Writer, Broadcaster

Category: Name Dropping (Page 1 of 19)

Freelancing

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

(Here’s some more).

Photo by Barthy Bonhomme from Pexels

I missed being on air.

I was getting tired of being the tech. The bottom of the food chain. First came the talent, then the producers, then the mice, then the cockroaches, and finally the techs.

I had been the talent once. I wanted to be the talent again.

I began by applying for on air jobs within CBC. I applied to be host of the afternoon show in Charlottetown. It didn’t seem much of a stretch. I had already broadcast from three of the five radio stations on PEI (CJRW, CFCY, and Q-93). I only had CHTN and CBCT-FM left to go. I didn’t even land an interview. Instead I got a rejection letter addressed to someone else (who presumably got my letter).  

I applied for another host job, this time in Prince Rupert, British Columbia. They asked me to provide a sample of an on-air interview. As a disc jockey, I’d read the news, weather, sports, ferry reports, introduced records, and other, less pleasant tasks (“At this time we regret to make the following announcement”), but I’d never conducted interviews. I needed to get an interview on tape. Trish Thornton offered to help me.

“Who can I interview?” I asked her.

“Someone famous,” she suggested.

 “Who?”

By then I’d already met several famous people, but I didn’t actually know any of them. We batted around a few names, but none seemed right.

“What about Ray Lund’s father?” Trish suggested finally.

Ray Lund was a fellow radio tech also in his twenties, a wonderfully laid-back guy who loved to fish. We called him “the fishin’ technician.”

“The fishin’ technician’s father’s famous?”

“Ray’s father is Alan Lund,” Trish explained. “He’s famous. You should know this. You’re from Prince Edward Island! He choreographed and directed the first ever Anne of Green Gables musical.”

I was impressed. I’d seen the Anne of Green Gables musical at Confederation Centre in Charlottetown at least twice. It was pretty good. I’d had no idea that the fishin’ technician was descended from such renowned stock.  

Ray spoke to his father. Alan Lund kindly agreed to let me interview him via phone. I prepared a bunch of questions, and one evening, Trish, Ray and I commandeered Studio C to record the interview. Trish operated the console. Alan Lund waxed loquacious about his illustrious career. He was terrific. Unfortunately, his tales knocked me completely off script. I could not figure out how to segue from his answers to my follow-up questions with anything resembling grace. Interviewing, I discovered, was a lot harder than it looked.

I edited the interview into something palatable and sent it off to the folks in Prince Rupert. I never heard back. At least Charlottetown had sent me a rejection letter, even if it had been addressed to someone else.  

Applying for host jobs wasn’t getting me anywhere. I needed to try something else.

Maybe, I reflected, I could start by freelancing. By which I mean producing content for CBC Radio on the side as a freelancer.  

CBC Radio is always on the lookout for content. That’s because radio is insatiable. It requires content twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year with no end in sight. You have to feed it constantly. It’s a goat with an insatiable appetite. We’re always looking for content to “feed the goat.” The goat doesn’t get fed? You wind up with dead air. You don’t want dead air when you’re working in radio. What is dead air? It’s unintended silence, an interruption of programming, and one of the worst things that can happen to a professional radio broadcaster. Those of us who do live radio often dream about dead air. When I worked at CFCY/Q-93 on Prince Edward Island I told one of my fellow DJs about such a dream.

“You had a dead air dream,” he told me. “I have those all the time.”

Once I had a dead air dream about working on Morningside with Peter Gzowski. Nothing went right because I couldn’t reach the controls on the audio console. The console was just a big sheer wall in front of me. I couldn’t scale the wall, so the faders remained just out of reach. Because I couldn’t make anything work, we broadcast dead air. It was horrible. Dead air dream? Dead air nightmare, more like it.

In the constant, unrelenting battle to ward off dead air, freelancers are a critical component. Back in the early nineties, when I was plotting my return to on air status, one of the best ways into CBC Radio as a freelancer was via a department called Infotape (later called The Content League, and then Syndication). Infotape produced and distributed short audio features to CBC Radio morning and afternoon shows across Canada to help flesh out their content.

As a Group 4 Radio Technician, I often worked with Infotape producers. We helped freelancers produce commentaries, financial and historical columns, and so on. How difficult could it be to come up with some content of my own that I could sell to Infotape, to get my foot in the door?

Film reviews, for instance. I often recorded film reviewer (and author) Michael Skeet’s reviews for Infotape. I enjoyed his reviews, but as a movie buff myself I always rather cockily thought that I could do just as well. That is, until one day I recorded his review for the movie Nine and a Half Weeks. During his read, Michael pronounced the director’s name, which is spelled Adrian Lyne, as Adrian Lin. Now, I knew my directors.

“It’s pronounced “line, not lin,” I told producer Ian Hamilton.

Ian hit the talkback. “Joe thinks his name is pronounced Line.”

“No, it’s pronounced Lin,” Michael assured us.

This was well before the internet. We had no way of instantly verifying the pronunciation, but it turned out Michael was right. 

So, maybe movie reviews weren’t the way to go, then.

Rex Murphy frequently recorded commentaries for Infotape. That’s how I first met him (not that he would remember). He wasn’t “Rex Murphy” then, at least to me. I didn’t have a clue who he was. I assumed was a freelancer. He arrived at the studio, handed me his script, and I helped him get comfortable in the booth. I’d learned that many freelancers and guests come from backgrounds far removed from radio; anything you can do to help them get comfortable in a radio environment helps their performance. So, I asked this “freelancer” if he knew how to turn his mic off and on, whether he knew how to adjust the volume of his headphones, and so on. He did not let on that I might be telling him stuff he already knew.

To my surprise, he performed a single pass on the script with no pickups. This was unusual. Still, I had two issues with his performance. One was a slight vocal stumble. The other was a questionable word choice. I mentioned both when he emerged from the booth. When you’re working with mere mortals (and even when you’re not) everyone involved in the process usually wants to get things right. Pointing out mistakes so that they might be corrected is just part of the job. As former CBC Radio Drama Producer (and actor and director) John Juliani once said,* “When the doors to the studio close the job positions blur.”

Instead of responding to my constructive criticism, Murphy thanked me for recording him and left the studio. Only afterward did I discover that he was a well-established broadcaster in Newfoundland on the cusp of becoming a national personality. 

No doubt he had been bemused by my attempt to “produce” him.

Pursuing my own on-air aspirations, I pitched an idea for a “streeter” to Infotape producer Laurie Townsend. Streeters are short, snappily edited interviews with people out in the real world, “on the street,” as it were. I thought it would be fun to do a streeter about Prince Edward Island. Being from PEI, I had discovered that people “from away” had a lot of funny ideas about Canada’s smallest province. (Islanders refer to anyone not from PEI as “from away.” My parents moved to PEI from New Brunswick in 1966 and are still considered from away.)

Laurie liked the idea. Trish Thornton found me an SM58 microphone and a professional cassette recorder—this was before DAT recorders and long before digital. The cassette recorder was a professional Sony unit, the TCM-5000 Three Head Portable Cassette Recorder. Sturdy, reliable, easy to use. Comfortable shoulder strap. Pressing play and record on that baby was very satisfying, a solid mechanical two-finger crunch. Mono but that was all I needed for my modest purposes.

So armed, one evening after work I made my way downtown to the corner of Yonge and Dundas where I stood at the north-east corner of the Eaton Centre. The idea was to flag down passers-by to get their thoughts on Prince Edward Island. I was horribly self-conscious. I could barely bring myself to approach anybody.

“Excuse me… excuse me…”

People just ignored me, everyone in a rush, zero interest in talking to the strange young man waving a microphone about. But I couldn’t leave without getting a few interviews. Finally, a young woman consented to speak with me. Over the hustle and bustle of Yonge Street, I told her, “I’m with CBC Radio doing a piece on Prince Edward Island. What do you think of when I say Prince Edward Island?”

She thought for a bit. “Potatoes.”

Emboldened, I approached others.

“Potatoes.”

“Potatoes.”

“Potatoes.”

“Anne of Green Gables.”

“Gorgeous scenery, seafood.”

I approached a well-dressed man in his late thirties. “I just want to throw something at you, get your immediate reaction. Prince Edward Island, what do you think of?”

 “Uh, I’m not familiar with him.”

“You’ve never heard of Prince Edward Island?”

“Prince Allen? No, I haven’t, no.”

“Prince Edward.”

“Prince Edward? Yeah, I’ve heard of Prince Edward, right.”

“Prince Edward Island, it’s a province of Canada?”

“Oh, oh, I’m sorry, Prince Edward… Island. No, I can’t say that I have.”

 Turned out he was from the States.

I stood at Yonge and Dundas long enough to get plenty of tape. I talked to people about PEI potatoes (“they’re creamier or something”). Nobody knew who the premier of PEI was, though one man came close, guessing “Ghizzie.” (The correct response was Joe Ghiz). I asked people about the population of PEI. Guesses ranged from ten million to three or four thousand. The actual population at this time (late summer 1991) was about 130,000.

Back in the studio, I edited all the responses together. Trish helped me write a script around it. As usual, she operated the board as I recorded the piece. We mixed in a bit of Stompin’ Tom’s Bud the Spud for good measure, and I presented the finished product to Laurie. She liked it. She took it to her colleagues in Infotape. I waited for it to be fed to the regions for broadcast, and for my on-air career to take off.  

PEI Streeter

I waited, and waited, and waited.

One day during all this waiting the fire alarm in the Jarvis Street Radio Building went off. I stood in the parking lot with Ray the fishin’ technician waiting to be allowed back in the building. The host of a popular disc show waited with us. Both Ray and I had operated this host’s show for him. Ray and the host got to chatting.

“So, what do you do here?” the host asked after a few minutes.

Ray’s eyes narrowed. “I’m a radio tech.”

“Oh,” the host said. “What shows do you work on?”

Ray stared at him. “Yours.”

I wandered off and bumped into Laurie from Infotape. “There’s an election coming up,” I told her. “Ghiz might not be Premier much longer. If he’s not premier, my piece will be out of date.”

Laurie finally convinced her colleagues to syndicate the item, and it played on a few markets around the country. As luck would have it, I was visiting PEI when they finally played it in February 1992. I heard it broadcast out of Charlottetown, and was pleased as punch. Felt pretty good about myself. The day after the piece was broadcast, I drove Lynda (my future wife) to the ferry terminal in Bordon to take the boat over to Moncton to visit her sister. I thought I’d impress her by showing her a shortcut to the ferry terminal, one I often took in the summer. It was a dirt road. This was the dead of winter. In PEI they don’t plough all the dirt roads in the winter. Despite having been raised there, I didn’t know that. I got Lynda’s brand-new Pontiac Sunbird stuck in the snow. Stuck real good. We had to get a farmer with a tractor to tow us out.

Afterward, Lynda’s father asked, me, “You couldn’t see that it wasn’t ploughed?”

One minute you’re up, the next you’re down.  

Still, my first attempt at freelancing had been a success. Over the years I produced several more pieces: streeters, documentaries, and so on. A favourite streeter was about the impending retirement of cartoonist Gary Larson, the man behind the comic strip The Far Side. People enjoyed sharing thoughts about their favourite Far Side comics with me. I interspersed their reminisces with funny sound effects, and the item played in various markets across Canada, including Metro Morning in Toronto.

Gary Larson Streeter

The day it played on Metro Morning I was working for CJBC on the fifth floor. During one of our live shows the studio phone rang. It was someone from Metro Morning, who told me that Gary Larson had heard my piece about him on their show. He was upset about the item. So upset, in fact, that he was considering legal action. I would be hearing from his representative soon.

I hung up thinking, that can’t be right. There wasn’t a damned thing the least bit objectionable about the piece. I had quoted some of the gags from the comics, but that was it. Was Gary Larson crazy? I was seriously bummed.

By the end of the following day I hadn’t heard from anyone. I called an acquaintance on Metro Morning. Turned out it had all been a practical joke. Ha ha.

 All my freelancing eventually generated listener e-mail. Two, to be precise. After The Arts Tonight broadcast a radio documentary I produced about science fiction, an associate producer for the show told me about them and promised to forward them to me. Naturally I was keen to see them. Several days went by. No emails.

“What, does she have to build a computer from the ground up before she can forward them to me?” I complained to another producer via email, and then hit send.

Moments later the associate producer from The Arts Tonight plunked a piece of paper down in front of me. Not the listener emails. My email.

“Maybe you meant to send this to someone else,” she suggested. 

I had accidentally emailed my griping about her to her rather than the person I’d intended. If she held it against me, she didn’t show it. It was better than I deserved. I have respected her ever since. (She finally forwarded me the listener email.)

Never did get that on-air job I’d been looking for, though.


A Time and a Place by Joe Mahoney:

“Unlike any other sci-fi you’ve ever read. This book was both comic and tragic, sad and funny, with a hero who tries to do the right thing but always seems to stumble. Recommended.” Lee Herman, Amazon 5 Star Review.


*Thanks to former CBC Radio Vancouver Recording Engineer Chris Cutress for the John Juliani quote.

The Adventures of Apocalypse Al

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

(Here’s some more).

Cynthia Dale as Apocalypse Al

Greg Sinclair directed J. Michael Straczynski’s The Adventures of Apocalypse Al. Greg DeClute was the recording engineer. Colleen Woods was the associate producer.

I was assigned to do sound effects. As a fan of the television series Babylon 5 and Straczynski, its creator, I was glad to do it.

 The Adventures of Apocalypse Al is the story of a tough female private eye out to save the world. Not quite our world. A world of imps, zombies, techno-wizards, trolls, an undead ex-boyfriend, and so on. It consisted of twenty approximately five-minute long episodes. Cynthia Dale (Street Legal) played the female private eye, the eponymous Apocalypse Al. Other memorable actors included Colm Feore (The Umbrella Academy, Bon Cop Bad Cop) and Chuck Shamata (The Day After Tomorrow, Cinderella Man). Chuck was so good that Straczynski wrote him additional dialogue on the spot. I convinced Sinclair to cast Matt Watts in a cameo as a ticket taker in an amusement park. Matt’s sardonic delivery was perfect.

Straczynski showed up with Sara Barnes, who introduced herself as Samm. Like Straczynski, Samm writes television and comics. Samm was almost always with Straczynski during the production of Apocalypse Al but no one minded. We all liked Samm.

Whenever I work with someone famous, or someone whose work I admire, I have to decide: do I admit my appreciation for their work? Or do I pretend that I don’t know who they are? When I spent four days recording Margaret Atwood at her house, although well aware of her place in the CanLit pantheon, I pretended that I didn’t know who she was. It made it easier to relate to her as a normal human being.

Working with J. Michael Straczynski on The Adventures of Apocalypse Al I took a different tack. Early on I admitted to Straczynski that I was a fan of Babylon 5, and had read his column in Writer’s Digest, and knew about his work in comics. I even told him my two favourite Babylon 5 moments. The first was from the episode The Geometry of Shadows. Elric says to Captain Sheridan, “(I have learned) the true secrets, the important things. Fourteen words to make someone fall in love with you forever. Seven words to make them go without pain, or to say goodbye to a friend who is dying.” (I wish I knew what those words were…)

And the moment when G’Kar believes that Londo has done right by G’Kar’s people. G’Kar tells Londo how much this means to him, only to learn that in fact Londo has betrayed him. He’s arranged for an attack on the G’Kar’s homeworld. G’Kar’s reaction is heartbreaking. Stellar plotting on the part of Straczynski, and a pivotal moment in the series.

Straczynski seemed to enjoy talking about his work. He wouldn’t answer all my questions, though. For instance, between the first and second season of Babylon 5 the lead actor, Michael O’Hare (playing Commander Jeffrey Sinclair), was replaced by Bruce Boxleitner (playing Captain John Sheridan). Exactly why O’Hare dropped out of the show was a mystery. Straczynski had written about the transition in online forums but had stopped short of explaining it.

Referring to this, I said, “You weren’t very forthcoming about the transition from Sinclair to Sheridan, why that happened.”

“No, I wasn’t,” he said.  

“So, I won’t ask you about it, then.”

“No, you won’t,” he said.

After O’Hare’s death of a heart attack in 2012, Straczynski revealed that O’Hare had left the series due to severe mental illness. To protect O’Hare’s career, he’d promised O’Hare he’d keep it a secret until his death. And he did.

What Straczynski seemed to enjoy most was cracking wise. Just about everything out of his mouth was a joke. It was important to him to be the funniest man in the room. He almost always was.

There were a crazy amount of sound effects on Apocalpyse Al. Only one did I have any trouble with: the sound of Al’s car. It was supposed to be a muscle car. Probably I should have done what I’d done with Cherry Docs. I should have taken a tape recorder out on the street to record somebody’s sports car. But it wasn’t like we were making a feature film. I didn’t have an unlimited budget and tons of time. I was forced to rely on the radio drama department’s fairly extensive (though not quite extensive enough) sound effects library.

Mixing the show in Studio 212, we reached the first scene featuring Al’s car. Greg DeClute hit play on Pro Tools. We all heard the sound of Al’s car revving up in the control room’s enormous SOTA speakers.

Straczynski said, “What’s that?”

“That’s Al’s car,” I said.

“Al’s driving a lawnmower?” This was vintage Straczynski.

I didn’t like the sound I’d chosen either, but it was the best I’d been able to find. Clearly, I needed to do better.

“Lose it,” Straczynski said.

I deleted the unsatisfactory sound effect.

Straczynski suggested that we move on.

I was surprised. I needed to find another sound effect to replace the one I’d deleted. Officially, we only had that day to mix the episode we were working on. We couldn’t move on until I’d addressed the problem.  

Pointing at the Pro Tools mix window, which now featured a gaping hole where the sound of the car had been, I said, “What about this hole?”

“I’m looking at it,” Straczynski said, looking straight at me.

After a few seconds of uncomfortable silence, we moved on. I would have to wait to fix the car sound effect.

The mix took much longer than an ordinary radio play. Mainly this was because it was a high production piece with plenty of sound effects and lots of sonic treatments. But it was also because we often took a lot of time to discuss each scene. We debated whether to include footsteps (we usually don’t include footsteps in radio plays unless there’s some specific reason to draw attention to them). We debated whether to include music in certain scenes. The music was excellent, by a composer whose name I’ve (unfortunately) forgotten. Although composed largely (if not entirely) on synths, it was lush and full and complemented the material wonderfully, successfully evoking Apocalypse Al’s fantastical, private eye universe. Straczynski didn’t believe in placing music underneath scenes that were supposed to be funny. He felt that it got in the way of the humour. As a result, we left a lot of musical cues out. 

J. Michael Straczynski, Samm Barnes, Greg Sinclair, Colleen Woods in the control room of Studio 212 during the recording of The Adventures of Apocalypse Al

The mixes took so long that we ran out of our officially allotted time. I was just supposed to be the sound effects guy on this one, but the department asked me to come in on the weekend to finish the mix. Greg DeClute wasn’t available. Neither was Greg Sinclair, so it wound up being just me and Straczynski.

We spent a lot of time talking. And when I say talking, I mean Straczynski telling me stories. It didn’t help us finish the mix, but I wasn’t complaining. He was sublimely engaging. He told me (for instance) about a film script he was working on, about a woman reuniting with her son who had been missing, only to discover that the boy wasn’t actually her son at all. This was a pet project of Straczynski’s. He’d spent many years researching it. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but a couple of years later Clint Eastwood directed a movie starring Angelina Jolie about exactly that. Sure enough, Straczynski had written the script for the movie that became Changeling.

On Sunday, our last day working together, Straczynski said, “Listen. I know I crack a lot of jokes. I want to apologize if at any point I crossed the line or was offensive.”

There had just been the one remark, which I had opted not to take personally. As Lincoln is alleged to have said, “We should be too big to take offense, and too noble to give it.”

I had genuinely enjoyed Straczynski’s company.  

“I started this process a fan, and I’m finishing it as a fan,” I told him.

We shook hands, parted ways, and everyone lived happily after. Right?

Not exactly.

We still hadn’t finished the damn mix. By this time both Gregs were off on other projects. I spent the next couple of weeks mixing The Adventures of Apocalypse Al all by my lonesome in my favourite mixing studio, SFX 3. Occasionally Sinclair would pop in, listen to a scene or two, and suggest a few tweaks.

When it was finally done, I thought well that’s great. NOW we can all live happily ever after. The Adventures of Apocalypse Al was just about the most populist piece of entertainment the CBC radio drama department ever produced. I figured it would go a long way toward attracting a younger demographic. The Hitchhiker’s Guide crowd.

To help promote it, I posted about it on my blog. Jesse Willis, who runs a site called SFFAudio.com, began promoting it. Another site, Babylonpodcast.com, picked up on it. Straczynski himself talked it up, telling one blog (Dave Does the Blog) about it, who reported, “The CBC will be broadcasting a 12-episode (sic) radio series by Joe [Straczynski, not Mahoney] called The Adventures of Apocalypse Al, a noir sf comedy along the lines of Men in Black or Hitchhikers Guide.  Joe notes that it will eventually migrate to US radio and CD.”

Imagine my astonishment when, after all our hard work, and what must have been a considerable investment of money (at least in radio drama terms), the powers that be decided not to broadcast the show at all. Not even a single episode.

Why?

I don’t know. I wasn’t a part of that decision-making process, and every single person that was is now long gone from CBC Radio.

Blogger Jesse Willis started an online campaign that he called Free the Adventures of Apocalypse Al, with no success. The Adventures of Apocalypse Al was shelved, never aired. It’s probably not even in the CBC Archives.     

Years later the legal department came around asking me about the project. It seemed Straczynski wanted the rights to the show and was willing to pay. I don’t know how much money changed hands. I made copies of the production from the existing masters. I assume they were passed on to Straczynski, but I don’t know for sure, as we haven’t stayed in touch.

On March 14, 2014, Jesse Willis reported the following:

“Nearly 10 years ago I began reporting that J. Michael Straczynski had been asked to write a radio drama for CBC Radio One. Later, we learned that Cynthia Dale had been cast in the title role. And still later that the show was in production. And it was indeed recorded. But it never aired. Over the years the campaign to get it aired plodded along—but without any success. Then a couple of years ago word of a comics version came about. [Editor’s note: On June 10th, 2014, Straczynski and Image Comics released a comic book version of The Adventures of Apocalypse Al with artists Sid Kotian and Bill Farmer.] Now, after the comics version is actually out (the first issue was dated February 2014) I am stunned to report that there is indeed now a new audio drama available. I should point out that this is an entirely NEW recording (not the one Canadian taxpayers paid for but never heard) and we don’t know yet if the remaining 3/4 of the story will be produced for audio.”

From SFFAudio

The new audio version of The Adventures of Apocalypse Al was produced by Patricia Tallman. Tallman had been one of the actors on Babylon 5. (She had also appeared in several Star Trek franchises and had been Laura Dern’s stunt double in Jurassic Park. She also briefly ran Straczynski’s production company, Studio JMS.) The cast of this new version included Patricia Tallman herself as Allison Carter, Robin Atkin Downes, Fred Tatasciore, and Stephanie Walters. Robin Atkin Downes was also the sound effects editor/designer.

I’ve never heard this version, and probably never will, though I am curious whether Robert Atkin Downes managed to find a decent muscle car sound effect.

From back left: Samm Barnes, Cynthia Dale, Greg DeClute, J. Michael Straczynski, Greg Sinclair, and I can’t tell who the rest are

“Birth” of a Radio Play

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

(Here’s some more).

Phil Akin, Rob Sawyer, Michael Lennick, Joe Ziegler
recording “hubbub” for the CBC Radio play Birth

We spent a few weeks flinging notes back and forth, refining the script for our radio play Birth. A couple of sample notes:

Page 7, Line 3: Does Juan always say “goddamned” bugbots?  This is twice in a row.  Now, if he says it every single time, that could be funny…

And…

Is there any reason why Dr. Askwith couldn’t be a woman?  To balance the cast…

(I didn’t realize at the time that the character was an homage to producer, writer, interviewer Mark Askwith of Prisoners Gravity and Space Channel fame.)

After signing off on the final polish we began to ready Birth for production. Michael Lennick, co-writer of the play with Rob Sawyer, let it be known that he was interested in directing it. Considering his background in television and film production he would have made out just fine. Where he might have lacked the grammar of radio drama production I could easily have helped out. But I was producer of the project. As such, I had the right to direct it. Because it would constitute my first opportunity to direct a radio play, and because I’m a selfish bastard, I wasn’t about to pass it up. I hoped it would be a stepping-stone to more such projects.

I explained this to Michael. He took it graciously.

Casting Director Linda Grearson helped us land some fine actors, including Phil Akin (The Sum of All Fears), Joseph Ziegler (founding member of Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre), Jean Yoon (Kim’s Convenience), Andrew Gillies (later of Orphan Black, and who had been featured in my adaptation of The Cold Equations), Brenda Robins (Heartland), Jani Lauzon (Saving Hope, A Windigo Tale, and with whom I had worked on Six Impossible Things).

It typically takes one day to record a full cast for a half hour radio play such as Birth. On cast day I felt confident. Wayne Richards was my recording engineer. It was good to have a friend at the controls. The ebullient Rosie Fernandez was our Associate Producer. Such a positive presence. Michael Lennick, Rob Sawyer and I sat with Rosie behind the credenza in Studio 212. I would be able to consult with both Michael and Rob about the script if need be. I had spent several years watching various directors do their thing in this very room. If they could do it, I could do it. Right?

The cast of Birth: Jean Yoon, Phil Aiken, Joe Ziegler, Andrew Gillies

How hard could it be?

Harder than I expected.  

Wayne opened the mics on the Euphonix System 5. He hit record on ProTools. We did a take of the first scene. Afterward, I didn’t feel we’d gotten what we’d needed. I went out to the main floor of the studio to sort it out with the actors, among them Phil Akin. I knew Phil a bit, having worked with him before. I’d cast him hoping that along with being a talented actor his (relatively) familiar presence would help put me at ease.

Phil happened to have a Black Belt in Aikido. Once, I’d overheard him offer up some martial arts advice: “In a fight, the first thing I’d do is kick my opponent in the inner thigh. Give them a Charlie Horse. It would hurt like hell, disable them right away.” It so happened I was studying Matsubayashi Ryu Karate at the time. Once, at the dojo I attended, a black belt had asked me if I’d ever experienced a Charlie horse.

“No,” I said.

“You should,” the black belt told me. “So you know what it feels like.” Without warning, he kicked me hard in the inner thigh, giving me a Charlie Horse.

The pain was excruciating.

 So, I agreed with Phil on that point.

One of the shows I’d worked with Phil on had been an episode of The Mystery Project. I’d been the recording engineer. I’d had an issue with the first take of the first scene on that production too, but the problem had been technical. Something wrong with the quality of the audio. The actors had all sounded off mic. After confirming that nothing was wrong with the console, I checked out the Dead Room where Phil was waiting around the MS stereo microphone with the other actors. The problem was immediately obvious.

“Did you figure it out?” Phil asked.

“Yes,” I said. “Someone hung the microphone backwards.” (It might have been me.)

Phil mimed smoking a cigarette. Not just any cigarette. “Have another toke!” he said in strangled voice.

Back to the recording of Birth, shortly after the first take of the first scene. The actors were talking loudly amongst themselves and I was having trouble getting their attention.

“Take control, Joe,” Phil instructed, if not exactly conferring authority upon me, dangling it before me, at least.

Okay.

But how?

I didn’t know what to say. I knew that something wasn’t working in the scene, but I had no idea how to fix it. No clue what to tell the actors. Other than give them line readings (saying the line for them) but it was my understanding that actors typically resented line readings, so I didn’t do that. All those years watching other directors, arrogantly thinking , “I can do that.” Every bit as naive as a director thinking they could sit down, roll up their sleeves, and operate the multitrack audio console just because they’d sat in the same room as an engineer for years.

I muddled through.

At lunch, I asked Michael how he thought it was going.

“It’s like being chauffeured in a Rolls Royce,” he told me.

Given my obvious lack of experience directing it couldn’t possibly have been true. Michael must surely have been wishing that he was directing the production himself. But he was far too gracious to say so.

Recording Engineer Wayne Richards at the controls

I was glad to get the cast recording over with. Once we finished taping I had far more control. I edited and mixed Birth in my favourite studio, Sound Effects 3 (SFX 3). As with my previous pet project Faster Than Light, I turned over every stone to get it perfect, or at least try to. I edited the dialogue tracks (picking and choosing from various takes) and laid in the sound effects. Michael showed up to help with the final mix.

Shortly before working on Birth I’d convinced my boss John McCarthy to purchase new plug-ins for the ProTools in SFX 3 (plug-ins are essentially special effects for audio). The usual plug-ins, the Gold Wave bundle, were good but limited. So, I had some great tools to work with. The only problem was, playing with the plug-ins, and trying to get everything just right, took me twice as long as it would have on a regular project. 

The upshot is that I didn’t finish the project in the time allotted. I had to come in on a day off. I worked all day, futzing around with the voice of the killer robots, trying to get it just right. Using my new plug-ins I finally managed to create an original treatment for the robot’s voice that I was happy with, that I didn’t remember hearing anywhere else on either TV or film (which had been my goal).

A few days afterward I had a meeting with one of our departmental managers about something else entirely during which I happened to mention that I’d come in on a day off to finish mixing Birth. I thought he’d be impressed by my dedication. Au contraire.

“You can’t do that,” he told me.

“Why not?” I asked. “It’s not like it cost the CBC anything.”

“It’s not fair to your colleagues,” he said. “Because you come in on a day off and they don’t, your work winds up sounding better than theirs.”

I mentioned this conversation to producer Bill Lane. “Talk about a culture of mediocrity,” he remarked. 

Birth premiered, Friday, July 8, 2005, at 10:00 p.m. across Canada on CBC Radio One as a part of a limited anthology series called Deep Night, executive produced by Gregory J. Sinclair.

Tragically, Michael Lennick passed away in 2014, way too young at the age of 61. Michael and I had hit it off, working together on Birth. Yet I never saw or spoke to him once afterward.

I really wish that had not been the case.

Rosie Fernandez, Michael Lennick, and Yours Truly behind the credenza in Studio 212

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.

Lorina Stephens Launches Dreams of the Moon

Recently I had the pleasure of helping my former publisher Lorina Stephens launch one of her own books, the latest of ten so far, this one a collection of short fiction entitled Dreams of the Moon.

The launch, which was conducted virtually (as so many necessarily are these days) was hosted by Richard Graeme Cameron, editor and publisher of the Aurora Award winning Canadian SF fiction magazine Polar Borealis.

As well as having run Five Rivers Publishing, Lorina has worked as an editor, a freelance journalist for national and regional print media, and (as mentioned) she is the author of ten books. She’s had several short fiction pieces published in well regarded venues such as Polar Borealis, On Spec, Neo-opsis, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s fantasy anthology Sword & Sorceress X.

Graeme recorded the launch, which included an interview with Lorina during which she expressed herself quite eloquently (certainly well enough for someone to invite her on, say, a national radio show about books, just saying) as well as a couple of short readings from Dreams of the Moon.

And here it is, in its entirety:

Other work by Lorina Stephens includes: And the Angels Sang; Caliban; Dreams of the Moon; From Mountains of Ice; Memories, Mother and a Christmas Addiction; The Rose Guardian; Shadow Song; co-editor Tesseracts 22: Alchemy and Artifacts; co-author The Giant’s Rib: Touring the Niagara Escarpment; Credit River Valley; Stonehouse Cooks

« Older posts

© 2021 Joe Mahoney

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑