Joe Mahoney

Writer, Broadcaster

Page 3 of 41

The (Slightly Updated) Story of Q

An excerpt from Something Technical:

This is the story of Q.

It’s the last show I worked on before moving to the dark side (management).

Weekday afternoons on CBC Radio One around this time was a show called Freestyle. Traditionally in this time slot CBC Radio One had a listenership of about two hundred and twenty thousand people. It had been this way for years. It didn’t matter what you played in this time slot—you could play 1 K tone and the listenership would stay at two hundred and twenty thousand people. So they put this show on called Freestyle and the listener-ship promptly dropped to one hundred and eighty thousand people. Clearly, forty thousand people preferred tone. 

Something needed to be done, and something was. There was a big study, they called it the Arts and Culture study, and based on this research the Powers That Be decided they needed to replace Freestyle with an Arts and Culture show. It would be a national show. A flagship show. They would pour tons of resources into it. It was a Big Deal. There was only one problem.

They wanted me to work on it.

And I didn’t want to have anything to do with it. I had no idea that it was supposed to be the Next Big Thing.   

At the time, I was happy making radio plays. In fact, my buddy Matt Watts and I had just successfully pitched a ten part science fiction/comedy series to my bosses in the radio drama department. Matt was going to write it and I was going to produce, record, and mix it. It was the pinnacle of everything I’d been working toward since I’d joined the drama department. I was on top of the world.

Until the Director of Arts and Entertainment called me into her office early one Friday afternoon and asked me if I would like to become the tech for a new arts they were working on. She said I could have some time to think it over. So I returned to my workstation and thought it over.

I didn’t have to think long.

I had zero interest in taking on the job. I was about to produce a science fiction/comedy radio series. In my mind, this new arts show would be little different than the old arts show, The Arts Tonight. Although a perfectly fine show, I felt that becoming the tech of a show like that would constitute dialing my career back about ten years. Those of us in the trenches knew that this show was coming down the pike. No one I knew wanted to work on it. We all thought it would be a disaster. We had heard that Jian Ghomeshi was going to host it. Jian Ghomeshi was supposed to be the devil incarnate. He had been the host of 50 Tracks, a big success, he’d fronted the band Moxy Fruvous once upon a time, he’d hosted television, and he’d done a stint on Sounds Like Canada. He had a reputation for being difficult to work with. And I thought, I don’t need that crap.

 I returned to the director’s office almost right away where I experienced one of the most harrowing meetings of my career. I told her that I had an issue with working on the show. I wondered if could we work out something else.

She said no.

She reminded me that she could simply reassign me. In fact, if she wanted to, she could make me go and record news.  

I told her that yes, I was aware that she could do that. 

“I could simply reassign you to the show,” she said. “Except that now I don’t know if I want to.”

I chuckled nervously.

“I want a highly motivated team,” she told me. “I don’t want a malcontent on the show.”

“Have you known me to be a malcontent?” I asked.

“I have known you to be nothing but a malcontent,” she said. “Always complaining about your lot in life, you and the whole department, you all have this sense of entitlement, and frankly I don’t even think any of you work very hard.”

In fairness to her, I was rather outspoken at the time. I wanted to be a producer/recording engineer and made no secret about it. To her, I probably actually was a malcontent.

“Is there something wrong with trying to improve your lot in life?” I asked her.

“You do it through hard work and shining through.”

“How do you feel about my work since you’ve been in the department?”

“I’m not familiar with it, there are four of you, I have no idea who does what.” 

“Okay, where does that leave us?”

“You go away, you think about it, and if you can come back to me on Monday and tell me with great enthusiasm that you want to be a part of this show then maybe… MAYBE I’ll let you be a part of it.”

I left her office feeling insulted, threatened, and bullied. In fact, I felt as though she’d insulted the entire department. The meeting really reflects a certain unfortunate culture prevalent at the time, a culture that came to light several years later when Jan Rubin was hired to conduct an investigation into the workplace culture at the CBC, and unearthed one of bullying and harassment. She issued a series of recommendations that the corporation took quite seriously, as near as I can see, and ultimately the culture changed for the better. But this was still 2006, and there wasn’t much I could do about it then.

Though I thought I could, mind you. I had no interest in working for this director in any capacity anymore. I immediately went to a different department, CBC Sirius Radio, and asked the boss there, Mark O’Neill, if he’d take me on. He said yes. So when I left work that Friday afternoon I wasn’t working for A&E anymore, as far as I was concerned. I was working for Sirius Radio.  

I met with the Director of A&E again on the Monday. She informed me that she was aware of my pending transfer to CBC Sirius Radio. “I hope you enjoy your thirty thousand dollar a year pay cut,” she said.

That prospect hadn’t occurred to me.

“So,” I said. “When do I start on the new arts show?”

And that was the end of that.

Looking back at this incident fourteen years later, after thirteen years in management myself, I realize that she had every right to reassign me to a different show. Every right. She just went about it wrong. I told James Roy about the whole affair a while later. He commented that he could have gotten me to work on the show happily. I’m not sure that I would have been happy about it, but I’m pretty sure that he could gotten me to work on the show with a lot less drama. By listening to me, and addressing my concerns to the extent that he was able. In other words, by treating me with respect.

The upshot is that I started this experience quite upset. I loved radio drama, at the time it was all I wanted to do. My boss in her wisdom took me out of something I loved and made me a part of something I wanted no part of. I wasn’t the only one. Of the staff that were selected for the new arts and culture show one promptly quit, one transferred to Winnipeg, at least two didn’t want to be there and they could not find an executive producer who wanted anything to do with the show. The Director of A&E had been right: I actually was a malcontent, strictly speaking, in this context.

But I was also a professional.

I knew that I had to ditch the way I was feeling as soon as possible. I knew that the bitterness I was feeling—and it was genuine bitterness—wouldn’t disappear overnight. But I knew instinctively that it was poison, poison that would hurt no one but me if I allowed it to fester.

I was sitting in a room alone with Jesse Wente working on preparations for the new show when I received an email from Tom Anniko, the Executive Producer of Radio Comedy at the time. He was pleased to announce the appointment of Greg DeClute as the producer/recording engineer of a ten part science fiction/comedy radio series. A series that I had helped Matt Watts create and that I had been looking forward to producing. I swore aloud. Jesse looked up. I explained. But there was nothing to be done about it.

Shortly afterward, Matt and Greg approached me about working as story editor on the series (which would come to be called Canadia). I was still feeling bitter about the whole affair but I recognized the generosity of the offer. Tom Anniko agreed, and they wound up paying me $150 per episode (the going rate for story editing one half hour of radio drama was $500 for freelancers, but I was staff, and in any case I would have done it for free).     

I did my best not to let on to my new colleagues how I was feeling about working on the show that would become Q. Knew better than to come to work sullen. It’s easy to have a good attitude when things are going your way; the trick is to have a good attitude when things are not going your way. I did my best. Gradually the bitterness subsided.  

Eventually they found an Executive Producer willing to take a chance on the new show. Lo and behold, it was Mark O’Neill! Who had been willing to hire me to work on CBC Radio Sirius. This was a good sign. Ultimately we wound up with nine people in total to make this new national Arts and Culture show. One recording engineer, one executive producer, one host, three producers, three associate producers. They threw us all into a room in the Skydome (Skybox Three, if I recall) and said: “Make us a radio show.”

We talked. We talked for days. All we knew was that it had to be an arts and culture radio show and that it would be personality driven. But we didn’t know what any of that meant. Low culture? High culture? Both? What is low culture and high culture? What about sports? Is that culture? Recreation? Interviews were a given, but how long should they be? Are interviews on the phone okay or should they all be high quality lines? Would we be the arts show of record? What does that even mean? Do we break stories? Do we talk about Paris Hilton? If so, how much? What about Margaret Atwood? Haven’t we all heard enough about Margaret Atwood? How do we open the show? How do we close the show? What do we even call the damn thing?

To help us figure things out we took a bunch of courses. We all had plenty of experience making radio but you never stop learning. We took courses on critical thinking. Things like: do we trust this source? Is this story really news? We took a course on ethics. Things like: when are we in conflict of interest? And we took courses on interviewing.

Gradually, I came to realize that I was actually a part of something quite special. And that in her ham-fisted way, the Director of A&E had been paying me quite a compliment by placing me on such a show. Looking back, she did me quite a favour, though it would take me years to admit it.  

In time we got the show more or less figured out. High culture AND low culture. High impact guests when possible. Interviews about eight minutes long—longer when warranted. Live music every Friday, maybe more. Ixnay on the Paris Hiltonnay. Lots of energy. Plenty of short, flexible elements so we could mix things up on the fly. We had it all figured out. Everything except for a name.

We’d been racking our brains for weeks trying to come up with a name. It was really important to us that we choose the name and not management. ‘Cause it seemed like the front runner for management was the name Radar, and Radar just didn’t work for us. We needed something better. The problem was the show was so broad that we couldn’t come up with a name that encompassed everything the show was about. And then one day, out of the blue, someone had it:

“Awesometown.”

Yeah, that lasted about five minutes. So we did a pilot with the name Radar.

The pilot was quite a wild ride.

We produced it live to tape with a small audience present. Musician Tomi Swick performed live with a friend. We had a guest in New York and another on the phone and yet another live in studio. All of which wouldn’t have been so bad if we’d had the studio booked to do some set-up, but the studio we used was booked right up until we were to start recording the pilot. Worse, Tomi Swick and his pal were late to the studio (not their fault, I was told), the upshot being that I had zero time to test anything. Which is not good when you’re going live, and dealing with the idiosyncasies of an unfamiliar studio.

We got into the pilot okay but the first guest after Tomi was on the phone and lo and behold the studio phones didn’t work. My first thought was that I had over-patched the phone inputs with Tomi’s mic or guitar, but that wasn’t it, so we put off the phoner ’til later in the show and reworked the show on the fly. I had way too much script in front of me—one of many details I’d have to sort out before we took the show live for real—and I kept having to move the script to get at the console, so before long I was completely lost and had to rely on Mark O’Neill (who was studio directing) for where we were and what was coming up next.

Finally I figured out that someone had turned the phones in the studio off—there was an obscure piece of gear allowing you to do that near the floor on one of the racks—so I turned them back on and we were able to get the phoner happening. Had I been able to get in the control room before the show to test things I would have figured that out, but during the chaos of the show it took a bit longer.

Still, despite how rock and roll it felt in the control room the pilot wound up sounding okay on tape. We knew that we would get better organized as time went on, and I’d eventually learn all the ins and outs of the studio.

And eventually the show would have a proper name.

But what?

It was pretty clear that if we didn’t come up with a name soon that one would be foisted upon us by management and it would probably be the dreaded Radar. So we hunkered down and for the umpteenth time wrote our top choices on the white board. .

We stared at all the names for a while, discussing various possibilities, but we still couldn’t agree on any of them. One of the names on the board was The Cue, suggested by Producer Matt Tunnacliffe. Somebody else suggested Studio Q. It might have been Matt as well. We all sort of liked both, but they weren’t quite right somehow. After staring at the board intently for a bit longer, it occurred to me that the letter Q all by itself was kind of intriguing. I suggested as much. I figured that the notion would, as usual, quickly be dismissed and we would continue to disagree and the show would wind up being called either The Ticket or Radar, the two current front runners.

Much to my surprise the suggestion was not dismissed out of hand. Instead, everybody quickly warmed to the idea. Why? Well, as mentioned earlier, a part of the problem was that we couldn’t figure out a name that encompassed both arts and culture, let alone both low and high arts and culture. We needed an inclusive name that could come to mean those things, something enigmatic. Also, “Q” could stand for many things: Question, inQuisitive, Query. Thought of as cue, it is a theatrical term, such as an actor’s cue, or cue to cue. Standing in a “queue” to see a play, movie or concert. In radio it can mean “cue up.” It lends itself to a certain playfulness: “And now for the Q-news.” “Time now for our daily “Q-tip,” and so on. A nice, stylized “Q” looks great on a coffee mug, or T-shirt. What really clinched the name was when Jian realized that he could easily make rhyming couplets out of it. “The sky is blue; you’re listening to Q.”

To this day, it means a lot to me that I came up with “Q” (albeit based on Matt’s suggestions). As discussed earlier, the circumstances under which I joined the show were not ideal. Being responsible for the name gave me big time buy-in on a show that I initially wanted no part of. And however you look at it, getting to choose the name of a new, fairly prominent national radio show was undeniably cool.  

So we had the name all sorted out, but here it was a week before the show was to debut and we still didn’t really know whether it was going to work. I remember tense meetings with the team and Jian. Jian felt like there was too much interference from management. He didn’t feel like he was able to make the show that he wanted to make. There were different sensibilities at work. Jian and the Executive Producer weren’t quite clicking. And there were still a whole bunch of issues that needed to be sorted out that hadn’t even been addressed.

As the engineer, I was responsible for the sound of the show. From the beginning I had been advocating for a theme package. I wanted to hire a composer and a band and get them to write all the music for the show. In drama we hired composers all the time, it was no big deal. This show was supposed to be a big deal so it was a no brainer for me. But for some reason the team balked at the idea. For the pilots we’d been using an edit of the song Spanish Bombs by the Clash for the opening theme.

It wasn’t bad. It was basically a loop of the first four bars. But it didn’t have the panache we were looking for. Much more classy to use something written especially for the show. At the last minute Mark O’Neill agreed with me and hired Luc Doucet to write a theme. Now, the show debuted on a Monday, and Luc Doucet’s band recorded the theme on the Friday. They recorded it. They didn’t mix it. And they didn’t record it to the proper specifications. We needed an intro, beds, back time music. 

On Sunday—the day before we debuted—I received a CD with all the raw tracks, unmixed. I was working on something else that day, teaching U of T students about radio drama, and I didn’t even start mixing the theme until seven o’clock that night. By ten o’clock my ears were gone. I could barely tell what I was listening to. I was completely fried and nobody else was around and I couldn’t for the life of me tell if my mix was working or not. To make matters worse, I’d mixed what I thought was the lead guitar track foreground, but when I referred to the track sheet saw that it wasn’t supposed to be the lead, another guitar track was supposed to be the lead. I’d been thinking that the lead guitar wasn’t going to work anyway because Jian wouldn’t be able to talk over it, so I remixed it down, converted the mix to MP3 and sent it to Jian and Mark, and went home, exhausted.

The next morning, the day of the show, the first thing Mark said to me was, “We got some remixing to do.” It was two hours before show time. I’d been half expecting that but my heart sank because I didn’t know how much remixing he wanted to do, and it was 9:30am and we were debuting in two and a half hours. Plus Loreena McKennitt was on the show performing live and I had to finish setting up for her. You could say I felt a tad stressed.

This is where some stellar leadership came into play. Because I really didn’t think we’d be able to get the theme done in time. I told Mark that we should go with the Spanish Bombs theme. But Mark had nerves of steel. “No, no, we’ll pull this off,” he insisted.

Lo and behold we did pull it off. Fortunately the remix was just a matter of swapping the guitar leads, which took all of ten minutes. Unfortunately, we then had to recut the theme, looping the middle section without the guitar lead to give Jian a place to talk without the guitar lead competing with his voice. There was a bit of back and forth between myself, Mark and Jian before we established the correct length of the various components of the theme, and some hasty editing, but through some miracle we finished in time for me to go set up for Loreena. We used the finished mix for the show that day about an hour after we finished mixing it. And the show used that version of the theme for years afterward (though I tweaked it ever so slightly about three weeks into the show’s run).

That first day the show began on the dot at 12:06 pm (we broadcast live to Sirius Radio, then the show was repeated to the Maritimes at 1:06, then Ontario at 2:06 and so on through the rest of the country). As a fan, I’m happy to report that Loreena McKennitt was absolutely lovely to work with, and she sounded awesome. Even a meatball recording engineer like me couldn’t make someone like her sound bad.

Shortly into the show we found out that a promo we had recorded before the show was messed up for some reason. It was supposed to be played back out of Master Control to certain parts of the country within the hour, so we had no choice but to deal with it. At 12:30pm the show paused for one and a half minute for a regional news update. During that time we were off the air. We decided to squeeze fixing the promo into that one and a half minute, if you can imagine. We finished fixing the promo with ten seconds to spare before going back on the air (I do not recommend trying that at home, kids.)

We had a special recording from Margaret Atwood that we wanted to play during the show. It was Margaret telling Jian “not to mess up… the arts are important!” Unfortunately, the recording was done in stereo and we were using a mono computer program to play back our audio material. Playing back a stereo file required exiting the DaletPlus computer program and loading a stereo version of the program. I asked Matt Tunnacliffe, now our regular studio director, if there were any mono files that had to be played after the Atwood clip. He said no. So when the time came I exited the program, loaded the stereo program, and played the Atwood clip. It was about thirty seconds long. During the Atwood clip we learned that through some quirk of fate it actually would be necessary to play a mono file directly afterward. So when the Atwood clip finished, I immediately got out of the stereo program and began loading the mono program. Jian began reading the intro to the stereo clip. Jian finished reading the intro to the mono clip. The mono program loaded at the exact same time as he finished, giving me precisely one second to load the mono clip and fire it. Insanity! But it all sounded good on air… I think.

You’d think that would have been enough stress for the day.

You’d be wrong.

There was a newscast at one o’clock during which we enjoyed a brief break. According to our information on this first day, the newscast was supposed to be six minutes long. There was a countdown clock in the studio that told us when we were supposed to be back on air. It gave us a twenty second countdown. At 1:04:40 we were enjoying this brief respite, sitting back enjoying our cigars, anticipating another whole minute and twenty seconds before going live again, when suddenly I heard Mark O’Neill cry out. Looking up, I saw that the countdown clock was counting down one minute early.

Was the clock wrong? Were we going to be live at 1:05? We hastily decided to trust the clock and start the show. I called master control at the same time to ask them if the clock was right. I needed an answer before 1:06, because if the clock was wrong we would have to restart the show at 1:06. Master told us that as far as they knew the clock was right. So we carried on with the show. Afterward we learned that we had been given the wrong information, and that the start time for part three of the show had indeed been 1:05.

The remainder of the show went like a charm. Afterward I told everyone present that I needed a stiff drink of scotch. No one got me one, damn them. I was fairly shell shocked. But the show had ROCKED! Or so they told us.

And I seriously considered installing a wet bar in the studio.

Postscript: What is written above concerns the debut of the show Q. Much later it would be renamed q after much horribleness that ultimately cast a dark shadow over the show and the CBC at large. A larger, much more difficult subject that I will reserve for another time.

To the Ships!

Certain projects that I worked on generated “take aways.” Lines that were too good just to forget about. The project might have been good or lousy, it didn’t matter. What mattered was the quality of the take-away. Some take-aways were crude and cannot be repeated in polite company. Others were crude and can perhaps be repeated in polite company. Others were just funny… at least to me.

For instance, I once worked on a radio play called “Heart of a Dog” in which a character kept muttering (in a Russian accent) “arsefessor” (don’t ask me why) to refer to another character who was a professor. For years afterward I would hear my colleagues muttering from time to time, “Arsefessor!” (Hey, I never said these take-aways were in any way socially beneficial.) The thing is, after you’ve worked on one of these plays for a month or two (or three), certain words and lines got burned into your brain.

Another take-away came from an adaptation of the play Trojan Women. The play called for one character to summon the warriors to the ship by calling out, “To the ships!”

So one of our sound effects engineers — I’ll call him Pat — was called upon to utter these immortal words, as all the actors had left by the time the crew realized that this line hadn’t been recorded. Pat was a brilliant sound effects foley artist but a quiet, unassuming man. So when called upon to cry out “To the ships!” he said it as if commenting on the weather, not as if summoning an army to battle as the script called for.

On the second take Pat generated enough enthusiasm to make the line sound like he was asking for someone to pass him a jar of peanut butter.

The third take sounded like a question: “To the ships?”

Each take fell woefully short of the necessary vigour, but became increasingly hilarious for the crew in the control room. And the line, “To the ships!” became the rallying cry of the CBC Radio Drama department.

To the ships!

Strike!

Communications, Energy and Paperworkers
Union of Canada

Excerpt from Something Technical:

For my first few years at CBC Radio it was easy to forget that I was in a union. A series of unions, actually—three of them from the time I joined the CBC in 1988 until I became a manager in 2007.

At first, I was only dimly aware of the existence of these unions. They would collect their pound of flesh from my paychecks and that would be it. Every now and then, though, they would make their presence felt in other ways.

One day, for example, the CBC asked me to be present at a recording session at Manta Sound. Not because they needed me to do any actual work, but to honour their collective agreement with NABET (the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians).

The radio show Sunday Morning was recording a new theme package of music for their show. According to the collective agreement, the CBC was supposed to use one of their own recording engineers (there were many experienced, talented engineers to choose from), but either the people doing the sessions preferred someone else, or none of our recording engineers were available. I was working as a Group 4 general technician at this time, so I was not qualified to do the work (it would be several more years before I became a recording engineer).

Because the collective agreement required that someone from NABET be present, and it didn’t matter who, they sent me. Outside the context of the collective agreement, it was kind of dumb. My job was simply to be there. All I did the entire session was watch. I didn’t mind—it was a fascinating session. The guy leading the session was from the Canadian Jazz Fusion group Manteca. Matt Zimbel, I believe.

There was a bit of drama during the session. One of the session players wasn’t quite delivering the goods. Apparently she was playing a bit out of tune. I couldn’t hear it myself, but it was a big deal to the professionals in the room. Zimbel was doing his best to get what he needed without making her explicitly aware that there was a problem. There was much discussion in the control room about how to deal with the situation. The musician was young and talented with a terrific reputation. Clearly she was just having a bad day. Ultimately Zimbel placed her in an isolation booth, where he was able to tweak her playing with subtle direction and multiple retakes without affecting the work of the other musicians. She responded enthusiastically and in the end Zimbel got what he needed.

I was impressed. A lesser man might have attempted to bully or humiliate the musician, which almost certainly would have resulted in tears and an inferior product. Not Zimbel. Watching him was like attending a master class in tact. It was worth the price of admission. Except, I hadn’t paid any admission—I was getting paid for being there. For doing pretty much nothing, other than observe.

I understood that my presence was meant to discourage the CBC from hiring outside the union. Otherwise, theoretically, the CBC could just start hiring whomever they wanted whenever they wanted, paying them whatever they wanted. Still, I couldn’t help but feel that it was all a bit silly. Why, I asked myself, was a union even necessary? Couldn’t we all just play nice together? Couldn’t the CBC just be counted upon to do the right thing?  

I was of the mind that although I belonged to a union, it didn’t really apply to me. Unions were for dock workers and truckers, not people like me. I considered myself a white collar worker, whatever that was. I worked according to my work ethic, not because someone told me how long or how hard to work. When older technicians insisted on taking every single break and made sure to claim every red cent of overtime/turnaround/night differential owed to them, I would shake my head and tell myself, “That’s not me, and never will be.”

In time, however, some of the benefits of belonging to a union gradually dawned on me. For instance, I got paid more. It was harder to lay me off. There was such a thing as overtime, turnaround, night differential, and so on. I got paid for sick days, moving, bereavement, et cetera, all of which might not have existed were it not for the strength in numbers provided by belonging to one union or another. I still thought it was unfortunate that we lived in a world where we didn’t just do right by one another, but over time, as I grew more aware of humanity’s resistance to do the right thing of its own accord, I concluded that unions were a necessary evil.

In the spring of 1996, one serious impact of belonging to a union reared its ugly head. I was single and not earning that much as a Group 4 technician, living pay cheque to pay cheque, as so many of us do. I was engaged to be married on July 20th that summer. That spring, though, it looked like my union, CEP at this time (the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada) couldn’t come to terms with CBC management. One summer day, I went home to my one bedroom apartment in High Park certain that I would be on strike the following morning.

Going on strike would have been disastrous for me. My fiancé was about to quit her job in Prince Edward Island and move up to Toronto to be with me. She wouldn’t have a job and I wouldn’t be getting paid. I knew little about strike pay; I assumed it wouldn’t be enough to tide us over. We wouldn’t be able to pay rent, wouldn’t be able to afford to fly to PEI where the wedding was to take place, and certainly wouldn’t be able to take a decent honeymoon.

The deadline for negotiations was midnight. Apprehensive, I stayed up late to watch the news. During the midnight local CBLT newscast, it was reported that CBC and CEP were extending negotiating until past midnight. Both sides finally came to an agreement around 1:30am. Entering the Broadcast Centre the next morning, I felt like I’d dodged a bullet.

I was able to forget about belonging to a union until shortly after I joined the radio drama department in 1999, when we got word that negotiations weren’t going well. Job security and wages were a sticking point. We had been without a contract since June. It was now February. I was in a better position financially because my wife was now working but I still wasn’t keen on the idea of a strike.

The membership of CEP was asked to vote on whether to give the union a strike mandate. In Toronto, we did so across Front Street in a small boardroom in the Metro Convention Centre. I did not want to vote yes, because I did not want to be on strike, but I felt like I had no choice. If we didn’t give the union a strike mandate, they would have no clout with management and we would be forced to accept whatever terms they offered. I felt like a pawn.

(Afterward, my friends at CJBC-TV interviewed me briefly on the subject. I was reluctant to be interviewed in French because I didn’t think my French was television worthy, but they convinced me, so I provided a short blurb. I still have a copy on VHS tape. I watched it recently. My French is acceptable but undermined by a nervous laugh at the end.) 

Negotiations completely broke down the evening of Feb 17th, 1999, setting the stage for the first strike by technicians since 1981. Over the next couple of weeks, CBC would remain on the air but with pared down newscasts and repeat programming. Most local content was cancelled. We stopped production on popular shows. Ratings for The National plummeted fifteen percent and ratings overall went down twenty percent. The National reduced their show from one hour to twenty minutes. Reruns ran instead of live programming on Newsworld.

I woke up the first full day of the strike and listened to the news on CBC Radio, hoping to hear that the situation had been resolved overnight. Instead, the announcer confirmed that CBC technicians were on strike. I could not immediately hear any on air impact; apparently a manager who knew what he or she was doing was operating the console.

I was a little worried. I had no idea how long the strike would last. I had just bought a new house, my first, in Brooklin. How would we pay the mortgage and all the other bills? Fortunately, my wife was a pharmacist, working at a Shopper’s Drug Mart in Port Perry. So we had some income.

I couldn’t wait to get down to the Broadcast Centre to see what was going on. So I did, wearing the clothes that I usually wore when I spent all day working inside in a nice warm studio.

I got to the Broadcast Centre to find hordes of technical staff milling around outside the building and an RV belonging to CEP parked on John Street. Someone pointed me to a sign-in sheet. I wrote my time of arrival beside my name. Someone else pointed me to a pile of white cardboard picket signs. I picked one out, slung it around my neck, and began sludging through the slush around the Broadcast Centre with a bunch of other picketers.

It was cold. After a few circuits around the Broadcast Centre my feet were soaking wet and freezing. Like an idiot, I was wearing sneakers. Sneakers with holes in the toes. I did four hours that first day, four of the twenty I was expected to do each week. To make it through the rest of the strike without frostbite I would have to learn to dress properly.

Over the next few weeks I dutifully picketed my requisite twenty hours a week, signing in and out of each shift. I volunteered to picket overnight, when our ranks were thin and needed to be bolstered. There were some damned cold nights. I learned to dress warm, in layers. Gym pants under jeans, a T-shirt under a flannel shirt under a sweater under a coat. Two pairs of socks. A warm hat and gloves.

We had oil barrels set up at strategic locations around the building that we burned wood in – creosote soaked wood, someone once told me. A fellow radio technician and I went on a wood hunting mission one night, finding discarded pallets at a factory, which we loaded into the back of his truck. I refused to stand around the barrels. I didn’t want to smell like smoke or breathe the fumes. I walked around the building to keep warm, walking fairly fast. There were grates in front of the building along Wellington Street that vented warm air, providing some relief. When we couldn’t stand it anymore, we’d take a short break someplace warm—a coffee shop, or under Metro Hall across the street, or sometimes in the CEP RV.

There were rumours of people who would sign in and then not be seen again until it was time to sign out, off drinking coffee someplace warm or seeing a movie up the street. Others chose not to walk the picket line at all, foregoing strike pay, opting instead to pick up jobs elsewhere, such as delivering pizza. Yet others stayed at home.

We heard stories of colleagues who went to other CBC locations to work as scabs, helping to keep those places on the air. I know people who to this day have not forgiven them for that. 

Several staff were made supervisors immediately before the strike to help keep the CBC on the air. They usually became a part of a body called APS (the Association of Professional Supervisors). Except as a strategy to keep the CBC on the air, it didn’t always make sense to make them supervisors. They usually didn’t have staff reporting to them. After the job actions it made little sense having them in these positions. However, nobody that I’m aware of held it against these people for accepting and benefitting from these positions.

A few days into the strike my hometown newspaper, the Summerside Journal-Pioneer, wrote an editorial coming down heavily on the side of management against the union. It was filled with what I perceived as factual errors and misperceptions. Outraged, I was stirred to write a rebuttal, which they published.

During the strike, I don’t recall a single person ever calling to see how my wife and I were doing. Although I noted this fact, I don’t blame anyone for it. Certainly I myself have fallen short in this regard. Some folks probably didn’t need to check in because we’d already covered it in casual conversation, usually after, “How are you?” “Well, we’re on strike, you know.” “How’s that going?” “Oh, we’re surviving,” kind of thing. It is, perhaps, a bit of a commentary on modern life. We’re all caught up in our own lives, with little thought to give to anyone else, really.

And the truth was we were doing fine. We had turned off the financial spigots, ceased buying unnecessary stuff. I bought cheap soup for lunch on the picket line, or ate what people donated, such as donuts and pizza. I received strike pay, which wasn’t as much as I ordinarily would have been paid, but it was not tax deductible. And in the end, I was somewhat astonished to see that I actually finished the strike with more money in the bank than I’d started with.

Others weren’t so lucky. There were several instances of both husband and wife working for the CBC, both of whom were on strike. No doubt they found the situation rather more difficult than my wife and I did.

At this time, winter 1999, about ten thousand people worked for the CBC. About eighteen hundred of us technical types were on strike. That meant that most of the CBC wasn’t on strike. Schedulers, for instance, were represented by CUPE (Canadian Union of Public Employees). CUPE themselves had struck briefly in 1989 (I remember my friends in that union escorting me across the picket line). Reporters, journalists, on air talent and so on were represented by the Canadian Media Guild. Eventually we would all be represented by the Canadian Media Guild, but that was still a few years away. For now, both CUPE and CMG had to be escorted across our picket lines to get to work.

I slowly began to resent those who were still working. There was a stereotype of the manager or producer or whomever who would approach you on the picket line and ask, how’s it goin’? Have you heard anything? And then they would go inside and do their best to keep the place on the air while the rest of us continued to picket out in the cold.

One radio producer in particular appeared to support us on the line, making all the right sympathetic noises. Inside, he continued to work hard to make the best radio possible. One of his colleagues suggested that maybe they shouldn’t be working so hard to create programming that appeared to be unaffected by the strike. Shouldn’t they be seeking a means to support their colleagues out on the street instead? The producer didn’t appear to get it.

After the strike, I met this producer in the hall and we spoke briefly about the job action. I’m rather ashamed of this conversation. Perhaps you have to go through such moments and reflect on them afterwards to be able to grow as a person.

“I know you guys were doing your best to support us in your way,” I told him disingenuously, deliberately trying to make him feel guilty.

He hung his head down low and didn’t meet my eyes. “Of course, of course,” he mumbled.

I may have succeeded in making him feel guilty, but I immediately felt guilty for doing that to him. Two wrongs don’t make a right. He wasn’t a bad guy. He was just trying to make good radio. And I’m a hypocrite. The truth is, if he had been on strike and I had been charged with making radio in his place, I probably would have seized the opportunity to prove that I could make radio every bit as good as he could.

I did not reserve my resentment for individuals alone. I saved a healthy amount for unions, too. Unions who didn’t appear to lift a finger to support us, such as the CMG (Canadian Media Guild) and the APS. I have since softened my stance toward both because it’s all water under the bridge and we all need to get along. 

All told, we were off the job for seven weeks. Ultimately we settled for 10 to 11% wage increases over 37 months and improvements regarding job security.

The strike had been a fairly innocuous event in the grand scheme of things, but it placed divisions in the hearts of some, pitting us against one another, technicians versus management, picketer versus scab, disingenuous picketer versus disingenuous producer. It was quite an education. If we could all get that worked up over a silly little strike, it’s easy to see how a much greater geopolitical event such as a war, in which people actually got hurt, could instill much greater depth of feeling and resentment that could linger generations.

Almost two years later, in December 2001, we had another job action. The union considered it a lockout as opposed to a strike and it only lasted two weeks, but otherwise the experience was pretty much the same as in 1999. 

Four years later, in August 2005, we experienced yet another job action.

But it wasn’t at all the same, and requires a completely separate blog.


This has been one of a series of posts about working at CBC Radio back in the day.

(Here’s some more).

Nora’s Mental Tune-Up

Here’s another fun bit I got to produce on the summer replacement show NEXT with host Nora Young and producer Alison Moss.

We hired actor Andrew Gillies (Orphan Black) to do these bits. I’d worked with Andrew before on my adaptation of Tom Godwin‘s The Cold Equations. Andrew had played the captain of the Stardust for us. Now he played a Scotsman trying to tune up Nora’s brain.

I’ve pasted the script below, with the actual produced bits at the bottom of each one.

Photo by David Cassolato from Pexels

Part One

NORA: It’s easy to spruce up your body… okay, well maybe not easy, but you do have the option of going to the gym and hiring a personal trainer.  But what about your brain?  What if you could give your brain a tune-up too?

SFX: WOOSH! INTO NORA’S BRAIN

SFX: GRINDING, SQUEALING GEARS OF A BRAIN OUT OF WHACK

McSCOTT: (THICK SCOTTISH BROGUE) Och! Listen to that.

NORA: What?  What is it?

 SFX: OBNOXIOUS WHIRRING

McSCOTT: It’s nae wonder you cannae do arithmetic in a brain like this.  Your neural net… it’s all gummed up.  Och, and that basil ganglia. (BLOWS ON SOMETHING)  Tsk tsk.

NORA: Oh my.

McSCOTT: But dinnae you worry, lass, I’ve seen worse.

NORA: You have?

McSCOTT: Aye.  This monkey once.  Couldn’t count to two if its life depended on it.

NORA: What did you do?

McSCOTT: Lipid soluble molecules past the blood brain barrier.  Before you knew it that monkey could count to five.  Nae… you leave it to me, lass…

SFX: Power Tool Roars to Life

McSCOTT:    You’ll be doin’ math in nae time.

SFX: EVERYTHING OUT WITH A WOOSH

 

Scottish Brain Guy Part One

Part Two

SFX: POWER TOOL SHUTTING OFF

SFX: BRAIN ONLY SLIGHTLY OUT OF WHACK

McSCOTT: That should do it.  Tell me, lass: are ya feelin’ at all perspicacious?

NORA: Excuse me?

McSCOTT: Peripatetic?  Cogitative?  Erudite, scholarly?  The least bit sagacious?

NORA: I’m sorry?

McSCOTT: Are ya feelin’ any smarter, lass.

NORA: Uhhh…

McSCOTT: I’m guessin’ that’s a “nae,” then.  Nae worries, got a few more tricks up me sleeve yet…

SFX:      SWOOSH OUT

Scottish Brain Guy Part Two
 

Part Three

SFX: BRAIN HOPELESSLY OUT OF WHACK

McSCOTT: Och!  It’s nae use.

NORA: No?

McSCOTT:    I kin make ya smarter…

NORA: Uh huh?

McSCOTT: But… but not without changin’ the fundamental chemistry of your brain.

NORA:      I see.

McSCOTT: But if you dinnae mind me sayin’ so…

NORA: Uh huh?

McSCOTT:     I think you’re just fine the way you are…

SFX: BUMPER

End

Scottish Brain Guy Part Three

Spring Cleaning

Astute readers of this blog may have noticed that I have been sprucing it up a bit lately. Less astute readers will not have noticed anything. Don’t feel bad if you haven’t noticed anything; many of the changes have been subtle. Why, I myself might not have noticed anything had I not been the one doing the changes.

Angela Misri kindly did the heavy lifting a few years back, establishing the look and the template and so forth. Since then I’ve long wanted to do some serious tweaking, and lately have found myself in exactly the right head-space to do so. Head space that should perhaps have been directed at working on novel number two (working title Captain’s Away), but I’m at a part of that project that requires some extra heavy thinking, which I’m doing as I putter around this blog.

So what have I done? Well, first of all I’m generating posts at a rate I haven’t matched since about fifteen years ago. A lot of them are from rooting around my laptop, peering into old files, where I’m unearthing all sorts of interesting treasures (well, to me, anyway) that I’d long since forgotten about, and that have proven good fodder.

I upgraded from basic Dreamhost to DreamPress to ensure better stability, better support, and faster loading.

I added a newsletter sign-up form in the right side bar (though I’m still not entirely sure it’s working properly. If you’ve signed up, best let me know via [email protected] so I can double check that your sign up worked).

I added content to my Media/Interviews page. Allow me to reiterate here that this blog does not itself generate any revenue (other than indirectly selling a few books, theoretically) and all the content I post I do so under the Fair Dealings provision of Canadian Copyright law. I think some of it is of historical interest to some people. I do my best to give credit. If I’ve posted anything (pictures, audio, etc.) that you own or have anything to do with that you would prefer I not post, just let me know and I will take it down. Check out my disclaimer here.

And oh yeah, I’ve updated that disclaimer.

A while back WordPress changed the way posts are created (from classic to something called Blocks) which screwed up the formatting of a lot of my old posts. I’ve cleaned them up to make them easier on the eye.

I’ve tweaked some of the content on various Pages, editing and adding bits here and there.

And I’ve updated links to other blogs, removing stale links and adding new ones. I was sorry to see some go, but in some cases the blogs haven’t been updated in years. And there were a few blogs that I should have added long since, such as Dr. Robert Runte’s blog, and, and Pigdump, and the Five Rivers blog. And I just find everything Den Valdron writes inherently interesting, so I’ve added a link to his blog.

Is any of this worth it? Well, it hasn’t resulted in any additional book sales that I can see. If that was the only reason I was doing it there certainly wouldn’t be much point. So, it’s worth it only in the sense that keeping up this blog is something that I enjoy. It relaxes me. And from time to time I hear from people who tell me they derive some enjoyment from it.

And that’s enough for me.

« Older posts Newer posts »

© 2020 Joe Mahoney

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑