Tag: Lister Sinclair

The Pitch

(A short, light-hearted fictional homage to Radio Drama and Studio 212)

Sam Kelly found a seat on the GO Train, opened his laptop, and sighed. He needed to finish a spreadsheet detailing all the latest DaletPlus netXchange issues before a conference call on the matter at nine am. There was a crazy amount of work left to do. Unfortunately, before he could isolate himself from the rest of the passengers with an insulating layer of headphones and iTunes and get to work, damned if Reginald Runciman didn’t plunk himself down in the seat opposite him.

“Kelly!” Runciman said. “Long time no see.”

This did not bode well. It wasn’t that Runciman was a bad guy. It was just that he’d been dead for five years and was known to be a talker. Sam would get little work done this morning.

He forced a smiled. “Hey Runciman, good to see you. Coulda sworn you were dead.”

Runciman, a former radio drama producer, had indeed been found dead late one night in an editing suite still clutching a script in his cold, dead hands. The cause of death had never been conclusively determined, but it was commonly believed that his recording engineer had strangled him to death in frustration for demanding one too many edits. Runciman had been a notoriously demanding producer.

“Dead as the proverbial doornail,” Runciman confirmed.

“And you’ve come back to haunt me now because…?”

“I have returned to atone for my many sins.”

“What sins?”

“Sitting on development committees rejecting perfectly good ideas, mostly. It is my intention to atone for these sins by helping you with your radio show pitch.”

“What radio show pitch?”

“The one you’re going to write to help you get back to your true love, radio production.”

“Thanks, but I’m good. I like management.”

“Because you make so much more money?”

“Uh –”

“Cause your benefits plan is so superior? ”

“Um –”

“Cause you like ordering people around?”

“I do like that part,” Sam admitted. “For instance, I order you to leave me alone.”

The ghost of Runciman ignored Sam. “I have arranged for you to be visited by three spirits. The Ghost of Radio Archives, the Ghost of Radio Ideas, and the Ghost of Radio Yet to Come.”

“Three spirits? That’ll make this story way too long!”

“They’re all experienced radio folk, perfectly capable of talking to time.” The train pulled into Ajax station. “Speaking of which, my time’s up.” Runciman stood to get off. “Don’t mess this up, Kelly!”

Resolving to seek therapy at the earliest opportunity, Sam shook Runciman’s hand and watched as he got off the train.

A small, elderly gentleman wearing a bowler cap got on and took Runciman’s place. Sam recognized him right away. “Hey, you’re Allan McPhee, former host of the CBC Radio show Eclectic Circus.”

“I was that man once,” McPhee intoned in his best announcer’s voice, still smooth and honeyed despite his death over a decade earlier. “Now I am the Ghost of Radio Archives.”

Sam was impressed despite himself. “It’s a great honour to meet you, Mr. McPhee. You were a great wit in your time.”

“Whereas you are a great nit wit in yours.”

Sam was slightly offended. “Why do you say that?”

Allan McPhee

Allan McPhee

“Because you gave up your dream of creating your own radio show to join the dark side,” McPhee explained. “I despised managers when I was alive.”

“I enjoy being a manager,” Sam said. “But I regret not creating my own radio show.”

“It’s my job to help you get that dream back, son,” McPhee said. “Grab on tight to my hat.”

Sam did as McPhee instructed and off they flew, miraculously squeezing through the closed Go Train doors into the archives of radio past. Sam found himself in the Toronto Broadcasting Centre in Radio Drama Studio 212, where he had spent nine fruitful years making radio plays. A large cast was assembled on the floor with Ann Jansen directing. A younger version of Sam himself sat in the control room operating the Neve Capricorn console.

“I remember this,” Sam told McPhee. “We were adapting Canadian author Jane Urquhart’s novel Away for radio. It aired on Sunday Showcase and Monday Night Playhouse.”

“Since The Rosary first aired out of Moncton’s CNRA in 1925, radio plays of all shapes and sizes have aired regularly in this country,” McPhee said, “on CBC Radio series such as Sunday Showcase, Monday Night Playhouse, Vanishing Point, The Mystery Project, Monday Playbill, Nightfall, CBC Wednesday Night and more.”

“Thanks for that almost completely indigestible bit of exposition,” Sam said. “It is true that radio drama once thrived in this great country of ours.”

McPhee touched his hat and whisked them elsewhere. Three gentlemen stood on a stage before three Neumann U-47 microphones. Other gentlemen leaned over various sound effects apparatus, awaiting their cues, the whole lot of them flanked by an orchestra. An audience was present to witness the shenanigans.

One of the men announced into his microphone: “The first important method of communication over long distances was the Runner.”

The second said, “The most famous of these messengers was the Greek Goonican, who ran 300 miles to Athens, bringing news of a great victory.”

The third, puffing, said, “My lords, greetings. I come from the great warlord, Arnold Princiopolies. 300 leagues have I run! Over the Ionicous, down the plains of Olympus, through the snowy wastes of Sabrina, across the arid deserts of Xerxes and I did swim the boiling waters of the Hellispont and over…”

“Yes, yes, yes, but the message?” the first man interrupted.

“Ooh,” the third man said. “Ooh, then I’ll nip back and get it.”

The audience erupted with laughter. Sam was ecstatic. He whispered to the ghost of McPhee, “It’s Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, and Harry Secombe back in their Goon Show days — these guys influenced everybody from Monty Python to the Beatles.”

“And now they shall influence you. Note their absurdist, rapid fire dialogue, their groundbreaking sound effects and the resulting realism. Observe how the three actors play almost all the parts themselves.”

“Yes, if I were to make a radio show this is exactly what I’d make,” Sam said.

“Not exactly,” McPhee said. “Although you would incorporate elements of it, you were more ambitious than that in the past.”

McPhee touched his bowler hat yet again and transported them to a studio where a younger version of Sam was arguing amicably with a friend. He’d once made a radio show pilot with the fellow, a talented writer. Although one of the pilots had aired to a fair bit of acclaim, the show had not been picked up by the network.

Sam’s friend was saying, “Maybe the network’s not going for it because we made it both light and dark. Maybe it should be one or the other. Can you name one other show in the history of entertainment that’s both funny and serious at the same time?”

“La Vie est Belle,” Sam said, naming one of his favourite movies. “M.A.S.H. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Rome.”

Sam’s friend did not appear convinced, but the conversation reminded Sam of his earlier ambitions and he felt a pang of regret at not having pursued them more aggressively.

Man was made for joy and woe,” the spirit of McPhee quoted. “And when this we rightly know, through the world we safely go. Joy and woe are woven fine, a clothing for the soul divine.”

“That’s it exactly,” Sam said. “That’s what I was trying to tell him. Sting, right?”

“William Blake. Shortly after this conversation you gave up your dream of making your own radio show and fled into management’s squalid embrace.”

“Somebody’s gotta run the place,” Sam said.

“I’m dead,” McPhee said. “I can have no more dreams. You’re still alive. You have no excuse.” McPhee touched the tip of his bowler hat yet again.

Sam jerked awake on board the GO Train. Just a dream, he thought with mixed emotions, a little disappointed to discover that he was not actually supernaturally obligated to propose another radio show, but at the same time relieved that he would not have to risk failing at it a second time.

Someone tapped him on the shoulder. He spun to find a snowy haired gentleman with large glasses smiling at him from the adjacent seat. “A is for Aardvark,” the gentleman said with enviable enunciation.

Sam gaped at Lister Sinclair, former host of CBC Radio’s Ideas. “Let me guess. The Ghost of Radio Ideas?”

“Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures,” Sinclair said.

“Are you suggesting that if we only broadcast facts we’re not conveying the whole truth to the Canadian public?” Sam asked, gamely trying to keep up with the brilliant polymath that was Lister Sinclair.

Ein blindes Huhn findet auch mal ein korn,” Sinclair observed.

Sam gave up trying to keep up with the brilliant polymath that was Lister Sinclair.

“I wrote a great deal of radio fiction in my time,” Sinclair said. “I must say I find its current absence from our airwaves unfortunate.”

Lister Sinclair

Lister Sinclair

“It’s not all gone,” Sam said. “There’s a bit of satire. Some sketch based comedy. That’s about it, though.”

“What do you propose to do about it?” Sinclair asked.

“Me? What can I do about it? I don’t do production anymore. I manage a maintenance department, for crying out loud. Even if I were still in production nobody would listen to me. They probably get dozens of proposals every day. Radio drama costs too much anyway.”

The train pulled up at Pickering. Lister Sinclair stood. “I tried management once. Didn’t quite work out. Perhaps you have a stronger stomach for it than I did.”

He got off, his manner leaving Sam with the distinct impression that he was disappointed by Sam’s outburst but not particularly surprised. Sam shrugged the Spirit’s reaction off. He was under no obligation to propose any radio shows just because a couple of ghosts said he ought to.

The lights switched off abruptly. When they came back on Sam found himself standing outside drama studio 212. Someone concealed within a black cowl stood alongside him, his or her face completely obscured by the garment. Sam tried unsuccessfully to peer into the hood but it was impossible to tell who or what dwelled within.

The black-cowled figure that Sam presumed to be the Ghost of Radio Yet to Come raised a skeletal finger toward studio 212. Or at least, at what had once been drama studio 212, for both control room and studio lay torn asunder. An older version of Sam clad in an ill-fitting suit stood in the ravaged control room instructing members of his staff which equipment to keep and which to throw out.

Sam regarded this future version of himself with horror. Never in a million years would he decide to destroy his beloved drama studio. But he knew that if his boss ordered his future self to shut down the studio he would have no choice but to carry out the order lest he lose his job.

“Answer me one question, Spirit,” Sam said. “Is this the shadow of the thing that will be, or is it the shadow of something that may be, only? Make that two questions. Why am I suddenly talking like a character in a Dicken’s novel?”

Still the Ghost pointed his bony finger toward the studio.

“Let me get this straight,” Sam said. “If someone doesn’t start making more shows with dramatic elements real soon we will have to shut down studio 212 because future utilization reports will show that it’s under utilized. So I have no choice but to pitch a radio show that will use the studio and maybe they won’t shut it down. Right?”

The Spirit remained infuriatingly mute.

“I’m not the manager I was,” Sam said. “And I will not be the manager I must have been but for this intercourse. Why show me this, if I am past all hope! … I will honour radio drama in my heart, and pitch another project as soon as possible. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the destruction of radio drama within the CBC!”

Sam awoke writhing uncomfortably in his seat on the Go Train, disturbed not only by the vision of seeing himself preside over the destruction of drama studio 212, but also by the obvious plagiarism of Dickens in the previous paragraph. To his enormous relief no spirits sat next to him on the train.

Inspired, Sam abandoned the spreadsheet he’d been working on, completed his radio show pitch, and submitted it to the Program Development Department that very day.

Unfortunately, the Program Development Department rejected Sam’s pitch. Not only that, they shut down the entire radio drama department for good, calling upon Sam’s own maintenance department to dismantle Radio Drama Studio 212. Sam himself turned off the studio lights for the very last time, though it pained him grievously to do so.

Which just goes to show that you can’t reliably glean the future from a mute spirit in a cowl. And even the most well-intentioned of ghosts cannot always successfully influence the affairs of men — they are ghosts, after all. Their time is past.

Saddest of all, not all endings are happy.

And when this we rightly know,

Thro’ the world we safely go.

Creating Sound Effects for the radio drama Faint Hope in Studio 212

Creating Sound Effects for the radio drama Faint Hope in Studio 212

Radio Tech-ness

i don't know who this is, but he's one of us, even if he is wearing a tie

I don’t know who this is, but he’s one of us, even if he is (I suspect) wearing a tie

In 1988 there were over eighty radio technicians working for CBC Radio in Toronto. We were not the kind of techs who fixed stuff. That was a different kind of tech. Our job was to record, manipulate and broadcast sound.

We came in all shapes and sizes and two different genders but we were strikingly similar. We dressed casual but not too casual. It was radio; nobody cared what we looked like. At least, not much—there was a guy who wore sweatpants and another guy who wore a tie. They didn’t last long. A couple of the older techs wore blazers and dress pants. They got away with it because they were old. Like, fifty something. I was twenty-something. I wore jeans and shaved every second day.

A tech’s time was not his or her own. Techs lived and died by the schedule. The schedule told us where to go when:

Studio B at 9:00 for Infotape promos. Studio W at 9:30 for a Quirks and Quarks two-way. Studio D at 10:00 to voice track Lister Sinclair for Ideas. Studio L at 11:00 to package Writers & Company. After that, an hour of standby in the lounge.

And so on.

If you wanted a meeting with me, you needed to talk to my scheduler, not me. This wasn’t usually a problem. Techs didn’t go to many meetings.

I picked up my schedule in my mailbox just outside the scheduling office. My mailbox was one of eighty or so other metal mailboxes, many with weird paraphernalia taped to them, like headlines from newspapers such as “Beware of Doug”, and “Mysterious Face Found on Moon” (that one had my face photocopied beneath it). One day we got our schedules in a new format. Days off were indicated by the letters SDO. “What does SDO stand for?” I asked a friend.

“Stupid Day Off,” he told me.

We didn’t have a boss. We had many bosses. We all reported to someone somewhere on paper, but we rarely saw or heard from them. In the studio, everyone was our boss, or thought they were. Everyone from thirty-year veteran producers to associate producers hired six weeks ago. Somebody had to tell you what songs and clips to play, when to fade the music up and down. This was fine at first, but it grew old after a couple of decades.

Most techs played at least one musical instrument. Everything from guitars to pianos to bagpipes to hurdy-gurdys. Maybe because they screened for that in the job interview. “Can you read music?” they asked me. I could—I played piano, baritone, and trombone, skills I used a few times on the job, playing organ for a radio drama and piano for many sound checks.

There were techs we all admired. Impossibly experienced and competent techs. Super techs. Today super tech means something different—supervising technician. Back then it meant just what it sounded like: a super tech. Superman only smarter and maybe not as strong, with laser hearing instead of laser vision. There was even a tech who looked like superman. There were techs rumored to have maintenance backgrounds, who could fix their own gear. Techs who knew how to operate anything from a Shure FP42 to a Neve VR to a McCurdy Turret System. Who knew when to use an AKG 414 and when to switch to a Neumann U-87. Who had four arms for analog mixes and golden ears for concert recordings and the know-how to put together a live pickup of a six-piece band including a full set of drums in Studio R at the last minute. Techs not afraid to share their hard-won knowledge with lesser, mortal technicians like me.

As a tech, if you wanted to, if you were lucky enough and ambitious enough, you could travel from show to show peddling your technical wares, no two days the same, getting to do everything and know everyone. Some days you would be a hero, performing difficult mixes for journalists, trotting out long distance phone codes from memory for panicked associate producers, fixing technical problems at the last possible instant. But the day after that you might be a complete fool, accidentally playing the wrong piece of tape at the wrong time, maybe over a host’s introduction for all the world to hear. On live radio, I felt like a goalie. Nobody noticed when I made the save, but when the puck got past me, everybody heard the puck go in the net.

Sometimes I got blamed when it wasn’t my fault. Many’s the time I heard a host tell the world, “Having some technical problems,” when in fact the problem had nothing to do with me or my equipment.

During my time as a tech we endured one strike and two lockouts. Because we were in a different bargaining unit than everyone else, we endured two of these labour actions alone. While everyone else was inside, we were outside marching around the building or huddled around oil barrels in sub-zero temperatures. Not looking to dredge up the past—it’s water under the bridge. But for anyone who lived through all that, it became a part of our DNA.

It’s worth mentioning that radio techs had better Christmas parties than anyone else, at least at Jarvis street, and that’s probably all I ought to say about that.

The job barely exists now, at least the way I remember it. There are only a handful of radio techs left. Most of the techs I worked with are gone now. Of the ones still around, many have moved onto different positions.

I like to think that a bond remains between those of us who worked as radio techs—an invisible thread of 1/4 inch Ampex tape, maybe. We’re not quite the same as everyone else. Our hearing is notched at 1K, but we still listen better than most. And if you ever need someone to plug in a few cables and adjust some settings here and there, you could do worse than a radio tech.

Studios

One of a series of posts about working at CBC Radio back in the day.

(Here’s some more).

A year or so after I started at CBC Radio, after a stint in Radio Master Control, the powers that be made me a Group 4 Radio Technician, and started booking me in the studios.

The radio studios were challenging because there were a lot of them, and almost all of them were unique. They each had different consoles, different patch racks, different tape machines, different outboard gear. In them you would encounter different producers, different talents, and different requirements depending on the booking. You could be working on a McCurdy console, or a Studer, or a Ward-Beck, or an Audio Arts, or some weird one-off I’d never heard of before (or since).

It was about two years before I could handle myself in any situation in the studio without having to run to the tech lounge to find someone to help me figure out why the speakers weren’t working or why the microphone sounded funny. That’s just the run-of-the-mill studios—there was a whole other class of high-end studios used for recording music and radio dramas that I didn’t set foot in for years, with a completely different set of consoles, equipment, personalities, and expectations.

Karl Enke in Jarvis Street CBC Radio Studio

Karl Enke in Jarvis Street CBC Radio Studio

What I loved about working in the studios was that every day was different. If you didn’t like a gig, no problem: an hour, or a day, or a week later you would be on to something different. Many bookings in a studio lasted only an hour or two. Sometimes you’d be booked to a news or sports studio for a few days. Often a day consisted of multiple bookings for multiple shows. Only after you’d proven yourself would you get something resembling a regular gig with the same show and/or producers. In time I would become the regular tech for Writer’s & Company with Eleanor Wachtel, and Sunday Morning with Mary-Lou Findlay, and later for a series of French shows on CJBC, and beyond that a Recording Engineer for Radio Drama, and finally the Recording Engineer for Q, before joining the management team. But in the beginning I worked on everything they threw at me.

I recorded and mixed promos. I subbed for other folks who had regular gigs. I back-filled for Basic Black. I backfilled for As It Happens. I backfilled for Ideas and Morningside. I did many, many bookings for news and sports. I did Listen to the Music. Prime Time. The Inside Track. Quirks and Quarks. Shows for both Radio One and Radio Two. Shows I can no longer remember. Music shows, magazine shows, science shows, arts shows, French shows, sports shows, Venezuelan Beaver Shows. I worked on many remotes. I worked mostly out of the Jarvis Street facilities, but I also did time on Parliament Street, where they produced Metro Morning and Later the Same Day.

It was work but it was also fun and interesting, though not all my gigs were successful. For instance, I do not remember my time on Basic Black fondly. It was my first regular stretch. I was filling in for the regular tech for two weeks while she was on vacation. The show was produced in Studio E. I got along well with the host and two of the show’s producers, but the Studio Director made me nervous. He didn’t talk much. I never knew what he was thinking. I was clumsy and slow in his presence. I had trouble finding patch points on the patch bay. One day the console didn’t work properly so I called maintenance. All the maintenance tech had to do was breathe on the console to make it work again. I looked like an idiot. At the end of the two week stretch the Studio Director took me aside and critiqued my performance. Although not a disaster, it had left a bit to be desired. I was quite put off by his criticism. I was young and not great at taking criticism. But I got over it and learned from my mistakes.

Another show that gave me a bit of trouble was Sunday Morning. It was a current affairs show that could be quite nerve-wracking to work on. Journalists would arrive in the studio with complicated mixes. These days you would do such a mix on a computer. Back then you did it all manually. You would pre-record sound effects and ambiance and voice clips onto carts. What are carts? Well, they resemble eight track cassettes, which are—well, never mind: look them up in a history book alongside pterodactyls and other extinct species. Other sound elements you would record onto quarter inch tape (also extinct). You had to be organized. You had to strategize how to make all these elements accessible for when you needed them. The journalist would sit in the announce booth and read his/her script, and you would play back all these various sonic elements at the appropriate times according to cues on the script. The entire process could be quite a juggling act.

Sunday Morning’s regular tech, Peter Beamish, was a genius at this sort of thing. He had tons of experience, so naturally all the journalists wanted to work with him. Guys like me looked like a klutz next to Peter. I remember making a mistake during a mix with one journalist—probably playing a sound effect late, or getting a cue wrong. “Why me, God?” she exclaimed, sighing heavily and laying her head in her arms. I felt like crap. Still, there were many friendly producers on the show, and the host Mary Lou Finlay was pleasant, and Peter Beamish was never anything less than friendly, humorous, and helpful.

Working as a Group 4 Radio Technician was trial by fire. You paid your dues until you got up to speed. Until you earned peoples’ trust, which took some doing. One night I arrived for a random booking in Studio F. “Who are you?” the producer asked. We had never seen one another before. “I’m your tech,” I told him. He turned on his heels and skulked off to scheduling to complain about having to work with someone new. I had the confidence of the folks in scheduling and they wouldn’t have any of it. The producer returned to the studio and we completed the booking without incident. I worked with this producer several times later, and it was always friendly enough, but we never became friends.

Fortunately the positive experiences far outweighed the negative. I became friends with many techs, producers, and hosts. Meeting guests was always cool: Joni Mitchell, Margaret Atwood, Adrienne Clarkson, Dr. Spock, Pierre Berton, John Ralston Saul, Bob Rae, Jean Charest, Moses Znaimer, Clive Cussler, the list goes on and on. Lesser known guests were often even more interesting. Authors, artists, politicians, farmers, philosophers, home makers, all with something interesting to say. As a life-long fan of CBC Radio, I loved working alongside personalities I’d listened to on the radio for years. Peter Gzowski, Jay Ingram, Shelagh Rogers, Bob Johnston, Max Ferguson, Lister Sinclair, Arthur Black, Mary-Lou Finlay, Clyde Gilmour, Michael Enright, Alan Maitland, and more. And simply learning the basics of audio, how to use all that cool gear, and how to really listen to sound—that alone was worth the price of admission.

“How’s work?” people would ask me.

“Fantastic,” I’d tell them, and mean it.

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