Writer, Broadcaster

Category: Life (Page 1 of 22)

The Great Radio Drama Submission Call

One of a series of posts about working in radio back in the day.

(Here’s some more).

Studio 212,
Where the CBC Radio Drama Magic Happened

In late 2004, Damiano Pietropaolo, the Head of Radio Arts & Entertainment (which included Radio Drama), stepped down from that position. Greg Sinclair took his place. Greg immediately made two significant moves. First, he took me off The Schedule. Second, he put out The Great Radio Drama Submission Call.    

Taking me off The Schedule meant that I could no longer be assigned to ordinary technical bookings. I thought this was absolutely brilliant. I’d been an audio technician seventeen years and I was sick and tired of The Schedule. My every move was dictated by The Schedule. I had no control over The Schedule. If you wanted to have a meeting with me, you had to talk to the scheduling department, not me. I couldn’t plan my days or weeks because if I did, my plans could and would be overwritten by the scheduling department. I would explain this to other people in the CBC. They would have no idea what I was talking about. The Schedule was a phenomenon unique to technicians.

I was also tired of feeling like a second-class citizen. In the studio, producers called the shots. They were the bosses. They weren’t really the bosses; I didn’t report to a producer. But in the studio, if a producer said, “Do this,” I pretty much had to do it. It didn’t matter if I’d been on the job seventeen years and they’d been on the job seventeen days. Taking orders from people with a lot less experience than me was getting real old.

I got so fed up with being a tech that one day I decided I didn’t want to be credited on air as a technician anymore. I told Writers & Company producer Mary Stinson this.

“You don’t want to be in the credits anymore?” she asked.  

“By all means put me in the credits,” I told her. “Just don’t call me a tech.”

 Officially I was an Associate Producer/Technician. In my mind, I was a Recording Engineer. I aspired to be a Recording Engineer/Producer. I asked Mary not to refer to me as anything other than somebody helping put the show together. Of course, the nation didn’t care what CBC Radio called Joe Mahoney. Only Joe Mahoney cared. But Mary respected my wishes.

The second thing that Greg Sinclair did was put out The Great Radio Drama Submission Call. He wanted to reinvigorate CBC Radio Drama by attracting new talent and projects. Between The Great Radio Drama Submission Call and being taken off The Schedule this was an exciting time for me.

 The Radio Drama department received over four hundred submissions for potential projects. We divvied them up between the recording engineers and the producers to sift through. Each of us would choose one or two to develop and produce. Finally, I thought. Another shot at producing! One step closer to my dream of becoming a Recording Engineer/Producer.

I enjoyed sorting through the slush pile. As an aspiring writer my short stories had been in enough slush piles over the years. It felt good being on the other side. I loved being able to announce to the Canadian science fiction community that I was looking for their submissions on behalf of CBC Radio. I was pretty puffed up about it. But the actual work of reviewing the submissions turned out to be quite a slog. It was maddeningly difficult to discern the wheat from the chaff. So many submissions were just kind of the same. Average. Very few were obviously terrible. The whole process was so subjective. I could easily have missed projects with potential because I just didn’t know any better. Over time, though, certain submissions began to stand out, for different reasons. Sometimes the distinguishing factor was who submitted the proposal. Other times it was the proposal’s obvious quality. Yet other times it was because the proposal spoke to me in some way. And sometimes it was a combination of the above.

Robert J. Sawyer, with whom I’d worked on Faster Than Light, submitted a proposal with his friend Michael Lennick for a half hour radio play called Birth. Birth explored the accidental emergence of sentience among robots on Mars. It wound up on my final list.

Another proposal that stood out was a play called Worms for Sale by Stacy Gardner. Worms for Sale was about a witty, bored high school graduate in Newfoundland trying to decide whether to stay or leave while being a friend to her heartbroken mother. It was “a play about who we are and how we survive the elements of place.” Stacy’s proposal, which included snippets of dialogue, exhibited a fresh charm and an originality of voice that appealed to me. Worms for Sale found a home on my list.

Meanwhile, Greg Sinclair received a proposal by Joe Straczynski, otherwise known as J. Michael Straczynski, also known as JMS. Greg was quite excited about telling me about this because he knew that as a science fiction fan I would know who JMS was. He was right; I’d been aware of Joe Straczynski’s work for several years. Straczynski had been the main creative force behind the hit science fiction television series Babylon 5. He’d written most of the episodes. As far as I was concerned, he was a genius. And now Straczynski had proposed an action adventure fantasy series for CBC Radio.

Sinclair and I had images (sound bites?) of Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in our minds. Adam’s bestselling books had started life as a hit radio series on the BBC.  That was the Holy Grail Sinclair and I sought. Surely a project with the likes of Straczynski would bring science fiction and fantasy fans to our doorsteps in droves, and completely rejuvenate the radio drama department. J. Michael Straczynski’s The Adventures of Apocalypse Al made the final cut.

I don’t know how many radio plays we ultimately selected, but it was a fair amount. The next step was to develop each project. I was excited to get started on my choices, Worms for Sale and Birth. I contacted Stacy Gardner and Rob Sawyer to tell them the good news and arrange times to meet. (I would wind up producing sound effects for three other projects: ManRadio, The Thing from Beyond My Closet, and The Adventures of Apocalypse Al.)

Rob arrived at the Toronto Broadcast Centre to discuss Birth accompanied by his writing partner Michael Lennick. Michael was the brother of former CBC Radio host David Lennick, who had had a radio show about fifteen years earlier called Sunny Side Up. (Sunny Side Up had actually been one of the first shows I’d ever engineered as a brand-new CBC Radio tech. Nervous, I’d managed to drop a CD on the floor. Fortunately, it had still played.)

Michael Lennick had his own claims to fame. For CFMT-TV in Toronto he’d co-written The All-Night Show, which had featured Chuck the Security Guard, played by Chas Lawther, with whom I also made a couple of radio shows over the years. It’s a small world. After that Michael toiled as a visual special effects artist for two decades, working on David Cronenberg’s Videodrome and The Dead Zone, and TV series such as War of the Worlds (1988). When I met him, Michael was producing well-regarded science and history documentaries.

The Lennick boys had come from famous stock, too. As a member of Wayne & Shuster’s repertory company, their mother, Sylvia Lennick, had famously played Julius Caesar’s wife, uttering the immortal line, “I told him, Julie, don’t go!”

After meeting Rob and Michael, I met with the author of Worms for Sale. Stacy Gardner turned out to be a charismatic young woman originally from Newfoundland in Toronto working for Covenant House. Worms for Sale was the first time she’d submitted any of her work anywhere.

We brought in experienced story editors Greg Nelson and Bev Cooper to work with our new crop of writers. Greg Nelson drew Birth and Bev Cooper Worms for Sale. Each writer (or team of writers) was contracted to write three drafts and then a final polish of each script. The producers and story editors would make notes on each draft and the final polish. The purpose of the polish was to correct any remaining superficial issues once all the major problems had been (theoretically) addressed. After all that the plays would be considered ready to record.

First up for me would be Birth.

More on that next.

Stuart McLean

One of a series of posts about working in radio back in the day.

(Here’s some more).

Stuart McLean with a Neumann U-87
Stuart McLean

The Vinyl Café with Stuart McLean may not have been big, but it was small.

That was the show’s motto.

The Vinyl Café debuted in 1994. I was a fan from the beginning. It was a great show. How do I know it was a great show? Because it would trap me in my car long after I’d reached my destination. I just couldn’t stop listening. That was always happening to me with The Vinyl Café. Stuart McLean was one of the biggest celebrities CBC Radio had to offer, and The Vinyl Café one of the best shows. I never let Stuart know I felt that way. Maybe I should have.

 Stuart had been a long-time journalist with CBC Radio. He came to fame with his seven-year stint contributing to Morningside. He created radio magic with Peter Gzowski. Before that he’d contributed documentaries to Sunday Morning. He won an ACTRA award for Best Radio Documentary for contributing to that show’s coverage of the Jonestown massacre. Over time he became a best-selling author and the celebrity host of The Vinyl Cafe. He won the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour three times, was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada, was a professor emeritus at Ryerson University in Toronto and well, you get the idea. But I knew him as the host of The Vinyl Café, both from listening to the show on the air and by working with him in the studio, at least when he wasn’t touring the show around Canada and the United States. 

Our first day working together I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Although I liked his show, I knew nothing about the man. Would he be full of himself? Have a bad temper? Treat me like a piece of the equipment? I was optimistic but prepared for the worst.

Stuart arrived in SFX 3, we greeted one another, and I directed him to the announce booth. He took a seat before the mic. I’d set up a vintage Neumann U-87 microphone for him, one of the best you can get, they go for about $3500 new. Stuart started talking. Then he stopped. He got a funny look on his face. He picked up a pencil and dropped it. The mic picked up the sound of the pencil dropping with exceptional clarity. It was an especially good mic.

U-87 Microphone

I got a bad feeling.

“It sounds weird,” Stuart said. “There’s something wrong with the sound.”

I thought, oh here we go. This guy has a hit show. He’s famous. Famous enough to be a pain in the ass.

Stuart messed with the mic some more, having fun with the sound, dropping pencils, making funny noises, just generally being playful, having a good time. Finally, he accepted the sound of the microphone, and we got down to the business of recording an episode of The Vinyl Cafe. He wasn’t a pain in the ass, and he never turned into one.

The producer of The Vinyl Cafe at this time was David Amer. Stuart had created The Vinyl Café with David. David worked on the show ten years before handing the reins over to Jess Milton. Stuart continued to credit David as the Founding Producer of The Vinyl Cafe for the rest of the show’s run.

David and I often chatted while editing the show. During one such chat he asked me, “How would you like to go out on the road with us? To record the show and do our music pickups?”

“You’d be better off with Greg DeClute for that,” I told him.

That was probably pretty stupid of me. I lacked confidence in my ability to record music at the time. Later, as the recording engineer for Q, I would record on average three bands a week. Still, I don’t regret telling David that. He did approach Greg. Recording music was Greg’s passion. He’d been properly trained for it. He had tons of experience and he was good at it. Greg was the right choice. He accompanied The Vinyl Café on the road for years. I think we can all agree that his music pickups sounded terrific. Greg told me afterward that going on the road with The Vinyl Café had been one of highlights of his career.

But I still got to package the show in the studio.

When David Amer retired, and it became necessary to appoint a new producer to the show, I believed that it should be either me, Greg, or Wayne Richards. We’d been champing at the bit to become producers. Why not save time, money and bother by just getting us to both record and produce the shows we worked on? When I found out that someone by the name of Jess Milton would become the new producer of The Vinyl Café, I was disappointed. Here we go again, I thought. Probably have to teach her everything from the ground up.

I met Jess one evening during a studio taping session. To my dismay, I liked her immediately. Nobody had to teach her anything. She was smart and capable and a perfect production partner for Stuart. She became an instrumental part of the show. For example, on the road, Stuart performed the same live show over and over in multiple towns and cities. This provided Stuart and Jess ample opportunity to refine the show before it was taped for broadcast. Each performance, Jess sat in the audience to track the audience’s responses, noting which of Stuart’s lines elicited the best laughs and which didn’t. Afterward they tweaked the show accordingly and record the refined version for broadcast. 

Stuart and Jess were an unbeatable combination. They were fun to work with and generous to a fault. One night my mother flew up from Prince Edward Island to visit me for a few days. I couldn’t pick her up at the airport because I had to work. I had to voice track Stuart for The Vinyl Cafe. My mother was a big fan of the show. I mentioned all this to Jess as we began to work. She got on the talkback and told Stuart.

“What’s your phone number?” Stuart asked me.

Later, when we were pretty sure my mother had arrived at my place, Stuart called my number. Mom answered.

“Hi Mrs. Mahoney? It’s Stuart McLean. I just wanted to thank you for loaning us your son tonight.”

They had a great chat. My mother was tickled pink.

She got to meet Stuart in person, too, when The Vinyl Café played Summerside, PEI. Jess arranged tickets for my folks. Jess and Stuart were generous with their tickets. They always offered my wife and I (and Greg and Wayne and Anton and their families) tickets for the live Christmas shows in Toronto.  

So yes, Stuart was a nice guy. He wasn’t without sass, though.

One day he arrived in the studio dressed to the nines.

I checked out his sharp new suit, looked down at my ragged jeans with holes in the knees, and said, “Gee, I didn’t know I was supposed to dress up for this gig.”

“Well, you were, asshole,” he told me.

(He was joking, of course.)

Stuart passed away February 15th, 2017, at age 68. It was a blow not just to those of us who knew him, but to everyone who had ever listened to Stuart’s special brand of radio whimsy. It was a privilege to have been able to work with such a man.

CJRW 1240 Radio in Summerside, PEI

One of a series of posts about working in radio back in the day.

(Here’s some more).

This is similar to the console at CJRW. At CJRW the turntables were situated on our left (photo from Jim Zimmerlin)

In July, 1988, CBC Radio acquired a twenty-three year old with a lot of growing up yet to do. I wasn’t completely green, though. I’d been in broadcasting since the age of fourteen. At that age I’d begun volunteering at the local cable affiliate, Cable 5, in Summerside, PEI.

I loved working at Cable 5. I learned to operate the cameras and the big clunky Video Tape Recorders (VTRs) and I was especially fond of “switching” the shows on the cool looking switcher. My friends and I produced our own shows and worked on other peoples’ shows, often about music. At the same time I also worked at Three Oaks High School’s brand new and exceptionally well-run radio station under the leadership of teacher Ralph Carruthers, who launched at least two careers in broadcasting that I know of, and probably more.

That was all volunteer, though. I needed a part time job that actually paid money. So I got a job at MacDonald’s. I hated it there. The managers, only a little older than me, were always yelling and screaming at the rest of us, especially me, it seemed. I’d curse them angrily under my breath. Luckily, after one month they fired me.   

“It’s not for everyone,” the franchise manager told me, not unkindly.

She meant that it wasn’t for immature fifteen-year olds who couldn’t be bothered to memorize what went on a Big Mac.

Getting fired from MacDonald’s was one of the happiest days of my life.

Had I not been fired from MacDonald’s I might never have got my first real job in radio.  One cold November afternoon I cruised down Water Street in an Oldsmobile with my friend Justin Hickey at the wheels and two other pals, the four of us probably listening to classic Genesis. We passed Summerside’s local radio station, a 250 watt day-timer with the call letters CJRW, located at 1240 AM on the dial. I’d grown up listening to CJRW.

“Stop the car!” I shouted to Justin.

He stopped.

I jumped out, crossed the street, and entered CJRW’s front door. I climbed up a flight of stairs to CJRW’s reception area, walls festooned with plaques attesting to the station’s long history of community activity. Elton John was playing on a set of speakers: “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” the first time I’d ever heard that song. I’ve loved it ever since.

A lady greeted me at the reception desk (possibly Rose Anne Gaudet), super friendly (maybe she knew my mother).    

“I’d like to apply for a job,” I told her.

She furnished me with an application. I filled it out as best I could. A man took me to a studio booth and gave me several sheets of thin yellow paper with dot matrix type. News, weather and sports. I recorded an audition tape on the spot. A month later, at home, the phone rang.    

“Joe, this is Lowell Huestis, calling from CJRW radio.”

I recognized Lowell’s voice immediately. He was the first famous person I’d ever spoken to. Famous on PEI, anyway. “I’d like to offer you a job as a disc jockey. When can you start?”   

I could barely believe my good fortune. Lowell and CJRW hired me to host two shifts each week. I had a six-hour long country music show on Friday nights and a rock show on Saturday nights. I hated country music. I grew to like it in time. Well, some of it. I worked at CJRW all through High School. I would have done it for free. I almost did do it for free: I earned $3.35 per hour, minimum wage at the time.

I darned near didn’t show up for my first shift (I was still the same kid who couldn’t memorize hamburger ingredients). I got confused about which week I was supposed to start. One of my fellow disc jockeys was Peter Arsenault (he went by Peter Scott on air). Peter happened to drive down High Street—my street—in his gold Pontiac Firebird Trans Am shortly before the start of my shift. Spotting me, he pulled up beside me and rolled down the window.

“You do realize you start tonight, don’t you?”

“I do?”

“Get in the damned car!”

He drove me to the station and put me on the air before a big silver console with rotary pots and two huge turntables. I learned how to cue up 7” 45 single records so they’d start an instant after introducing them (about one quarter turn back from where the needle hit the first sound). We played IDs and promos on cartridges (called “carts”). There was a quarter inch tape machine that looked rather daunting. For my first few shifts I got the guy who worked before me to cue it up. His name was Jim Murray and like me he’d go on to work for the CBC (they’d call him James Murray there).   

I got nervous before every shift, but I was never nervous on air. I loved every second of it. I got to choose my own music. I played other peoples’ requests. Once, I sneezed on air. I learned not to do that. Once, introducing a record, I choked on a potato chip. I learned not to do that. I had two laughing fits on air—I never learned not to do that (I was a giddy teen-ager).

With a mere 250 watts, CJRW didn’t have a very strong signal, but it seemed to reach a lot of people. I grew close to my audience. I got calls from all over western PEI as well as Cap Pele, in New Brunswick, across the Northumberland Strait. They’d call to make requests. They’d call to say hi. They’d call week after week. They’d tell me I knew them but wouldn’t tell me who they were. Once, calling a friend during a show, I accidentally called the wrong number. A girl answered the phone. “Hey, you’re the guy on the radio!”

We had a good chat.

The name of the Friday night country show was The Ranch Party. I always opened it with Bobbie Nelson’s Down Yonder from Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger. The station didn’t own that record; my father did. I always brought in a lot of my own stuff. I mixed the country up with folk music from time to time. Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers were favourites. I used to play this one song by them. One night after I played it a Ranch Party regular called up, an older Acadian woman.

“That song you just played?” she said. “You must never play it again.”

“Why not?”

“It’s too sad.”

She wasn’t wrong:

Isn’t it grand, boys, to be bloody well dead?
Let’s not have a sniffle, let’s have a bloody good cry
And always remember the longer you live
The sooner you’ll bloody well die.

I had always gotten a kick out of it. Young and fully alive, it didn’t apply to me. I could see how it might be considered a little morbid, though. I respected my listeners. I never played it again.  

Another night, during the Saturday night rock show, a girl called up, not someone I knew.

“I love you!” she said, before hanging up.  

I laughed. I was always getting calls like that. It was just some kid in town having fun, probably hanging out with a bunch of other kids. For a few short years me and my fellow disc jockeys John Burke and Peter Scott and Mike Surette and all the rest of them supplied the soundtrack of these kids lives, and we all had fun together, so much more fun than grilling hamburgers.

Remembering Steve Starchev

Steve Starchev

Looking through the Wayback Machine just now I stumbled upon a bit I’d posted about my friend and colleague Steve Starchev. The old version of this blog imploded a few years after posting about Steve, rendering these memories inaccessible, so, because Steve was a special guy, I thought I’d dust them off and get them back out into the light of day, where they belong:

Life is Fleeting

Filed under: LifeThe CBCGenius Friends — February 20, 2006 @ 11:13 am

I got this in my inbox this morning:

It is with great sadness that I write to you today to inform you that our colleague Steve Starchev passed away this weekend after a long illness.

Steve will be greatly missed by both his friends in the SRC/CBC radio services and by the music community of Toronto to whom he gave so much delight over the years.I worked closely with Steve for four and a half years up in the French department of CBC Radio. He was charming, affable, a really pleasant person to work with, and he introduced me to a lot of great music. He was also young, older than me but damned young, too young to die. They diagnosed him with kidney cancer this past August and now, six months later, he’s gone.I didn’t even get to say goodbye, which is my fault, because I didn’t make the time. Shame on me.

Goodbye, Steve. You will be missed.

8 Comments »

  1. Palmira:
    February 23rd, 2006 @ 7:15 pm It’s been nice to see such lovely things written about Steve Starchev…amazing isn’t it? I am his aunt and there seems to be an entire life he led that I didn’t know about. I knew about his radio program and his love of music, of course. But the vast number of people that he knew is something I was not aware of. Many members of Steve’s large family are also musicians and so his love of music was not a surprise to anyone of us.Steve, his sister Lili, my brother Rudi (also his uncle) and I grew up together, as only four years separated the oldest (me) from the youngest (Lili). We were more like brothers and sisters than an aunt, uncle, nephew and niece. I visited Steve in the hospital and told him he had to get better, that any other alternatives were unacceptable. He said no problem….he’d just bought a new pair of shoes and he planned to wear them. Good I thought, that’s the right attitude. His passing has left a huge void in our family, especially in his Mother’s heart. He fell out of line. It should not have been his turn. Not yet. There is a natural order to life and when that goes awry, hearts are broken and lives are changed forever. Because of his suffering, Steve’s passing was a blessing at first, but now it just hurts to know he’s gone. I hope he’s in the good company of the many musicians who have gone before him and I also hope that he’s playing whatever instrument he can get his hands on at full volume and wearing those new shoes. Steve, you are missed.
    P.
  2. Kendal:
    February 25th, 2006 @ 10:35 pm I am Steve’s oldest niece. It’s so nice to know that my uncle was loved by so many people. I lived in Toronto for about a year, and coming from a small town, I didn’t know much. He was such a caring person and was always there when no one else was. That’s the way he was, though. Obviously not only for me, but so many people I didn’t know about. I miss you so much.
    Love Kendal
  3. Leslie Soos:
    February 28th, 2006 @ 4:09 pm I knew Steve since our days at Central Tech. He was a good friend, and I will always remember him as a kind, intelligent individual. I regret not keeping in closer touch, but sometimes we don’t realise how quickly time progresses.If anyone can please put me in touch with his sister, Lili, or his family, I would greatly appreciate it. I know email addresses are not displayed on this site, but would request that mine be given to Steve’s family, or vice versa, so I can pay my respects.
  4. Syl Lebar:
    March 2nd, 2006 @ 11:42 pm I am Steve’s youngest uncle. In fact the only uncle that is actually younger than he was…by 3½ years. We used to talk about how odd that was and the fact that it was due to the nature of our large family. There was a time from the late 70’s going into the late 80’s when Steve and I were more buddies than family. We did everything together…concerts, girls, a beer, and often sitting and listening to great music together, and discussing it. One thing I will never forget Steve for was his constant encouragement in my musical endeavours. He was one of the few family members that would sit and listen to me play the piano. His comment was often, “what I’d give to play like that!” His sense of humour was for me one of his most outstanding features…he’d have me in stitches with a mere glance. We were in a video arcade once and I started playing a ‘disco’ pinball game. Steve put on an act of embarrassment with simply a facial expression, and even at 20 paces his ever so sideways glance had me laughing so hard I was in tears. I remember many a time when he got me laughing so hard it literally hurt. My son happens to be the youngest grandchild while Steve was the eldest. I got a great picture of them together at his Mother’s place over a Thanksgiving dinner. I remember the moment vividly when Emil went and stood beside him, and the thought suddenly occured to me that these two were cousins at opposite ends of the age spectrum. 41 years to be exact. My son believes that Steve is playing his Hurdy-Gurdy for St. Peter right now. Knowing Steve that’s probably right, and he most likely has St. Peter in stitches too! Steve, you will be fondly missed. Thanks for leaving me with such great memories of the times we spent together.
  5. Lili (Starchev) Brands:
    March 3rd, 2006 @ 2:35 am Hi, I am Steve’s sister. It is so wonderful to know that Steve was so well thought of by those whose lives he touched. I miss him so terribly already, and feel so very privileged that I was able to be there with him and for him during his last peaceful moments. I remember all the fun times we had as kids, and the many friends we shared due to being only 14 months apart. Steve is forever embedded in my heart and I am so thankful for the time I had with my “big brother” Thanks to everybody for your kind words and condolences it means a lot to me and to his family.
    Seka (Little Sister)

Here’s Steve performing

Steve Starchev performing Fortune My Foe/Salterello with the Early Music/Folk band Fools Dance at the Mill Race Festival in Cambridge Ontario in 1994. Fools Dance are: Steve Starchev-guitar, Michael Franklin-flute and recorder, Ben Grossman-drum and tar, Laurence Stevenson-fiddle and bodhran.

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