One of a series of posts about working in radio back in the day.
(Here’s some more).
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.
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?”
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.
“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? 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.
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.
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.