the show is obviously derived.

It was, at least in part, a deliberate reference to a certain hallowed news studio back in the Radio Building on Jarvis Street.

* At least, I think we did The World This Weekend out of there. (It was a long time ago.) We did some shows, like Canada at 5, out of Studio T across the hall.

** CBC news correspondent James Murray also worked at both CJRW and CFCY/Q-93. We went to high school together; he was one year ahead of me. There was a sign on one of the doors at CFCY/Q-93 when I worked there: please do not prop this door open with useless objects such as Jim Murray’s head. Jim and I are still pals—at least until he stumbles upon that little bit of trivia on this blog.

*** After completing my degree at Ryerson, I applied for a job at CKO. Someone from CKO phoned me up to offer me an interview. I was in the bathroom at the time. “He’s taking a shit,” one of my roommates told the caller. Despite my idiot roommate’s remark, they eventually offered me a job, but it was only part-time, so I declined. Shortly afterward I got the job at the CBC. A good thing, too—CKO went out of business shortly afterward, in 1989.

The Radio Building

Ye olde Jarvis Street CBC Radio Building (Photo by Andrew Crump)

Ye olde Jarvis Street CBC Radio Building (Photo by Andrew Crump)

When I started at CBC Radio in Toronto in nineteen eighty-eight I worked out of the Radio Building at 354 Jarvis Street. The Radio Building was a sprawling ancient structure that once upon a time had been a girls’ school. Brick on the outside, inside it was people and wood and consoles and tape machines and it smelled an awful lot like my grandparents old wooden farmhouse in rural New Brunswick. It was huge and had a lot in it, including an abandoned pool in the sub-basement that nobody swam in much except for a few rats.

Studio G, the radio drama studio, was located on the main floor. So were Studios C, D, E, F, H, J, K, L, M and R. Studios B and W were in the basement along with Radio Master Control. Studios Q and T were on the second floor. Studio X, a dubbing studio, was on the third floor if memory serves (I only ever worked in there once). Studio A was at Carleton Street. So was Studio Z, used by the French. Studio 4S, the music studio, was also in a different building half way across the city (I never set foot in there) and studios P, P aux, and V could be found at Parliament Street along with Tuffy the cat (that was where Metro Morning and Later the Same Day were produced). As near as I can tell there were no Studios I, N, O, U, Y, at least in my time, though why those letters should be discriminated against I have no idea.

Metro Morning at 509 Parliament Steet in Cabbagetown

Metro Morning at 509 Parliament Steet in Cabbagetown

Studio C was a tiny studio mostly used for voice tracking and two ways. “A” might have been for Aardvark but Studio D was for Ideas (Studio A, located on Carleton Street, was the sports studio). Basic Black, The Arts Tonight, and Stereo Morning came out of Studio E. As It Happens used Studio F from 11am to 7pm. Studio H was on the verge of being renovated into a high end production studio featuring an AMS Neve Audio File Logic 1 console, a state of the art mixing desk so advanced its inventor was said to have gone insane shortly after inventing it. Arts National was packaged in Studio J. Studio K was a multi-purpose packaging studio—Listen to the Music, Sunny Side Up, and My Kinda Jazz with Jeff Healy were packaged in there, among others. Prime Time with Ralph Benmurgi (later Geoff Pevere) came out of Studio L. CJBC (French services serving the Franco-Ontario community) broadcast live out of Studio M. Studio R was used for Morningside and Sunday Morning. Of course, many other shows also came out of these studios over the years.

AMS Neve Logic 1 Digital Audio Console

AMS Neve Logic 1 Digital Audio Console

The Technician’s Lounge was located on the main floor directly across from Studio M. Many were the friendships I forged in that lounge while waiting for my next booking, and many were the television shows about bugs and animals I was forced to watch because of the old timers controlling the remote—at least, those old-timers not absorbed in their never-ending card games.

I hardly set foot in Studio G, which seemed the domain of engineers infinitely more capable and ambitious than me. Radio drama would come later in my career, in a different studio in a brand new building.

One floor down was the cafeteria. I ate a lot of Banquet Burgers in there. I remember spending a few moments there on my very first day with the CBC, wondering what the future would hold, little suspecting I’d still be with the CBC decades later. Over the next few months I struck up a friendship with one of the cafeteria’s young short order chefs, a friendship that lasted until the day I jokingly suggested that he give me a meal for free. The request was so outrageous that I was certain he would immediately recognize it as a joke, but he didn’t, so I doubled down by suggesting that he give me every single meal from then on for free. He still didn’t get it, decided that I was morally suspect, and that was the end of that friendship.

The short order chef wasn’t the only one without a sense of humour. One day a friend of mine found himself standing behind a radio host ordering some soup. While handing the host the soup, the cook clumsily spilled it all over him. “I guess the soup’s on you,” my friend said.

The host—a former stand-up comic—wasn’t amused.

Down the hall from the cafeteria was Radio Master Control. Also down that hall were the Radio Operations Office, Studio B, Studio W, Tape Reclaim, the Delay room, the Recording Room, and Audio Systems. Tech Stores, the Mail Room, and the Sound Effects department were in the basement on the other side of the cafeteria.

The inhabitants of the Operations Office were genial front line supervisors who performed a host of technical supervisory functions and kept the radio technicians in line. If a technician was near the end of his or her shift and was bored and wanted to go home he or she would ask the Operations Officer on duty if they could leave early. Some Officers you could count on to say yes and others you could count on to say no. If you needed to call in sick, you called an Operations Officer. Operations Officers were usually well-respected, some even well-loved. It was almost a pre-requisite of the job. The night I screwed up in Master Control it was Operations Officer Malcolm McKinney who took pity on me and took me across the street to the Hampton Court Hotel to console me with a bottle of wine and good company.

Tape Reclaim was my least favourite place to work. In that hell-hole radio technicians would cut used quarter inch tape from audio reels to recycle the tape and free up the reels. They would hang the reel on a primitive slab of a machine and then haul down on a great lever to pierce the tape with a sharp steel point. Particularly feeble radio technicians usually had to yank on the lever once or twice to completely pierce the tape, which fell into a great bin of used tape. The process required a certain amount of strength and energy, energy I frequently lacked in the morning after skipping breakfast. I didn’t recycle much tape. Making matters worse, sometimes technicians had to work in there with a certain fellow with serious personal hygiene issues. Doing hard labour in a cramped space with a man with serious BO made working in Tape Reclaim the stuff of nightmares.

Studio B was a small control room with a McCurdy console and a tiny announce booth. It was used for simple production tasks such as two-ways and basic packaging. One day I found myself recording Patrick Watson in there. The broadcaster, not the singer. The man who created the Canadian Heritage Minutes. And who happened to be Chairman of the CBC at the time.

Patrick Watson (the original)

Patrick Watson (the original)

Before I go on you need to understand about reference tone.

There are several different types of tone. The tone I’m talking about here is 1 kilohertz tone. The idea is to play the 1K tone through the various broadcast equipment in the studio to line them all up (e.g., adjust playback and record levels). It’s also used to establish continuity, to ensure that the signal is travelling successfully from the studio to where ever you want to send it. For example, if you were doing a two way between Halifax and Toronto, you would want confirmation that the signal from your console was reaching Halifax, and vice versa. So 1K tone was quite useful. It could also be quite annoying. Especially if you were wearing a pair of headphones and some fool technician happened to blast tone through the board into your headphones, deafening you.

Which is the only thing I remember about the Patrick Watson interview: me accidentally blasting tone into his headphones, and Watson whipping off his headphones as fast as he could. I’ve probably accidentally done that to two or three people in my career, but it was particularly ill-advised to do it to the Chairman of the place where I worked.

Another memory of Studio B: working in Master Control and looking down the hall to see Canadian actor, writer, and director Sarah Polley hanging around the studio waiting to be interviewed. Seventeen years later I would escort her to studio 203 in the Broadcast Centre for an interview with Jian Ghomeshi. On both occasions I was struck by her charm and beauty.

Sarah Polley

Sarah Polley

Right across the hall from Master Control was Studio W. One day I was in Studio W conducting a two-way with a famous guest that wasn’t going well. The studio in Sydney, Nova Scotia could hear our guest but we couldn’t hear the interviewer in Sydney. Studio W had a weird one-of-a-kind console. I thought maybe I had done something wrong but that wasn’t it. Master confirmed that the problem was with the studio in Sydney, or perhaps the line itself. Meanwhile the famous guest proceeded to have a complete meltdown. He could not accept being kept waiting. The producer bore the guest’s rant stoically, professionally. I was astounded—astounded that this famous, well-respected person would behave like an ill-mannered child. I lost all respect for them. Until a handful of years later my father told me about a passage in this person’s autobiography in which they confessed to having serious anger management issues, issues related to events of their youth. The person was working hard to get these issues under control. Hearing this, I remembered that we are all fighting a great battle, and it behooves us not to judge others until, well, ever.

One wall west of radio master sat the recording room. Two guys alternated working in there. Techs like me would replace them on meal breaks and annual leave. The recording room was used to record everything we broadcast as well as “feeds” (audio content) from all across Canada and sometimes other countries to be used on our various shows. The job consisted of setting up tapes to do these recordings and box them up when they were done. In those days recordings were done on quarter inch tape and DAT tapes, obviously defunct mediums today (to this day Libraries and Archives is scrambling to transfer many of those recordings—the ones deemed valuable for posterity—to the digital realm, until that too becomes obsolete and it becomes necessary to transfer them to some other medium such as, oh I dunno, pure thought maybe). What little time I spent in the recording room proved most useful for getting a lot of reading done. I distinctly remember getting through a lot of Stephen King’s The Stand in there.

The Delay Room was little more than a closet, its size inversely proportional to its significance. There was an A and a B tape delay system, or a main and a backup. Each consisted of a couple of heavy duty tape machines that recorded everything we broadcast to Atlantic Canada. They would play this content back an hour later for the Eastern Time Zone, where it would be recorded again and played back for the next time zone. It would be recorded again in that time zone and played back yet again for the next one, until the content had been played back for the entire country. In this way every Canadian would hear their favourite show at exactly the same time, subjectively at least, because in reality someone in Vancouver would be hearing Morningside and every other show (except for the news) three hours later than it was originally broadcast. Because in those days this content was recorded on the medium of tape, this process affected the sound quality. Probably most people couldn’t really tell, but the sound quality of the programs broadcast in Vancouver, multiple tape generations after the original broadcast, wouldn’t be as good as the quality in Newfoundland, where audiences heard everything live, straight from the studio.

On the other hand, Eastern Canadians heard all our mistakes. If Peter Gzowski made a mistake during Morningside, everybody in the Maritimes heard it. If the mistake was serious enough, we would try to fix it for the rest of the country. If we got to it in time, we might be able to fix it in time for Ontario. We tried hard to do this because most if not all of the English Senior Executive Team lived in Ontario. Producers wanted our programming to be the best it could possibly be for all Canadians, of course, but they especially wanted it to be the best for the Senior Executive Team. Depending on the nature and the timing of the fault, sometimes the best we could do was fix it for Vancouver. When I messed up Two New Hours, we were only able to fix it for Vancouver. If Gzowski accidentally spilled his coffee and swore on air during the first half hour of Morningside (just an example—he never actually did this) it might have been possible to restrict the damage to the Maritimes by starting the show over again live in the studio while the first part of the show played to western time zones via the Delay system. We called this sort of thing a “remake”, and we actually did it a lot. As It Happens producers were particularly fond of “remaking” their show if they got something wrong.

Peter Gzowski

Peter Gzowski

I don’t have much to say about the rest of the denizens of the basement. I never worked in the mail room. I would go on to become the Manager of Audio Systems, but that was years in the future. I would also eventually spend a lot of time creating and performing sound effects, but those days were also a long ways off.

And the second floor I will leave for another post.


One of a series of posts about working at CBC Radio back in the day.

(Here’s some more).

A year or so after I started at CBC Radio, after a stint in Radio Master Control, the powers that be made me a Group 4 Radio Technician, and started booking me in the studios.

The radio studios were challenging because there were a lot of them, and almost all of them were unique. They each had different consoles, different patch racks, different tape machines, different outboard gear. In them you would encounter different producers, different talents, and different requirements depending on the booking. You could be working on a McCurdy console, or a Studer, or a Ward-Beck, or an Audio Arts, or some weird one-off I’d never heard of before (or since).

It was about two years before I could handle myself in any situation in the studio without having to run to the tech lounge to find someone to help me figure out why the speakers weren’t working or why the microphone sounded funny. That’s just the run-of-the-mill studios—there was a whole other class of high-end studios used for recording music and radio dramas that I didn’t set foot in for years, with a completely different set of consoles, equipment, personalities, and expectations.

Karl Enke in Jarvis Street CBC Radio Studio

Karl Enke in Jarvis Street CBC Radio Studio

What I loved about working in the studios was that every day was different. If you didn’t like a gig, no problem: an hour, or a day, or a week later you would be on to something different. Many bookings in a studio lasted only an hour or two. Sometimes you’d be booked to a news or sports studio for a few days. Often a day consisted of multiple bookings for multiple shows. Only after you’d proven yourself would you get something resembling a regular gig with the same show and/or producers. In time I would become the regular tech for Writer’s & Company with Eleanor Wachtel, and Sunday Morning with Mary-Lou Findlay, and later for a series of French shows on CJBC, and beyond that a Recording Engineer for Radio Drama, and finally the Recording Engineer for Q, before joining the management team. But in the beginning I worked on everything they threw at me.

I recorded and mixed promos. I subbed for other folks who had regular gigs. I back-filled for Basic Black. I backfilled for As It Happens. I backfilled for Ideas and Morningside. I did many, many bookings for news and sports. I did Listen to the Music. Prime Time. The Inside Track. Quirks and Quarks. Shows for both Radio One and Radio Two. Shows I can no longer remember. Music shows, magazine shows, science shows, arts shows, French shows, sports shows, Venezuelan Beaver Shows. I worked on many remotes. I worked mostly out of the Jarvis Street facilities, but I also did time on Parliament Street, where they produced Metro Morning and Later the Same Day.

It was work but it was also fun and interesting, though not all my gigs were successful. For instance, I do not remember my time on Basic Black fondly. It was my first regular stretch. I was filling in for the regular tech for two weeks while she was on vacation. The show was produced in Studio E. I got along well with the host and two of the show’s producers, but the Studio Director made me nervous. He didn’t talk much. I never knew what he was thinking. I was clumsy and slow in his presence. I had trouble finding patch points on the patch bay. One day the console didn’t work properly so I called maintenance. All the maintenance tech had to do was breathe on the console to make it work again. I looked like an idiot. At the end of the two week stretch the Studio Director took me aside and critiqued my performance. Although not a disaster, it had left a bit to be desired. I was quite put off by his criticism. I was young and not great at taking criticism. But I got over it and learned from my mistakes.

Another show that gave me a bit of trouble was Sunday Morning. It was a current affairs show that could be quite nerve-wracking to work on. Journalists would arrive in the studio with complicated mixes. These days you would do such a mix on a computer. Back then you did it all manually. You would pre-record sound effects and ambiance and voice clips onto carts. What are carts? Well, they resemble eight track cassettes, which are—well, never mind: look them up in a history book alongside pterodactyls and other extinct species. Other sound elements you would record onto quarter inch tape (also extinct). You had to be organized. You had to strategize how to make all these elements accessible for when you needed them. The journalist would sit in the announce booth and read his/her script, and you would play back all these various sonic elements at the appropriate times according to cues on the script. The entire process could be quite a juggling act.

Sunday Morning’s regular tech, Peter Beamish, was a genius at this sort of thing. He had tons of experience, so naturally all the journalists wanted to work with him. Guys like me looked like a klutz next to Peter. I remember making a mistake during a mix with one journalist—probably playing a sound effect late, or getting a cue wrong. “Why me, God?” she exclaimed, sighing heavily and laying her head in her arms. I felt like crap. Still, there were many friendly producers on the show, and the host Mary Lou Finlay was pleasant, and Peter Beamish was never anything less than friendly, humorous, and helpful.

Working as a Group 4 Radio Technician was trial by fire. You paid your dues until you got up to speed. Until you earned peoples’ trust, which took some doing. One night I arrived for a random booking in Studio F. “Who are you?” the producer asked. We had never seen one another before. “I’m your tech,” I told him. He turned on his heels and skulked off to scheduling to complain about having to work with someone new. I had the confidence of the folks in scheduling and they wouldn’t have any of it. The producer returned to the studio and we completed the booking without incident. I worked with this producer several times later, and it was always friendly enough, but we never became friends.

Fortunately the positive experiences far outweighed the negative. I became friends with many techs, producers, and hosts. Meeting guests was always cool: Joni Mitchell, Margaret Atwood, Adrienne Clarkson, Dr. Spock, Pierre Berton, John Ralston Saul, Bob Rae, Jean Charest, Moses Znaimer, Clive Cussler, the list goes on and on. Lesser known guests were often even more interesting. Authors, artists, politicians, farmers, philosophers, home makers, all with something interesting to say. As a life-long fan of CBC Radio, I loved working alongside personalities I’d listened to on the radio for years. Peter Gzowski, Jay Ingram, Shelagh Rogers, Bob Johnston, Max Ferguson, Lister Sinclair, Arthur Black, Mary-Lou Finlay, Clyde Gilmour, Michael Enright, Alan Maitland, and more. And simply learning the basics of audio, how to use all that cool gear, and how to really listen to sound—that alone was worth the price of admission.

“How’s work?” people would ask me.

“Fantastic,” I’d tell them, and mean it.

Eulogy for a Theme

They changed the Q theme song.

That’s okay, I guess. To all things there is a season.

Still, I will miss it. I was rather fond of it.

I liked it because it was a good piece of music. It got your attention. It had good posts. It finished with a bang. It made for a good bed at the end of the show. You could cut it up into little bits and make short, punchy little themes out of it. It wasn’t just a good theme: it was a good bunch of themes.

It was recorded by Luke Doucet and Chris Murphy (of Sloan) at (almost) the last minute three days before Q first aired. I had no idea they were doing it. I had been badgering the Executive Producer for weeks to come up with a theme package but I didn’t think he was listening. I wasn’t invited to the recording session and was stunned when the raw tracks were handed to me Friday afternoon. I was expected to mix the entire theme package over the weekend for the show’s debut Monday. Except I was working all weekend and didn’t have a chance to get to it until 7pm Sunday night. I was already fried before I even began mixing on ProTools in Studio SFX 3. It took me three hours to mix it. It speaks to how well the song was recorded and conceived that it came together as well as it did. It had little to do with anything I did to it.

In fact, I hadn’t mixed it properly. I had mixed it complete with lead guitars, leaving no room for voice-overs. I flipped MP3 versions to Jian Ghomeshi and the Executive producer before I left Sunday night, and when I came into work the next morning the Exec informed me that I had to remix it, leaving room for Jian’s intro. It was a classic “slap yourself on the forehead” moment. As I’ve written elsewhere, I didn’t think we had time to pull it off before going to air, but the Exec thought we did, and he was right.

I’ve always wondered what Luke Doucet and Chris Murphy thought of the mix. Luke was on the show later when I was still working on Q but I didn’t ask him. Maybe I didn’t really want to know. It doesn’t matter. It seems to have done its job. Long after leaving the show I would hear it on the radio and feel good that my little contribution to popular culture was still being heard. I figured it would last as long as the show lasted. But then… well, let’s not speak of that.

A few months after launching the show I convinced the Exec to spend a bit of money on an additional theme package. I thought it would be a good idea to have more music (based on the original music) to draw from. So we recorded a bunch more music with someone else, someone quite talented and accomplished, and I mixed those as well, but we never did use them. They just didn’t have the same magic. No, Luke and Chris had nailed it right out of the gate, and the truth was we didn’t need anything else.

A lot of people think the original theme sounds a lot like Spanish Bombs by the Clash. They’re right. I don’t know how Luke and Chris wrote the theme, but I strongly suspect Jian played Spanish Bombs for them before they started, because a loop of the opening bars of that song is what we used for a test pilot of Q that never aired:

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I don’t think this fact devalues the theme at all. It’s sufficiently different and let’s face it: all art is created on the shoulders of giants.

Anyway, I’m sorry to see the original theme go. It has taken a small part of me with it. Maybe I’m too sentimental — heck, I’m still mourning the loss of the original As It Happens theme song (Curried Soul by Moe Koffman).

Here’s the original Q Theme song:

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And here’s Luke Doucet himself teaching how to play it:

The Truth, the Whole Truth, and the Truth? Not So Much

QHaving once worked on the CBC Radio show Q with Jian Ghomeshi I have been following the events of the past couple of weeks with a great deal of (morbid) curiosity. I feel terrible for the women involved. I also feel awful for the staff of Q, as well as for the CBC itself. I haven’t felt comfortable commenting on the affair much publicly because I still work for the CBC and I wouldn’t want anything I say to be misconstrued as anything resembling an official position; everything I write here is strictly my own opinion.
That being said, I would like to comment on one aspect of the story that I haven’t seen remarked upon anywhere else. I will not be talking about the specific allegations against Ghomeshi, which are overwhelming and in any case will ultimately be decided in a court of law. I’ll be talking about peripheral elements of that story that have got me thinking about the reliability of what we read and hear in the media.

During the last couple of weeks I’ve read most of the articles published about the Ghomeshi affair. Usually when I read news articles I’m reading about stories I don’t have anything to do with personally. I don’t know the people involved or much about the subject matter. I’m at the mercy of the journalist publishing the piece. I have to take their word for it that what they’re publishing is true. Maybe some sources are named that lend the article extra credibility. Maybe the newspaper has a sterling reputation, and readers are inclined to think heck, this is in the Globe and Mail. Therefore, it must be true. As such, my default has been to believe what I read in the newspapers.

This despite my father’s advice when I was a kid that I should believe nothing of what I hear and only half of what I see. I’ve always thought that was a pretty good rule-of-thumb (not that I’ve been able to stick to it). A few years ago when a friend told me one story about Jian Ghomeshi’s despicable behaviour toward women (the now infamous “hate *uck” incident) I was appalled but not inclined to take it at face value. It was a rumour. Hearsay. Having worked with Jian, I did not want to believe that he was that sort of person. My eight month working relationship with Jian had been punctuated by two episodes that could be called confrontations (and several positive interactions, I am compelled in the interest of truth and balance to add) but overall our relationship had been fairly neutral. I decided that there was probably something to my friend’s story—where there’s smoke there’s fire—but beyond that I didn’t give it much thought. I didn’t think it really mattered because by this time I was in a different role and didn’t have anything to do with Jian anymore, other than saying hi to him in an elevator now and then.
Two weeks ago the big story about Ghomeshi broke and suddenly the newspapers were filled with articles about people I knew. Not only that, every now and then they would refer to events I was a part of. It was fascinating to read those bits, and on one particular occasion I was reminded of my father’s advice: believe only half of what you see.

There was an article on Friday October 31st in the Globe and Mail written by James Bradshaw and Greg McArther. The article is called The Story of Q. That in itself is interesting because it’s the title of a speech I gave to Ryerson Radio and Television Arts audio students in 2008 about the creation of the show Q. I published the speech on my blog shortly afterward, where it’s still visible (I’m not suggesting the Globe got the title of their article from my blog post; I just thought it was interesting).

In the article, the authors state the following:

“When Q launched as the new afternoon arts program in the spring of 2007, it had a core group of young and ambitious producers, almost all of them in their 20s and 30s.”

Nine of us created Q. I don’t know everyone’s exact age, but I do know that at least two, and possibly as many as four, were in their forties. Jian himself turned forty within months of our debut, in June 2007, so that’s three (and possibly five) of the creators in their forties by June, and of those in their thirties, only one was in his early thirties. So I’m not really sure that you can accurately report that “almost all of them were in their 20s and 30s.” At best it leaves an inaccurate impression, and at worst it’s factually wrong. (I readily admit that we were all ambitious and at the very least felt young.)

The authors go on to say:

“Mr. Ghomeshi had a very specific idea of what Q was going to be, and it was not typical CBC. The aim was to land big-name guests, and not to adhere to the usual CBC mandate: promoting Canadian content coast-to-coast.”

I would suggest that this is also misleading. Although these two sentences don’t state it explicitly, they suggest that Ghomeshi’s ideas took precedence over the ideas of the rest of the producers present, and this was simply not the case. We all had equal input into the conception of the show. I can’t comment on what the show evolved into, because I wasn’t there later on, but in the beginning we all contributed equally, and if we all thought an idea had merit, we adopted it for Q.

It also suggests that Ghomeshi came into the planning sessions with preconceived ideas about the nature of Q, and maybe he did, but I don’t remember him imposing his ideas on any of us in any untoward way. The planning sessions were expertly facilitated and in the very beginning we were remarkably cohesive in our thinking about what the show should be. Really all any of us knew as we started discussing it was that the show was going to be an arts and culture show with Jian as the host. Everything else was up for debate. We even debated what arts and culture meant (e.g., did culture include sports, and if so, under what circumstance?) We did agree early on that landing big-name guests was a good idea, but not to the exclusion of Canadian content. We didn’t care what nationality the big name guest might be: Canadian, American, Martian, whatever. The point was that the show itself was by its very nature Canadian (i.e., we were Canadian, operating out of the CBC) and the content we would produce would be for Canadians (and whoever else chose to consume it).

More from the same article:

“A couple of veteran producers who objected ran up against Mr. Ghomeshi’s star power; they were weeded out. The five that stuck around…”

Etc Etc.

People left, but were they weeded out? I don’t know. Conversations perhaps happened that I wasn’t a part of. Certainly there was a bit of musical chairs but you get that everywhere. The line that really got me was, “The five that stuck around…”

I had to stop and think when I read that. There were two producers that left before we even started to create the show but I don’t think they were weeded out; I’m pretty sure they left of their own accord. And only one of them could have been considered a veteran producer. Ultimately nine of us remained to create Q, one of which was Jian, so that leaves eight, not five.

Maybe the authors were talking about after the show had been created. After the show debuted one producer left for a job in print. After a while the executive producer left as well, leaving… six, not five. Maybe I wasn’t counted because I left myself after eight months, but it certainly wasn’t because I was weeded out. I left due to a promotion; it had nothing to do with any tension with Ghomeshi.

I’m making mountains out of molehills here. The distinctions I’m pointing out are pretty minor, significant to nobody other than me, probably. Still, they have changed the way that I will consume news in the future. Especially when viewed in conjunction with other articles (and recently published books) about the CBC that contain, at least to these eyes, additional (and arguably more important) factual errors or at best misapprehensions about the internal goings on at the CBC. I’m referring to another article in the Globe and Mail that I just cannot take at face value, one published Friday October 10th by David Shoalts called Hockey Night in Canada: How CBC Lost it All, and yet another one in the Globe by Patrick Lagacè published Thursday Nov 6 called “Enabler to a Media Hatchet Job.”

Read all this stuff with a major grain of salt, folks. Unless you were actually there, participating in these events, you do not, cannot, know the whole truth.