Writer, Broadcaster

Category: Radio (Page 1 of 12)

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.

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 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.

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.

Jeff Healey and My Kinda Jazz

Jeff Healey

One evening in the spring of 1992 I was asked to work some overtime in Studio K.

It turned out to be a two hour booking packaging a disc show called My Kinda Jazz, hosted by Canadian Jazz, Blues and Rock musician Jeff Healey. Healey played antiquated jazz on the show, dating back well into the forties and earlier.

When Healey got to the studio’s booth, the producer, whose name was David, informed him of my presence in the control room, and Healey greeted me over the talkback. I thought this was a friendly thing for him to do, as it wasn’t unheard of for the talent to completely ignore us technical types until it became absolutely necessary to acknowledge our presence.

I said hi back, and Healey remarked that he couldn’t hear me very well over the talkback. This didn’t really matter as in all likelihood I wouldn’t be talking to him during the show, but I decided to look into it anyway. I went to the booth and pointed out a certain knob that I suspected might have control over the talkback volume. Healey had his hand partially over the knob in question so that I couldn’t turn it up myself, and as he was blind, I was pretty sure that he didn’t know which knob I was talking about.

So I did a sort of stupid thing, I said, “It’s the one just to the right of your hand”, and then reached out and touched the knob, also brushing his hand slightly to let him know the position of the control I was talking about. I think it annoyed him greatly. I guess I was acknowledging his handicap and underestimating him.

He said, “No, that doesn’t have anything to do with it, that’s the monitor control.”

I suppose I had a thing or two to learn about dealing with blind people, not to mention studio booth controls.

Finally I just adjusted his mic and, with my tail between my legs, returned to the control room. (I found out later that you couldn’t adjust the level of the talkback in that studio, it was pre-set.)

If Healey really was annoyed with me it didn’t last long. There was a bit of friendly banter before we started the show. The packaging went well, it was a straightforward sort of affair, chatter, song, chatter, song, with all the songs pre-recorded by Healey one right after the other on a DAT. Made my job easy. 

It just so happened that it was March 25th, 1992, Healey’s twenty-sixth birthday.

Healey was quite knowledgeable about his subject matter. I couldn’t tell how much he was reeling off the top of his head or how much he derived from his notes (all in braille). All the tunes were from old 78’s, his own; apparently he had a collection of about 6000 or so. 

We played a song from Duke Ellington and his Orchestra, one of four versions the Duke recorded of this particular song, called The Mooche. There was a muted trumpet solo in the song, and Jeff remarked in his intro that the trumpet player used a plunger for a mute. I asked David if Healey was joking and he assured me that he wasn’t. During the song David asked Jeff over the talkback if the plunger was a used plunger. Jeff laughed and remarked that if it was, it was probably a “shitty plunger.”

He sat with his eyes closed the entire booking, rocking a bit to the music, and when he left he didn’t say goodbye, and David left as well to hail a cab for him.

Duke Ellington’s The Mooche
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