Tag: Lister Sinclair

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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