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The Pitch

(A short, light-hearted fictional homage to Radio Drama and Studio 212)

Sam Kelly found a seat on the GO Train, opened his laptop, and sighed. He needed to finish a spreadsheet detailing all the latest DaletPlus netXchange issues before a conference call on the matter at nine am. There was a crazy amount of work left to do. Unfortunately, before he could isolate himself from the rest of the passengers with an insulating layer of headphones and iTunes and get to work, damned if Reginald Runciman didn’t plunk himself down in the seat opposite him.

“Kelly!” Runciman said. “Long time no see.”

This did not bode well. It wasn’t that Runciman was a bad guy. It was just that he’d been dead for five years and was known to be a talker. Sam would get little work done this morning.

He forced a smiled. “Hey Runciman, good to see you. Coulda sworn you were dead.”

Runciman, a former radio drama producer, had indeed been found dead late one night in an editing suite still clutching a script in his cold, dead hands. The cause of death had never been conclusively determined, but it was commonly believed that his recording engineer had strangled him to death in frustration for demanding one too many edits. Runciman had been a notoriously demanding producer.

“Dead as the proverbial doornail,” Runciman confirmed.

“And you’ve come back to haunt me now because…?”

“I have returned to atone for my many sins.”

“What sins?”

“Sitting on development committees rejecting perfectly good ideas, mostly. It is my intention to atone for these sins by helping you with your radio show pitch.”

“What radio show pitch?”

“The one you’re going to write to help you get back to your true love, radio production.”

“Thanks, but I’m good. I like management.”

“Because you make so much more money?”

“Uh –”

“Cause your benefits plan is so superior? ”

“Um –”

“Cause you like ordering people around?”

“I do like that part,” Sam admitted. “For instance, I order you to leave me alone.”

The ghost of Runciman ignored Sam. “I have arranged for you to be visited by three spirits. The Ghost of Radio Archives, the Ghost of Radio Ideas, and the Ghost of Radio Yet to Come.”

“Three spirits? That’ll make this story way too long!”

“They’re all experienced radio folk, perfectly capable of talking to time.” The train pulled into Ajax station. “Speaking of which, my time’s up.” Runciman stood to get off. “Don’t mess this up, Kelly!”

Resolving to seek therapy at the earliest opportunity, Sam shook Runciman’s hand and watched as he got off the train.

A small, elderly gentleman wearing a bowler cap got on and took Runciman’s place. Sam recognized him right away. “Hey, you’re Allan McPhee, former host of the CBC Radio show Eclectic Circus.”

“I was that man once,” McPhee intoned in his best announcer’s voice, still smooth and honeyed despite his death over a decade earlier. “Now I am the Ghost of Radio Archives.”

Sam was impressed despite himself. “It’s a great honour to meet you, Mr. McPhee. You were a great wit in your time.”

“Whereas you are a great nit wit in yours.”

Sam was slightly offended. “Why do you say that?”

Allan McPhee

Allan McPhee

“Because you gave up your dream of creating your own radio show to join the dark side,” McPhee explained. “I despised managers when I was alive.”

“I enjoy being a manager,” Sam said. “But I regret not creating my own radio show.”

“It’s my job to help you get that dream back, son,” McPhee said. “Grab on tight to my hat.”

Sam did as McPhee instructed and off they flew, miraculously squeezing through the closed Go Train doors into the archives of radio past. Sam found himself in the Toronto Broadcasting Centre in Radio Drama Studio 212, where he had spent nine fruitful years making radio plays. A large cast was assembled on the floor with Ann Jansen directing. A younger version of Sam himself sat in the control room operating the Neve Capricorn console.

“I remember this,” Sam told McPhee. “We were adapting Canadian author Jane Urquhart’s novel Away for radio. It aired on Sunday Showcase and Monday Night Playhouse.”

“Since The Rosary first aired out of Moncton’s CNRA in 1925, radio plays of all shapes and sizes have aired regularly in this country,” McPhee said, “on CBC Radio series such as Sunday Showcase, Monday Night Playhouse, Vanishing Point, The Mystery Project, Monday Playbill, Nightfall, CBC Wednesday Night and more.”

“Thanks for that almost completely indigestible bit of exposition,” Sam said. “It is true that radio drama once thrived in this great country of ours.”

McPhee touched his hat and whisked them elsewhere. Three gentlemen stood on a stage before three Neumann U-47 microphones. Other gentlemen leaned over various sound effects apparatus, awaiting their cues, the whole lot of them flanked by an orchestra. An audience was present to witness the shenanigans.

One of the men announced into his microphone: “The first important method of communication over long distances was the Runner.”

The second said, “The most famous of these messengers was the Greek Goonican, who ran 300 miles to Athens, bringing news of a great victory.”

The third, puffing, said, “My lords, greetings. I come from the great warlord, Arnold Princiopolies. 300 leagues have I run! Over the Ionicous, down the plains of Olympus, through the snowy wastes of Sabrina, across the arid deserts of Xerxes and I did swim the boiling waters of the Hellispont and over…”

“Yes, yes, yes, but the message?” the first man interrupted.

“Ooh,” the third man said. “Ooh, then I’ll nip back and get it.”

The audience erupted with laughter. Sam was ecstatic. He whispered to the ghost of McPhee, “It’s Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, and Harry Secombe back in their Goon Show days — these guys influenced everybody from Monty Python to the Beatles.”

“And now they shall influence you. Note their absurdist, rapid fire dialogue, their groundbreaking sound effects and the resulting realism. Observe how the three actors play almost all the parts themselves.”

“Yes, if I were to make a radio show this is exactly what I’d make,” Sam said.

“Not exactly,” McPhee said. “Although you would incorporate elements of it, you were more ambitious than that in the past.”

McPhee touched his bowler hat yet again and transported them to a studio where a younger version of Sam was arguing amicably with a friend. He’d once made a radio show pilot with the fellow, a talented writer. Although one of the pilots had aired to a fair bit of acclaim, the show had not been picked up by the network.

Sam’s friend was saying, “Maybe the network’s not going for it because we made it both light and dark. Maybe it should be one or the other. Can you name one other show in the history of entertainment that’s both funny and serious at the same time?”

“La Vie est Belle,” Sam said, naming one of his favourite movies. “M.A.S.H. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Rome.”

Sam’s friend did not appear convinced, but the conversation reminded Sam of his earlier ambitions and he felt a pang of regret at not having pursued them more aggressively.

Man was made for joy and woe,” the spirit of McPhee quoted. “And when this we rightly know, through the world we safely go. Joy and woe are woven fine, a clothing for the soul divine.”

“That’s it exactly,” Sam said. “That’s what I was trying to tell him. Sting, right?”

“William Blake. Shortly after this conversation you gave up your dream of making your own radio show and fled into management’s squalid embrace.”

“Somebody’s gotta run the place,” Sam said.

“I’m dead,” McPhee said. “I can have no more dreams. You’re still alive. You have no excuse.” McPhee touched the tip of his bowler hat yet again.

Sam jerked awake on board the GO Train. Just a dream, he thought with mixed emotions, a little disappointed to discover that he was not actually supernaturally obligated to propose another radio show, but at the same time relieved that he would not have to risk failing at it a second time.

Someone tapped him on the shoulder. He spun to find a snowy haired gentleman with large glasses smiling at him from the adjacent seat. “A is for Aardvark,” the gentleman said with enviable enunciation.

Sam gaped at Lister Sinclair, former host of CBC Radio’s Ideas. “Let me guess. The Ghost of Radio Ideas?”

“Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures,” Sinclair said.

“Are you suggesting that if we only broadcast facts we’re not conveying the whole truth to the Canadian public?” Sam asked, gamely trying to keep up with the brilliant polymath that was Lister Sinclair.

Ein blindes Huhn findet auch mal ein korn,” Sinclair observed.

Sam gave up trying to keep up with the brilliant polymath that was Lister Sinclair.

“I wrote a great deal of radio fiction in my time,” Sinclair said. “I must say I find its current absence from our airwaves unfortunate.”

Lister Sinclair

Lister Sinclair

“It’s not all gone,” Sam said. “There’s a bit of satire. Some sketch based comedy. That’s about it, though.”

“What do you propose to do about it?” Sinclair asked.

“Me? What can I do about it? I don’t do production anymore. I manage a maintenance department, for crying out loud. Even if I were still in production nobody would listen to me. They probably get dozens of proposals every day. Radio drama costs too much anyway.”

The train pulled up at Pickering. Lister Sinclair stood. “I tried management once. Didn’t quite work out. Perhaps you have a stronger stomach for it than I did.”

He got off, his manner leaving Sam with the distinct impression that he was disappointed by Sam’s outburst but not particularly surprised. Sam shrugged the Spirit’s reaction off. He was under no obligation to propose any radio shows just because a couple of ghosts said he ought to.

The lights switched off abruptly. When they came back on Sam found himself standing outside drama studio 212. Someone concealed within a black cowl stood alongside him, his or her face completely obscured by the garment. Sam tried unsuccessfully to peer into the hood but it was impossible to tell who or what dwelled within.

The black-cowled figure that Sam presumed to be the Ghost of Radio Yet to Come raised a skeletal finger toward studio 212. Or at least, at what had once been drama studio 212, for both control room and studio lay torn asunder. An older version of Sam clad in an ill-fitting suit stood in the ravaged control room instructing members of his staff which equipment to keep and which to throw out.

Sam regarded this future version of himself with horror. Never in a million years would he decide to destroy his beloved drama studio. But he knew that if his boss ordered his future self to shut down the studio he would have no choice but to carry out the order lest he lose his job.

“Answer me one question, Spirit,” Sam said. “Is this the shadow of the thing that will be, or is it the shadow of something that may be, only? Make that two questions. Why am I suddenly talking like a character in a Dicken’s novel?”

Still the Ghost pointed his bony finger toward the studio.

“Let me get this straight,” Sam said. “If someone doesn’t start making more shows with dramatic elements real soon we will have to shut down studio 212 because future utilization reports will show that it’s under utilized. So I have no choice but to pitch a radio show that will use the studio and maybe they won’t shut it down. Right?”

The Spirit remained infuriatingly mute.

“I’m not the manager I was,” Sam said. “And I will not be the manager I must have been but for this intercourse. Why show me this, if I am past all hope! … I will honour radio drama in my heart, and pitch another project as soon as possible. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the destruction of radio drama within the CBC!”

Sam awoke writhing uncomfortably in his seat on the Go Train, disturbed not only by the vision of seeing himself preside over the destruction of drama studio 212, but also by the obvious plagiarism of Dickens in the previous paragraph. To his enormous relief no spirits sat next to him on the train.

Inspired, Sam abandoned the spreadsheet he’d been working on, completed his radio show pitch, and submitted it to the Program Development Department that very day.

Unfortunately, the Program Development Department rejected Sam’s pitch. Not only that, they shut down the entire radio drama department for good, calling upon Sam’s own maintenance department to dismantle Radio Drama Studio 212. Sam himself turned off the studio lights for the very last time, though it pained him grievously to do so.

Which just goes to show that you can’t reliably glean the future from a mute spirit in a cowl. And even the most well-intentioned of ghosts cannot always successfully influence the affairs of men — they are ghosts, after all. Their time is past.

Saddest of all, not all endings are happy.

And when this we rightly know,

Thro’ the world we safely go.

Creating Sound Effects for the radio drama Faint Hope in Studio 212

Creating Sound Effects for the radio drama Faint Hope in Studio 212

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…

Radio Tech-ness

i don't know who this is, but he's one of us, even if he is wearing a tie

I don’t know who this is, but he’s one of us, even if he is (I suspect) wearing a tie

In 1988 there were over eighty radio technicians working for CBC Radio in Toronto. We were not the kind of techs who fixed stuff. That was a different kind of tech. Our job was to record, manipulate and broadcast sound.

We came in all shapes and sizes and two different genders but we were strikingly similar. We dressed casual but not too casual. It was radio; nobody cared what we looked like. At least, not much—there was a guy who wore sweatpants and another guy who wore a tie. They didn’t last long. A couple of the older techs wore blazers and dress pants. They got away with it because they were old. Like, fifty something. I was twenty-something. I wore jeans and shaved every second day.

A tech’s time was not his or her own. Techs lived and died by the schedule. The schedule told us where to go when:

Studio B at 9:00 for Infotape promos. Studio W at 9:30 for a Quirks and Quarks two-way. Studio D at 10:00 to voice track Lister Sinclair for Ideas. Studio L at 11:00 to package Writers & Company. After that, an hour of standby in the lounge.

And so on.

If you wanted a meeting with me, you needed to talk to my scheduler, not me. This wasn’t usually a problem. Techs didn’t go to many meetings.

I picked up my schedule in my mailbox just outside the scheduling office. My mailbox was one of eighty or so other metal mailboxes, many with weird paraphernalia taped to them, like headlines from newspapers such as “Beware of Doug”, and “Mysterious Face Found on Moon” (that one had my face photocopied beneath it). One day we got our schedules in a new format. Days off were indicated by the letters SDO. “What does SDO stand for?” I asked a friend.

“Stupid Day Off,” he told me.

We didn’t have a boss. We had many bosses. We all reported to someone somewhere on paper, but we rarely saw or heard from them. In the studio, everyone was our boss, or thought they were. Everyone from thirty-year veteran producers to associate producers hired six weeks ago. Somebody had to tell you what songs and clips to play, when to fade the music up and down. This was fine at first, but it grew old after a couple of decades.

Most techs played at least one musical instrument. Everything from guitars to pianos to bagpipes to hurdy-gurdys. Maybe because they screened for that in the job interview. “Can you read music?” they asked me. I could—I played piano, baritone, and trombone, skills I used a few times on the job, playing organ for a radio drama and piano for many sound checks.

There were techs we all admired. Impossibly experienced and competent techs. Super techs. Today super tech means something different—supervising technician. Back then it meant just what it sounded like: a super tech. Superman only smarter and maybe not as strong, with laser hearing instead of laser vision. There was even a tech who looked like superman. There were techs rumored to have maintenance backgrounds, who could fix their own gear. Techs who knew how to operate anything from a Shure FP42 to a Neve VR to a McCurdy Turret System. Who knew when to use an AKG 414 and when to switch to a Neumann U-87. Who had four arms for analog mixes and golden ears for concert recordings and the know-how to put together a live pickup of a six-piece band including a full set of drums in Studio R at the last minute. Techs not afraid to share their hard-won knowledge with lesser, mortal technicians like me.

As a tech, if you wanted to, if you were lucky enough and ambitious enough, you could travel from show to show peddling your technical wares, no two days the same, getting to do everything and know everyone. Some days you would be a hero, performing difficult mixes for journalists, trotting out long distance phone codes from memory for panicked associate producers, fixing technical problems at the last possible instant. But the day after that you might be a complete fool, accidentally playing the wrong piece of tape at the wrong time, maybe over a host’s introduction for all the world to hear. On live radio, I felt like a goalie. Nobody noticed when I made the save, but when the puck got past me, everybody heard the puck go in the net.

Sometimes I got blamed when it wasn’t my fault. Many’s the time I heard a host tell the world, “Having some technical problems,” when in fact the problem had nothing to do with me or my equipment.

During my time as a tech we endured one strike and two lockouts. Because we were in a different bargaining unit than everyone else, we endured two of these labour actions alone. While everyone else was inside, we were outside marching around the building or huddled around oil barrels in sub-zero temperatures. Not looking to dredge up the past—it’s water under the bridge. But for anyone who lived through all that, it became a part of our DNA.

It’s worth mentioning that radio techs had better Christmas parties than anyone else, at least at Jarvis street, and that’s probably all I ought to say about that.

The job barely exists now, at least the way I remember it. There are only a handful of radio techs left. Most of the techs I worked with are gone now. Of the ones still around, many have moved onto different positions.

I like to think that a bond remains between those of us who worked as radio techs—an invisible thread of 1/4 inch Ampex tape, maybe. We’re not quite the same as everyone else. Our hearing is notched at 1K, but we still listen better than most. And if you ever need someone to plug in a few cables and adjust some settings here and there, you could do worse than a radio tech.

Asparagus

In nineteen-ninety-two, while on vacation in Halifax, my girlfriend and I went to see a play.

There was a statue above the stage in a little alcove. I assumed it was just a part of the theatre’s decor.

Before the play started, Lynda leaned over to me and whispered, “Do you think that statue has anything to do with the play?”

It's a Stone Angel, silly

It’s a stone angel, silly

“You mean that stone angel?” I asked, realizing as the words came out of my mouth that of course it did, because the play was an adaptation of Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel.

The play was directed by James Roy, who worked for CBC’s radio drama department back in Toronto. I didn’t know James then, but I knew of him, so when I returned to work I sought him out to tell him how much I had enjoyed his play.

Seven years later James welcomed me into the Radio Drama department, where I had the honour of working with him on many radio plays. Seven years after that I was invited to record a play in Blyth, Huron County, during the Blyth Festival, at which time I learned that not only is James an accomplished director, he was also the founding Artistic Director of the Blyth Festival.

The Blyth Festival is unique. James, along with his co-founders Anne Chislett and Keith Roulson, created a festival dedicated to the production and development of Canadian plays, which was at one time—and perhaps still is—the only five hundred seat theatre in Canada devoted solely to Canadian plays. Not content with merely producing plays, James and his partners also created an Art Gallery, and the whole enterprise is still going strong forty years, ten artistic directors, a choir and an orchestra later.

Blyth Festival

Blyth Festival

In the summer of 2006 I drove up to Blyth in a rented car accompanied by sound effects engineer Anton Szabo, who would be doing live effects for the reading we would be recording. That afternoon we sat through a rehearsal of the reading. Actually, I snoozed through the rehearsal in a really comfortable armchair. I was suffering from cat allergies which were waking me up in the middle of the night with the sensation that I couldn’t breathe, a sensation that would linger throughout the day. At the time, I had no idea that it was because of cat allergies, so it had me rather on edge.

Anton and I set up the next morning. AKG 414s on each of the actors and another one for Anton’s sound effects. Anton had a keyboard sampler plugged in for additional effects. I was situated on the stage not far from Anton’s setup, well behind the actors, but visible to the audience. I had two DAT machines but I’d learned my lesson at the Royal George; they were only for backup. My main recording would be done on ProTools on a Mac laptop. I was getting a 60 hertz buzz on one of the lines. Somebody that worked for the theatre lifted the ground on an extension cord. It did the trick.

We recorded one dress rehearsal, and then the actual performance. I don’t remember much about either recording except that they went well.

What I do remember is asparagus.

After the performance, James, Anton, myself and several others went for supper at the Stage Manager’s house. I am doing the Stage Manager a great injustice by not remembering her name. She had a house on a hill outside Blyth. But not just any hill—it was a hill from which you could see for miles and miles. A house from which you could see the sun set, but not set into the rooftops of houses halfway up the sky. Here it set directly into the horizon, painting half the sky wonderful shades of red, one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen. The Stage Manager had a garden out back in which she grew fresh vegetables, some of which I may have eaten, but all I remember is the asparagus. I’ve had asparagus soup before, and possibly actual asparagus, but I had never eaten fresh asparagus straight from anyone’s garden before.

I was astounded.

Hmm... fresh asparagus!

Hmm… fresh asparagus!

The asparagus was sublime—the food of, if not all the Gods, then at least those with sense enough to eat vegetables. I couldn’t stop eating it. We ran out. Seconds before I capitulated to symptoms of withdrawal, the Stage Manager went out and picked more, God bless her.

The asparagus wasn’t all that surprised me that night. I found myself enveloped in a wonderful sense of fellowship. It was a privilege to be part of such a company: directors, stage managers, writers, sound effects engineers, producers, and me. Colleagues, but also friends. We had a lovely meal, and a lovely talk. Such a night had snuck up on me unawares. I felt as though I belonged. I felt as though I could breathe. I felt as though I could eat more asparagus.

So I did.

A few weeks later I bought some asparagus at Sobey’s and served it to my family. It was the first time they had ever tried asparagus. It was stringy and tasteless. We all hated it, and have never eaten it since.

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.

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