Writer, Broadcaster

Category: science fiction (Page 1 of 18)

“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

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.

A Time and a Place Audiobook Half Price Sale

A Time and a Place

Yes, I know it’s gauche to attempt to sell your wares, really wares should be capable of selling themselves, that would be best for everyone, certainly much less embarrassing for all involved.

Alas, it doesn’t work that way. You have to tell people about your wares, otherwise nobody will know about them. It’s not like we’re all telepaths (and those of us that are telepaths aren’t talking).

And so it is that I have no choice but to inform the fourteen of you who have not yet purchased a copy of A Time and a Place about this little opportunity to pick up the audiobook version at a bargain basement price.

Yes, you read that right, A Time and a Place is on sale at half price for the next couple of weeks (via Findaway Voices, which distributes to most major online retailers). (This does not include Amazon, which invariably does its own thing).

A Time and a Place (you might recall) is a science fiction time travel novel that has been described thusly:

“A brilliant, often hilarious, thoughtful and amazing read.”

Leesa Tea, Goodreads

Thank you Leesa. I did not pay Leesa to write that. I feel I owe her something for writing that beyond a simple thank you. If she ever writes a book of her own you can bet I will purchase, read, and praise it (no matter how terrible it is, which it won’t be, because let’s face it, this is obviously a woman with impeccable taste).

Okay. So what is this half-price audiobook about? So glad you asked:

When hapless English teacher Barnabus J. Wildebear’s nephew Ridley is kidnapped to help fight a war halfway across the galaxy, Wildebear rolls up his sleeves and sets out to rescue the boy. He soon finds himself in way over his head: who knew there’d be time travelling, shape changing, and battling an evil Necronian named Jacques? Making matters worse, the boy doesn’t even want to be saved. But none of that matters. Cuz rescuing your nephew from a sinister shape-changing alien in the middle of an intergalactic war is just what any good uncle would do. Isn’t it?

Well, that’s part of what it’s about, anyway. You’ll simply have to read it (or listen to it) to get the rest. Hey, it’s only about eleven hours of your time. The average person lives about 692,040 hours, so it’s not like that’s asking a whole lot. Is it?

So there you have it, A Time and a Place the audiobook version on sale at half price for the next couple of weeks.

Thank you for your time.

Amanda Interviews Joe

Ryerson Student Amanda Raya

A few weeks ago Ryerson student Amanda Raya interviewed me about turning my novel A Time and a Place into an audiobook. I spouted all sorts of inane gibberish and she politely thanked me and I figured she’d go find somebody infinitely more sensible to interview and that would be that.  

She has since done her Ryerson magic on our interview and made me sound not only human but somewhat intelligible. I think her excellent questions have a lot to do with it.

She’s graciously allowing me to post the interview here. Et voila:

Amanda Raya interviews Yours Truly
« Older posts

© 2021 Joe Mahoney

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑