Tag: CBC Radio (page 3 of 5)

Asparagus

In nineteen-ninety-two, while on vacation in Halifax, my girlfriend and I went to see a play.

There was a statue above the stage in a little alcove. I assumed it was just a part of the theatre’s decor.

Before the play started, Lynda leaned over to me and whispered, “Do you think that statue has anything to do with the play?”

It's a Stone Angel, silly

It’s a stone angel, silly

“You mean that stone angel?” I asked, realizing as the words came out of my mouth that of course it did, because the play was an adaptation of Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel.

The play was directed by James Roy, who worked for CBC’s radio drama department back in Toronto. I didn’t know James then, but I knew of him, so when I returned to work I sought him out to tell him how much I had enjoyed his play.

Seven years later James welcomed me into the Radio Drama department, where I had the honour of working with him on many radio plays. Seven years after that I was invited to record a play in Blyth, Huron County, during the Blyth Festival, at which time I learned that not only is James an accomplished director, he was also the founding Artistic Director of the Blyth Festival.

The Blyth Festival is unique. James, along with his co-founders Anne Chislett and Keith Roulson, created a festival dedicated to the production and development of Canadian plays, which was at one time—and perhaps still is—the only five hundred seat theatre in Canada devoted solely to Canadian plays. Not content with merely producing plays, James and his partners also created an Art Gallery, and the whole enterprise is still going strong forty years, ten artistic directors, a choir and an orchestra later.

Blyth Festival

Blyth Festival

In the summer of 2006 I drove up to Blyth in a rented car accompanied by sound effects engineer Anton Szabo, who would be doing live effects for the reading we would be recording. That afternoon we sat through a rehearsal of the reading. Actually, I snoozed through the rehearsal in a really comfortable armchair. I was suffering from cat allergies which were waking me up in the middle of the night with the sensation that I couldn’t breathe, a sensation that would linger throughout the day. At the time, I had no idea that it was because of cat allergies, so it had me rather on edge.

Anton and I set up the next morning. AKG 414s on each of the actors and another one for Anton’s sound effects. Anton had a keyboard sampler plugged in for additional effects. I was situated on the stage not far from Anton’s setup, well behind the actors, but visible to the audience. I had two DAT machines but I’d learned my lesson at the Royal George; they were only for backup. My main recording would be done on ProTools on a Mac laptop. I was getting a 60 hertz buzz on one of the lines. Somebody that worked for the theatre lifted the ground on an extension cord. It did the trick.

We recorded one dress rehearsal, and then the actual performance. I don’t remember much about either recording except that they went well.

What I do remember is asparagus.

After the performance, James, Anton, myself and several others went for supper at the Stage Manager’s house. I am doing the Stage Manager a great injustice by not remembering her name. She had a house on a hill outside Blyth. But not just any hill—it was a hill from which you could see for miles and miles. A house from which you could see the sun set, but not set into the rooftops of houses halfway up the sky. Here it set directly into the horizon, painting half the sky wonderful shades of red, one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen. The Stage Manager had a garden out back in which she grew fresh vegetables, some of which I may have eaten, but all I remember is the asparagus. I’ve had asparagus soup before, and possibly actual asparagus, but I had never eaten fresh asparagus straight from anyone’s garden before.

I was astounded.

Hmm... fresh asparagus!

Hmm… fresh asparagus!

The asparagus was sublime—the food of, if not all the Gods, then at least those with sense enough to eat vegetables. I couldn’t stop eating it. We ran out. Seconds before I capitulated to symptoms of withdrawal, the Stage Manager went out and picked more, God bless her.

The asparagus wasn’t all that surprised me that night. I found myself enveloped in a wonderful sense of fellowship. It was a privilege to be part of such a company: directors, stage managers, writers, sound effects engineers, producers, and me. Colleagues, but also friends. We had a lovely meal, and a lovely talk. Such a night had snuck up on me unawares. I felt as though I belonged. I felt as though I could breathe. I felt as though I could eat more asparagus.

So I did.

A few weeks later I bought some asparagus at Sobey’s and served it to my family. It was the first time they had ever tried asparagus. It was stringy and tasteless. We all hated it, and have never eaten it since.

Studios From Scratch

Most of the time, CBC Radio shows are broadcast out of special, purpose-built radio studios, all carefully designed, built, and equipped by experienced broadcast engineers. In studios like that all you have to do to get your show on the air is go in, sit down, and turn on a piece of equipment or two.

Other times, studios are built from scratch.

Sometimes this is as simple as a microphone attached to a recording device by an XLR cable, along with a pair of headphones.

Sometimes it’s rather more complicated than that.

When we go offsite and cobble one of these transient radio studios together, whether it’s simple or complicated, we call it a “remote.”

Some remotes are more remote than others. If a remote is just a few blocks away and the tech happens to forget a piece of gear, maybe a microphone stand or a clip, he or she can just dart back to the Broadcast Centre and get it. If a remote is hours away, maybe half-way across the country or in a completely different country, the tech had better have all the right gear.

Some remotes last only an hour or two; others never seem to end. Sometimes a show will broadcast live right from their remote location. Other times they’ll record what they want and edit the content later and broadcast it sometime after that.

My first remote was a music pick-up in the Church of the Holy Trinity in downtown Toronto, not too far away from the Radio Building. Recording Engineer Dave Burnham was recording a choir there to be broadcast later on a show called Listen to the Music. (The Cowboy Junkies had recorded their superlative album The Trinity Session in that same church a few months earlier.) My job was to help Dave, which mainly meant lugging all his equipment. Remotes almost always involved a lot of lugging.

Inside the Church of the Holy Trinity

Inside the Church of the Holy Trinity

It was a simple enough remote, on the surface of it: recording one small choir. Dave’s setup consisted of a handful of microphones connected to a small console. Still, there were several questions that needed to be answered. Just how exactly to make this choir sound as good as possible? What kind of microphones to use? How many? Where exactly to place them? What kind of outboard gear to use, if any? An experienced high-end recording engineer like Dave had plenty of tricks up his sleeves, and employed his own unique strategies. Recording music out in the field was an art, and although I accompanied engineers like Dave out on a few remotes, and did some music recording of my own privately, I never acquired anything resembling the expertise of someone like Dave.

After a couple of years of lugging gear for other techs and learning what I could, I started getting my own remotes. Despite my time observing, I was initially a bit handicapped. Unlike many other techs, I never did a stretch in Radio Technical Stores. Radio Tech Stores was where techs got equipment for their remotes. Working in Stores you assembled equipment for more senior techs and accompanied them on their remotes. If you paid attention, you learned what gear was best and how to make it work.

Motivated by a profound fear of failure, I overcame my handicap by spending time in Stores on my own, hooking up gear and figuring out how to make it do what I needed it to do. Over time my preparation paid off, though the knowledge of gear I acquired didn’t entirely compensate for certain other massive deficiencies, such as an inability to find my way around Toronto.

One of my first solo pickups was for a show on politics called The House. My job was to record the second last Mayor of Scarborough, Joyce Trimmer, on a Nagra in her office for one half of a double-ender. A double-ender consists of an interviewer back in the studio talking to a guest on the phone while somebody like me records the guest out in the field. Afterward, back in the studio, a tech eliminates the poor phone quality recording of the guest, replacing that recording with the high fidelity recording done in the field.

Joyce Trimmer, former Mayor of Scarborough

Joyce Trimmer, former Mayor of Scarborough

I needed to be at Trimmer’s office by two pm. We only had the studio in the Radio Building booked until two-thirty. Unfortunately, I didn’t own a car and wasn’t used to driving in Toronto. I didn’t know my way around the streets of Scarborough at all. Driving a Stores van, I got hopelessly lost. I couldn’t find Trimmer’s damn office. Somebody had told me it was in the Scarborough Town Centre but I couldn’t even find that. When I finally did, I figured there must be offices in it somewhere. Maybe there is, but if so she wasn’t in any of them. Turned out her office was in a building behind the Scarborough Town Centre. Panting and sweating and lugging my equipment, I got there twenty minutes late. Back in the Radio Building the producer and host must have been freaking out. Trimmer herself was the epitome of graciousness. She offered me a glass of water, which I gratefully accepted, and we managed to get the recording done in the time remaining.

My remote skills (such as they are) really came together while working for the folks at CJBC. CJBC is a part of CBC Radio-Canada. An affiliate of the ici Radio-Canada Premiere network, they broadcast to Franco-Ontarians at AM 860 out of studios on the fifth floor of the Toronto Broadcast Centre. I was loaned to them for four and a half years after I took the better part of a year off to live in France. We did a lot of remotes during my time with them.

The first big remote I did for CJBC was for something called a Salon du livres, held in one of the big halls in the Toronto Convention Centre. Basically it was a book fair. We did one of those a year. Because the Salon du livres was a relatively big remote, and because I really didn’t know what the heck I was doing, I asked for an assistant. I was assigned fellow technician Carlos Van Leeuwen, who happened to be working in Stores at the time.

The remote consisted of a host and three guest positions set up at one table in the middle of the book fair, facing a small audience. The guests and hosts would use headphone microphones. There was a PA (public address system) set up for the benefit of a small audience. During the live show I would sit at a separate table with my mixing console and the producer and associate producer at my side. There would be a talkback set up for the producer and the host to be able to communicate with one another. An ISDN unit would transmit the show to the Broadcast Centre and live to air.

Tech Stores had something called a McCurdy Turret System for exactly this kind of remote. Carlos and I decided to give it a try. Only problem was neither of us had ever used it before, and we had only the barest idea how it worked. There were no instructions and we didn’t have access to anyone else who know how it worked, if such a person existed. The only way to figure it out was to plug it all together in various permutations until it finally worked. I would say that it was a completely unintuitive system except that I know people who used to work for McCurdy and I wouldn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.

For some reason that eludes me now, but that I’m sure made perfect sense at the time, we didn’t start trying to figure it out until the day of the remote. There were moments I didn’t think we’d ever get the bloody thing working. But we did, and I will be eternally grateful to Carlos for his help — without him I’d probably still be staring at it cross-eyed.

Once I understood how the McCurdy Turret System worked I began to use it on all my remotes. One day another tech watched me set it up. The connectivity was so bizarre that he couldn’t believe it worked that way. He insisted that I must be doing it wrong. Happy to entertain better ways of doing it, I challenged him to make it work another way, but he couldn’t.

During that first Salon du livres there were many long moments where nothing worked properly, during which I seriously entertained the notion that we wouldn’t make it to air. There is a moment like that on every remote. It can last seconds or it can last hours, but it’s always there. Sometimes it’s dead simple: you have a microphone set to line instead of mic on the console. Fine. You spot the problem and fix it. Sometimes it’s more complicated than that, and you have to troubleshoot your entire setup to find the answer, maybe a bad cable or a faulty mixer, and there are no maintenance techs around to help you (well, sometimes there are, on some big music remotes, but there never was for me). I had a rule of thumb that served me well: it’s never the cable. And it never was. Except for once, when it was.

Sometimes the problem will have nothing to do with your equipment. Once, during a setup for a remote in Welland, I couldn’t establish continuity with Master Control. I wasn’t too concerned; it was an hour before airtime. Forty-five minutes later it still wasn’t working. I was certain the problem wasn’t anything on my end. Nor was the problem in Master Control. Turned out it was in between, with Bell. A Bell tech fixed it ten minutes before air time — someone had patched a cable wrong.

Remotes were usually pretty straightforward once you got everything working. Once I had to deal with a bit of feedback from the PA, and another time a dirty turret developed a bit of a click whenever the host toggled the microphone on or off, but I never had a remote go completely belly-up on me.

I came close, though. The closest was during a remote in Niagara-on-the-Lake. I was working for the Radio Drama Department at the time. We did multiple remote pickups every summer at the Shaw Festival for the Bell Canada Reading Series. They were usually a lot of fun. Sometimes another engineer would tag along; sometimes it would just be you and a producer. On this particular day I was flying solo.

Because I had to be there early, I packed up my gear the night before and drove the CBC van home. Proud to work for the CBC, and proud to be seen working for the CBC, I always liked driving a CBC branded van (yes, I’m aware that pride is one of the seven deadly sins). I got up at five in the morning the day of and made the two and a half hour drive from Whitby to the Royal George Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Someone let me in in the theatre and I set up. I don’t remember what reading I was recording on this particular day. It might have been an adaptation of the French novel Le Grand Meaulnes, or it could have been something about Emily Carr. Whatever it was, it involved eight or so actors lined up in a row on stage reading from scripts on music stands. I typically used AKG 414s on the actors, plugged into a snake, fed to a Sony MXP61 mixing console. We recorded straight to DAT (Digital Audio Tape) in those days. I had two decks; one master and one backup.

I’ve always hated DATs.

When I first started doing remotes I would only bring as much equipment as I thought I would need. I mistakenly thought that sort of economy constituted good planning. And maybe it would if you were travelling to the North Pole. But it didn’t take me long to figure out that it was much smarter to bring as much as I could cram into the van. Extras of everything. Two consoles instead of one. Extra microphones, stands, snakes, whatever I could get away with. But sometimes even that wasn’t enough.

Royal George Theatre

Royal George Theatre

There is no air conditioning in the Royal George Theatre, and it was unbelievably hot that day. I wondered if it might be too hot for the DAT decks. I was parked right outside the theatre. I considered moving the DAT machines into the back of the van and turning on the vehicle’s air conditioning. We’d done that once before. But it was getting a little too close to show time, so I left the setup the way it was.

Patrons filed into the theatre. Soon the place was packed. With all those people it got even hotter. The show started. My top deck was a Panasonic. The bottom deck was a Sony. About ten minutes into the show the Panasonic deck stopped recording. No problem. I still had the Sony. I got the Panasonic going again. A few minutes later the Sony froze. Uh oh. What if they both froze at the same time? It went on like this for the entire hour it took to record the reading. First one deck locking up and then the other. I was sweating bullets, but not because of the heat.

Once the recordings were finished I tested playback. The Sony would play back but the recording was spotty. The Panasonic wouldn’t play back at all. This wasn’t good. It was a long drive back to the Broadcast Centre. I had screwed up the entire remote. How would I break the news to the producer, Barbara Worthy? I had never seen Babs angry before. Well, there was always a first time.

Usually, I would head back to the Broadcast Centre, unload all my gear, return the van, and head home on the GO Train. This time I unloaded all my gear as fast as I could and made a beeline for the edit suites. I needed to know if I could get anything off the DAT tapes or if in fact the remote was a complete failure.

The best way to retrieve material from a DAT tape is to play it back from the same machine it was recorded on. I didn’t trust the machines I’d recorded on so I found the same make of machine in two different studios. Playing back the tapes, I saw that some audio had successfully recorded on each tape. But there were gaping holes in both tapes.

I transferred the contents of each DAT tape into ProTools, then lined them up on separate tracks, allowing me to see visually just what was missing from each tape. Although each tape was missing several minutes worth of material, through some miracle each track compensated for the other. Between the two tapes I had an entire show. What a relief! I resolved to bring seventeen spare DAT machines with me to the next remote.

Fortunately, technology was constantly evolving, and I didn’t have to rely on DAT tapes much longer.

More on that in my next post.

Morningside

Morningside had several skilled technicians who worked on the show a lot more than I did.

I just filled in from time to time.

But I did work on a summer version of the show with a couple of replacement hosts: Denise Donlon and Ian Brown. I did the actual show with regular host Peter Gzowski three times. The show looms large in my memory, though, and feels worth writing about.

The summer replacement version of Morningside was called Summerside. I was asked to do it and I never said no to opportunities like that. I thought it was appropriate, actually, considering I grew up in Summerside, Prince Edward Island. At the time the regular tech for Morningside was John Johnston. To prepare for Summerside, I shadowed John for a week. During that time John did all he could to convey everything he knew about how to operate a live show like Morningside, skills that I would find particularly useful over the next couple of decades.

Denise Donlon

Denise Donlon

By this time I had a fair bit of experience operating shows like as As It Happens, but Morningside was rather more challenging. As It Happens was microphones, phones, and tape. Morningside was microphones, phones, tape, wireless microphones, 2-ways, 3-ways, live bands, and any number of other weird setups depending on who the guests were on the show.

By the time John was done teaching me I knew every strip on the McCurdy console in Studio R inside and out, every aux and group, every patch point, all the (limited) outboard gear, and every wallbox in the booth. He covered soft skills as well, such as how to make the guests feel comfortable, whether they were physically present in the studio or talking to us down a line from the other side of the country. If they were on a line it was about checking in with them regularly, explaining the process, keeping them up to date. If they were in Studio R it was about teaching them how to control their headset volume, and adjusting their microphone properly so that there would be no popping or sibilance.

Ian Brown

Ian Brown

John instructed me on control room protocol too, advising me to keep the chatter to a minimum during the show, and to insist on clarity of direction. He suggested I keep the monitors in the control room at a consistent level, but I was never able to do that—I considered it a courtesy to turn down the volume if the studio director needed to be on the phone.

I didn’t get the full week of training. My shadowing was interrupted when we showed up Wednesday morning to find the console fried. We called Audio Systems (radio maintenance) and technologist Don Paterson arrived to help. Don quickly determined that the console’s power supply was toast. This wasn’t good as we needed to be on the air in an hour, and an hour wasn’t enough time to fix the problem.

We had no choice—we would have to do the show out of another studio. The logical choice was Studio F next door, which had a similar McCurdy console. Because I’d done As It Happens out of there recently, and was more familiar with the console and the studio, it made sense for me to do the show. So in the fine CBC tradition of trial by fire, I did. I have absolutely zero memory of what happened on that show that day, suggesting that I did the show in some kind of fugue state, but both the show and I appear to have survived intact.

Thanks to the crack Audio Systems team Studio R was back in service the following day. By Monday John Johnston and Peter Gzowski were off playing golf while I flew solo with guest host Denise Donlon. She would do the first two weeks of Summerside and Ian Brown would do the second (or maybe it was the other way around). Memorable guests included Michael Enright (host of As It Happens at the time) and Canadian actor Kenneth Welsh (fresh off Twin Peaks at the time, with more recent credits in The Day After Tomorrow and The Aviator, among others).

Michael was there to demonstrate Tai Chi. Yes, that’s right… Tai Chi on the radio, but if anyone could make that work it was Michael. I had to figure out how to mic him while he was standing up and demonstrating the moves. Tech Stores had recently acquired some wireless microphones so I used a wireless Lavalier. It did the job.

The Kenneth Welsh interview didn’t work out quite so well. The actor was quite pleasant, but a third of the way through the interview his AKG 224 microphone cut out. I punched the mic button on the console off and on and played with the gain but it didn’t help. I could still hear Welsh through Ian Brown’s mic, which meant that the problem was likely limited to the strip on the console, a cable, or the mic itself.

Kenneth Welsh

Kenneth Welsh

I tore out of the control room and into the booth. Brown and Welsh kept on talking even though Welsh sounded like he was in another room. There were four AKG 224s on the table: Brown’s, the one that wasn’t working, and two others not in use, which were presumably fine. Ian treated the nation to a play by play as I swapped out the bad mic for one of the spares. I plugged it in, skedaddled back to the control room, and brought the fader up.

It worked.

This sort of thing was not particularly unusual. It is said that no plan survives contact with the enemy and this certainly applies to live radio. Equipment breaks, bands show up late for sound checks, guests don’t show up at all, or when they do show up they behave erratically, and it’s up to the team behind the show, particularly those in the control room, to deal with it all.

It’s not life or death. It’s not like somebody will die if you screw up. But it sure feels important when you’re sitting in the hot seat. The listener experience is on the line. Ratings are on the line. And if you don’t get it right, your job might be on the line—or at least the plum gigs.

We had a guest in Moncton one day.

About twenty minutes before the interview was to start, when I thought there was a good chance that the guest had settled into the Moncton Studio, I pressed a button on the console and spoke down the line: “Hello Moncton, this is Toronto.“

No response.

The clock was ticking so I didn’t waste any time. I called Master Control and told them I wasn’t getting anything from Moncton. The tech in Master called Moncton. Apparently there was a summer replacement tech in Moncton who didn’t know how to split the console for a two-way. I got his phone number and called him directly. With the show in progress and mere minutes to the interview, the Moncton tech told me what kind of console he was flying. Together we figured out how to make it do what it needed to do. He got it working seconds before we would have been forced to cancel the interview.

It was a tense few moments for both of us, but that’s live radio.

My intent here is not to impress anybody. I wasn’t some kind of super tech, constantly saving the day. John could easily have done Morningside from Studio F. Any tech can swap out a microphone. And the tech in Moncton ultimately figured out his console himself. I am well aware of where I sat in the pantheon of the eighty or so techs working in CBC Toronto at the time and I can tell you with a fair degree of certainty that I was neither the best nor the worst of the lot. These are just a few real-life examples from my own personal experience of the kinds of challenges one faces attempting to cobble together live radio.

Still, despite the occasional bit of stress, I found working on live radio curiously therapeutic. Live radio can be all-consuming, deeply immersive, even cathartic. On a busy show you don’t have time to think about anything else. You’re completely in the moment. Something knocks you sideways and you need to pull a rabbit out of a hat and you’re not sure you can pull it off but somehow you do. It completely clears your mind. Whatever mood you’re in when you go to air, the show spits you out in a completely different mood. If you survive—and you usually do—you emerge calm and happy.

Kim Stockwood

Kim Stockwood

The next time I worked on Morningside was in the new Broadcast Centre. I was working with the man himself, Peter Gzowski. Pop singer Kim Stockwood performed live. Pierre Berton and Dr. Spock both dropped by for a chat.

The first day Gzowski and I never spoke. That seemed to be just the dynamic with him. Halfway through the show on the second day, during a piece of tape, Gzowski finally addressed me from the booth via the talkback.

“Hi,” he said.

“Hi,” I replied.

“You’re doing a great job,” he said.

“Thanks,” I said.

It’s the only thing he ever said to me.

It’s all I ever needed him to say.

Peter Gzowski

Peter Gzowski

As It Happened

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.

Barbara Frum, Alan Maitland 1980 ( (Photo: CBC Still Photo Collection/Fred Phipps)

Barbara Frum, Alan Maitland 1980 ( (Photo: CBC Still Photo Collection/Fred Phipps)

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”, edited for As It Happens by producer Volkmar Richter (he also did the closing theme), 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.

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):

Studio Q

Most of my time on the second floor of the Radio Building was spent in Studio Q.

Studio Q was a news studio. We did The World Report, The World This Weekend, The World at Six, and short four and a half minute long newscasts called Hourlies out of there.*

Like every other facility in the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Radio Building on Jarvis Street, Studio Q was kind of dusty and dingy. It had an analog console, probably a McCurdy, in the control room. Directly behind the technician were a couple of industrial strength quarter inch Studer A810 tape machines. To cue up tape on these beasts the tech would have to turn completely around. Several news items during the newscast would rely on audio from these tapes, so the tech frequently had his/her back to the console.

This Studer A810 has seen better days

This Studer A810 has seen better days

A news editor functioning as show director would sit beside the technician to the right of the console. A glass window separated the control room from an announce booth big enough to accommodate two news announcers. Hourlies and World Report only had one announcer but a show like The World at Six had two. A small recording room to the right of the control room contained four A810s and a second technician whose job it was to take in audio feeds.

About ten minutes before every newscast, the tech at the console would “line up” with a tech two floors below in Master Control using a dedicated phone line. After checking tone to ensure continuity, the tech in Master would relay the time, counting up a few seconds, to ensure that the clock in Studio Q was correct. Shows switched according to a strict automated schedule in Master Control, meaning that if a tech started the news early, the beginning of the show would be clipped.

Shortly after starting at CBC Radio I found myself observing a particularly chatty technician in Studio Q who forgot to line up one newscast. The phone from Master Control rang: a Master Control technician wondering why the news hadn’t started on time. The tech cursed and leapt into action, hitting the news theme, but it was too late. We already had about a minute of dead air. Afterward the Master Control tech phoned back and asked for the tech’s initials, which would be included on the inevitable fault report. My initials were MO (JM was already taken) and they would wind up on a few fault reports over the years.

There was usually a fair amount of excitement in Studio Q before a major newscast such as The World at Six. Providing the most up-to-date news reports meant that reporters often filed their stories at the last possible instant. As soon as a reporter finished recording a “voicer” an editor would appear and snatch the tape from the tech’s hands to prepare it for broadcast. This meant editing out mistakes and inserting a piece of leader tape—tape upon which it was not possible to record sound—before the actual audio to be played back. This would make it easier for the technician to find the item on the tape and cue it up. Sometimes, if it was seconds before the tape was to air, the recording room technician would simply hand the tape to the tech at the console, who would cue it up as fast as possible before whirling around to stab at the “play” button when the news announcer finished reading the intro.

Studio Q wasn’t my first exposure to radio news. Before joining CBC Radio, I’d spent six years off and on announce/operating in private radio. At my first station, CJRW in Summerside, Prince Edward Island, I worked evenings alone hosting a disc show (country on Friday nights and Top 40 on Saturday nights). During the show I was required to read the news every hour on the hour. Before the news I would put on a long song and then go down the hall to rip the news, sports, and weather off the wire machine. Over the previous hour the news wire machine would have spit out reams and reams of cheap yellow paper. It was my job to scan that (sometimes) thirty-seven foot long piece of paper for the information I was looking for. Fortunately, the news always came in distinctive blocks of print that made it easy to find. I would rip off the sections I required and go back to the studio and read it live.

I never read the copy ahead of time. I was a pretty good sight reader and because I was busy hosting a show all alone I didn’t have the time. Usually this wasn’t a problem, but I did get into trouble twice. Once, glancing up from reading the news, I saw my friend Andrew Fortier (visiting me at the station) making a face at me. I immediately burst into a big belly laugh right in the middle of the newscast. Another time I was reading an item about a contest to come up with a name for a new sports dome in Vancouver. After listing several serious suggestions, I came to the suggestion “the Unknown Dome”, which, coming as it did from out of nowhere, struck me as funny, and once again I dissolved into gales of laughter live on air. I giggled my way through the rest of the news.

A few years later I hosted an overnight show at CFCY/Q-93 in Charlottetown.** There, instead of reading the news myself, I used a news service called CKO. I would open up a line and someone in Halifax or maybe Toronto would read the news for me, after which I would resume my hosting duties live.***

Back to Studio Q.

After my stints in private radio I was rather taken aback by all the effort that went into making news at CBC Radio. I didn’t understand why it was necessary to have two people at the console (one operating, the other directing) while a whole other person—sometimes two—read the news. They made it all seem like such a big deal. There was a real sense of gravity. The work wasn’t actually all that difficult for the tech—the serious atmosphere made it feel harder than it was—but we did create quality newscasts.

Still, mistakes happened:

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In between news casts, when not mixing items and taking in feeds, techs would often create a makeshift tape reclaim around the console. Employing pencils as axles, we’d spin the reels with our fingers and easily spool the tape off. Or we’d take a few minutes to see who could cue up tapes the fastest (an experienced tech could do it in less than eight seconds). Or we’d listen to the yarns of older techs such as Studio Q veteran Fred Park, who once warned a couple of us junior techs about a curious phenomenon that we were bound to experience sooner or later: in the middle of a show we’d push a button or flick a switch and at that exact instant silence would descend—dead air, the arch-nemesis of all makers of radio—and it would seem to us as though we had caused the dead air by pushing that button. But in fact it would have nothing to do with us, and a second or later the show would resume as though nothing had happened, because, in fact, nothing had happened, the silence was just a coincidence, somebody had paused in the middle of a thought, un ange est passé. Fred was right—in the years to come I would experience this all the time, and I would like to say that every time it did I thought of Fred, but I can’t, because, well, I didn’t.

It’s no coincidence that the show q (formerly Q) hosted by Shadrach (Shad) Kabangois (formerly Jian Ghomeshi) is called q. When we were trying to come up with names for that show, one of the suggestions on the whiteboard was Studio Q, from which the final name of the show is obviously derived.

It was, at least in part, a deliberate reference to a certain hallowed news studio back in the Radio Building on Jarvis Street.

* At least, I think we did The World This Weekend out of there. (It was a long time ago.) We did some shows, like Canada at 5, out of Studio T across the hall.

** CBC news correspondent James Murray also worked at both CJRW and CFCY/Q-93. We went to high school together; he was one year ahead of me. There was a sign on one of the doors at CFCY/Q-93 when I worked there: please do not prop this door open with useless objects such as Jim Murray’s head. Jim and I are still pals—at least until he stumbles upon that little bit of trivia on this blog.

*** After completing my degree at Ryerson, I applied for a job at CKO. Someone from CKO phoned me up to offer me an interview. I was in the bathroom at the time. “He’s taking a shit,” one of my roommates told the caller. Despite my idiot roommate’s remark, they eventually offered me a job, but it was only part-time, so I declined. Shortly afterward I got the job at the CBC. A good thing, too—CKO went out of business shortly afterward, in 1989.

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