Writer, Broadcaster

Category: Radio Drama (Page 1 of 6)

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.

Worms for Sale

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

(Here’s some more).

St. John’s, NFLD (photo credit Bigstock)

Set on the rock five years after Newfoundland’s Ocean Ranger disaster, Stacy Gardner’s Worms for Sale is a moving and amusing story of a mother still reeling from loss after the Ocean Ranger disaster and dealing with a daughter wanting to leave her small newfoundland town for Toronto.

“The title came first,” Stacy told me about writing it. “And then the characters just started popping up.”

A colleague at Covenant House in Toronto, where Stacy worked, had told her about a recent CBC Radio Drama submission call for which we ultimately received four hundred submissions. Stacy submitted Worms for Sale. I selected Worms for Sale because it exhibited a fresh charm and a clear originality of voice that appealed to me. Stacy hadn’t expected anything to come of her submission, but felt fortunate to have been short-listed, then finally commissioned.

“All of it was just beautiful, an unexpected gift,” she said.

As Stacy got Worms for Sale in shape for production, with the support of script editor Bev Cooper, it didn’t take long to complete. But no sooner had we got the script finalized did I found myself locked out of the CBC, along with most of my colleagues in yet another labour dispute, the infamous 2005 lockout

Back inside after two months of pounding the pavement, we decided to produce Stacy’s play in St. John’s Newfoundland, with the help of regional producer Glen Tilley. I had great admiration for Glen Tilley’s work (and his terrific moustache). He radiated Newfoundland charm and had produced the renowned satirical radio drama The Great Eastern (hosted by Paul Moth, aka Mack Furlong). Tilley was also responsible for influencing the build of their first proper radio drama studio in St. John’s, Studio F, which over the years hosted The Wonderful Grand Band, Great Big Sea, and more. It was in Studio F that we proposed to record Worms for Sale.

One day producer James Roy sidled up to my workstation. “You’d probably better get going on Worms for Sale,” he said. He didn’t explain why but it was clear that something was up.

Alarmed, I phoned Tilley to expedite dates and other arrangements. Stacy, excited about the impending recording, would be coming with us. I was looking forward to my first trip to Newfoundland, as well as the opportunity to direct another radio play.

And then it all came crashing down.

Before we could board the plane to Newfoundland, The Powers That Be cancelled most of the radio drama projects from our submission call that had not already been produced. That included our half-finished project Worms for Sale. I never learned exactly why, though no doubt it was a financial decision.

I was left wondering, if only I had moved the project along faster, booked the tickets to Newfoundland earlier … but probably it wouldn’t have mattered. I felt terrible for Stacy.

“It was just shitty,” she described the experience of having Worms for Sale cancelled. “Like being in love with someone and then breaking up unexpectedly.”           

The decision was, of course, entirely the CBC’s prerogative. Still, it was embarrassing for me personally. We set all these writers up, only to pull the rug out from under them.

Stacy didn’t give up, though. “I stayed with the script,” she said. “I got a Toronto Arts grant for the script to adapt it into a stage play.”

In the summer of 2012, Stacy produced Worms for Sale for The Alumnae Theatre in Toronto, featuring actors Tajanna Penney, Jennifer Neales, William MacGregor, Deborah Perry, and Bruce Williamson. Janina Kowalski directed it.

“It was a seed,” Stacy said. “It didn’t grow in the original garden, so I took it and grew it in a different one.”

It ran for seven sold out nights at The Alumnae Theatre. I made sure I was there to see it. It was great on stage.

It would have been great on the radio, too.  

How to Make an Audiobook

How to make a Soufflé. I mean, an audiobook.

Et voila.

How to make an audiobook.

A version of this roughly half hour presentation was originally delivered to The Creative Academy for Writers. Why? Because my esteemed brother-in-law, Brian Wyvill (author of the highly entertaining time travel/seafaring novel The Second Gate), asked me to whip this up. And who can say no to Brian? I mean other than his wife, my sister Shawna. Well, plenty of people, maybe. But not me, he’s just too charming, so I created this, and presented it to the academy. And then I thought, why not just make it available to everyone?

So here it is.

Make of it what you will.

Now look. I don’t pretend to be the last word in creating audiobooks. This is just some general advice based on my experience as a sound guy and someone who’s recently turned a novel and a bunch of short stories into audiobooks. My goal is simply to provide a practical overview of how to make an audiobook, based on my experience.

I talk about the equipment you need, the preparation required, how to record your audiobook, a bit about editing and mastering your audiobook, and a bit about what distributors like Audible are looking for in terms of quality control.

Here’s hoping it’s of some help.

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 editor 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 stevens, 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.

Neil Munro and Barry Morgan

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

Neil Munro

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

Neil Munro has passed away at 62 years of age.

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

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

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

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

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

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

So long, Inspector Nickles.

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

Anyway, here's what he wrote in response:

Barry Morgan

Writer, Producer, Director, All Round Nice Guy

 Joe, a really nice appreciation of Neil.

Perhaps I can clarify the “one take” reference.

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

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

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

I will always treasure his friendship.

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