Writer, Broadcaster

Category: Name Dropping (Page 1 of 16)

The Matt Watts Years

An Excerpt from Something Technical: A Memoir

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

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

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

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

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

A Favourite Clip from Steve the First

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe next time.

A Time and a Place Update

Cover Art for A Time and a Place, by Jeff Minkevics A Time and a Place

A consequence of my publisher, Five Rivers Publishing, shutting down operations this year was that the novel I had published with them, A Time and a Place (which I will henceforth refer to as ATAAP in this post), was delisted from most book sellers. It therefore became imperative that I get it back out there lest it become well and truly out of print.

My experience with Five Rivers has been a uniformly positive one all the way through and this proved true at the end as well. I say Five Rivers but really I mean Lorina Stephens, the soul, essence, and driving force of Five Rivers. Lorina ensured that the transition of rights was as painless as possible, transforming all the rights for ATAAP back to me (and the rest of her authors) without any fuss or bother. The situation with Audible proved a little problematic for some of Lorina’s other authors as Audible was a bit of a stickler with third party producers involved, but it turned out to be easier for me as I was the sole performer and producer on the audiobook version of ATAAP. Three or four emails with Audible and we got that all sorted out.

Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Indigo and so on was a little more time consuming. I decided to release what turned out to be a second edition of ATAAP under my own publishing house, Donovan Street Press. I took the opportunity to scour the manuscript and eliminate about eight typos that had driven me crazy since the original publication. Even though I had gone over the manuscript umpteen times after we finished editing it back in 2017, I’d still managed to miss those eight. It is unbelievably difficult to catch every typo in a novel. Your eye scans right past them. Every time I read a book from one of the major publishers I delight in spotting typos as they make me feel better about mine. Typose exist in just about every book you will ever read (and if they don’t, I don’t want to hear about it).

Typos in the original version of ATAAP included (in no particular order):

  • P 186 the only way could think of (missing the “I”)
  • P180 passenger street (should be passenger seat)
  • P363 excess spaces in sentence 
  • P291 made a mess of it (should be make a mess of it) 
  • P289 eying (should be eyeing)
  • Diane Savident (should be Diana Savident) (this was rather embarrassing for me as Diana was a family friend)
  • P28: should be “the two of them vanished…” (Not the two of them had vanished)
  • P181 print version: should be Nissan Rogue (not Nissan Rouge) (invariably over the last three years I’d be out running errands and I’d find myself behind a Nissan Rogue, and I’d think of that typo. I’d grit my teeth and think, “I’m following a typo.”)
  • P375 “You’re here, where ever here is, allowing people to use you (to) wipe out entire civilizations” (missing “to”)

Rereading the manuscript, I was also horrified to discover a story glitch, a missing bit of narrative hand-holding regarding the nature of Sebastian. Probably not a big deal to the average reader, as Sebastian’s nature eventually becomes crystal clear, but it really needed to be made explicit early on. So this was an opportunity to correct that with the addition of a bit of extra dialogue in Chapter Five.

Finally, one reader had pointed out in private correspondence that I had exhibited a particular fondness for the word particularly. You will find far fewer instances of this word in the Second Edition of A Time and a Place (and in any future novels I write).

Despite the over abundance of the word particularly, ATAAP has managed to receive some pretty good reviews since its original publication in 2017. Releasing a second edition was an opportunity to include some of those reviews off the top of the book. I’m grateful to the following authors for their kind words in support of the book: Andrew Weston (author of the internationally bestselling IX series), A.B. Funkhauser (author of Shell Game: A Black Cat Novel), Brian Wyvill (author of The Second Gate), and comedian, actor and writer Matt Watts (Newsroom, Michael: Tuesdays and Thursdays).

All these updates required getting a new ISBN and hiring Eric Desmarais to produce a new layout (Eric had done an excellent job on the original layout). I’ve also contracted an updated cover from original cover artist Jeff Minkevics which I hope to make a part of ATAAP‘s Second Edition sometime in the next month or so.

Because it was important to get ATAAP back out there, I’ve already released the ebook and Kindle version on the sly through Draft2Digital. You will find it at every major online book retailer. Physical copies are still available but they will be second hand. I’m waiting to publish the second edition of A Time and a Place in physical form once I have the new cover in hand which, as I mentioned, will hopefully be in the next month or so.

I should also point out that the version of ATAAP up on Audible is the original version. Maybe I’ll update that version too one day, but to be honest I’m not in a rush to do so. Too many other important things to do, like finish my second novel, Captain’s Away. More on that later.

So, long story short, there’s a new, updated version of A Time and a Place out there, folks. Feel free to check it out.

Neil Munro and Barry Morgan

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

Neil Munro

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

Neil Munro has passed away at 62 years of age.

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

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

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

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

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

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

So long, Inspector Nickles.

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

Anyway, here's what he wrote in response:

Barry Morgan

Writer, Producer, Director, All Round Nice Guy

 Joe, a really nice appreciation of Neil.

Perhaps I can clarify the “one take” reference.

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

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

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

I will always treasure his friendship.

Moses and the Master Control Land

February 5th, 1993. I was working the evening shift in the new Radio Master Control at the Toronto Broadcast Centre. At this time we were still linked to the old Radio Master Control on Jarvis Street. Joram Kalfa was visiting me during his supper break. We had some business to discuss as he would be working for me the next day so that I could attend my roommate Ron Koperdraad’s wedding. Also, we just liked to sit around and talk about things when we had the chance, and as shifts at this time in the new Radio Master were slack, it was a good time to chat. 

My back was to the main door of the place and we were talking with our feet up on the table. At one point Joram, who was facing me, looked over my shoulder. I turned and saw Moses Znaimer of City-TV fame peering through the rectangular (allegedly bullet-resistant) glass beside the door. A couple of other men stood behind him, one youthful though prematurely grey and wearing a suit, the other a CBC Security Guard. They were just looking, it didn’t appear as though they wanted in, and in fact had started to wander off. I scurried around the racks of equipment to open the door, thinking that, hey, maybe they would be interested in a look around, and besides, it was an opportunity to meet Moses Znaimer. It’s my understanding that Znaimer used to be a CBC radio producer, and in fact started Cross-Country-Checkup before going on to his City TV and Muchmusic fame.

When I opened the door they turned back. I asked if they would like to look inside and sure enough Moses, just as his namesake led the Hebrews to the Promised Land, led his followers into Master Control Land.

Moses snooped around like a cat in a new house. He was quite inquisitive and gave the room a good looking over.

“Looks primitive,” he said, which struck me as an odd remark considering it was a brand new facility laden with state-of-the-art technology.

Joram and I looked at one another, and then Joram clued into the fact that Znaimer was referring to the plethora of purple patch cords strung along the patch bays. Just about every patch cord in the place was being used in an awful tangled mess. This was a temporary measure connecting the new Master Control with the old Master Control, as they were operating in tandem until we had the new facility running up to speed. So we could see why Moses labelled this mess of patch cords primitive in an age of digital technology, where you might think that few patch cords might be necessary.

We enlightened the man. 

He wanted to know exactly what the room did, and what its relationship was with the old Master Control on Jarvis Street, and it took a few minutes to explain all that. I asked him how he thought it compared to his operation.

“Very pretty, very pretty.”

At one point he laughed at the boxes we kept our DAT tapes in. DAT tapes were very small and the boxes we had for them very large. In fact, they were kept in boxes that were originally meant for 2400” reels of tape, 12” in diameter. A DAT tape is maybe an inch and a half by two and a half inches, so the arrangement did look kind of funny. We stored them that way for ease of transport (the larger boxes were easier to carry with other tapes the same size) and also to recycle those boxes.  

And then Moses and his small posse were off to finish their tour of the Broadcast Centre elsewhere. 

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