The Radio Building
One of a series of posts about working at CBC Radio back in the day.
(Here’s some more).
When I started at CBC Radio in Toronto in nineteen eighty-eight I worked out of the Radio Building at 354 Jarvis Street. The Radio Building was a sprawling ancient structure that once upon a time had been a girls’ school. Brick on the outside, inside it was people and wood and consoles and tape machines and it smelled an awful lot like my grandparents old wooden farmhouse in rural New Brunswick. It was huge and had a lot in it, including an abandoned pool in the sub-basement that nobody swam in much except for a few rats.
Studio G, the radio drama studio, was located on the main floor. So were Studios C, D, E, F, H, J, K, L, M and R. Studios B and W were in the basement along with Radio Master Control. Studios Q and T were on the second floor. Studio X, a dubbing studio, was on the third floor if memory serves (I only ever worked in there once). Studio A was at Carleton Street. Studio 4S, the music studio, was also in a different building half way across the city (I never set foot in there) and studios P, P aux, and V could be found at Parliament Street along with Tuffy the cat (that was where Metro Morning and Later the Same Day were produced). As near as I can tell there were no Studios I, N, O, U, Y or Z, at least in my time, though why those letters should be discriminated against I have no idea.
Studio C was a tiny studio mostly used for voice tracking and two ways. “A” might have been for Aardvark but Studio D was for Ideas (Studio A, located on Carleton Street, was the sports studio). Basic Black, The Arts Tonight, and Stereo Morning came out of Studio E. As It Happens used Studio F from 11am to 7pm. Studio H was on the verge of being renovated into a high end production studio featuring an AMS Neve Audio File Logic 1 console, a state of the art mixing desk so advanced its inventor was said to have gone insane shortly after inventing it. Arts National was packaged in Studio J. Studio K was a multi-purpose packaging studio—Listen to the Music, Sunny Side Up, and My Kinda Jazz with Jeff Healy were packaged in there, among others. Prime Time with Ralph Benmurgi (later Geoff Pevere) came out of Studio L. CJBC (French services serving the Franco-Ontario community) broadcast live out of Studio M. Studio R was used for Morningside and Sunday Morning. Of course, many other shows also came out of these studios over the years.
The Technician’s Lounge was located on the main floor directly across from Studio M. Many were the friendships I forged in that lounge while waiting for my next booking, and many were the television shows about bugs and animals I was forced to watch because of the old timers controlling the remote—at least, those old-timers not absorbed in their never-ending card games.
I hardly set foot in Studio G, which seemed the domain of engineers infinitely more capable and ambitious than me. Radio drama would come later in my career, in a different studio in a brand new building.
One floor down was the cafeteria. I ate a lot of Banquet Burgers in there. I remember spending a few moments there on my very first day with the CBC, wondering what the future would hold, little suspecting I’d still be with the CBC decades later. Over the next few months I struck up a friendship with one of the cafeteria’s young short order chefs, a friendship that lasted until the day I jokingly suggested that he give me a meal for free. The request was so outrageous that I was certain he would immediately recognize it as a joke, but he didn’t, so I doubled down by suggesting that he give me every single meal from then on for free. He still didn’t get it, decided that I was morally suspect, and that was the end of that friendship.
The short order chef wasn’t the only one without a sense of humour. One day a friend of mine found himself standing behind a radio host ordering some soup. While handing the host the soup, the cook clumsily spilled it all over him. “I guess the soup’s on you,” my friend said.
The host—a former stand-up comic—wasn’t amused.
Down the hall from the cafeteria was Radio Master Control. Also down that hall were the Radio Operations Office, Studio B, Studio W, Tape Reclaim, the Delay room, the Recording Room, and Audio Systems. Tech Stores, the Mail Room, and the Sound Effects department were in the basement on the other side of the cafeteria.
The inhabitants of the Operations Office were genial front line supervisors who performed a host of technical supervisory functions and kept the radio technicians in line. If a technician was near the end of his or her shift and was bored and wanted to go home he or she would ask the Operations Officer on duty if they could leave early. Some Officers you could count on to say yes and others you could count on to say no. If you needed to call in sick, you called an Operations Officer. Operations Officers were usually well-respected, some even well-loved. It was almost a pre-requisite of the job. The night I screwed up in Master Control it was Operations Officer Malcolm McKinney who took pity on me and took me across the street to the Hampton Court Hotel to console me with a bottle of wine and good company.
Tape Reclaim was my least favourite place to work. In that hell-hole radio technicians would cut used quarter inch tape from audio reels to recycle the tape and free up the reels. They would hang the reel on a primitive slab of a machine and then haul down on a great lever to pierce the tape with a sharp steel point. Particularly feeble radio technicians usually had to yank on the lever once or twice to completely pierce the tape, which fell into a great bin of used tape. The process required a certain amount of strength and energy, energy I frequently lacked in the morning after skipping breakfast. I didn’t recycle much tape. Making matters worse, sometimes technicians had to work in there with a certain fellow with serious personal hygiene issues. Doing hard labour in a cramped space with a man with serious BO made working in Tape Reclaim the stuff of nightmares.
Studio B was a small control room with a McCurdy console and a tiny announce booth. It was used for simple production tasks such as two-ways and basic packaging. One day I found myself recording Patrick Watson in there. The broadcaster, not the singer. The man who created the Canadian Heritage Minutes. And who happened to be Chairman of the CBC at the time.
Before I go on you need to understand about reference tone.
There are several different types of tone. The tone I’m talking about here is 1 kilohertz tone. The idea is to play the 1K tone through the various broadcast equipment in the studio to line them all up (e.g., adjust playback and record levels). It’s also used to establish continuity, to ensure that the signal is travelling successfully from the studio to where ever you want to send it. For example, if you were doing a two way between Halifax and Toronto, you would want confirmation that the signal from your console was reaching Halifax, and vice versa. So 1K tone was quite useful. It could also be quite annoying. Especially if you were wearing a pair of headphones and some fool technician happened to blast tone through the board into your headphones, deafening you.
Which is the only thing I remember about the Patrick Watson interview: me accidentally blasting tone into his headphones, and Watson whipping off his headphones as fast as he could. I’ve probably accidentally done that to two or three people in my career, but it was particularly ill-advised to do it to the Chairman of the place where I worked.
Another memory of Studio B: working in Master Control and looking down the hall to see Canadian actor, writer, and director Sarah Polley hanging around the studio waiting to be interviewed. Seventeen years later I would escort her to studio 203 in the Broadcast Centre for an interview with Jian Ghomeshi. On both occasions I was struck by her charm and beauty.
Right across the hall from Master Control was Studio W. One day I was in Studio W conducting a two-way with a famous guest that wasn’t going well. The studio in Sydney, Nova Scotia could hear our guest but we couldn’t hear the interviewer in Sydney. Studio W had a weird one-of-a-kind console. I thought maybe I had done something wrong but that wasn’t it. Master confirmed that the problem was with the studio in Sydney, or perhaps the line itself. Meanwhile the famous guest proceeded to have a complete meltdown. He could not accept being kept waiting. The producer bore the guest’s rant stoically, professionally. I was astounded—astounded that this famous, well-respected person would behave like an ill-mannered child. I lost all respect for them. Until a handful of years later my father told me about a passage in this person’s autobiography in which they confessed to having serious anger management issues, issues related to events of their youth. The person was working hard to get these issues under control. Hearing this, I remembered that we are all fighting a great battle, and it behooves us not to judge others until, well, ever.
One wall west of radio master sat the recording room. Two guys alternated working in there. Techs like me would replace them on meal breaks and annual leave. The recording room was used to record everything we broadcast as well as “feeds” (audio content) from all across Canada and sometimes other countries to be used on our various shows. The job consisted of setting up tapes to do these recordings and box them up when they were done. In those days recordings were done on quarter inch tape and DAT tapes, obviously defunct mediums today (to this day Libraries and Archives is scrambling to transfer many of those recordings—the ones deemed valuable for posterity—to the digital realm, until that too becomes obsolete and it becomes necessary to transfer them to some other medium such as, oh I dunno, pure thought maybe). What little time I spent in the recording room proved most useful for getting a lot of reading done. I distinctly remember getting through a lot of Stephen King’s The Stand in there.
The Delay Room was little more than a closet, its size inversely proportional to its significance. There was an A and a B tape delay system, or a main and a backup. Each consisted of a couple of heavy duty tape machines that recorded everything we broadcast to Atlantic Canada. They would play this content back an hour later for the Eastern Time Zone, where it would be recorded again and played back for the next time zone. It would be recorded again in that time zone and played back yet again for the next one, until the content had been played back for the entire country. In this way every Canadian would hear their favourite show at exactly the same time, subjectively at least, because in reality someone in Vancouver would be hearing Morningside and every other show (except for the news) three hours later than it was originally broadcast. Because in those days this content was recorded on the medium of tape, this process affected the sound quality. Probably most people couldn’t really tell, but the sound quality of the programs broadcast in Vancouver, multiple tape generations after the original broadcast, wouldn’t be as good as the quality in Newfoundland, where audiences heard everything live, straight from the studio.
On the other hand, Eastern Canadians heard all our mistakes. If Peter Gzowski made a mistake during Morningside, everybody in the Maritimes heard it. If the mistake was serious enough, we would try to fix it for the rest of the country. If we got to it in time, we might be able to fix it in time for Ontario. We tried hard to do this because most if not all of the English Senior Executive Team lived in Ontario. Producers wanted our programming to be the best it could possibly be for all Canadians, of course, but they especially wanted it to be the best for the Senior Executive Team. Depending on the nature and the timing of the fault, sometimes the best we could do was fix it for Vancouver. When I messed up Two New Hours, we were only able to fix it for Vancouver. If Gzowski accidentally spilled his coffee and swore on air during the first half hour of Morningside (just an example—he never actually did this) it might have been possible to restrict the damage to the Maritimes by starting the show over again live in the studio while the first part of the show played to western time zones via the Delay system. We called this sort of thing a “remake”, and we actually did it a lot. As It Happens producers were particularly fond of “remaking” their show if they got something wrong.
I don’t have much to say about the rest of the denizens of the basement. I never worked in the mail room. I would go on to become the Manager of Audio Systems, but that was years in the future. I would also eventually spend a lot of time creating and performing sound effects, but those days were also a long ways off.
And the second floor I will leave for another post.