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.

4 Comments

  1. Hi Joe. Your memories are similar to mine on the West Coast. Although, the time spent walking around the building with designer picket signs were more moisture related than cold. I can’t remember ever using a Sennheiser U87 but the Neumann version sufficed, especially in Drama Studio 3. I remember fondly the many microphones we went through with Jurgen Gothe (Disc Drive) ranging from the Sennheiser 202 (drop it and it sounds like a telephone) through it’s brothers the 441, 421, and finally an RE20. The excitement on the technical floor as Bob Kerr (Off The Record), Vicki Gabereau, Bob Smith (Hot Air), and many others brought their’ live programs to the airwaves. Now, sadly gone. I remember we even had our own baseball league, 4 teams. The techies, the design department, the support staff ( mailroom – duplicating – building maint. ), and finally the office staff. From 1981 on the teams slowly disappeared as the departments did. Even the Dragon Boat team had to amalgamate with another outside organizations overflow to continue paddling in competition. From a radio technical staff of around 42 including the maint. dept., we were down to 4 or 5 when I retired in August 2009. DALET ushered in a blanket excuse to kill the Radio Techies to save money and promote the concept of everyone is totally interchangeable and must be able to do everything. The junior Techie who figured out how to get a two channel DALET system to double as a 16 track recording medium was one of the first to be shown the door to outside the CBC adventures. Laid off in the first wave of Radio Technical downsizing (right sizing in management talk). I have a great respect for those of you that have managed to successfully transition and keep the Corps. floating. Though I must admit that without Radio Drama I find less and less to excite me over the CBC airwaves.
    p.s.=> I agree, the radio technical department had the best Christmas Parties. Sadly the last one was in 2008. Another victim of the budget slashing even though it was employee supported and didn’t cost the CBC anything other than one day without technical repairs in the shop. More a victim of image than of real monetary impact.

  2. ilanderz

    August 1, 2015 at 2:44 pm

    Did I write Sennheiser? I meant Neumann! How embarrassing.

    I have to say it’s not my intention in these posts to cast judgment on all the changes. Change is inevitable, for better or worse, and as a manager I’ve certainly ushered in my fair share of changes, always with positive intent. I’m just trying to capture a unique era in time for posterity.

    Thanks for your thoughts, Chris. Too bad we never got to work on a few dramas together.

    • I think I met you during a Network Radio Drama meeting (a one day session) in 2008. It was the only time I got to see the Toronto Drama Studio (8 times the size of Vancouver Studio 3). I have to admit I had a feeling of jealousy at the size and potential of that space. I imagine that both studios are used for either old equipment storage or parking by now. Such a waste. I always thought that I would train the next generation of Radio Drama and SFX engineers but instead I literally closed the door and left the plant at the end of July 2009. I’ve done some choral recording as well as the sound design for “All That Fall” by Samuel Beckett for which I was nominated for a Jessie Award. It was a novelty as the play had to be staged as a radio play due to estate restriction imposed by the Beckett Estate Trust. Lucky for me the director was an actor I had worked with in my CBC days. I also freelance at a number of non-profits, do rubber-vinyl garage flooring tile installations, small cement and asphalt contracting and anything else that’s legal and helps pay the bills. I have a 13 year old daughter adopted from Szechuan China so have to augment my pension to save for her upcoming University career (hopefully). Best of luck with your endeavours and keep those nostalgic stories coming. “Radio Techies are forever”, even if only in our hearts.

  3. Enjoyed the read, thanks.

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