Tag: Peter Gzowski

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

The Radio Building

Ye olde Jarvis Street CBC Radio Building (Photo by Andrew Crump)

Ye olde Jarvis Street CBC Radio Building (Photo by Andrew Crump)

When I started at CBC Radio in Toronto in nineteen eighty-eight I worked out of the Radio Building at 354 Jarvis Street. The Radio Building was a sprawling ancient structure that once upon a time had been a girls’ school. Brick on the outside, inside it was people and wood and consoles and tape machines and it smelled an awful lot like my grandparents old wooden farmhouse in rural New Brunswick. It was huge and had a lot in it, including an abandoned pool in the sub-basement that nobody swam in much except for a few rats.

Studio G, the radio drama studio, was located on the main floor. So were Studios C, D, E, F, H, J, K, L, M and R. Studios B and W were in the basement along with Radio Master Control. Studios Q and T were on the second floor. Studio X, a dubbing studio, was on the third floor if memory serves (I only ever worked in there once). Studio A was at Carleton Street. So was Studio Z, used by the French. Studio 4S, the music studio, was also in a different building half way across the city (I never set foot in there) and studios P, P aux, and V could be found at Parliament Street along with Tuffy the cat (that was where Metro Morning and Later the Same Day were produced). As near as I can tell there were no Studios I, N, O, U, Y, at least in my time, though why those letters should be discriminated against I have no idea.

Metro Morning at 509 Parliament Steet in Cabbagetown

Metro Morning at 509 Parliament Steet in Cabbagetown

Studio C was a tiny studio mostly used for voice tracking and two ways. “A” might have been for Aardvark but Studio D was for Ideas (Studio A, located on Carleton Street, was the sports studio). Basic Black, The Arts Tonight, and Stereo Morning came out of Studio E. As It Happens used Studio F from 11am to 7pm. Studio H was on the verge of being renovated into a high end production studio featuring an AMS Neve Audio File Logic 1 console, a state of the art mixing desk so advanced its inventor was said to have gone insane shortly after inventing it. Arts National was packaged in Studio J. Studio K was a multi-purpose packaging studio—Listen to the Music, Sunny Side Up, and My Kinda Jazz with Jeff Healy were packaged in there, among others. Prime Time with Ralph Benmurgi (later Geoff Pevere) came out of Studio L. CJBC (French services serving the Franco-Ontario community) broadcast live out of Studio M. Studio R was used for Morningside and Sunday Morning. Of course, many other shows also came out of these studios over the years.

AMS Neve Logic 1 Digital Audio Console

AMS Neve Logic 1 Digital Audio Console

The Technician’s Lounge was located on the main floor directly across from Studio M. Many were the friendships I forged in that lounge while waiting for my next booking, and many were the television shows about bugs and animals I was forced to watch because of the old timers controlling the remote—at least, those old-timers not absorbed in their never-ending card games.

I hardly set foot in Studio G, which seemed the domain of engineers infinitely more capable and ambitious than me. Radio drama would come later in my career, in a different studio in a brand new building.

One floor down was the cafeteria. I ate a lot of Banquet Burgers in there. I remember spending a few moments there on my very first day with the CBC, wondering what the future would hold, little suspecting I’d still be with the CBC decades later. Over the next few months I struck up a friendship with one of the cafeteria’s young short order chefs, a friendship that lasted until the day I jokingly suggested that he give me a meal for free. The request was so outrageous that I was certain he would immediately recognize it as a joke, but he didn’t, so I doubled down by suggesting that he give me every single meal from then on for free. He still didn’t get it, decided that I was morally suspect, and that was the end of that friendship.

The short order chef wasn’t the only one without a sense of humour. One day a friend of mine found himself standing behind a radio host ordering some soup. While handing the host the soup, the cook clumsily spilled it all over him. “I guess the soup’s on you,” my friend said.

The host—a former stand-up comic—wasn’t amused.

Down the hall from the cafeteria was Radio Master Control. Also down that hall were the Radio Operations Office, Studio B, Studio W, Tape Reclaim, the Delay room, the Recording Room, and Audio Systems. Tech Stores, the Mail Room, and the Sound Effects department were in the basement on the other side of the cafeteria.

The inhabitants of the Operations Office were genial front line supervisors who performed a host of technical supervisory functions and kept the radio technicians in line. If a technician was near the end of his or her shift and was bored and wanted to go home he or she would ask the Operations Officer on duty if they could leave early. Some Officers you could count on to say yes and others you could count on to say no. If you needed to call in sick, you called an Operations Officer. Operations Officers were usually well-respected, some even well-loved. It was almost a pre-requisite of the job. The night I screwed up in Master Control it was Operations Officer Malcolm McKinney who took pity on me and took me across the street to the Hampton Court Hotel to console me with a bottle of wine and good company.

Tape Reclaim was my least favourite place to work. In that hell-hole radio technicians would cut used quarter inch tape from audio reels to recycle the tape and free up the reels. They would hang the reel on a primitive slab of a machine and then haul down on a great lever to pierce the tape with a sharp steel point. Particularly feeble radio technicians usually had to yank on the lever once or twice to completely pierce the tape, which fell into a great bin of used tape. The process required a certain amount of strength and energy, energy I frequently lacked in the morning after skipping breakfast. I didn’t recycle much tape. Making matters worse, sometimes technicians had to work in there with a certain fellow with serious personal hygiene issues. Doing hard labour in a cramped space with a man with serious BO made working in Tape Reclaim the stuff of nightmares.

Studio B was a small control room with a McCurdy console and a tiny announce booth. It was used for simple production tasks such as two-ways and basic packaging. One day I found myself recording Patrick Watson in there. The broadcaster, not the singer. The man who created the Canadian Heritage Minutes. And who happened to be Chairman of the CBC at the time.

Patrick Watson (the original)

Patrick Watson (the original)

Before I go on you need to understand about reference tone.

There are several different types of tone. The tone I’m talking about here is 1 kilohertz tone. The idea is to play the 1K tone through the various broadcast equipment in the studio to line them all up (e.g., adjust playback and record levels). It’s also used to establish continuity, to ensure that the signal is travelling successfully from the studio to where ever you want to send it. For example, if you were doing a two way between Halifax and Toronto, you would want confirmation that the signal from your console was reaching Halifax, and vice versa. So 1K tone was quite useful. It could also be quite annoying. Especially if you were wearing a pair of headphones and some fool technician happened to blast tone through the board into your headphones, deafening you.

Which is the only thing I remember about the Patrick Watson interview: me accidentally blasting tone into his headphones, and Watson whipping off his headphones as fast as he could. I’ve probably accidentally done that to two or three people in my career, but it was particularly ill-advised to do it to the Chairman of the place where I worked.

Another memory of Studio B: working in Master Control and looking down the hall to see Canadian actor, writer, and director Sarah Polley hanging around the studio waiting to be interviewed. Seventeen years later I would escort her to studio 203 in the Broadcast Centre for an interview with Jian Ghomeshi. On both occasions I was struck by her charm and beauty.

Sarah Polley

Sarah Polley

Right across the hall from Master Control was Studio W. One day I was in Studio W conducting a two-way with a famous guest that wasn’t going well. The studio in Sydney, Nova Scotia could hear our guest but we couldn’t hear the interviewer in Sydney. Studio W had a weird one-of-a-kind console. I thought maybe I had done something wrong but that wasn’t it. Master confirmed that the problem was with the studio in Sydney, or perhaps the line itself. Meanwhile the famous guest proceeded to have a complete meltdown. He could not accept being kept waiting. The producer bore the guest’s rant stoically, professionally. I was astounded—astounded that this famous, well-respected person would behave like an ill-mannered child. I lost all respect for them. Until a handful of years later my father told me about a passage in this person’s autobiography in which they confessed to having serious anger management issues, issues related to events of their youth. The person was working hard to get these issues under control. Hearing this, I remembered that we are all fighting a great battle, and it behooves us not to judge others until, well, ever.

One wall west of radio master sat the recording room. Two guys alternated working in there. Techs like me would replace them on meal breaks and annual leave. The recording room was used to record everything we broadcast as well as “feeds” (audio content) from all across Canada and sometimes other countries to be used on our various shows. The job consisted of setting up tapes to do these recordings and box them up when they were done. In those days recordings were done on quarter inch tape and DAT tapes, obviously defunct mediums today (to this day Libraries and Archives is scrambling to transfer many of those recordings—the ones deemed valuable for posterity—to the digital realm, until that too becomes obsolete and it becomes necessary to transfer them to some other medium such as, oh I dunno, pure thought maybe). What little time I spent in the recording room proved most useful for getting a lot of reading done. I distinctly remember getting through a lot of Stephen King’s The Stand in there.

The Delay Room was little more than a closet, its size inversely proportional to its significance. There was an A and a B tape delay system, or a main and a backup. Each consisted of a couple of heavy duty tape machines that recorded everything we broadcast to Atlantic Canada. They would play this content back an hour later for the Eastern Time Zone, where it would be recorded again and played back for the next time zone. It would be recorded again in that time zone and played back yet again for the next one, until the content had been played back for the entire country. In this way every Canadian would hear their favourite show at exactly the same time, subjectively at least, because in reality someone in Vancouver would be hearing Morningside and every other show (except for the news) three hours later than it was originally broadcast. Because in those days this content was recorded on the medium of tape, this process affected the sound quality. Probably most people couldn’t really tell, but the sound quality of the programs broadcast in Vancouver, multiple tape generations after the original broadcast, wouldn’t be as good as the quality in Newfoundland, where audiences heard everything live, straight from the studio.

On the other hand, Eastern Canadians heard all our mistakes. If Peter Gzowski made a mistake during Morningside, everybody in the Maritimes heard it. If the mistake was serious enough, we would try to fix it for the rest of the country. If we got to it in time, we might be able to fix it in time for Ontario. We tried hard to do this because most if not all of the English Senior Executive Team lived in Ontario. Producers wanted our programming to be the best it could possibly be for all Canadians, of course, but they especially wanted it to be the best for the Senior Executive Team. Depending on the nature and the timing of the fault, sometimes the best we could do was fix it for Vancouver. When I messed up Two New Hours, we were only able to fix it for Vancouver. If Gzowski accidentally spilled his coffee and swore on air during the first half hour of Morningside (just an example—he never actually did this) it might have been possible to restrict the damage to the Maritimes by starting the show over again live in the studio while the first part of the show played to western time zones via the Delay system. We called this sort of thing a “remake”, and we actually did it a lot. As It Happens producers were particularly fond of “remaking” their show if they got something wrong.

Peter Gzowski

Peter Gzowski

I don’t have much to say about the rest of the denizens of the basement. I never worked in the mail room. I would go on to become the Manager of Audio Systems, but that was years in the future. I would also eventually spend a lot of time creating and performing sound effects, but those days were also a long ways off.

And the second floor I will leave for another post.

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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