Ob-swerving

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

(Here’s some more).

Ob-swerving CBC IV June 2, 2012


All new technicians at the CBC spent a lot of time “observing.” Observing was when you were booked with a more experienced tech to watch them work, and hopefully learn. My friend Barry Spray (now retired) used to call it “Ob-swerving” because, as he (ahem) observed, a significant component of observing was staying out of the way so the real tech could work.

I did my fair share of observing. I spent time in radio master control, the news studios (Q and T), the Parliament street studios (P, V and P aux), the packaging studios (too many to name, but just pick a few letters of the alphabet), the drama studio (studio G), and so on. I observed shows like Listen to the Music, Morningside, As It Happens, dramas, Ideas, Ontario Today, and on and on. I would go on to eventually tech those shows and many more.

Whether you learned anything depended on who you were observing. I learned how to cue up a tape for news in ten seconds from Joe Lawlor. I learned how to destroy old tape with pencils from Greg DeClute. I learned that you could knit and do As It Happens at the same time from Jan Wright (although I never actually did that). I learned how to mix complicated items for Sunday Morning using umpteen different sources (music, sound effects, interviews, clips etc) with a mere two arms from Peter Beamish (this was back in the days of analog, before computers… I never even came close to Peter’s abilities). In short, I learned how to do everything I needed to do from my eighty or so colleagues.

I suppose there were techs who weren’t all that keen to help you, who kept their years of experience close to their chests. At least, I’ve heard that there were, but honestly thinking about it now I can’t think of a single one. I found everybody generous and helpful.

Two stand out. I learned the most by far about being a Group 4 Tech from John Johnston. John Johnston was the technician for Morningside. He was actually a Group 6, what they called a Merit 6, because of his years of experience and abilities, plus the fact that he was doing one of the biggest, most important shows, hosted by Peter Gzowski. At the time Recording Engineers were Group 6s I believe, which is something I would later aspire to. John wasn’t a Recording Engineer per se (he didn’t work in the high end studios) but he was a consummate professional who could handle anything they could throw at him on Morningside, which was a lot.

I trained with John for a week when they decided that I would do the summer version of Morningside when John was on vacation, and replace John the odd time in the winter. John took me through everything methodically. He explained elements of the console to me that until then had been a mystery. He explained various protocols of dealing with producers and directors (keep the chatter during the show to a minimum, insist on clarity of direction, don’t be afraid to assume control when you have to). Also guests, both in the studio and “down the line” in remote locations (put them at ease, explain the process, teach them how to control their headset volume, answer any questions, adjust their mic so there’s no popping or sibilance, lie about how long it will be until they’re on). We talked about “live pickups”, which is when recording artists come into the studio to perform live (reverb settings, understanding the mic/line boxes in the studio, dealing with phantom power, direct boxes, how to mic various instruments from theremins to cellos to electrics guitars to trombones, you name it). And on and on.

It was a Master’s Class in the job, and it served me well for many years. Years later, when I handed the “Q With Jian Ghomeshi” gig over to my hand picked replacement, Alain Derbez, I passed as many of these tips on as I could remember, to continue the tradition. (Although Alain was already such a talented and experienced recording engineer there wasn’t much left to tell him, other than the protocols of putting a live magazine show to air).

I had actually observed John Johnston once before, within a few days of starting at the CBC, when the idea was just to introduce me to what the job was. He was tech’ing Listen to the Music with (I believe) host Jan Tennant, and this was a memorable experience as well. Not because the show was particularly memorable, but because as he worked on the show, he also prepared a strawberry shortcake, which he shared with me and Jan. And when it came time for Jan to read the credits for the show, John insisted that she include me, although I actually did virtually nothing for the show other than sit in the technician’s chair for a few minutes. I remember calling my parents and telling them to listen to the broadcast, which they did, hearing my first ever CBC Radio credit.

The other teacher of note was Greg DeClute, with whom I worked in the drama department several years later. A gifted recording engineer and talented teacher, extraordinarily generous with his hard-won knowledge, he’s the man who taught me how to be a proper recording engineer and work complicated consoles such as the Neve Capricorn and Euphonix System 5. But that’s a whole other chapter in my life that will come much later.

2 Comments

  1. Hello Joe
    Came upon your blog and was pleased/surprised to read your mention of my late husband, Peter Beamish, as being one of the technicians you Ob-swerved. I remember well those Sunday Morning all-Saturday-nighters that Peter would pull. Glad to see that he is remembered with respect.

  2. I’m glad you found the post! I learned tons from Peter, and I meant it when I said that I never came close to achieving his abilities. Journalists would actually groan when they saw someone other than Peter in the studio to do their mixes. Peter was also very funny, with a quick wit. He was well respected and is still missed. I think about him often.

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