Writer, Broadcaster

Category: Friends (Page 1 of 17)

The Great Lockout of ’05

An Excerpt from Something Technical: A Memoir
Matt Watts offering his support during the Great Lockout of ’05.

On August 15, 2005, CBC locked out its unionized workforce of producers, technicians and other support staff, about 5500 workers, including me, after negotiations with the Canadian Media Guild broke down after fourteen months. Arnold Amber, President of the CBC branch of the Canadian Media Guild, said at the time, “The talks are all over, it’s going forward. We never reached agreement on any of the main issues and there’s still about forty items still undone.” The main issue boiled down to CBC management’s desire to have more flexibility over how it hired its employees, whereas the union in stark contrast was looking for more job security for its members.

I happened to be on vacation at the time, camping with my family. Because this was by now my third job action with the CBC I decided not to worry about it until I was back in town. This meant forfeiting one week’s worth of strike pay, but I didn’t care. A week of sun and leisure and canoeing and uninterrupted family time meant that I was in a pretty good mood by the time I returned to join the line.

 I’ve already written about my first two job actions in these pages. This one would prove to be quite a bit different in character than the others. For one thing, it took place during the summer, when it was warm, which made picketing infinitely more pleasant. But perhaps more importantly for me personally, I decided to blog the entire event. This would have an enormous impact on my whole attitude toward the Lock Out.

By the second week I had set up a blog using the free online blogging service Blogger under the pseudonym “CBC Workerbee.” I had decided to blog anonymously because I had no idea what management would think about my blogging. It seemed prudent to play it safe, though I wasn’t very good about keeping it a secret. My colleague, producer Laurence Stevenson, called CBC Workerbee’s identity the worst kept secret of the lockout. By the end of the lockout I publicly admitted on the blog who I was. As far as I know blogging the lockout resulted in no tangible repercussions to my career (well, yet). John McCarthy, who later hired me into my first position in management, even suggested that it helped me, although there was one curious piece of fallout.

There was a producer with whom I had been friendly. We’d worked on a successful drama series together. This producer was later promoted into management. In the years following the Lock Out I noticed that this person became noticeably unfriendly toward me. I would greet her in line at Ooh La La’s and she would ignore me. At first I figured that maybe she was just hard of hearing, until it happened enough times that I was forced to admit that, no, she really was snubbing me. I couldn’t imagine why. I didn’t associate it with the Lock Out. Especially after twelve or thirteen years had passed.

Fast forward a few years, and I found myself in a position where I was required to work directly with this person. I admitted to a friend that I was a little nervous about that because I didn’t think this person liked me. My friend, who knew this person pretty well, let me in on what was going on. The individual in question had been in management during the Lock Out. When she found out that I was the guy behind CBC Workerbee, she held it against me, at least according to my friend. Especially after I joined the management team, which I gather she found hypocritical. How could I criticize management one minute and then become management the next? My response to that would be what better position from which to enact change? In any case, once I heard why this individual disliked me I immediately went back to my CBC Workerbee blog to see what I had written twelve years earlier that had been so offensive.

I discovered that I had been pretty hard on the Senior Executive Team, but not at all hard on middle management, with whom I had (mostly) sympathized. I don’t think my frenemy had read my CBC Workerbee blog that closely. But when it became necessary for us to work together in 2017 to her credit she set aside her reservations, at least to my face, and we got along just fine. She even greeted me in line at Ooh La La’s once or twice.          

Tod Maffin in Simcoe Park
during the Great Lockout of ’05

Unlike the two previous job actions I was involved in, I came to (mostly) enjoy this Lock Out. I looked forward to hitting the picket line and acquiring more information to blog about. I would picket, snap some photos, and then come home to write about what I experienced. The words flowed unlike they had ever flowed before. It turned out I wasn’t the only one blogging about the Lock Out. Dozens of us across the country put pen to screen, posting regular updates. In time about five lock out blogs (as they came to be known) were posting regularly, and were quite well read, including mine.

I think what really spurred me on was, after posting about twice, I got noticed by the King of the Lock Out blogs, Tod Maffin. From that point forward I averaged a readership of about five hundred readers every single post. Blogging became like catnip for me.  I had found my voice. Psychologically it was highly therapeutic. What could otherwise have been a very unpleasant summer became great fun.

Like the other job actions, the Lock Out of 2005 turned into a great opportunity to catch up with all my CBC friends. Walking around the Toronto Broadcast Centre in pleasant weather with old friends was quite enjoyable. It seemed to me that the Senior Executive Team had made a terrible strategic error locking us out in the summer. We were getting strike pay. We were only working twenty hours a week. When we did work (picketing) it was nice catching up with friends and acquaintances. We could do this forever… or at least until it got cold. By the time it did become cold, two months later, it was all over. Ironically, I cherish that summer as one of my favourite times at the CBC. Not a bad way to spend a summer.

By the end of it all I had written and blogged about eighty thousand words. That’s about the length of a novel. I had never written so much so quickly. I found that I had been able to write good, solid blog posts in a draft or two. It completely changed how I approached writing. It convinced me that I could write a complete novel. So immediately following the lockout I tackled a novel I’d been trying to write and wrote an entire draft of one hundred and ten thousand words in about three months. (It took me twelve more years to revise it and get it published, but that’s beside the point!)

Still, even though the experience this time had been mostly positive, for me at least, I’d just as soon never repeat it, on either side of the picket line. A lot of hard work has been done by both CBC management and the union in the intervening years to improve relations, so I’m optimistic that I never will.

Relaxin’ on the line

The Matt Watts Years

An Excerpt from Something Technical: A Memoir

One day in 2005, after grabbing a coffee at Ooh La La’s, I stepped into the CBC atrium where I was hailed by Tom Anniko, then Executive Producer of CBC Radio Comedy. He was sitting at a table with a lanky young man of about thirty. Tom introduced him as Matt Watts, the writer and star of the next radio play I’d be recording. Matt’s claim to fame at that time was as one of the creators of the (soon to be) Broadway hit The Drowsy Chaperone and one of the stars of the second and third season of Ken Finkleman’s The Newsroom.   

That’s Matt Watts in the back, with J. Michael Straczynski (of Babylon 5 fame) in CBC Toronto Studio 212’s Green Room for a read-through of Straczynski’s “The Adventures of Apocalypse Al” about a year after we produced Steve the First. Not sure who that is in the foreground.

The radio play turned out to be Steve the First. It was about a laconic young anti-hero named Steve who has an accident and wakes up many years in the future to find himself in the middle of an apocalypse where everybody’s suffering from a disease that makes them “melt” over time. People in the grip of the disease are called “melties.” It’s up to Steve to save the day, except that he has little interest in doing so. Matt is a brilliant comedy writer and Steve the First was a funny show. A science fiction comedy, it was right up my alley.

Matt and I hit it off. I told him about my attempt to make a science fiction radio series and gave him a copy of my show Faster Than Light to listen to. In an unusual move, rather than ask me to mix Steve the First after we recorded it, Tom Anniko brought it to his base of operations in Winnipeg and asked a talented music recording engineer to mix the show. This fellow was a well regarded recording engineer but he specialized in recording and mixing music, not radio plays. Matt Watts was not pleased with the results. He’d listened to my mix of Faster Than Light (which, you might recall, contained two radio plays, Captain’s Away and The Cold Equations) and approached me about remixing Steve the First. I listened to the Winnipeg recording engineer’s mix of Steve the First and had to agree: it wasn’t quite up to snuff. Several of the sound effects just didn’t work and the dialogue was too far back in the mix, among other issues. Matt was quite upset. Would I remix it?

I really wanted to remix it because I was certain I could make it much better, but I didn’t want to disrespect the work of the other recording engineer, who I’d met a year or so earlier and liked. Matt and I went to Tom and asked him what he thought. Tom agreed to allow me to create an alternate mix. But first I felt I had to talk to the other recording engineer. I went into the conversation thinking it would be a delicate discussion but I needn’t have worried. He wasn’t precious about his work, readily admitting that he was first and foremost a music recording engineer.

A Favourite Clip from Steve the First

So I rolled up my sleeves and got to work, replacing sound effects, bringing the dialogue forward, and taking what I’ve always thought of as a “leave no stone unturned” approach to mixing radio plays. I’d learned a lot mixing Faster Than Light and every other radio play I’d mixed in the five years since I’d joined the radio drama department. I was mixing within a smaller dynamic range, making my waveforms look a lot more like the waveforms you’d see in top forty music on commercial radio, the better to allow my product to compete on that medium. I made my sound effects much louder and punchier than when I’d first started out.  I worked alone, or sometimes with Matt, without a producer looking over my shoulder and telling me what to do.  Having Matt hang around the studio was a huge bonus, because he was the star of the show, so it featured his voice a lot, and if I thought a line needed to be different, either a completely new line or different delivery, I could ask him to record it then and there and simply incorporate it into the mix. There was never any discussion of paying him extra to do that because, for one thing, I didn’t have the authority to authorize that, and for another neither of us cared. We just wanted to make the absolute best product that we could.

We were both pretty happy with the way Steve the First turned out. And we became fast friends in the process. Never up to that point had I felt so sympatico in a creative collaboration.

The CBC contracted Matt to write three more episodes of Steve the First. I was just supposed to be the recording engineer on each of them. But when Matt started writing the second episode, he sent his early drafts not only to Tom Anniko but to me as well. I don’t know whether he expected me to comment on it, but because I fancied myself a writer I read it and had some pretty strong opinions. I waited a bit to see whether Tom responded, and maybe he did, but if so he didn’t copy me. So I sent Matt my thoughts.

Much later Matt told me that he got my notes and read them and they made him angry. He was so mad that he went outside for a smoke and stomped around a bit. And then he thought, dammit, he’s right! And went inside and rewrote some stuff based on my notes.

I’m not relating this story to illustrate what a great writer or story editor I am. It’s more evidence that Matt and I were operating on the same wavelength when it came to his material. From that point forward I story edited all of his radio plays, unofficially for the four episodes of Steve the First and the four episodes of its sequel, Steve the Second. I became the official story of the final series we worked on together, Canadia: 2056, but they only paid me $150 per episode rather than the usual $500 story editors usually got paid. But I didn’t mind, because it was fun work, doing what I loved, and of course I was still getting paid to be a recording engineer at the time.

Matt and I had a lot of fun making Steve the First and Steve the Second. I became the de facto producer, at least for the mixes, and I did all the post production sound effects (Anton Szabo did most of the live-to-tape sound effects). There were some memorable moments. Sometimes Matt and I would mix the episodes during the evening. For one scene we needed the sound of a big jug of water bouncing off the floor. I grabbed a great big spare bottle from a water dispenser and brought it into the studio. We hit play and record on ProTools and Matt and I stood in the booth and dropped the completely full, unopened water bottle. To our surprise it cracked, flooding the booth. The carpet was completely soaked. There was little we could do to mop it up or accelerate the drying process, though we did the best we could with scads of paper towels. The next day I had to tell my boss, John McCarthy, who took it extremely well. I don’t think there was any lasting damage other than to the water bottle itself, and maybe a slightly moldy carpet.   

After mixing an episode I would burn it to CD and take it home and listen to it in several environments: in the car, in the kitchen, in the living room. I wanted to see what it sounded like in each environment. The car was always the noisiest. If a bit of dialogue or a sound effect didn’t cut through in any of those environments, I went back to the studio and remixed it until it did. I was trying to make the shows the most sonically successful work of my career. I was pretty happy with the results, but I didn’t entirely succeed. After the shows were broadcast, when it came time to print the shows to CD for sale, the woman in charge of doing so, Patsy Fraracci (I might have her last name wrong, if so I apologize!), came to visit me in the studio and we had a friendly conversation about the quality. Reviewing the audio on the CDs, she’d noticed a little glitch or two. I was incredulous. She played them back for me. Sure enough there were a couple of weird audio anomalies. Just fraction of a second things that I’d never noticed in all the times I’d listened, but that she’d caught. Of course, she was married to one of the top CBC music recording engineers at the time, Todd Fraracci, and evidently shared his ears. I was embarrassed. I went back to the original mixes and did what I could to fix them, but due to the nature of the glitches my options were limited. They’re still there in the final product, to some extent. But I daresay you would probably need the “golden ears” of Patsy (or her husband Todd) to discern them.   

Steve the First and, later, Steve the Second aired Saturday mornings at 11:30. I think they went over fairly well, but neither Matt nor I became anywhere near as famous as our radio drama hero Douglas Adams, famous for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Maybe next time.

Book Promotion Play by Play

Logo for Donovan Street Press

Yesterday I started a week long 99 cent promotion for the ebook version of my novel A Time and a Place with marketing courtesy of Manybooks. I was the Manybooks Featured Author and you can see advertisements for the novel up their site now. They also promoted A Time and a Place on their Facebook and Twitter feeds.

The Manybooks team has been great to work with and have delivered exactly what they said they would. There was one little glitch when their promo indicated that my promotion price might be wrong, and that potential buyers should double check, but that may have been my fault; it’s possible I indicated the wrong start date for the promotion when filling out the paperwork. I emailed the Manybooks team right away and they corrected the problem within minutes. So, some nice professionalism all round.

But the big question of course is what impact is this having? The fact is making a single book stand out is a herculean task. It’s not like promoting a movie, where you’re only up again other new releases which that year might number in the hundreds. With a book, you’re up against two hundred thousand. Millions, if you want to talk about all the potential books a reader might be interested in reading, cuz they’re not necessarily only interested in new books.

For the sake of other authors interested in marketing who might be following along, I want to be brutally honest as I track my progress. Casual readers interested in books might also want to know.

A caveat. This is just the beginning of the campaign. And I readily admit that I only barely know what I’m doing (unlike, say, fellow Canadian author Mark Leslie Lefebvre, who’s so good at marketing that, look, here I am helping him by name checking for no reason other than his name just popped into my head. Though isn’t that what we should all be doing? Helping to promote one another?) . Figuring out how to market a book properly is like trying to drink a lake. A tasty lake, with delicious fish in it, but it’s going to take a while to get through that lake.

So how are we doing on Day Two? Manybooks has 1870 followers on their Twitter feed (I have 2071). Their tweet featuring me was liked four times and retweeted four times. I’m one of the retweets, and my retweet was liked once and retweeted once. Highly unlikely that the Manybooks tweet generated any sales.

The Manybooks Facebook post generated zero comments and zero shares. I posted a link to it on my personal Facebook page, my author Facebook page, and the SF Canada Facebook page, of which I’m a member. A handful of friends and family shared the post (thank you! I feel the love) on my personal pages. The SF Canada post reached 38 people and generated zero engagement.

I have no way of knowing the traffic on the Manybooks pages that now feature my book. I can track sales. As of this writing, this effort so far has generated three ebooks sales and one audiobook sale. I can also track some rankings. Right now, A Time and a Place is ranked #328 in Time Travel Science Fiction on Amazon.ca, which is no different than yesterday. It’s ranked 10180 on Kobo in Science Fiction & Fantasy, which is also no different than yesterday.

Here’s the painful part. The Manybooks newsletter promotion cost $39.33. The Manybooks Author of the Day promotion cost $66.45, for a total of $105.78. The revenue generated by the campaign so far (with a promotional price point of 99 cents I get 35 cents for each sale on Amazon) is not enough to even reach the threshold required for Draft2Digital to pay me, though Audible might sent me the 40 percent they owe me for that one sale.

But no matter. This is only the beginning. Today I have promotions with Read Freely and eBooksoda. (Why do I feel like I’m promoting them just as much as they’re promoting me? And for free…) All of this is part of a strategy called Promo Stacking, the idea being to generate buzz in and around the big promotion that happens tomorrow, when A Time and a Place will be a BookBub Featured Deal, theoretically reaching millions of potential readers, as opposed to the smaller newsletters, who reach tens of thousands.

I also want to make it clear that this is not about convincing (or guilting) more of my friends and family to buy copies of this book. Anyone the least bit interested has already done that, contributing to the 500 sales of A Time and a Place that have already happened. This is about seeing if it’s possible to take it to the next level. A little anecdote: shortly after the novel was published, a guy at work asked me what was next. At that time I told him that it was about taking it to the next level. Aware of how challenging publishing can be, he said, “What’s that? Taking sales from dozens to hundreds?” I said, “No, from hundreds to thousands. ”

Even then I had few illusions about how difficult that would be.

A Little Ask

Photo by Lukas from Pexels

As you probably know from my last few posts I’m preparing a marketing push for my novel A Time and a Place. Cuz selling books is every bit as demanding as writing them, and (as a friend of mine said recently) they don’t sell themselves.

Over the next couple of weeks A Time and a Place will be featured in the following:

And possibly a couple of others yet to be confirmed.

My goals are simple. I’d like to generate awareness of the book, and I’d like to (at the very least) break even on the promotional costs.

I’d also like to ask for your help.

  • If you have ever considered purchasing a copy of A Time and a Place, now is the time to do so. The e-book is already available at its promotional price of 99 cents for a limited time. Every sale will help push A Time and a Place up the sales rankings.
  • If you have read A Time and a Place and enjoyed it, but haven’t yet rated it anywhere, doing so would be a great help. Goodreads is a great place to do so, but you can also rate it wherever you bought it, whether it be Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, Audible, or where ever.
  • If you have read A Time and a Place and enjoyed it but haven’t yet reviewed it, even just a couple of lines would also help.
  • Finally, you can help by promoting A Time and a Place with me on social media. Simply copy and paste the following universal link to your Twitter or Instagram or Facebook feeds and let people know about the book: https://books2read.com/u/4AKXoe

You’re also welcome to simply sit back and watch as this all unfolds. A while back I reported on how well the book is doing. I’ll also report the results of this campaign, with brutal honesty. It promises to be at the very least educational.

Neil Munro and Barry Morgan

I stumbled across the following recently which had appeared on an early version of this blog (July 14th, 2009, to be precise), before the blog self-destructed shortly afterward (one of a handful of blog implosions over the years). I like to recapture this sort of thing for the modern incarnation of Assorted Nonsense so that it doesn't get lost to time and also because it keeps alive the memory of some important, interesting people in my life. 

Neil Munro

aka “Inspector Nickles” (Photo by David Cooper, Shaw Festival.)

Neil Munro has passed away at 62 years of age.

I was fortunate enough to work with Neil off and on over the course of two or three years. Although they don’t mention it in the notice at CBC.ca, one of Neil’s many accomplishments was starring as Inspector Quentin Nickles in The Investigations of Quentin Nickles , for CBC Radio’s Mystery Project.

Working on these plays I had the opportunity to observe Neil’s craft up close.

You had to be a skilled actor working on these shows. Producer/Director Barry Morgan was a one take wonder. Rarely did we ever make it up to take two. So the actors had to get it right the first time, and they almost always did. If we had to do a second take it was usually because one of us technical types had screwed something up, or one of the sound effects engineers was caught on tape snoring during a brief siesta (that actually happened once).

Neil also wrote/adapted several radio plays; I remember recording and mixing two or three wild and crazy examples of his work. The names escape me now, but I recall them as full of mirth and inventiveness.

I remember Neil Munro as not only a consummate professional but as a genuinely warm and friendly man. He deserved better than to have died at 62, it seems to me. As Truman Capote said, life is a moderately good play with a badly written third act.

In Neil’s case, I’m afraid someone eliminated the third act altogether.

So long, Inspector Nickles.

My friend and colleague Barry Morgan, whom I referenced in the post, responded with a comment which I thought was gently chiding in nature. I realized that I may have irked him slightly with my remark about doing everything in one take. I hope not, because Barry was a great guy and I hate the thought that I might have annoyed him.

Anyway, here's what he wrote in response:

Barry Morgan

Writer, Producer, Director, All Round Nice Guy

 Joe, a really nice appreciation of Neil.

Perhaps I can clarify the “one take” reference.

It was because Neil brought his incredible energy and focus to the rehearsal session before we ever got to the studio floor. The work was already done. And beyond that his electricity energized his fellow cast members to the point that the performance bar was raised far above the level of `excellent`.

We have enjoyed a long history of fine radio actors from the days of John Drainie, Jane Mallet, Frank Perry and a great many others. Neil Munro was certainly among the front rank of those incredible talents.

It was a great privilege to have him around to make all of us look better.

I will always treasure his friendship.

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