The Story of Q
One of a series of posts about working at CBC Radio back in the day.
(Here’s some more).
This is a repost of a speech I gave to Ryerson students in 2008 about the creation of the CBC Radio show “Q”:
How many of you think the CBC is a bank?
I’m told you’re going to make a radio show as a project. You might go on to work in radio. I should tell you right now that when you work in radio you don’t do it for the money – I only make two, three hundred thousand dollars a year. So anyway I’m here to give you some idea how to make a radio show. So I’m going to tell you a few things that might help you make your radio show here, and that also might help you when you’re working in the real world. If I’m really lucky maybe some of it will help you in the rest of your life too.
I think the best way to tell you what I know is to tell you a story. As far as I’m concerned the best way to convey anything is to tell a story. I could stand up here and relate all kinds of facts and figures and all it would do is put you to sleep. It’s true for this speech I’m giving and it’s true for radio. So that’s your first lesson – don’t be boring. You need to grab everyone’s attention! And then you need to keep it.
So the story I’m going to tell you is the story of Q.
The story of Q is how you make a radio show from the ground up. There might be a tiny bit of dirt in this story, so before I go on I need to know if I can trust you. I might tell you a few things that could get me in trouble. So I need to know who in this room I can NOT trust. Point to them please. Okay those of you who are being pointed at I need you to leave the room.
This time last year I was happy making radio plays. Stuff like this:
Making radio plays was what I did best. That and lasagna – I make a mean lasagna. Weekday afternoons on CBC Radio One around this time was a show called Freestyle. Traditionally in this time slot CBC Radio One had a listenership of about two hundred and twenty thousand people. It had been this way for years. It didn’t matter what you played in this time slot – you could play 1 K tone and the listenership would stay at two hundred and twenty thousand people. So they put this show on called Freestyle and the listener-ship promptly dropped to one hundred and eighty thousand people. Clearly, forty thousand people preferred tone.
Something needed to be done, and something was. There was a big study, they called it the Arts and Culture study, and based on this research the Powers That Be decided they needed to replace Freestyle with an Arts and Culture show. It would be a national show… a flagship show… they would pour tons of resources into it. It was a Big Deal.
Now as I mentioned I was toiling happily away in radio drama land at this time. But I had also worked on As It Happens, Morningside, Sunday Morning and all kinds of other live national shows. I had also helped create shows such as Nora Young’s Next, Here’s the Thing with Pat Senson, and I’d produced documentaries for the Current and the Arts Tonight. So my boss called me into her office and asked me if I would like to be the engineer for this new Arts and Culture show.
Those of us in the trenches knew that this show was coming down the pike. And no one I knew wanted to work on it. We all thought it would be a disaster. We had heard that Jian Ghomeshi was going to host it. Jian Ghomeshi was supposed to be the devil incarnate. He had been the host of 50 Tracks, a big success, he’d fronted the band Moxy Fruvous once upon a time, he’d hosted television and he’d done a stint on Sounds Like Canada. He had a reputation for being difficult to work with. And I thought, I don’t need that shit.
So I told my boss “No” in no uncertain terms. Well. She went up one side of me and down the other. She tore me a new one. And I wound up being the engineer on the new Arts and Culture show with Jian Ghomeshi.
I was really mad. I started the whole experience extremely upset. And this is lesson number two, folks: you have to be professional. I loved radio drama, that’s all I wanted to do. My boss in her wisdom took me out of something I loved and made me a part of something I wanted no part of. I wasn’t the only one. Of the staff that were selected for the new arts and culture show one promptly quit, one transferred to Winnipeg, at least two didn’t want to be there and they could not find an executive producer who wanted anything to do with the show.
But like I said, you have to be professional. You do not take your feelings out on your colleagues. You do not come to work sullen. There are two kinds of people in this world, those with good attitudes and those with bad attitudes. It’s easy to have a good attitude when things are going your way. The trick is to have a good attitude when things are not going your way. And I am here to tell you that there are people working on that show today who do not know how I felt about being there. I’m not saying you keep it all inside – you tell your wife, you tell your best friend.
But at work you put on your game face, the one with the good attitude.
So eventually they found an Executive Producer willing to take a chance and they filled out the rest of the staff. We had nine people in total to make this new national Arts and Culture show. One recording engineer, one executive producer, one host, three producers, three associate producers. They threw us all into a room in the Skydome, Skybox Three, if I recall, and said: “Make us a radio show.”
We talked. We talked for days. All we knew was that it had to be an arts and culture radio show and that it would be personality driven – Jian Ghomeshi’s personality. But we didn’t know what any of that meant. Low culture? High culture? Both? What is low culture and high culture? What about sports, is that culture? Recreation? Interviews were a given, but how long should they be? Are interviews on the phone okay or should they all be high quality lines? Would we be the arts show of record? What does that even mean? Do we break stories? Do we talk about Paris Hilton? If so, how much? What about Margaret Atwood? Haven’t we all heard enough about Margaret Atwood? How do we open the show? How do we close the show? What do we even call the damn thing?
To help us figure things out we took a bunch of courses. We all had plenty of experience making radio but you never stop learning. We took courses on critical thinking. Things like, do we trust this source? Is this story really news? We took a course on ethics. Things like, when are we in conflict of interest? And we took courses on interviewing. In case we wound up with a guest that sounded like this guy:
Eventually we got it more or less figured out. High culture AND low culture. High impact guests when possible. Interviews about eight minutes long, longer when warranted. Live music every Friday, maybe more. Ixnay on the Paris Hiltonnay. Lots of energy. Plenty of short, flexible elements so we could mix things up on the fly. We had it all figured out. Everything except for a name.
We’d been racking our brains for weeks trying to come up with a name. It was really important to us that we choose the name as opposed to management. ‘Cause it seemed like the front runner for management was the name Radar, and Radar just didn’t work for us. We needed something better. The problem was the show was so broad that we couldn’t come up with a name that encompassed everything the show was about. And then one day, out of the blue, someone had it:
Yeah, that lasted about five minutes. So we did a pilot with the name Radar and found ourselves getting down to the wire. It was pretty clear that if we didn’t come up with a name ourselves by the end of the week one would be foisted upon us and it would probably be the dreaded Radar. So we hunkered down and for the umpteenth time wrote our top choices on the white board. Names like Studio Q, The Cue, Skybox Three. And, of course, Awesometown. Suddenly looking at the names on the whiteboard the letter Q kind of leapt out at me and I said, what if it were just the letter Q? Jian went for it and nobody really objected so we had a winner. Later I learned that journalist Jesse Wente had suggested the name Q for an Arts show two years earlier so there was a kind of weird synchronicity about it. Of course, some people absolutely hated it, but it was enigmatic, it stood for nothing and everything, and most important, Jian could make rhyming couplets out of it.
A week before we went to air we still didn’t really know whether the show was going to work. I remember tense meetings with the team and Jian. Jian felt like there was too much interference from management; he didn’t feel like he was able to make the show that he wanted to make. There were different sensibilities at work. Jian and the Executive Producer weren’t quite clicking. And there were still a whole bunch of issues that needed to be sorted out that hadn’t even been addressed.
As the engineer, I was responsible for the sound of the show. From the beginning I had been advocating for a theme package. I wanted to hire a composer and a band and get them to write all the music for the show. In drama we hired composers all the time, it was no big deal. This show was supposed to be a big deal so it was a no brainer for me. But for some reason the team balked at the idea. For the pilots we’d been using this music for the opening theme:
It wasn’t bad. It was basically a loop of the first four bars of the Clash’s Spanish Bombs. But it didn’t have the panache we were looking for. Much more classy to use something written especially for the show. At the last minute the Executive Producer agreed with me and hired Luc Doucet to write a theme. Now, the show debuted on a Monday… and Luc Doucet’s band recorded the theme on the Friday. They recorded it… they didn’t mix it. And they didn’t record it to the proper specifications. We needed an intro, beds, backtime music. On Sunday – Sunday, the day before we debuted — I got a CD with all the raw tracks, unmixed. I was working on something else that day, teaching U of T students about radio drama, and I didn’t even start mixing the theme until seven o’clock that night. By ten o’clock my ears were gone, I could barely tell what I was listening to. I printed out a few versions, emailed them as MP3s to Jian and the executive producer, and went home to bed.
The next morning, the day of the show, the first thing the executive producer said to me was, “We got some remixing to do.” It was two hours before show time. Fortunately my mix was in the ballpark, I just had to swap a couple of guitar parts and create a bed for Jian to speak over and then recut it to the proper length. And this is where some stellar leadership came into play. Rule number three: Go for the gusto. Because I really didn’t think we’d be able to get the theme done in time. I told the executive producer that we should go with the Spanish Bombs theme. But the exec had nerves of steel and he said, no no, we’ll pull this off. I really didn’t think it was possible but he stayed the course and lo and behold we pulled it off. The finished theme sounded like this:
On your program today, I wanna rock, Dee Snider, the frontman of outrageous 80s metal band Twisted Sister has a new gig. We’ll talk to him about his new TV series “Dead Art” about finding beauty… in cemeteries. And… get happy! (Or not…) North America is home to some of the most contented people on Earth. But is that a good thing? Not according to Eric Wilson. He’s here with his new book “Against Happiness”. Plus, a look at the threat facing Utah’s Spiral Jetty… and its Canadian connection. Six words of love for you… this is Q.”
And they’re still using that theme today.
Just so you know, that opening over the theme is usually pre-taped so that we can make sure Jian hits the post, the guitar at the end. Sometimes it’s not possible to pre-tape it and Jian has to do it live. Nine times out of ten when Jian does it live, he hits the post.
So the show debuted and everything that could go wrong tried to wrong but didn’t. There were many heart stopping moments but it all worked. This is what I took away from that day. Rule number four: Know your studio like the back of your hand. Check it thoroughly before you go to air. Know your patch bay, your wall boxes. Test everything. If you’re going to have phoners test your phones through the board. If you have lines book your lines at least fifteen minutes early so that you can test them long before your guests are supposed to speak. If you’ve got a band, get them in early for a sound check. Make sure you know how to use your timers, your talkbacks. And finally, know what time you’re supposed to go to air. Because on that first day, believe it or not, we didn’t.
Someone – me, probably – should have double-checked all the times of the show. Lo and behold the third hour, part three, started one whole minute earlier than we thought it was supposed to. We were just sitting back enjoying our cigars during the newsbreak when all of a sudden the countdown clock started counting down and we had to scramble to get on the air. We made it, somehow.
When we finished the show that day, the first day, it was clear to everyone that Q was going to work. It wasn’t perfect but it was pretty much there.
I told you before that Jian was supposed to be the antichrist. Myself, I only ever had one run-in with the man. For the first couple of months we sort of circled one another warily. I was suspicious of him because of what I’d heard. Then one day we had a band in, Stars. Q goes live to Sirius Radio at 12:06. The sound check with Stars was scheduled for 11:00. Stars showed up at 11:30. I didn’t have a whole lot of time to sort them out, and their lead singer was being difficult. Jian showed up at 11:45 full of piss and vinegar wanting to pre-record the opening, like I mentioned before. We didn’t have time. Jian got angry and he let it show. This really pissed me off. I was in it up to my elbows and the last thing I needed was someone making my life more difficult.
I got Stars sorted out.
(Incidentally, although they were late, they weren’t the worst. The worst was Ryan Adams — Ryan, not Bryan. He showed up with a drummer and two guitarists after the show started. I had to really scramble then. And it actually turned out to be one of my favourite recordings:
But I digress. After the Stars thing I was pissed at Jian and he knew it. The next day he sought me out and we had a little chat. I explained where I was coming from. He apologized and we were fine after that, for the most part.
The thing about hosts is that they’re under a lot of pressure, more than anybody else on the show. It doesn’t give them the right to be assholes. It doesn’t give them the right to take their moods out on other people. But it does mean that they have to be given the right information at the right time. They have to know that you’re watching their back. A host is all alone out there in front of several hundred thousand if not millions of listeners; the rest of us are anonymous. And when they screw up, it’s their clips that we play to embarrass them in front of Ryerson students:
So we have to make sure that the hosts don’t find themselves alone; we have to be right there with them, paying attention, watching their backs. As an engineer I never took my eyes and ears off the host if I could help it. If he or she got into trouble I tried to be there to feed them information or go to a tape if need be.
Same with the show’s director. On Q the director is Matt Tunnacliffe. As director Matt also keeps a close eye on the host. Among other things it’s Matt’s job to make sure everything times out. If an interview goes too long it’s Matt who has to figure out how to fix it. Do we drop an item, do we go to a different item, do we get the host to wing it? I remember Jian getting lost once or twice. Misplaced a bit of his script or had a brain fade or there was just some miscommunication. When this happens it’s crucial that the people in the control room are paying attention, so they can bail him out. Otherwise it can get pretty ugly pretty fast, and when you’re live you only get one shot at it.
I wanted to talk about the roles of the others on the show, the associate producers and whatnot, but when I started to write about them it started putting me to sleep. So I’ll spare you, except to say that they’re generally the ones who pitch the ideas, hunt down all the guests, do the research and write all the questions. So the work is crucial but boring to talk about, so I’m not gonna. You’ll have to get one of them in here to talk about it.
Instead let me talk a bit about this:
Sound design. That clip was one of the first IDs we ever did for the show. The day I was teaching U of T students, the day before we debuted, I got the students to do a bunch of IDs for the show. They gave me tons of raw material. I also hunted down all sorts of interesting clips off the internet. I gave it all to an associate producer on the show, Tori Allen, and she put together three or four great IDs like that one. And you’ll notice she did not use the students getting the IDs right, she used the students getting the IDs wrong. It was brilliant and I don’t mind saying that I learned a lot from Tori… every ID I made for the show after that was with her sensibility in mind.
I don’t think sound design is top of mind for many show producers. For them it’s all about the content. I guess there’s something to be said for content. But for me it’s all about sound design and production… you can have so much fun there. For instance, when we were figuring out the show we talked about how we should open each show. Everybody wanted to do something unique and different. I suggested something like this, which is something producer Alison Moss, Nora Young and I did up for an episode of Next:
That was a lot of fun to produce but it took an entire day to write, record and mix. So it’s not something you’re going to do every day on a daily show like Q. We settled on an opening monologue that would contain some production elements when we felt up to it.
The next opportunity for some fun production was, as I’ve already mentioned, in the show IDs. Show IDs serve four main purposes. One, they give the host a break during which he or she can figure out where they’re at. Two, they separate the various elements of a show. And three, obviously they identify the show you’re listening to, the network, and whatever other information you want to put in them. But a lot of producers don’t take advantage of the fourth purpose of show IDs, which is to help define the sound of the show you’re listening to:
That’s me completely taking a page from Tori’s book. It signals that Q is a show not afraid to have a little bit of fun, and that at it’s core it’s a show about creativity. And the sky’s the limit. Whenever we had a musical guest we got them to record a little ID for us. You have to be a little bit bold with your guests. Don’t be afraid to tell them what you need. 99% of the musicians I approached to make an ID all just wanted to talk until I pestered them to pick up their guitar or play the piano. Then when they saw what I was after they got into the spirit of things. And we got a lot of great show IDs that way.
Yet another opportunity for sound design came about when Jian would have long spiels about one thing or another, letters or just something he wanted to talk about. So I began to make loops for him.
Whenever I found a piece of music I thought might be appropriate I’d take as much instrumental as I could out of it and loop it all together, five or six minutes worth. Jian would finish extro-ing an interview (for example), I’d hit the music, let it establish, then Jian would come in and do his thing over it. He’d finish, I’d bring up the music, then fade out and we’d be onto the next thing. Simple but effective.
There’s about eight thousand other issues I could address but I’ll finish with this one. If you take nothing else away from the stuff I’m telling you today, take this away: Know your tools. You can get by without really knowing your tools but you’ll be making your life unnecessarily difficult, and you’ll be limited in what you can accomplish.
We use many digital audio editing platforms at CBC but the main one that most people use is called Dalet. It dates back to about 1998 and it’s soon to be replaced with something called DaletPlus, which itself will be out of date by the time we start using it but that’s another story. Anyway, I used to hate Dalet. My weapon of choice is ProTools, but when I began working on Q I had no choice but to use Dalet. I thought, my God, this is like editing with your elbows.
I soon realized that I would live or die by Dalet, so I resolved to learn it as well as I know Protools. I got myself some training and within three months I knew it inside and out. Now you might think, well that’s all fine and good for you, you’re obviously a technical type. Well let’s just flash back twenty-two years. I’m sixteen years old working at my first radio station, a two hundred and fifty watt daytimer called CJRW in Prince Edward Island. Before I started my shift, I got the DJ working before me to cue up all my items on the reel to reels because I was afraid of it. I was frightened of the scary looking reel-to-reels. I am not by disposition a technical type, I am an artsy. To me gear is a means to an end not an end in itself. But I decided one day – one day here at Ryerson, in fact, working on a second year project – that I would no longer live in fear of the scary looking reel-to-reel machines. I would master the reel-to-reel and any other piece of gear or software that comes along.
But before I say goodbye, let me play you this:
That’s my favourite ID because the woman trying to say Jian’s name is so charming. Also it tells a story from beginning to end.
And that’s all she wrote. As my former professor Jerry Good used to say…
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