An excerpt from Something Technical:
This is the story of Q.
It’s the last show I worked on before moving to the dark side (management).
Weekday afternoons on CBC Radio One around this time was a show called Freestyle. Traditionally in this time slot CBC Radio One had a listenership of about two hundred and twenty thousand people. It had been this way for years. It didn’t matter what you played in this time slot—you could play 1 K tone and the listenership would stay at two hundred and twenty thousand people. So they put this show on called Freestyle and the listener-ship promptly dropped to one hundred and eighty thousand people. Clearly, forty thousand people preferred tone.
Something needed to be done, and something was. There was a big study, they called it the Arts and Culture study, and based on this research the Powers That Be decided they needed to replace Freestyle with an Arts and Culture show. It would be a national show. A flagship show. They would pour tons of resources into it. It was a Big Deal. There was only one problem.
They wanted me to work on it.
And I didn’t want to have anything to do with it. I had no idea that it was supposed to be the Next Big Thing.
At the time, I was happy making radio plays. In fact, my buddy Matt Watts and I had just successfully pitched a ten part science fiction/comedy series to my bosses in the radio drama department. Matt was going to write it and I was going to produce, record, and mix it. It was the pinnacle of everything I’d been working toward since I’d joined the drama department. I was on top of the world.
Until the Director of Arts and Entertainment called me into her office early one Friday afternoon and asked me if I would like to become the tech for a new arts they were working on. She said I could have some time to think it over. So I returned to my workstation and thought it over.
I didn’t have to think long.
I had zero interest in taking on the job. I was about to produce a science fiction/comedy radio series. In my mind, this new arts show would be little different than the old arts show, The Arts Tonight. Although a perfectly fine show, I felt that becoming the tech of a show like that would constitute dialing my career back about ten years. Those of us in the trenches knew that this show was coming down the pike. No one I knew wanted to work on it. We all thought it would be a disaster. We had heard that Jian Ghomeshi was going to host it. Jian Ghomeshi was supposed to be the devil incarnate. He had been the host of 50 Tracks, a big success, he’d fronted the band Moxy Fruvous once upon a time, he’d hosted television, and he’d done a stint on Sounds Like Canada. He had a reputation for being difficult to work with. And I thought, I don’t need that crap.
I returned to the director’s office almost right away where I experienced one of the most harrowing meetings of my career. I told her that I had an issue with working on the show. I wondered if could we work out something else.
She said no.
She reminded me that she could simply reassign me. In fact, if she wanted to, she could make me go and record news.
I told her that yes, I was aware that she could do that.
“I could simply reassign you to the show,” she said. “Except that now I don’t know if I want to.”
I chuckled nervously.
“I want a highly motivated team,” she told me. “I don’t want a malcontent on the show.”
“Have you known me to be a malcontent?” I asked.
“I have known you to be nothing but a malcontent,” she said. “Always complaining about your lot in life, you and the whole department, you all have this sense of entitlement, and frankly I don’t even think any of you work very hard.”
In fairness to her, I was rather outspoken at the time. I wanted to be a producer/recording engineer and made no secret about it. To her, I probably actually was a malcontent.
“Is there something wrong with trying to improve your lot in life?” I asked her.
“You do it through hard work and shining through.”
“How do you feel about my work since you’ve been in the department?”
“I’m not familiar with it, there are four of you, I have no idea who does what.”
“Okay, where does that leave us?”
“You go away, you think about it, and if you can come back to me on Monday and tell me with great enthusiasm that you want to be a part of this show then maybe… MAYBE I’ll let you be a part of it.”
I left her office feeling insulted, threatened, and bullied. In fact, I felt as though she’d insulted the entire department. The meeting really reflects a certain unfortunate culture prevalent at the time, a culture that came to light several years later when Jan Rubin was hired to conduct an investigation into the workplace culture at the CBC, and unearthed one of bullying and harassment. She issued a series of recommendations that the corporation took quite seriously, as near as I can see, and ultimately the culture changed for the better. But this was still 2006, and there wasn’t much I could do about it then.
Though I thought I could, mind you. I had no interest in working for this director in any capacity anymore. I immediately went to a different department, CBC Sirius Radio, and asked the boss there, Mark O’Neill, if he’d take me on. He said yes. So when I left work that Friday afternoon I wasn’t working for A&E anymore, as far as I was concerned. I was working for Sirius Radio.
I met with the Director of A&E again on the Monday. She informed me that she was aware of my pending transfer to CBC Sirius Radio. “I hope you enjoy your thirty thousand dollar a year pay cut,” she said.
That prospect hadn’t occurred to me.
“So,” I said. “When do I start on the new arts show?”
And that was the end of that.
Looking back at this incident fourteen years later, after thirteen years in management myself, I realize that she had every right to reassign me to a different show. Every right. She just went about it wrong. I told James Roy about the whole affair a while later. He commented that he could have gotten me to work on the show happily. I’m not sure that I would have been happy about it, but I’m pretty sure that he could gotten me to work on the show with a lot less drama. By listening to me, and addressing my concerns to the extent that he was able. In other words, by treating me with respect.
The upshot is that I started this experience quite upset. I loved radio drama, at the time it was all I wanted to do. My boss in her wisdom took me out of something I loved and made me a part of something I wanted no part of. I wasn’t the only one. Of the staff that were selected for the new arts and culture show one promptly quit, one transferred to Winnipeg, at least two didn’t want to be there and they could not find an executive producer who wanted anything to do with the show. The Director of A&E had been right: I actually was a malcontent, strictly speaking, in this context.
But I was also a professional.
I knew that I had to ditch the way I was feeling as soon as possible. I knew that the bitterness I was feeling—and it was genuine bitterness—wouldn’t disappear overnight. But I knew instinctively that it was poison, poison that would hurt no one but me if I allowed it to fester.
I was sitting in a room alone with Jesse Wente working on preparations for the new show when I received an email from Tom Anniko, the Executive Producer of Radio Comedy at the time. He was pleased to announce the appointment of Greg DeClute as the producer/recording engineer of a ten part science fiction/comedy radio series. A series that I had helped Matt Watts create and that I had been looking forward to producing. I swore aloud. Jesse looked up. I explained. But there was nothing to be done about it.
Shortly afterward, Matt and Greg approached me about working as story editor on the series (which would come to be called Canadia). I was still feeling bitter about the whole affair but I recognized the generosity of the offer. Tom Anniko agreed, and they wound up paying me $150 per episode (the going rate for story editing one half hour of radio drama was $500 for freelancers, but I was staff, and in any case I would have done it for free).
I did my best not to let on to my new colleagues how I was feeling about working on the show that would become Q. Knew better than to come to work sullen. It’s easy to have a good attitude when things are going your way; the trick is to have a good attitude when things are not going your way. I did my best. Gradually the bitterness subsided.
Eventually they found an Executive Producer willing to take a chance on the new show. Lo and behold, it was Mark O’Neill! Who had been willing to hire me to work on CBC Radio Sirius. This was a good sign. Ultimately we wound up with nine people in total to make this new national Arts and Culture show. One recording engineer, one executive producer, one host, three producers, three associate producers. They threw us all into a room in the Skydome (Skybox Three, if I recall) and said: “Make us a radio show.”
We talked. We talked for days. All we knew was that it had to be an arts and culture radio show and that it would be personality driven. But we didn’t know what any of that meant. Low culture? High culture? Both? What is low culture and high culture? What about sports? Is that culture? Recreation? Interviews were a given, but how long should they be? Are interviews on the phone okay or should they all be high quality lines? Would we be the arts show of record? What does that even mean? Do we break stories? Do we talk about Paris Hilton? If so, how much? What about Margaret Atwood? Haven’t we all heard enough about Margaret Atwood? How do we open the show? How do we close the show? What do we even call the damn thing?
To help us figure things out we took a bunch of courses. We all had plenty of experience making radio but you never stop learning. We took courses on critical thinking. Things like: do we trust this source? Is this story really news? We took a course on ethics. Things like: when are we in conflict of interest? And we took courses on interviewing.
Gradually, I came to realize that I was actually a part of something quite special. And that in her ham-fisted way, the Director of A&E had been paying me quite a compliment by placing me on such a show. Looking back, she did me quite a favour, though it would take me years to admit it.
In time we got the show more or less figured out. High culture AND low culture. High impact guests when possible. Interviews about eight minutes long—longer when warranted. Live music every Friday, maybe more. Ixnay on the Paris Hiltonnay. Lots of energy. Plenty of short, flexible elements so we could mix things up on the fly. We had it all figured out. Everything except for a name.
We’d been racking our brains for weeks trying to come up with a name. It was really important to us that we choose the name and not management. ‘Cause it seemed like the front runner for management was the name Radar, and Radar just didn’t work for us. We needed something better. The problem was the show was so broad that we couldn’t come up with a name that encompassed everything the show was about. And then one day, out of the blue, someone had it:
Yeah, that lasted about five minutes. So we did a pilot with the name Radar.
The pilot was quite a wild ride.
We produced it live to tape with a small audience present. Musician Tomi Swick performed live with a friend. We had a guest in New York and another on the phone and yet another live in studio. All of which wouldn’t have been so bad if we’d had the studio booked to do some set-up, but the studio we used was booked right up until we were to start recording the pilot. Worse, Tomi Swick and his pal were late to the studio (not their fault, I was told), the upshot being that I had zero time to test anything. Which is not good when you’re going live, and dealing with the idiosyncasies of an unfamiliar studio.
We got into the pilot okay but the first guest after Tomi was on the phone and lo and behold the studio phones didn’t work. My first thought was that I had over-patched the phone inputs with Tomi’s mic or guitar, but that wasn’t it, so we put off the phoner ’til later in the show and reworked the show on the fly. I had way too much script in front of me—one of many details I’d have to sort out before we took the show live for real—and I kept having to move the script to get at the console, so before long I was completely lost and had to rely on Mark O’Neill (who was studio directing) for where we were and what was coming up next.
Finally I figured out that someone had turned the phones in the studio off—there was an obscure piece of gear allowing you to do that near the floor on one of the racks—so I turned them back on and we were able to get the phoner happening. Had I been able to get in the control room before the show to test things I would have figured that out, but during the chaos of the show it took a bit longer.
Still, despite how rock and roll it felt in the control room the pilot wound up sounding okay on tape. We knew that we would get better organized as time went on, and I’d eventually learn all the ins and outs of the studio.
And eventually the show would have a proper name.
It was pretty clear that if we didn’t come up with a name soon that one would be foisted upon us by management and it would probably be the dreaded Radar. So we hunkered down and for the umpteenth time wrote our top choices on the white board. .
We stared at all the names for a while, discussing various possibilities, but we still couldn’t agree on any of them. One of the names on the board was The Cue, suggested by Producer Matt Tunnacliffe. Somebody else suggested Studio Q. It might have been Matt as well. We all sort of liked both, but they weren’t quite right somehow. After staring at the board intently for a bit longer, it occurred to me that the letter Q all by itself was kind of intriguing. I suggested as much. I figured that the notion would, as usual, quickly be dismissed and we would continue to disagree and the show would wind up being called either The Ticket or Radar, the two current front runners.
Much to my surprise the suggestion was not dismissed out of hand. Instead, everybody quickly warmed to the idea. Why? Well, as mentioned earlier, a part of the problem was that we couldn’t figure out a name that encompassed both arts and culture, let alone both low and high arts and culture. We needed an inclusive name that could come to mean those things, something enigmatic. Also, “Q” could stand for many things: Question, inQuisitive, Query. Thought of as cue, it is a theatrical term, such as an actor’s cue, or cue to cue. Standing in a “queue” to see a play, movie or concert. In radio it can mean “cue up.” It lends itself to a certain playfulness: “And now for the Q-news.” “Time now for our daily “Q-tip,” and so on. A nice, stylized “Q” looks great on a coffee mug, or T-shirt. What really clinched the name was when Jian realized that he could easily make rhyming couplets out of it. “The sky is blue; you’re listening to Q.”
To this day, it means a lot to me that I came up with “Q” (albeit based on Matt’s suggestions). As discussed earlier, the circumstances under which I joined the show were not ideal. Being responsible for the name gave me big time buy-in on a show that I initially wanted no part of. And however you look at it, getting to choose the name of a new, fairly prominent national radio show was undeniably cool.
So we had the name all sorted out, but here it was a week before the show was to debut and we still didn’t really know whether it was going to work. I remember tense meetings with the team and Jian. Jian felt like there was too much interference from management. He didn’t feel like he was able to make the show that he wanted to make. There were different sensibilities at work. Jian and the Executive Producer weren’t quite clicking. And there were still a whole bunch of issues that needed to be sorted out that hadn’t even been addressed.
As the engineer, I was responsible for the sound of the show. From the beginning I had been advocating for a theme package. I wanted to hire a composer and a band and get them to write all the music for the show. In drama we hired composers all the time, it was no big deal. This show was supposed to be a big deal so it was a no brainer for me. But for some reason the team balked at the idea. For the pilots we’d been using an edit of the song Spanish Bombs by the Clash for the opening theme.
It wasn’t bad. It was basically a loop of the first four bars. But it didn’t have the panache we were looking for. Much more classy to use something written especially for the show. At the last minute Mark O’Neill agreed with me and hired Luc Doucet to write a theme. Now, the show debuted on a Monday, and Luc Doucet’s band recorded the theme on the Friday. They recorded it. They didn’t mix it. And they didn’t record it to the proper specifications. We needed an intro, beds, back time music.
On Sunday—the day before we debuted—I received a CD with all the raw tracks, unmixed. I was working on something else that day, teaching U of T students about radio drama, and I didn’t even start mixing the theme until seven o’clock that night. By ten o’clock my ears were gone. I could barely tell what I was listening to. I was completely fried and nobody else was around and I couldn’t for the life of me tell if my mix was working or not. To make matters worse, I’d mixed what I thought was the lead guitar track foreground, but when I referred to the track sheet saw that it wasn’t supposed to be the lead, another guitar track was supposed to be the lead. I’d been thinking that the lead guitar wasn’t going to work anyway because Jian wouldn’t be able to talk over it, so I remixed it down, converted the mix to MP3 and sent it to Jian and Mark, and went home, exhausted.
The next morning, the day of the show, the first thing Mark said to me was, “We got some remixing to do.” It was two hours before show time. I’d been half expecting that but my heart sank because I didn’t know how much remixing he wanted to do, and it was 9:30am and we were debuting in two and a half hours. Plus Loreena McKennitt was on the show performing live and I had to finish setting up for her. You could say I felt a tad stressed.
This is where some stellar leadership came into play. Because I really didn’t think we’d be able to get the theme done in time. I told Mark that we should go with the Spanish Bombs theme. But Mark had nerves of steel. “No, no, we’ll pull this off,” he insisted.
Lo and behold we did pull it off. Fortunately the remix was just a matter of swapping the guitar leads, which took all of ten minutes. Unfortunately, we then had to recut the theme, looping the middle section without the guitar lead to give Jian a place to talk without the guitar lead competing with his voice. There was a bit of back and forth between myself, Mark and Jian before we established the correct length of the various components of the theme, and some hasty editing, but through some miracle we finished in time for me to go set up for Loreena. We used the finished mix for the show that day about an hour after we finished mixing it. And the show used that version of the theme for years afterward (though I tweaked it ever so slightly about three weeks into the show’s run).
That first day the show began on the dot at 12:06 pm (we broadcast live to Sirius Radio, then the show was repeated to the Maritimes at 1:06, then Ontario at 2:06 and so on through the rest of the country). As a fan, I’m happy to report that Loreena McKennitt was absolutely lovely to work with, and she sounded awesome. Even a meatball recording engineer like me couldn’t make someone like her sound bad.
Shortly into the show we found out that a promo we had recorded before the show was messed up for some reason. It was supposed to be played back out of Master Control to certain parts of the country within the hour, so we had no choice but to deal with it. At 12:30pm the show paused for one and a half minute for a regional news update. During that time we were off the air. We decided to squeeze fixing the promo into that one and a half minute, if you can imagine. We finished fixing the promo with ten seconds to spare before going back on the air (I do not recommend trying that at home, kids.)
We had a special recording from Margaret Atwood that we wanted to play during the show. It was Margaret telling Jian “not to mess up… the arts are important!” Unfortunately, the recording was done in stereo and we were using a mono computer program to play back our audio material. Playing back a stereo file required exiting the DaletPlus computer program and loading a stereo version of the program. I asked Matt Tunnacliffe, now our regular studio director, if there were any mono files that had to be played after the Atwood clip. He said no. So when the time came I exited the program, loaded the stereo program, and played the Atwood clip. It was about thirty seconds long. During the Atwood clip we learned that through some quirk of fate it actually would be necessary to play a mono file directly afterward. So when the Atwood clip finished, I immediately got out of the stereo program and began loading the mono program. Jian began reading the intro to the stereo clip. Jian finished reading the intro to the mono clip. The mono program loaded at the exact same time as he finished, giving me precisely one second to load the mono clip and fire it. Insanity! But it all sounded good on air… I think.
You’d think that would have been enough stress for the day.
You’d be wrong.
There was a newscast at one o’clock during which we enjoyed a brief break. According to our information on this first day, the newscast was supposed to be six minutes long. There was a countdown clock in the studio that told us when we were supposed to be back on air. It gave us a twenty second countdown. At 1:04:40 we were enjoying this brief respite, sitting back enjoying our cigars, anticipating another whole minute and twenty seconds before going live again, when suddenly I heard Mark O’Neill cry out. Looking up, I saw that the countdown clock was counting down one minute early.
Was the clock wrong? Were we going to be live at 1:05? We hastily decided to trust the clock and start the show. I called master control at the same time to ask them if the clock was right. I needed an answer before 1:06, because if the clock was wrong we would have to restart the show at 1:06. Master told us that as far as they knew the clock was right. So we carried on with the show. Afterward we learned that we had been given the wrong information, and that the start time for part three of the show had indeed been 1:05.
The remainder of the show went like a charm. Afterward I told everyone present that I needed a stiff drink of scotch. No one got me one, damn them. I was fairly shell shocked. But the show had ROCKED! Or so they told us.
And I seriously considered installing a wet bar in the studio.
Postscript: What is written above concerns the debut of the show Q. Much later it would be renamed q after much horribleness that ultimately cast a dark shadow over the show and the CBC at large. A larger, much more difficult subject that I will reserve for another time.