As It Happened
One of a series of posts about working at CBC Radio back in the day.
(Here’s some more).
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.
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”) 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 (which was just a different part of the same song anyway).
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):