Radio Master Control: “Joe, We Have a Problem!”
One of a series of posts about working at CBC Radio back in the day.
(Here’s some more).
Radio Master Control: “Joe, We Have a Problem” CBC VI July 28, 2012
Christmas nineteen eighty-eight I was assigned to work the evening shift in Radio Master Control (also called Radio MCR). I worked there solid for about six months.
It was prefaced by a week or two of training, which meant hanging out with other radio master techs such as Peter Chin, Gerry Samson, Ken Lumsden, Ron Grant, Jeanette Sipos, Ron Minhennit (sorry about any mispellings), and others. Those were the full timers, although there were others who were well enough trained to cover the odd shift.
What was Radio Master Control? It sounds kind of impressive. It looked kind of impressive, even back then, when it was run in part by computers using cassette tapes, technology dating back to the seventies, if not earlier. Radio Master Control in Toronto was the central hub. All CBC Radio shows coming out of Toronto passed through Radio Master. Many shows originating in the regions passed through Radio Master in Toronto, at least if they were national shows. So when you worked in Radio Master you had a fair amount of responsibility. Much of went on was automated, but the automation only worked if the radio master control tech set it up properly, and maintained it properly, and dealt with it properly when things went horribly wrong… which they always did, usually at least once a day.
People who have never worked in Radio MCR sometimes find it difficult to understand. When you walked by the place, which used to be located in the basement of the Jarvis Street facility, and later (until recently) the third floor of the Toronto Broadcast Centre, you would sometimes see technicians doing what appeared to be, well, nothing. In fact, they were only at rest if all their preparations were complete, if nobody in any studios or other master controls across the country were calling them, if everything was going to air properly. In a sense radio master control techs are like firefighters, waiting for something to go wrong. And every properly trained master control technician is poised to leap into action at the first instance of trouble.
Back when I started in the eighties, if a show wasn’t being broadcast live, odds were it was being played back off quarter inch tape. It was the job of the master control technician to put up the tape, check it for any issues, make sure the levels were good, that the first sounds on the tape were what they were supposed to be — in other words, that it was the right program.
I remember putting up the last ever tape for the show Eclectic Circus, hosted by Alan McPhee, and thinking, wow, I’m the last link in the chain of the last ever episode of this show, which I had enjoyed listening to when I was a kid sometimes.
But back to the beginning of this six month (or so) gig. It was my first week. New Year’s Eve. I was on the evening shift. Early in the shift I put up the tapes for a show called Two New Hours, which featured modern Canadian composers and was produced for many years by David Jaeger (until its cancellation in the spring of 2007, I believe). The show consisted of three separate one hour long reels of tape. I carefully put each of them up, checked their levels, checked the first words, and was not at all concerned about any of them.
Here’s how it worked. When the technician was recording the show in the studio he/she added what was called a “swap tone” to the end of the first and second hours. I can’t remember the exact details now but I believe the swap tone was something like 100 Hz at -6 DB. The idea was that the listeners at home were not supposed to be able to hear this swap tone — it was at the bottom edge of human hearing. It was there for the master control systems to detect and trigger a “swap” from one tape to the next (it was loud enough for me to hear it when I put the tapes up, but the swaps happened pretty quickly, so even if listeners could hear something, they wouldn’t hear it for long).
I was working with Peter Chin that night, who had kindly taken it upon himself to mentor me, and who remains a good friend to this day. About three hours later I was on a break in the technician’s lounge when Peter called me to tell me there was a major problem with the show.
“What’s the problem?” I asked. “It finished forty-five minutes early,” he told me.
I ran from the lounge on the first floor to MCR in the basement where Peter was trying to figure out what happened. It didn’t take long to sort out. When Radio MCR techs put up tapes they were supposed to check out a form that accompanied each tape with information about the program in question. I had done this, but had neglected an important part of the form: a comments section in which the producer David Jaeger had written something along the lines of: “There are low organ notes in this show. Please take this into consideration when playing back the show.” In other words, I was supposed to have programmed the MCR computer to severely limit the amount of time it could detect the swap tone, so that it would not confuse extremely low organ notes with the swap tone. Not having noticed the comment, I had not done this, so the computer detected the organ notes and swapped one of the tapes forty-five minutes early. This meant that the show finished forty-five minutes early, and there was nothing for us to do but play fill music for forty-five minutes on Radio Two. Because of the way programming is played back in Canada (time delayed so that all programming airs at the same time on the clock if not the same actual time) we were able to fix the show for Vancouver, but that was it.
The proverbial sh** hit the fan. The phone started ringing off the hook, people wanting to know what happened. I felt absolutely terrible for being responsible for basically forty-five minutes of incorrect programming from (almost) coast to coast.
The following week people in the Music Department wanted blood. One of the technical managers told me that they essentially wanted whoever was responsible fired. But this manager felt that if I wrote a nice letter of apology maybe that would smooth things over. So I did.
Many years later when I became a manager myself I was shown a filing cabinet containing personnel files for all radio technicians dating back many years. And lo and behold there was a file on me, which included that letter. Here is what I wrote:
January 4th, 1989
I’m writing you regarding the incident concerning Two New Hours. I was the technician responsible for the disruption in the broadcast of that show.
For a number of reasons I am sorry for what occurred. I realize my mistake, which took place as a result of negligence, affected a lot of people. I’m aware of the amount of work and effort required to construct a show such as Two New Hours, and I can imagine the dismay all involved must have felt. I feel particularly bad for the Vancouver composer who almost missed hearing his work broadcast.
I have been reprimanded and questioned thoroughly as to why the incident occurred. Steps have been taken both departmentally and personally to ensure that it is not repeated. I make no excuses for my mistake. I do ask that you accept my apology.
Thank you for taking the time to read this.
Sincerely Joe Mahoney
Man did I fall on my sword. But I was sincere.
Attached to the letter was a note that I had never seen, hand written by Kel Lack, my boss at the time, and addressed to Karen Keiser, who I believe was Head of Serious Music Programming at that time (a position that no longer exists). Kel had written:
Joe Mahoney is a new and very promising tech who needless to say was devastated by what happened with Two New Hours.
The tone of his note speaks for itself and I know he learned a good lesson. I propose to leave the matter there.
Once again our apologies.
A good guy, Kel. I never heard of any response from the Serious Music Department.
A couple of other notes about that infamous night. Once we knew what had happened, and that it had been my fault, my colleague Peter Chin said to me, “You need to bear down, Joe. You need to bear down.” I have no idea how many times he said it to me that night; it seems to me he said it at least a dozen times, but it may have been only twice. But the line came to live in infamy. Over the next twenty years we’ve laughed about it many times, and I do believe I’ve had occasion to repeat it back to him. “You need to bear down, Peter!” He professes not to even quite know what he meant by that.
Also, the Operations Manager on duty that night, Malcolm MacKinney, took pity on me. It was New Year’s Eve, after all. He gave me half a bottle of wine and took me across the street to the Hampton Court Hotel, where we rang the New Year in together, and I remember a parade of elderly women lining up to give me a peck on the cheek when the clock struck twelve.
I’ve made plenty of other mistakes in my career, but no other doozies quite like that that I can recall. A good thing, or it probably would have been a short career…