Tag: CJBC

A Dramatic Turn of Events

In nineteen ninety-six, I auditioned to be in a play called Anybody for Murder for the Milton Players Theatre Group. Hoping for a supporting role, I landed the lead. Not trying to brag here; the director just typecast me as a conniving, murderous bastard.

It was a challenging role. Scads of dialogue on every page, all to be delivered in a pompous British accent. Having been weaned on Monty Python as a kid I didn’t think the accent would be a problem.

I trotted forth my best British accent for the read-through.

Susan Cranford, the director, happened to be from Liverpool (I think). She stopped me after a couple of pages: “Do you think you could do even a tiny bit of a British accent?”

The Milton Players are currently performing out of here, the Milton Centre for the Arts. (When I performed with them it was in a paper bag in the middle of a sceptic tank.)

The Milton Players are currently performing out of here, the Milton Centre for the Arts. (When I performed with them it was in a paper bag in the middle of a sceptic tank.)

Intensive accent training followed. Half the battle, Susan told me, was simply to enunciate every word. She reserved special coaching for words like “water” and “theatre” (“WOO-tah” and “thee-EH-tuh.” Or something like that). Fortunately I didn’t have to ad-lib in a British accent. I just had a select vocabulary that needed to sound British. If I got it wrong, Susan corrected me. I don’t expect I even came close to nailing it, but after one performance, someone told me I sounded like Carey Grant, who was known for his “transatlantic” accent. Not exactly what I’d been going for, but I guess it could have been worse.

Susan’s other wish was that I sport a moustache. I had largely given up on moustaches after an ill-advised attempt to grow one in my late teens, but no sacrifice was too great for my art, so I dutifully grew a prim and proper affair that elicited shudders from my colleagues at CBC.

Performing in Anybody for Murder under Susan’s direction was a great experience (one that deserves its own blog post). I wish I could have participated in more such productions. Still, that single experience was sufficient to have a profound impact on my career at the CBC.

Soon after my moustache had firmly established itself on my upper lip, I ran into CBC Recording Engineer John McCarthy at the St. Andrew Subway station. Although both of us were techs for CBC Radio, we didn’t really know one another. There were about eighty radio technicians working for the CBC at the time, and we didn’t all run in the same circles. John was ten years older than me and a high-end recording engineer working in Radio Drama. I was a Group 4 radio technician doing a stint for the French services. Until this day we’d barely spoken, and had it not been for the moustache, it might have remained that way.

Spotting me on the subway platform, John approached me, peered at the hair on my lip, and said, “What—is—that—THING—underneath your nose?”

Okay, he didn’t say that. But he did make some crack about the moustache.

Slightly embarrassed by it, I said, “It’s for a play I’m in.”

This immediately piqued John’s interest. “You’re into the theatre?”

I confessed that I was.

Unbeknownst to me, John was on the look-out for a new Radio Drama recording engineer. Had it not been for the moustache, I might never have mentioned the play. Had I not mentioned the play, John might never have invited me to join the Radio Drama department, and the rest of my life might have unspooled completely differently.

Though it remained a somewhat circuitous journey.

My friend Greg DeClute was already a recording engineer for Radio Drama, along with John, Janice Bayer, Drago Grandic, John Marynowicz, and sound effects engineers Anton Szabo, Joe Hill, and Matt Wilcott.

I remember Greg DeClute in particular in our early days as radio technicians. Greg was always reading manuals and spending as much time as he could in Studio G. It was clear that he was going places. Janice Bayer, too. Myself, I didn’t particularly aspire to be a high-end engineer. I had other plans. I was going to leave the CBC and become a full time writer or direct films or something. I was never quite clear on exactly how or when this would happen, but I had no doubt that it would happen (it hasn’t happened yet).

Also, I didn’t particularly self-identify as a tech the same way that Greg and Janice did. To me, the gear was a means to an end. True techs, it seemed to me, fawned over gear like lovers. They liked it for its own sake. I wasn’t interested in reading manuals from cover to cover, back then. I just wanted to know as much as I needed to know to make the gear do what I needed it to do.

I would come to change my mind about that.

Shortly after my encounter with John, somebody—I can’t remember who, it might have been Operations Manager Charlie Cheffins—mentioned that drama was looking for someone to replace Janice, who was leaving the CBC. Would I be interested in throwing my hat in the ring?

Surprisingly, looking back at it, I said no.

I wasn’t looking for change right then. I’d just gotten married and didn’t want to have to worry about learning a new job. Radio Drama seemed like a high pressure environment. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a part of all that. I just wanted to park my brain at the door for a while.

My friend Wayne Richards got the job instead.

(To be clear, he might have gotten it anyway even if I had thrown my hat in the ring.)

Fast forward to nineteen-ninety nine.

I’d had it with CJBC. I had come to regard it as a trap. The work had become quite boring; I couldn’t imagine doing it for the rest of my career. So I approached Charlie Cheffins about a new gig. There were a few possibilities. I could go back to the tech pool. I could join Radio Music as a Music Recording Engineer. Or…

“What about Radio Drama?” Charlie asked me.

“Nah,” I said. “I hear they’re kind of snooty.”

Again, looking back I’m amazed that I said that. I don’t think I actually felt that way for more than the few seconds it took me to say it. I think I was actually afraid that they wouldn’t have me.

But I wasn’t the only one with reservations. Greg DeClute was afraid that I got bored too easily. He knew that I’d recently taken a year off to study French in France and didn’t want to invest a lot of time training me only to have me take off again. There had already been too much turnover in Radio Drama. He wanted someone he could count on to stick around.

But Greg came around, and so did I.

Me in Radio Drama Studio 212

Me in Radio Drama Studio 212

And John hadn’t forgotten our conversation on the subway platform.

One day, while working in studio 522, the phone rang. It was John, asking if I’d be interested in coming to work for the Radio Drama department.

You bet, I told him. And instantly became quite excited at the prospect. I couldn’t wait to start.

A few weeks later I moved to 2F100 with the rest of the Radio Drama Recording and Sound Effects Engineers, and began a career in Radio Drama, that, despite Greg’s concerns, would last until shortly before they shut the place down.

Plus de French Radio

Most days at CJBC began in the control room of studio 522. I would break the day in gently with a telephone interview or two for journalists such as Pascale Turbide (now of Radio-Canada’s Enquête). In between interviews, CJBC’s communications manager, Diane Belhumeur, might arrive loaded up with what she called, “les choses plats (boring stuff).”

Toronto Broadcast Centre, Home of CJBC

Toronto Broadcast Centre, Home of CJBC

Les choses plat consisted mostly of recording and mixing Station IDs. Although the work was boring, it was always fun chatting with Diane as we did it. She frequently spoke to me in French. It was while doing les choses plat that I made my first successful French pun. I was dubbing audio one day when Pascale stuck her head in the door and asked me what I was doing.

“Dubbing,” I told her. “Comme D’dubitude.” It was a play on “comme d’habitude”, which means “as usual. I was rather proud of that one. (Not sure Pascale was quite as impressed.)

In between jobs, I would select Studio 521 on my console’s router and listen to music that the morning show tech, Steve Starchev, was playing through his console next door. Steve had a vast personal collection of music from all over the world that he liked to listen to in between shows. He once took all that neat music and turned it into a pilot for a radio show. Sadly, he only managed to get one episode on the air. Steve himself was a terrific musician, playing guitar, bagpipes, and hurdy-gurdy (and probably more).

Steve liked to crack jokes and tell funny stories. One of his favourite stories was about explaining preservatives to a Frenchman. Steve didn’t know the French word for “preservative” so he guessed that it was the same in French, like so many English words. But when Steve explained that North American food contains a lot of “preservatives,” the Frenchman got a funny look on his face. Only later did Steve find out that, for the French, “les préservatifs” are condoms.

Steve died way too young, and I miss him.

After lunch I would move across the hall to Studio 521 to operate a simple half-hour phone show called Les Petites Annonces, basically classified ads on radio. Les Petites Annonces was followed by De A a X, with host Francois X, produced by the lovely Esther Ste-Croix. It was followed by CJBC Express, a fast-paced current affairs show for the afternoon drive slot, produced by Daniel Martineaux, ably assisted by Brigitte Egan.

Sometimes I operated the Saturday morning show as well, Sameplait, hosted by Claudette Gravel. The first time I did Sameplait was back in Studio Z on Carleton street. The show started just after six am. I was decidedly not a morning person and was quite grumpy at having to get up early to do the show.

My mood persisted when I got to the studio and met the producer, Simone Fadel, a francophone from Egypt. I wasn’t surly, exactly, but I wasn’t particularly friendly, either. Until Simone toasted me up a bagel and offered me a cup of coffee and it became simply impossible to maintain a sour mood in the face of someone radiating such good cheer. Once I thawed, I confessed to Simone that I’d started the show a bit grumpy.

“Grumpy?” she said. “What is grumpy?”

I explained the meaning of the word. I believe the entire concept of grumpiness might have been alien to Simone, but she loved the word grumpy. Whenever I worked with her from then on, she would ask me,

“Are you grumpy today, Joe?”

Simone, as I mentioned, was from Egypt, a part of la Francophonie. La Francophonie is a group of fifty-seven states and governments where “French is the mother tongue and/or where a significant proportion of the population are Francophones, and/or where there is a notable affiliation with French culture,” according to Wikipedia.

It includes obvious places like France, Swizterland, Belgium, and Canada. Quebec and New Brunswick are singled out as member states. The Congo, Egypt, Vietnam and Ghana are also a part of la Francophonie. So (I suspect many would be surprised to discover) are Bulgaria, Lebanon, Madagascar, Romania, and Vanuatu, and plenty more.

Working for CJBC, I was fortunate to meet people from all around la Francophonie. People like Simone, mentioned above, and others like author/broadcaster Didier Kabagema. Didier was of Rwandan descent, and spent most of his childhood in Congo and Gagon before moving to Canada, where he worked as a journalist with CJBC. Didier was a bit of an inspiration. He published his first novel during my final months at CJBC, and has since published six others (writing under the nom de plume Didier Leclair), putting my feeble attempts to become an author completely to shame. His first novel, Toronto, je t’aime, won the Trillium Book Award.

Didier Kabagema

Didier Kabagema

Another perk of working for CJBC was exposure to French music. There’s a whole world of fantastic music out there that many Anglophones know little or nothing about. Music from all over la Francophonie.

Most English Canadians already know French Canadian artists such as Celine Dion, Roch Voisine, Mitsou, Gilles Vigneault, and Daniel Lanois. They may not know slightly more obscure artists such as Beau Dommage, La Bottine Souriante, Jim Corcoran, Richard Desjardins, and others, but they ought to.

Across the water there’s Edith Piaf, Jacques Brel (who was Belgian), Serge Gainsbourg, Johnny Hallyday, Vanessa Paradis, Maxime le Forestier, Lynda Lemay, Youssou N’Dour (Senegal), Cesaria Evora (Cape Verde)—the list goes on and on. Myself, I like Francis Cabrel (check out La Fille Qui M’accompagne and La Cabane du Pêcheur), Alain Souchon (Foule Sentimentale), and Laurent Voulzy (Le Reve du Pecheur). I’m missing many, of course—I’m about fifteen years out of date, having been most heavily exposed to French music and culture between 1993 and 1999.

I’ve mentioned before that Radio Techs threw the best Christmas parties. This was true right up until we moved from Jarvis Street to the Toronto Broadcast Centre, where we tried holding the parties in a windowless lounge on the third floor. It just wasn’t the same, and nobody ever came up with a better solution, so tech Christmas parties came to an abrupt and ignominious end.

The French, on the other hand, knew better than to have their parties in claustrophobic rooms with no soul. They booked private rooms at restaurants, and those became the best Christmas parties, but they were by invitation only. Fortunately, working for the French, I got invited. The food was terrific, the music great, and the atmosphere was always a lot of fun.

After four and a half years of working with CJBC and all its wonderful people, I was offered a chance to join the radio drama department. It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. I did my last Les Petites Annonces, my last De A a X, mon dernier CJBC Express. They wouldn’t be my final French productions, though. In the years to come French Producer Gabriel Dube would produce several radio dramas in French, which I would engineer.

Mais c’est un autre histoire (but that’s another story).

French Radio: CJBC

I spent four and a half years working for the French at CBC Radio.

Here’s an incredibly long-winded explanation why:

I grew up in Summerside, Prince Edward Island, amongst French Acadians. Acadians are French who originally settled the Maritimes hundreds of years ago. Back in those days, Prince Edward Island was known as Isle Saint-Jean (before that, it was called Abegweit, by the Mi’kmaq Indians).

Between 1755 and 1763, the British forcibly removed most Acadians from the Maritimes, confiscating all their wealth, possessions, and land. Fifty-three percent of the French Acadian population died, many by disease, others by drowning when three of the ships transporting them sank. (Sadly, the world doesn’t appear to have changed much since those tragic days, as recent headlines attest.) Although the British did not transport Acadians directly to Louisiana, many wound up there, attracted by the language, where they settled and developed the culture known today as Cajun.

Ships Take Acadians Into Exile (Claude Picard)

Ships Take Acadians Into Exile (Claude Picard)

The expulsion is a Big Deal in the Maritimes. I studied the events in high school, and in Grade Ten I played the man chiefly responsible for the expulsion, Governor Charles Lawrence, in a High School play called Evangeline, which was written and scored by a local High School teacher. I remember being roundly booed during the curtain call for the dress rehearsal. I believe the booing was because the character I was playing was evil, though I can’t be entirely certain that it wasn’t a comment on my performance: my English teacher had coached me on how to play the part, and after one of the shows I asked him what he’d thought:

“I thought your character would be much fatter,” he told me.

He declined to elaborate.

The expulsion was well known elsewhere, too. In 1847, the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem called Evangeline: a Tale of Acadie. The poem was about a bride-to-be wandering for years trying to find her fiancé after the expulsion forced their separation on their wedding day. Longfellow based the poem on a story he’d heard; some believe that the couples’ forced separation on the day of their wedding may actually have happened.

Some Acadians escaped the expulsion by hiding in the woods. After Quebec was formally ceded to the British in 1763, the British decided that the Acadians no longer posed a threat and allowed them to return to the Maritimes. By the time I was born, there were about five thousand Acadians on Prince Edward Island (there were more elsewhere: about thirty-three thousand in Nova Scotia and a couple of hundred thousand in New Brunswick). Not all of them spoke French anymore, but some did, and the more time I spent with them, the more it bothered me that I only spoke one language.

Thus was born my thirst to learn French (hey, I warned you it would be a long-winded explanation).

In 1993, I asked for a leave of absence from the CBC to study French in France. My boss at the time, Kel Lack, applauded the idea and was only too happy to accommodate me.

Before going to France, I seriously overestimated my proficiency in French. I had, after all, studied French in school until Grade Eleven. I don’t know what the heck I did in all those classes but it sure wasn’t learn French. My first few days in Aix-en-Provence I couldn’t understand anyone. “Qu’est ce que tu cherche (what are you looking for)?” a girl in a store asked me. I couldn’t understand her. I could trot out a few phrases learned from guidebooks, such as: “un hôtel s’il vous plaît. Quelque chose de bon marché (a hotel, please. Some place cheap)” or “une chambre avec une douche (a room with a shower),” but that was about it.

No matter. I set about making up for lost time. I studied hard at school. Although the school was based in Aix-en-Provence, it was a part of l’université d’Aix-Marseille, called Institut d’études françaises pour étudiants étrangers (years later I saw the actor Bradley Cooper conduct an interview in fluent French; turns out he studied at the same school). I made many ridiculous mistakes. I once asked a street vendor for “un chien chaud avec tout le monde (a hot dog with everybody on it).” One day, when a Frenchman asked me how much French I spoke, I attempted to tell him that I knew a few words. “Je connais un petit mot (I know a small word),” I told him. He asked me which small word I knew.

Garden of l'Institut d'Etudes Francaises, where I went to school.

Garden of l’Institut d’Etudes Francaises, where I went to school.

By Christmas, though, I was able to carry on rudimentary conversations. I began to insist on speaking only French. There for the same purpose, my closest friends were only too happy to oblige. Unfortunately, everyone else wanted to practise their English on me. I began a battle of wills with the French populace. One banker I did regular business with insisted on speaking to me in English. I refused to cooperate. I spoke French while she spoke English. Few things are more ridiculous than speaking French as a second language to someone speaking English as a second language. The loser was whoever was forced to switch to their native tongue first. I always lost. Until the end of the year, when during our final encounter she ran head-long into a word she didn’t know and was forced to switch back to French first. La victoire était douce (victory was sweet).

I resorted to tricks to prevent people from speaking English to me. If I spoke French and they responded in English, I would say “Je suis désolé, mais je ne parle pas l’anglais,” (I’m sorry, but I don’t speak English).

Mais vous êtes américain, vous n’êtes pas (but you’re American, aren’t you)?” (They always thought Canadians were Americans.)

Non, je suis suédois (no, I’m Swedish),” I would tell them, and trot forth a few nonsensical phrases in Swedish to prove it: “Kan jag prata med Eva tack?,” I would jabber. “En hund. Och en annan hund. Sex sardiner i en sardin tenn. (can I speak to Eva please? A dog. Hey, another dog. Six sardines in a sardine tin.) I had plenty of Swedish friends in France who enjoyed teaching me nonsense.

By the time I returned home, my French had improved dramatically (my Swedish not so much). Ironically, I still couldn’t understand Acadians. Acadian French is not quite the same as what I had learned in France. The accent is markedly different. It’s said that Acadian French resembles the French spoken in France about four hundred years ago, when Acadians first settled PEI. I suspect there’s some truth to this.

When I returned to the CBC in Toronto, my boss Kel Lack had retired and Charlie Cheffins had taken his place. Charlie thought it was brilliant that I’d learned some French. It meant he’d be able to place me in the French department. I agreed, and so began four and a half years of working almost exclusively for CJBC.

You might recall from an earlier post that CJBC is an affiliate of the ici Radio-Canada Premiere network, broadcasting to Franco-Ontarians at AM 860. They are a part of the CBC, and broadcast out of the Broadcast Centre in Toronto, but they report to French Services in Montreal. Or you might have skipped over this admittedly dry bit of exposition in both posts (I don’t blame you).

Everyone I worked with at CJBC was bilingual to one degree or another. My French was still very much a work in progress. I continued to improve, but at a much slower pace. My enthusiasm for speaking French had waned somewhat now that I was living my life in English once again. And I was having a bit of trouble with francophone accents in Canada. Not hearing one or two words in a sentence correctly can be enough to make the meaning of an entire sentence suspect. Making matters worse, almost everyone at CJBC was as bad about speaking French to me as the folks in France had been. Just like my banker frenemy, when I spoke French, they replied in English (there were a couple of exceptions).

Still, with all the French floating around CJBC, I couldn’t help but improve my French just by keeping my ears open. Here are a few of the words and phrases burned into my brain during my time with CJBC:

C’est mon lot (it’s my lot in life).” That was Guy Lalonde, the host of CJBC Express. I can’t remember what he was referring to. What I do remember is asking him to repeat what he’d said so I could add it to my vocabulary. I present it here not because the phrase itself is particularly interesting, but to illustrate one of the best ways to learn French, which is to ask people what the heck they’re saying when you don’t understand them. Otherwise it will be your lot in life to remain unilingual. (I learned a good portion of my French this way.)

Il bâille. Dans ma face! (He yawns. In my face!)” Frank Desoer was host of CJBC Express during my second year with CJBC. (I’ve no idea what happened to Guy Lalonde. CJBC Express went through hosts the way the French go through cheese.) Frank was just pretending to be angry, but his words lodged themselves into my brain, and I enjoy trotting them out whenever somebody yawns in my face.

Esther Ste-Croix was the producer of a show called De A a X (from A to X). Esther was a lovely woman, and you’ll have to take my word for it that I didn’t usually tease her, but I must have one day, for she replied, “Tu te moque de moi (you’re making fun of me).” Naturally I asked her to repeat herself, which she kindly did, allowing me to add that expression to my repertoire.

Other staff were fond of exclaiming, “Ben voyons donc!” to express frustration or incredulity. Taken literally it doesn’t make much sense—it seems to me that it would translate as, “well, let’s see therefore!” but francophones use it like anglophones use, “oh, come on!”, which doesn’t really make any sense either. Come where, exactly?

One particularly memorable day I ran into someone from CJBC whose name I must withhold to spare them undue embarrassment. We were on the second floor—not his natural habitat, and he was a little lost. He was also looking a little green around the gills.

“Where are the washrooms on this floor?” he asked me in English.

It was easier to show him, so I led him around a corner. A few steps down the hallway he placed a hand to his mouth and exclaimed, “Ca s’en vient! (it’s coming!)”

A half-second later he projectile-vomited his lunch the entire length of the corridor, a magnificent feat the likes of which I’ve yet to see equaled—and that I think of whenever I hear the words ca s’en vient. (You never know just what might be coming.)

Sometimes I would discern a jumble of words in the middle of an anecdote that I couldn’t quite make out. One day I got frustrated enough to ask someone what exactly they were saying. It took a minute to figure out which words I was talking about, but we finally narrowed it down to “a un moment donné.”

Literally translated, it means “at a given time.” People were using it to mean “at one point.” (It’s at this point that I must advise you to take any translations I provide with a grain of salt. Le français est pas ma langue maternelle—French is not my mother tongue). A un moment donné is (I believe) a rather common phrase, and I mention it here because it’s a terrific example of how understanding a single phrase can, in one fell swoop, render a foreign language infinitely more intelligible. And let’s take a moment here to pause and reflect on what a nifty expression “one fell swoop” is, and how cryptic it must sound to those speaking English as a second language.

More about CJBC in my next post…

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.

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