Writer, Broadcaster

Tag: Born of Man and Woman

Faster Than Light: The Second and Third Pilots

An excerpt from Something Technical:

As I’ve written earlier, after the success of the Faster Than Light pilot, we did not receive a green light to proceed with a series. But that wasn’t the end of the story. The Director of Radio Programming at the time, Adrian Mills, did not reject the show outright. The following summer James Roy, now Acting Director of Radio Drama, approached me about doing another pilot for a summer run of the show. Presented in a half hour format, it would be Faster Than Light “light”.  Unfortunately, James had no budget for it.

Robert J. Sawyer
Host of Faster Than Light

No problem. We took a radio play directed by Bill Lane from the archives and built a show around it. I wrote a frame for the show about auditioning for a new host. Rob’s main competition was a robot called Huey (played by Julian Ford) whose main claim to fame was starring as a robot in the classic science fiction movie Silent Running with Bruce Dern. Huey didn’t get the job. Linda Spence also acted in this pilot as a fictional Associate Producer. The concept for Faster Than Light was gradually crystallizing in my mind: it would be a fictional show about making a science fiction radio show. A show within a show. Very meta.

Faster Than Light #2

The summer series didn’t pan out, though. James was willing to proceed, but with no funding and very little time to write and produce ten episodes, I didn’t think I could do the show justice. Seeing as it appeared we’d have an opportunity to try again later with proper funding and adequate time, I opted to wait. 

That fall we did get funding to do another pilot. For this attempt, I brought in Fergus Heywood to co-produce. Fergus had been highly recommended to me by Greg Sinclair. He enthusiastically agreed to help out. We were assigned Alison Moss as Senior Producer, who I always loved working with. I would eventually work with her on the summer replacement series Next with Nora Young. So it was a good team.

Chris Boyce, Head of the Program Development Committee, organized a facilitated session to help us further define the show. Fergus, Alison, Rob Sawyer, Chris Boyce and I all sat down to figure it out. Richard Handler, an experienced Arts producer, was also involved. This third pilot was a serious effort, but the whole spirit was completely different than the first pilot. The show would be half hour instead of an hour. It would include one full cast radio play instead of two, and it would not include a continuation of Captain’s Away, although I had written several episodes.

Chris had us come up with a mandate:

“To fire the imaginations of Canadians by presenting thought provoking encounters with masters of science fiction and fantasy along with engaging dramatizations of their work.”

When we were finally ready, I hired Wayne Richards to write and record original theme music for the opening of the show. We would use an original composition from Fergus Heywood for the closing. Having decided to make the theme of this pilot “The Other,” we secured the services of Cathi Bond, an experienced freelancer, to produce a short documentary on “the other” in science fiction films throughout history.

I wrote a high production frame for the episode that consisted of three parts. In the opening, a mad scientist creates a host for the show in an homage to Frankenstein, a classic “other” in science fiction. The mad scientist was played by Tony Daniels, who did a brilliant German accent as Dr. Frankenstein. Once the host has been created, he takes over and introduces the show. After the first part of the show, a second interlude or frame features the mad scientist conducting an experiment in which he accidentally transforms himself into a fly (an obvious homage to The Fly). Rob the host returns to usher us into the next part of the show, an original adaptation of Born of Man and Woman by Richard Matheson, adapted and directed by Barry Morgan. The end credits featured Rob as the host along with the mad scientist. Not realizing that the fly trapped in the studio with him is the mad scientist, Rob swats him.

FTL #3

I was attempting to seamlessly mix representational radio with presentational radio. The drama and the high production intro, middle and extro were all representational. You listened to those the way you would watch a movie or television show. They weren’t talking directly to the audience. They were meant to be entertaining as opposed to informative. Whereas the bits with Rob talking directly to the audience, and Cathi Bond presenting her short documentary, were presentational. The trick was to guide the audience from one style of radio to another without confusing them.

Ultimately the fate of the show would be determined by the Program Development Committee, a group of several experienced broadcasters assembled by Chris Boyce. I remember one of the members of this group listening to the opening of the show after I had finished mixing it. I was quite proud of it. I thought it was funny and that the sound effects and mix had achieved what I’d set out to do. This person listened to it, gave me no feedback whatsoever, and left the studio. My impression was that he didn’t get it, and didn’t like it. This did not bode well.

We finished the pilot and submitted it to the Program Development Committee. A representative of the committee phoned me sometime afterward to tell me the bad news. They weren’t going to pick up the show as it stood. They just didn’t think it worked. More work was required.

I didn’t entirely disagree. I didn’t think it had worked as well as the original pilot. The original pilot had had room to breathe. It possessed a certain charm. We hadn’t overthought it. The elements stood on their own. Rob brought a passion and an authenticity to it. The second pilot had itself been a Frankenstein monster. I liked the frame we had created for it. But I had been forced to edit the heck out of the radio play that I’d borrowed from the archives to make it fit. Even the audio quality of the radio play hadn’t been up to snuff; it had originally been recorded on tape and sounded a few tape generations old. The third pilot had more going for it. I liked the frame. I liked the opening and closing music. I liked Barry Morgan’s Richard Matheson adaptation. I liked Cathi’s piece. But somehow it didn’t all gell the same as the original.

Nevertheless, the committee still hadn’t given us a definitive “no.” They offered us a chance to make yet a fourth pilot. By now people in the drama department were calling me Wing Commander Joe, I had so many pilots under me.

 So, with a thread of hope still dangling before us, Fergus, Rob, Alison and I got together to talk about it. Rob made the point that maybe the show needed to be more serious, that our problem was trying to mix humour with seriousness. Thinking of shows like MASH and Life is Beautiful, I didn’t think that was the issue, though it could well have confused the Development Committee. Rob also objected to the CBC’s obvious efforts to make the show “stealth” science fiction. They didn’t want the show to be overtly about science fiction and fantasy. They wanted it to be something else that happened to include science fiction and fantasy. I agreed with Rob on this point. There seemed to be a slight bias against science fiction and fantasy. And not only that: against radio plays, too. Against storytelling. Against the representational. (This would be made abundantly clear when the entire radio drama department was shut down a few short years later, ostensibly as a response to financial pressures.)

Which was too bad. Because by now I had refined the concept even further. I was thinking that the host should be a sonic sorcerer, with the power to do anything, be anywhere. This concept, coupled with effective, liberal use of sound effects, would have several virtues. It would allow us to harness the enormous imaginative potential of radio. If the host wanted to be on the surface of Mars, he could be there in the blink of an eye—faster than light, if you will.  If he wanted to lasso a comet by the tail, he could.  He could pilot a spaceship, visit Heaven or Hell, single-handedly battle an army of knights… or simply conduct an interview. It solved the conceptual problem of how to veer from the fantastic portions of the show’s “frame” to the magazine elements of the show:  

SFX: STATIC

FEMALE VOICE: (TREATED) Incoming vessel. You have three seconds to identify yourself before we open fire.

HOST: (TWO SECOND BEAT)  (TREATED)  I’m Robert J. Sawyer, commanding Faster Than Light on CBC Radio. Be advised that if you open fire, we will respond.

FEMALE VOICE: Acknowledged, Faster Than Light.  What, may I ask, will you respond with?

ROB:   How about an interview with Canadian Independent author Maaja Wentz?

You see how it would work? Playful and imaginative. Veering seamlessly from fantasy to reality. It would itself be science fiction and fantasy while presenting the same to our listeners.

Alas, it never happened. The committee never did say no outright, but the truth is, Faster Than Light as we conceived of it never stood much of a chance. What we wanted to do was too much at odds with what the powers that be at the time were willing to let us do. Greg Sinclair was head of the drama department at the time (but did not represent the Program Development Committee… I felt he was on my side). We discussed the project and mutually decided to pull the plug. To make it work for the CBC, we were going to have to turn it into a show that none of us believed in or wanted to do. Greg informed Rob Sawyer.

We never got the green light that I had dreamed about for so long.

Rollback, by Robert J. Sawyer

Still, I wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything. I’m proud of all three pilots. Rob and I became friends. I thank him for his generosity and time in trying to make it work. Later, he asked me to read and comment on the third draft of his novel Rollback (about a man and a woman in their eighties who agree to undergo a procedure to make them younger. It only works on the man. Of course, this has huge implications on their relationship. It’s a great read.) Rob made the protagonist a CBC Recording Engineer/Producer, which is what I aspired to be. He also featured me as a character in the novel, on page ninety-nine.

I went back to my normal life working on other people’s radio shows. That year CBC Radio launched a show called WireTap. I could barely make myself listen to it, out of jealousy, I suppose. Finally listening to an episode one day, I found myself impressed. I wrote the producers of Wiretap and told them how much I liked the episode, which had included some scby Roience fiction. I used my cbc.ca email address so that they would know that it came from a colleague. Nobody from the show ever responded.

Had I managed to get Faster Than Light on the air, I would have personally responded to every single email the show received.                      

Assorted Nonsense: The Podcast

Photo by Magda Ehlers from Pexels

One day in the not too distant future, when I have time, I might try my hand at a podcast. And when I do, it might turn out something like the script I’ve pasted below. I wrote this back around 2006 and actually produced a version of it a few years later with my buddy Matt Watts, but it never saw the light of day.

The mini-radio drama referenced near the end, Born of Man and Woman, was produced by my friend and colleague Barry Morgan for the third pilot we produced for Faster Than Light, but like that pilot, it was never aired, which is a shame, because Barry’s take on the story was actually quite good. Born of Man and Woman is a great little short story if you can get your hands on it, by Richard Matheson, author of What Dreams May Come and I am Legend. As for Barry Morgan, I really miss him. What a privilege it was to know a guy like that.

This script, you will see, is rather silly, but dammit there’s a place for silly in this world. Isn’t there?

ASSORTED NONSENSE

Episode #1

PART ONE

1. SFX:                                   SHUFFLING PAPERS, CHAIRS SQUEAKING

2. JOE: (STAGE WHISPER)  Play it. Play it!

3. MATT: (STAGE WHISPER) What? 

4. JOE: (STAGE WHISPER) The theme!

5. MATT: (STAGE WHISPER) Oh.  Which button…?

6. JOE: (STAGE WHISPER) Try the red one. (FREAKS OUT) NO! No, the green one.

7. SFX: CLICK!

8. THEME: ASSORTED NONSENSE THEME BG

9. MATT:                               Hi and welcome to Assorted Nonsense.  I’m Matt Watts…

10. JOE:                                  And I’m Joe Mahoney.  Welcome to Assorted Nonsense.

11. SFX: QUACK QUACK

12. MATT:                             Every edition of Assorted Nonsense is special, of course, but today’s show is extra special because not only will you hear the usual assorted nonsense…

13. JOE:                                  You’ll hear all sorts of extra goodies, just like on your favourite Star Wars DVD.

14. MATT:                             For instance, in today’s show we’ve included two scenes so poorly written and acted…

15. JOE:                                  So unbelievably awful…

16. MATT:                             That normally they would have been deleted.

17. JOE:                                  Without question.

18. MATT:                             Today we’ve kept them in.  Just like our bloopers.  During the making of every Athorted Nonsenthe… of every Athorted… oh for the love of –

19. SFX: BLEEP!

20. JOE:                                  You need to work on that lisp.

21. MATT:                             I need some water.  Can we do that again?

22. PRODUCER:                    (OVER TALKBACK) Pick it up at “During the making of.”

23. MATT:                             Okay. Ready?

24. JOE:                                  Go for it.

25. MATT:                             During the making of every Assorted Nonsense, Joe and I make plenty of mistakes.  Normally we edit them out.  Not today.

26. JOE:                                  Today we’re keeping them in.  And if you listen closely…

27. MATT:                             Really, really closely…

28. JOE:                                  You’ll hear a special commentary track in which Matt and I comment on the very show you’re listening to —

29. MATT:                             — while you’re listening to it. 

30. JOE:                                  How cool is that?

31. MATT:                             When the show’s finished, make sure you turn it over to hear a special behind-the-scenes making of featurette. 

32. MATT:                             And as an extra special bonus, today’s show is available in the following languages: 

33. JOE:                                  English.

34. MATT: Assorted Nonsense.  Radio that answers the burning question:

35. JOE AND MATT: (TREATED HARD RIGHT AND LEFT) What the heck?

36. THEME:                          UP AND OUT

PART TWO: CONSTRUCTION SITE

1. SFX: CONSTRUCTION, BULLDOZER IN DISTANCE

2. MATT:                               Hey Joe.  What’goin’ on?  What’s all this?

3. JOE:                                    Oh hey Matt.  I’m just building my own radio show, so I can be my own boss, do my own thing.  You know, the kind of show I’ve been talking about for like forever.

4. MATT:                               I’m sorry, did you say that you’re… building a radio show?

5. JOE:                                    Yeah, that’s right.  Once I get all the pieces.

6. MATT:                               Pieces?  Radio shows come in pieces?

7. JOE:                                    Of course.  You know… radio pieces.  Themes, hosts, music, stories… you know, radio stuff.

8. MATT:                               Huh.

9. JOE:                                    Only problem is this is one a them “do-it-yourself” radio shows.  I gotta figure out how ta bolt it all together.  For instance, getting this… sub-text in place…

6. SFX:                                   DRILL

7. JOE:                                    There.

7. SFX: BULLDOZER

8. MATT:                               Joe…

7. JOE: (EXCITED) Oh hey look, they’re bringing in the theme!  Ooh, this is very exciting.  Put it over there, boys! 

8. SFX: THEME SETS DOWN WITH A THUD

9. MUSIC:                             AS IT HAPPENS THEME

16. JOE:                                  Oh. Hmm, I dunno.  I didn’t order a current affairs theme. (OFF) Guys!  Guys!  You’re gonna have to take that theme back.  Can we get something a little less… Moe Koffman-y?

25. MUSIC: THEME DEPARTS WITH BULLDOZER

11. JOE:                                  Hand me those nails?  Thanks.

12. MATT:                             Joe you can’t just… build a radio show.

13. SFX:                                 HAMMERING

14. JOE:                                  I can’t?

15. MATT:                             No.

26. JOE:                                  Here, hold this while I tweak the focus.  Thanks.

27: SFX:                                 FOCUS TWEAKING

17. MATT:                             Have you thought this thing through?

18: JOE: (STRAINING) And now for the dramatic structure…

19. MATT:                             Do you have any idea –

18. SFX:                                 JACKHAMMER

19. MATT: (YELLING) Joe, Joe listen to me!  Do you have any idea how –

20. SFX: JACKHAMMER STOPS

21. MATT:                             (STILL YELLING) big a radio…? (SIGHS, LOWERS VOICE) How big a radio show can be? 

22. JOE: Whaddaya mean?

23. MATT:                             Where ya gonna put it? 

24. JOE:                                  It’s just little, only half an hour.  Fits anywhere.

25. MATT:                             You have no idea what you’re getting yourself into, do you.  Joe… radio shows… radio shows are like cats.

26. JOE:                                  Cats?

27. MATT:                             You might even be allergic for all you know.

28. JOE:                                  I –

29. MATT:                             Do you have any idea what a radio show can do to your furniture?

30. JOE:                                  Uh —

31: MATT:                             You’re not thinking of having it declawed, are you?  ‘Cause if you are, then —

32. JOE:                                  (LIKE HE’S CRAZY) Matt, Matt.  It’s not a cat.  It’s a radio show.

33. MATT:                             (BEAT) Oh you are so wrong.  Cuz ya see Joe, a radio show is exactly like a cat.

34. JOE:                                  (LONG BEAT) Except for the fur, and the… head?

35. MATT:                             Joe, what’s the one thing that cats have more than any other creature on this planet?

36. JOE: Hairballs.

37. MATT: Attitude, Joe.  There ain’t no other creature on this planet with more attitude than a cat.  (BEAT) ‘Cept maybe a beaver but the point is that that’s what makes a cat tick.  Attitude.  For a radio show to really rock, it’s gotta have attitude. 

38. JOE:                                  Like a cat.

39. MATT:                             Or a beaver.

40. JOE:                                  And you know this because…

41. MATT:                             I used to have one.

42.  JOE:                                 A cat?

43.  MATT:                            (BEAT) A beaver.

44.  JOE:                                 Well I appreciate the advice Matt but I’m still gonna build my own radio show.  *Now if you’ll excuse me I’m gonna have to trim this item cause it’s already gone on way too long…

44. MUSIC: *START OVERBLOWN MUSIC BG

45. SFX: SAWING

45. MUSIC:                           FEATURE, THEN FADE BG

46. MATT: (OVERLY DRAMATIC)

And so Joe built his radio show.

He built it with his own bare hands.

He built it though it made no sense to do so. 

He built it out of spare parts left over from a misspent youth. 

He built a radio show fluent in four different languages, not a one of them spoken on Earth.

He coated it with a super special polymer material, able to withstand hurricane forces and the probing hands of small children.

He made his radio show sveglia impermeable.

He put little air holes in it so that he could breathe. 

He painted it bright orange with gigantic purple spots. 

Joe built a radio show the envy of the entire… that… some people could tune into if they wanted to. 

Joe built his radio show unaware that as he did so, elsewhere in the universe mysterious aliens plotted the fate of humanity:

PART THREE: STUDIO

1. SOUND:                             INTRO OF SHOW STARTS AGAIN

2. JOE:                                    Hi, I’m Joe.  I’m one of the people in the show that you’re listening to.

3. MATT:                               And I’m Matt, I act in the show, and I do the show’s laundry.

4. JOE:                                    As we promised a little earlier on, we’re about to do a commentary track for today’s show.  But just a commentary for the, uh, intro, the beginning of the show, because, uh…

5. MATT:                               Well the show hasn’t actually finished yet. So we can pretty much only comment on the beginning, maybe a bit of the middle, depending.

6. JOE:                                    Yeah, so here it is, this is the beginning of today’s show, which you would have heard only a few minutes ago.  I put it together late last week, if I recall, Thursday, I think, round suppertime, while eating a baloney, ah…

7. SOUND:                             SHOW PLAYS BG UNDER

8. MATT:                               So… was it you who wrote this?

9. JOE:                                    Yep.

10. MATT:                             I mean… it was you, wasn’t it?  That wrote the intro?  ‘Cause I don’t…

11. SOUND:                           BIT OF THE INTRO

12. JOE:                                  Uh huh.  Yeah.  I’d have to say that it was pretty much me, not sure what you were doing that day, playing Resident Evil or something, but… that’s the two of us reading it, though.

13. MATT:                             Yeah.

14. SOUND:                           A BIT OF THE INTRO

15. MATT:                             So were you a little pressed for time then, writing it, or…?

16. SOUND:                           A BIT OF THE INTRO

17. JOE: Whaddaya mean? 

18. MATT:                             Well it’s not very good, is it?

19. JOE:                                  You don’t think?

20. SOUND:                           BIT MORE OF SHOW

21. MATT:                             Have you heard it?

22. JOE:                                  Uh… well yeah.  Yeah, I mixed it, I put the whole thing together, so… yeah, I… you know I don’t even know where you were.

21.  MATT:                            There’s no need to get defensive.  I’m just saying that it could’ve been… better.

22. JOE:                                  Oh yeah?   Well how?  How could it’ve been better?

23. MATT:                             Well.  You know.

24. SOUND:                           BIT MORE OF THE SHOW

25. JOE:                                  No.  No I don’t know.  Why don’t you tell me?

26. SOUND:                           BIT MORE OF THE SHOW

27. MATT:                             Well you know if I’d written it.  I think if I’d written the intro it would’ve… you know… been better.

28.  SOUND: PARTICULARLY LAME PART OF THE SHOW

29. MATT:                             A lot better.  Wait… wait!

30. JOE:                                  What?

31. MATT:                             Shh!  This is my favourite part.

32. SOUND:                           EVEN MORE BANAL PART OF THE INTRO

33.  JOE:                                 I thought you said you didn’t like the intro.

34. MATT:                             What?  Oh, well I thought that I liked that one part, but… huh.

35. JOE:                                  What?

36. MATT: (DISMISSIVELY) Ah, it wasn’t as good as I thought it was.

37. SOUND:                           FEATURE INTRO

38. SOUND:                           TRANSITION

PART FOUR: SPECIAL FEATURE PRESENTATION

1. JOE: Time now for today’s Special Feature Presentation!

2. MUSIC:                                         TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX THEME

3. MATT: It’s at this point in the show that you might want to find someone or something to hold onto.

4. JOE: Why do you say that?

5. MATT: Well it’s just that I think that what we’re about to play represents a bit of a departure in tone.  You know, in the tone that I think you and I have worked so hard to establish in today’s show.

6. JOE: You mean the fact that what we’re about to play is not particularly funny.

7. MATT:                                           I mean the fact that it’s actually kind of good.

8. JOE: Oh yeah, yeah there is that. 

9. MATT: But you’re right, it’s not particularly funny either.  It’s actually kind of scary.

10. JOE: So you think this is a problem, then, this change in tone?

11. MATT: Well no, it’s just I just wouldn’t want any of our listeners to, you know, blow a gasket or something.  We’ve only got three.

12. JOE: Gaskets?

13. MATT: Listeners.

14. JOE: Ah, yes, yes this is true.  It is a well-known fact that if listeners are forced to switch too quickly from one kind of programming to another, they explode.

15. MATT: Very messy.

16. JOE: Yeah.  So, um, listeners, if you think there’s any chance at all that you might explode because of the rapid transition from sort of “funny” radio to sort of “serious” radio, you might wanna just… what.  Turn the radio off?

17. MATT: Well no, no, let’s not get carried away.  I think it would suffice if you just… you know, stood back from the radio a bit.  Probably a good idea to keep the volume down.  And then, as you get used to the change in programming, as you begin to feel more comfortable with it, then you can… try edging in a bit.  But slowly!  No sudden moves.  And if you feel like you might explode anyway, try not to do it on the carpet.

18. JOE: Perfect.  The last thing we need is one of our listeners exploding.

19. MATT: We’ve only got three.

20. JOE: And we have a responsibility to those three to keep them from exploding.

21. MATT: (WHISPER) It’s probably okay if one explodes.

22. JOE: Shh!  Okay, so without further ado here’s our special feature presentation, a little something called Born of Man and Woman.   

23. MATT: By Richard Matheson, produced by Barry Morgan.  Okay, play it.

24. JOE: Okay, ah… how do I…

25.MATT: The green button.  NO!  NO!  The red one.

26. SOUND: CLICK!

27. ITEM:       DRAMA “BORN OF MAN AND WOMAN”

  • IN:      …Door slam                                                            RUNS:  8’00” aprox 
  • OUT:  …Music

PART FIVE: THAT’S ALL SHE WROTE

1. JOE:                                    Born of Man and Woman, by Richard Matheson, adapted and produced for radio by Barry Morgan.

2. MATT: Featuring Wayne Robson, Ray Landry, and Sarah Orenstein.  A true story, based on Joe’s early childhood, if I’m not mistaken.

3. JOE:                                    (BEAT) I don’t wanna talk about it.

4. MATT:                               And that’s all she wrote, that’s our show for today.

5. THEME:                            UP AND UNDER

6. JOE:                                    For today’s show only the part of Matt Watts was played by Joe Mahoney. 

7. MATT:                               With the part of Joe Mahoney being played by Matt Watts. To complain about Assorted Nonsense, e-mail Assorted Nonsense Audience Relations at:

We have a team of operators standing by to receive your complaints.  Assorted Nonsense is written and produced by Joe Mahoney with Matt Watts.  See ya.

8. JOE:                                    Later.  

9. THEME: FEATURE, THEN DOWN FOR:

10. THEME:                          UP AND OUT

END

Something Technical: A Memoir

The story of your average Joe working mostly behind the scenes at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

It’s actually a fairly serious attempt to document a roughly twenty year stretch of CBC Radio between 1988 and 2008. As such, it covers a fair amount of ground, but is somewhat myopic in that it’s mostly from the perspective of single audio technician (me) following his own unique path through the CBC Radio trenches.

My time with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has been mostly positive, so you won’t see much dirt here. This is, in a way, a celebration of CBC Radio, though an unflinching one, as there were some challenging moments that I do my best not to shy away from. I do my utmost to be strictly factual based on a pretty good memory and copious notes taken throughout my career.

This is a work in progress. I’m tweaking it constantly. When you come back (you will come back, won’t you?) it will be different. Better? Perhaps. Longer? Definitely. Fewer typos? Probably not.

Click on titles in the index to skip easily from section to section.

The tale begins in July 1988…

Something Technical

My roommate came home with a brand new car. I’d been bumming around for a couple of months, enjoying a summer off after working as a lab assistant at Ryerson. He’d been bumming around too, but then he got a job at GM, and one day he came home with a car. It seemed so… grown up. And cool. The guy had a car. He could afford a car. A brand new car. I still remember what kind of car it was. A red Chevy Beretta.

I decided I wanted to be able to afford a car. This meant it was time to get a job.

I applied for a job at Sony where I’d make $25,000 dollars a year. This seemed like a huge amount. Ryerson had paid $13,000 for eight months of work. I was still living off that because my lifestyle cost virtually nothing. I had nothing. Up until then I’d wanted nothing. Until my roommate came home with a car.

I also applied at a post production facility. I forget the name. They interviewed me (Sony didn’t). They were willing to pay me $18,000 a year. They said, if you were offered both jobs, this one and the one at Sony, which one would you take? I didn’t even blink an eye. “The one at Sony,” I said.

“Why?”

“Because it’s seven thousand dollars more a year!”

I didn’t get either job. When the post production facility turned me down, they said it was because I said I’d take the Sony job over their’s for the money. “So you’re penalizing me for being honest,” I told them. They didn’t care.

So I crossed the street — Jarvis Street — to the CBC and gave the receptionist June my resume. June asked, “What kind of job do you want?”

“Something technical,” I told her.

I have no idea why I said that. It just came out without any premeditation whatsoever. I could have said, “Something that will earn me a lot of money,” or “Something On Air.” But I didn’t. Probably any other answer wouldn’t have gotten me a job. I said, “Something technical” and June picked up the phone right away and called someone.

It was Don Burgess, who was the manager in charge of radio technicians at the time. No idea what his exact title was. I don’t think he did the job very long. But he did it long enough for me. We chatted a bit about my background… plenty of experience in private radio, a degree in radio and television from Ryerson, and so on. He set up an interview.

A week later three people sat at one end of a table while I sat at the other. It was a friendly interrogation. I told them I could read music, that I’d been an announcer/operator for many years, that I listened to CBC Radio all the time since I’d been a kid. I could name shows and hosts dating back a decade and a half. My favourite shows were Variety Tonight with Vicki Gabereau and I also enjoyed The Entertainers when it had been on.

At the end of the interview they asked me if I had any questions. I said, “Just one. What have you been interviewing me for?”

They all laughed. Nobody answered the question. They thought I was joking. But I wasn’t joking. Nobody had taken the time to explain the position to me. All I knew was that it was something technical to do with CBC Radio. (I’ve conducted many interviews since; I always take time off the top to make sure the applicant completely understands what they’re applying for.)

A week later they hired me. A few days after that I received a letter from the CBC saying they couldn’t hire me. This was because I had also dropped off a letter to their Human Resources department asking for a job. The Human Resources department didn’t want me. Fortunately the technical folks did.

I’d been working for CBC Radio an entire week before I really started to get a sense of what the job was. It was a job that hadn’t existed in any of the private radio stations I’d worked for. In private radio you did it all. At the CBC you just did a piece of it all. You specialized. And I was going to specialize in the technical stuff. Not fixing things, operating them. Consoles, microphones, tape recorders, all technical equipment having to do with the recording and broadcast of sound.

Something technical. Those two words changed my life, have defined my life for over three decades now.

Never did get a car. Had to marry into that. But that’s another story.


Net Testing

The first work I ever did at CBC Radio was not typical of what I’d come to do. Technically it wasn’t even really in the job description. It was a maintenance job, not a radio technician’s job, which is what I was supposed to be. The fact that the first work I would ever do for the CBC was maintenance work is interesting, as maintenance work is something I would find myself involved in again nineteen years later when I would become Manager of one of the maintenance departments, a turn of events I can assure you I never expected.

The work they had me start with was called Net Testing. I was taught how to do it by a guy named Ron Grant. Ron Grant was a radio master control technician. Probably he’d been many things before that, but he’d wound up working in Radio Master Control on Jarvis street and that is where he’d finish his career. He was probably less than four years away from retirement when I met him.

The first thing Ron said to me was something alone the lines of, “I’m supposed to teach you how to do this in a week. I don’t think it’s possible to teach you in a week. The last guy I tried to teach how to do this ran screaming out of here in two days with his tail between his legs. But I’ll give it a go.”

It was a brilliant speech. I don’t think it was at all pre-meditated; Ron was the kind of guy who said what was on his mind, usually loudly. The other guys in Master Control (MCR for short) called him “Boomer”.

Ron’s speech had a terrific impact on me. Up until that time I was the kind of guy who got by. I was smart enough that I could coast through school, and coast through university without ever really applying myself. I did fine — sometimes really fine if something captivated my imagination, more often than not pitiful if I underestimated some challenge. Ron’s speech put the fear of God in me. This was a real job, not something I wanted to screw up. There would be no coasting here. And it was obvious from the get go that what Ron was teaching me was complex.

So I hung on Ron’s every word. I took copious notes. I asked a lot of questions. And by the end of the week I knew how to do what I needed to do. The week after that I was on my own.

My job was to test all the audio lines from coast to coast on a strict schedule. The tools of my trade were audio tapes full of a series of tones from frequencies so low a human could barely hear them to frequencies so high most mature adults couldn’t hear them. I don’t remember the exact range but it was something like 25 Hertz up to 25 Kilohertz (the tone most audio technicians are familiar with is 1 K. That’s what we use to line up audio, something I’ll explain later. Many adults can’t hear past 12 or 15 K. When I started I was twenty-three years old and I could hear up to at least twenty).

The idea was to patch the audio down these lines one after another and work with other audio engineers across the country to measure the frequency response. I would then record the results using a pen and paper. If the results were in any way askew I would contact an engineer with Bell who would investigate the problem on his end, as the lines were all Bell lines. They all had names like 1P West (also known as 1PW, a mono line to points west from Toronto), 1P East (1PE, a mono line to points east from Toronto), 1E5 (an emergency circuit), 1H59 (to Sudbury, I think), and other lines starting with the number 6, which denoted stereo for some reason, and so on. This was a great education as throughout the rest of my career I always knew all the lines, what they meant, where they went etc. Until just recently in fact, when we didn’t renew the contract with Bell, and went with something called the NGCN (Next Generation Converged Network) which is basically all data, spitting files across the country instead of actual audio. (More on that much, much later.)

The biggest surprise to me was that there was math involved in this work, integers, no less. I had always considered myself an artsy, and never imagined ever having to do a job involving actual math. I once told a math teacher that in Grade Twelve. He said you never know. He was right.

I conducted these tests all summer long, the summer of 1988, after which someone else took over, probably Ron Grant again. Much later these network tests were automated, and nobody did them, although real live human beings still had to look at the results.

In the Fall my contract lapsed for three weeks, during which I went home to PEI. While I was there the CBC contacted me and hired me back to work until Christmas, which I was happy to do, this time as an actual Radio Technician Group 4.

More on that later.


Ob-swerving

All new technicians at the CBC spent a lot of time “observing.” Observing was when you were booked with a more experienced tech to watch them work, and hopefully learn. My friend Barry Spray (now retired) used to call it “Ob-swerving” because, as he (ahem) observed, a significant component of observing was staying out of the way so the real tech could work.

I did my fair share of observing. I spent time in radio master control, the news studios (Q and T), the Parliament street studios (P, V and P aux), the packaging studios (too many to name, but just pick a few letters of the alphabet), the drama studio (studio G), and so on. I observed shows like Listen to the Music, Morningside, As It Happens, dramas, Ideas, Ontario Today, and on and on. I would go on to eventually tech those shows and many more.

Whether you learned anything depended on who you were observing. I learned how to cue up a tape for news in ten seconds from Joe Lawlor. I learned how to destroy old tape with pencils from Greg DeClute. I learned that you could knit and do As It Happens at the same time from Jan Wright (although I never actually did that). I learned how to mix complicated items for Sunday Morning using umpteen different sources (music, sound effects, interviews, clips etc) with a mere two arms from Peter Beamish (this was back in the days of analog, before computers… I never even came close to Peter’s abilities). In short, I learned how to do everything I needed to do from my eighty or so colleagues.

I suppose there were techs who weren’t all that keen to help you, who kept their years of experience close to their chests. At least, I’ve heard that there were, but honestly thinking about it now I can’t think of a single one. I found everybody generous and helpful.

Two stand out. I learned the most by far about being a Group 4 Tech from John Johnston. John Johnston was the technician for Morningside. He was actually a Group 6, what they called a Merit 6, because of his years of experience and abilities, plus the fact that he was doing one of the biggest, most important shows, hosted by Peter Gzowski. At the time Recording Engineers were Group 6s I believe, which is something I would later aspire to. John wasn’t a Recording Engineer per se (he didn’t work in the high end studios) but he was a consummate professional who could handle anything they could throw at him on Morningside, which was a lot.

I trained with John for a week when they decided that I would do the summer version of Morningside when John was on vacation, and replace John the odd time in the winter. John took me through everything methodically. He explained elements of the console to me that until then had been a mystery. He explained various protocols of dealing with producers and directors (keep the chatter during the show to a minimum, insist on clarity of direction, don’t be afraid to assume control when you have to). Also guests, both in the studio and “down the line” in remote locations (put them at ease, explain the process, teach them how to control their headset volume, answer any questions, adjust their mic so there’s no popping or sibilance, lie about how long it will be until they’re on). We talked about “live pickups”, which is when recording artists come into the studio to perform live (reverb settings, understanding the mic/line boxes in the studio, dealing with phantom power, direct boxes, how to mic various instruments from theremins to cellos to electrics guitars to trombones, you name it). And on and on.

It was a Master’s Class in the job, and it served me well for many years. Years later, when I handed the “Q With Jian Ghomeshi” gig over to my hand picked replacement, Alain Derbez, I passed as many of these tips on as I could remember, to continue the tradition. (Although Alain was already such a talented and experienced recording engineer there wasn’t much left to tell him, other than the protocols of putting a live magazine show to air).

I had actually observed John Johnston once before, within a few days of starting at the CBC, when the idea was just to introduce me to what the job was. He was tech’ing Listen to the Music with (I believe) host Jan Tennant, and this was a memorable experience as well. Not because the show was particularly memorable, but because as he worked on the show, he also prepared a strawberry shortcake, which he shared with me and Jan. And when it came time for Jan to read the credits for the show, John insisted that she include me, although I actually did virtually nothing for the show other than sit in the technician’s chair for a few minutes. I remember calling my parents and telling them to listen to the broadcast, which they did, hearing my first ever CBC Radio credit.

The other teacher of note was Greg DeClute, with whom I worked in the drama department several years later. A gifted recording engineer and talented teacher, extraordinarily generous with his hard-won knowledge, he’s the man who taught me how to be a proper recording engineer and work complicated consoles such as the Neve Capricorn and Euphonix System 5. But that’s a whole other chapter in my life that will come much later.


“Mix/Minus”

From Fall to Christmas 1988 I spent my time at CBC Radio both observing and working in studios, learning the tricks of the trade. I did basic bookings, simple recordings, a lot of what are called “Two-Ways.”

Two Ways consist of a host in a studio in one location and a guest in a studio in another location. The second location could be just across the city or it could be a studio on the other side of the world. You have to master a little something called the “mix/minus” to perform a proper Two-Way. This is just making sure that you’re not sending the person on the other end of the line back to themselves. Say I have a Two-Way between Toronto and Vancouver. The voice of the guest in Vancouver is sent down a line to my studio in Toronto. At the same time I have to send the voice of my host down the line to the studio in Vancouver. But both me and the technician in Vancouver have to make sure we don’t send one another’s signals back to one another. If I send the guest in Vancouver back to himself, it will come back to him delayed by as much as half a second. He or she will hear this in the headphones and find it very distracting.

Although straightforward once you knew how, people were always getting the mix/minus wrong. I remember doing the summer edition of Morningside one morning in 1993 (it was called Summerside then, which was kind of neat, as I grew up in Summerside Prince Edward Island). We had a guest on the show from Moncton, New Brunswick, but the technician in Moncton was summer relief and didn’t know how to “split the board” (one way of referring to “mix/minus”, though it also has other connotations). We were already live on air with one portion of the show and I had about fifteen minutes to teach the technician in Moncton how to split his board for the mix minus. This involved figuring out what kind of console he was flying and how it worked and instructing him to make the necessary adjustments. Fortunately he was a quick learner. Also, although we were live on air, my host (it was either Ian Brown or Denise Donlon who was replacing Peter Gzowski at the time) was in the middle of an interview, which meant other than watching audio levels I had time to focus on teaching the Moncton tech. Live radio was always full of challenges like that.

Two-ways are one thing, but we also did three-ways, four-ways and even more. Same basic principle, but care was required, especially in live-to-air situations.

Back to the Fall of ’88. A great hurdle all new technicians had to face was the intimidating presence of experienced producers. You would walk into a studio as a new technician and the first question you would get from the producer was, “Where’s (insert name of experienced technician here)?” There are of course many wonderfully flippant responses to this inane question, but you would choke them back. If the producer was intelligent, which was sometimes the case, they would simply deal with the situation and help you make the booking a success, whether it was a simple recording or a two-way or what-have-you. If the producer was what (intelligent) producer Sandy Mowat would call a “mutton head” then you might have to put up with some abuse, or at the very least a distinct lack of friendliness.

It was frequently an intimidating experience. There were over twenty studios in the old Jarvis street radio facilities. Almost every studio was set up differently. Every patch rack was different, usually a spaghetti-like tangle of patch cords, the rack itself cryptically labelled. I remember doing a booking in Studio F, which was usually the As It Happens studio, but this was before 11am in the morning when As It Happens claims the studio. I was working with a particularly belligerent producer. I needed to make a patch, but I didn’t know where the patch point was, so I started at the top left hand corner of the patch rack and worked my way down to the bottom right hand side, looking for the patch point.

I said to the producer, “You’ll have to excuse me for a moment, it may take me a couple of minutes to find the right patch point.”

He said (and I quote), “Have you considered the possibility that you’re stupid?”

I was flabbergasted, but determined to take the high road I said nothing, found the patch point, and continued on with the booking. I had some gum with me and at one point offered him some to illustrate that I had no hard feelings about his remarkably harsh remark. At the end of the booking I said, “Better make a point of remembering where that patch point is lest it ever be implied again that I’m stupid,” at which point the producer mumbled, “How you guys remember all these different studios is beyond me.” I accepted this oblique apology, though never forgot his words. And there will be more on this character (and others like him) later.

Mel Broitman, Mary Hynes, and March Thompson making The Inside Track in Studio F. The challenging patch bay I refer to above is located on the right, just over March’s shoulder (Photo by Trish Thornton)

Come Christmas I had a basic familiarity with some of what I’d be required to do as a radio technician, but there was much, much more to learn. At Christmas I was reassigned to work in Radio Master Control for several months. Ostensibly this was a bit of a promotion (master control techs were Group 5s), but it interrupted my education as a basic Group 4 radio tech for a while.

More on Master Control next.


Joe, We Have a Problem

Joram Kalfa, Joe Mahoney, and Peter Chin in Radio Master Control, Jarvis Street Toronto circa 1990

Christmas nineteen eighty-eight I was assigned to work the evening shift in Radio Master Control (also called Radio MCR). I worked there solid for about six months.

It was prefaced by a week or two of training, which meant hanging out with other radio master techs such as Peter Chin, Gerry Samson, Ken Lumsden, Ron Grant, Jeanette Sipos, Ron Minhinnet, and others. Those were the full timers, although there were others who were well enough trained to cover the odd shift.

What was Radio Master Control? It sounds kind of impressive. It looked kind of impressive, even back then, when it was run in part by computers using cassette tapes, technology dating back to the seventies, if not earlier. Radio Master Control in Toronto was the central hub. All CBC Radio shows coming out of Toronto passed through Radio Master. Many shows originating in the regions passed through Radio Master in Toronto, at least if they were national shows. So when you worked in Radio Master you had a fair amount of responsibility. Much of went on was automated, but the automation only worked if the radio master control tech set it up properly, and maintained it properly, and dealt with it properly when things went horribly wrong… which they always did, usually at least once a day.

People who have never worked in Radio MCR sometimes find it difficult to understand. When you walked by the place, which used to be located in the basement of the Jarvis Street facility, and later (until recently) the third floor of the Toronto Broadcast Centre, you would sometimes see technicians doing what appeared to be, well, nothing. In fact, they were only at rest if all their preparations were complete, if nobody in any studios or other master controls across the country were calling them, if everything was going to air properly. In a sense radio master control techs are like firefighters, waiting for something to go wrong. And every properly trained master control technician is poised to leap into action at the first instance of trouble.

Paul Cutler in Jarvis Street MCR (Photo by Larry Alder)

Back when I started in the eighties, if a show wasn’t being broadcast live, odds were it was being played back off quarter inch tape. It was the job of the master control technician to put up the tape, check it for any issues, make sure the levels were good, that the first sounds on the tape were what they were supposed to be — in other words, that it was the right program.

I remember putting up the last ever tape for the show Eclectic Circus, hosted by Alan McPhee, and thinking, wow, I’m the last link in the chain of the last ever episode of this show, which I had enjoyed listening to when I was a kid sometimes.

Technician (and future Operations Officer) Larry Alder in Jarvis Street MCR circa 1986

But back to the beginning of this six month (or so) gig. It was my first week. New Year’s Eve. I was on the evening shift. Early in the shift I put up the tapes for a show called Two New Hours, which featured modern Canadian composers and was produced for many years by David Jaeger (until its cancellation in the spring of 2007, I believe). The show consisted of three separate one hour long reels of tape. I carefully put each of them up, checked their levels, checked the first words, and was not at all concerned about any of them.

Here’s how it worked. When the technician was recording the show in the studio he/she added what was called a “swap tone” to the end of the first and second hours. I can’t remember the exact details now but I believe the swap tone was something like 25 Hz at -6 DB. The idea was that the listeners at home were not supposed to be able to hear this swap tone — it was at the bottom edge of human hearing. It was there for the master control systems to detect and trigger a “swap” from one tape to the next (it was loud enough for me to hear it when I put the tapes up, but the swaps happened pretty quickly, so even if listeners could hear something, they wouldn’t hear it for long).

I was working with Peter Chin that night, who had kindly taken it upon himself to mentor me, and who remains a good friend to this day. About three hours later I was on a break in the technician’s lounge when Peter called me to tell me there was a major problem with the show.

“What’s the problem?” I asked.

“It finished forty-five minutes early,” he told me.

Yikes!

I ran from the lounge on the first floor to MCR in the basement where Peter was trying to figure out what happened. It didn’t take long to sort out. When Radio MCR techs put up tapes they were supposed to check out a form that accompanied each tape with information about the program in question. I had done this, but had neglected an important part of the form: a comments section in which the producer David Jaeger had written something along the lines of: “There are low organ notes in this show. Please take this into consideration when playing back the show.” In other words, I was supposed to have programmed the MCR computer to severely limit the amount of time it could detect the swap tone, so that it would not confuse extremely low organ notes with the swap tone. Not having noticed the comment, I had not done this, so the computer detected the organ notes and swapped one of the tapes forty-five minutes early. This meant that the show finished forty-five minutes early, and there was nothing for us to do but play fill music for forty-five minutes on Radio Two. Because of the way programming is played back in Canada (time delayed so that all programming airs at the same time on the clock if not the same actual time) we were able to fix the show for Vancouver, but that was it.

Well.

The proverbial sh** hit the fan. The phone started ringing off the hook, people wanting to know what happened. I felt absolutely terrible for being responsible for basically forty-five minutes of incorrect programming from (almost) coast to coast.

The following week people in the Music Department wanted blood. One of the technical managers told me that they essentially wanted whoever was responsible fired. But this manager felt that if I wrote a nice letter of apology maybe that would smooth things over. So I did.

Many years later when I became a manager myself I was shown a filing cabinet containing personnel files for all radio technicians dating back many years. And lo and behold there was a file on me, which included that letter.

Here is what I wrote:

January 4th, 1989


I’m writing you regarding the incident concerning Two New Hours. I was the technician responsible for the disruption in the broadcast of that show.

For a number of reasons I am sorry for what occurred. I realize my mistake, which took place as a result of negligence, affected a lot of people. I’m aware of the amount of work and effort required to construct a show such as Two New Hours, and I can imagine the dismay all involved must have felt. I feel particularly bad for the Vancouver composer who almost missed hearing his work broadcast.

I have been reprimanded and questioned thoroughly as to why the incident occurred. Steps have been taken both departmentally and personally to ensure that it is not repeated. I make no excuses for my mistake. I do ask that you accept my apology

Thank you for taking the time to read this.

Sincerely, Joe Mahoney

Man did I fall on my sword. But I was sincere.

Attached to the letter was a note that I had never seen, hand written by Kel Lack, my boss at the time, and addressed to Karen Keiser, who I believe was Head of Serious Music Programming at that time (a position that no longer exists). Kel had written:

Joe Mahoney is a new and very promising tech who needless to say was devastated by what happened with Two New Hours.

The tone of his note speaks for itself and I know he learned a good lesson. I propose to leave the matter there.

Once again our apologies.

Kel

A good guy, Kel. I never heard of any response from the Serious Music Department.

The day they shut down Jarvis Street Master Control in March 1993.
Pictured L to R: Paul Cutler, Gerry Samson, Charlie Cheffins, Ken Lumsden and Larry Alder.
That’s Kel Lack in the front with the glasses.
(Photo by Larry Alder)

A couple of other notes about that infamous night. Once we knew what had happened, and that it had been my fault, my colleague Peter Chin said to me, “You need to bear down, Joe. You need to bear down.” I have no idea how many times he said it to me that night; it seems to me he said it at least a dozen times, but it may have been only twice. But the line came to live in infamy. Over the next twenty years we’ve laughed about it many times, and I do believe I’ve had occasion to repeat it back to him. “You need to bear down, Peter!” He professes not to even quite know what he meant by that.

Also, the Operations Manager on duty that night, Malcolm MacKinney, took pity on me. It was New Year’s Eve, after all. He gave me half a bottle of wine and took me across the street to the Hampton Court Hotel, where we rang the New Year in together, and I remember a parade of elderly women lining up to give me a peck on the cheek when the clock struck twelve.

Good times.

I’ve made plenty of other mistakes in my career, but no other doozies quite like that that I can recall. A good thing, or it probably would have been a short career…


The Radio Building

Ye olde Jarvis Street CBC Radio Building (Photo by Andrew Crump)
Ye olde Jarvis Street CBC Radio Building
(Photo by Andrew Crump)

When I started at CBC Radio in Toronto in nineteen eighty-eight I worked out of the Radio Building at 354 Jarvis Street. The Radio Building was a sprawling ancient structure originally constructed in 1898, the Havergal College for girls. Brick on the outside, inside it was people and wood and consoles and tape machines and it smelled an awful lot like my grandparents old wooden farmhouse in rural New Brunswick. It was huge and had a lot in it, including an abandoned pool in the sub-basement that nobody swam in much except for a few rats.

Studio G, the radio drama studio, was located on the main floor. So were Studios C, D, E, F, H, J, K, L, M and R. Studios B and W were in the basement along with Radio Master Control. Studios Q and T were on the second floor. Studio X, a dubbing studio, was on the third floor if memory serves (I only ever worked in there once). Studio A was at Carleton Street. So was Studio Z, used by the French. Studio 4S, the music studio, was also in a different building half way across the city (I never set foot in there) and studios P, P aux, and V could be found at Parliament Street along with Tuffy the cat (that was where Metro Morning and Later the Same Day were produced). As near as I can tell there were no Studios I, N, O, U, Y, at least in my time, though why those letters should be discriminated against I have no idea.

Metro Morning at 509 Parliament Steet in Cabbagetown
Metro Morning at 509 Parliament Steet
in Cabbagetown

Studio C was a tiny studio mostly used for voice tracking and two ways. “A” might have been for Aardvark but Studio D was for Ideas (Studio A, located on Carleton Street, was the sports studio). Basic Black, The Arts Tonight, and Stereo Morning came out of Studio E. As It Happens used Studio F from 11am to 7pm. Studio H was on the verge of being renovated into a high end production studio featuring an AMS Neve Audio File Logic 1 console, a state of the art mixing desk so advanced its inventor was said to have gone insane shortly after inventing it. Arts National was packaged in Studio J. Studio K was a multi-purpose packaging studio—Listen to the Music, Sunny Side Up, and My Kinda Jazz with Jeff Healy were packaged in there, among others. Prime Time with Ralph Benmurgi (later Geoff Pevere) came out of Studio L. CJBC (French services serving the Franco-Ontario community) broadcast live out of Studio M. Studio R was used for Morningside and Sunday Morning. Of course, many other shows also came out of these studios over the years.

AMS Neve Logic 1 Digital Audio Console
AMS Neve Logic 1 Digital Audio Console

The Technician’s Lounge was located on the main floor directly across from Studio M. Many were the friendships I forged in that lounge while waiting for my next booking, and many were the television shows about bugs and animals I was forced to watch because of the old timers controlling the remote—at least, those old-timers not absorbed in their never-ending card games.

I hardly set foot in Studio G, which seemed the domain of engineers infinitely more capable and ambitious than me. Radio drama would come later in my career, in a different studio in a brand new building.

One floor down was the cafeteria. I ate a lot of Banquet Burgers in there. I remember spending a few moments there on my very first day with the CBC, wondering what the future would hold, little suspecting I’d still be with the CBC decades later. Over the next few months I struck up a friendship with one of the cafeteria’s young short order chefs, a friendship that lasted until the day I jokingly suggested that he give me a meal for free. The request was so outrageous that I was certain he would immediately recognize it as a joke, but he didn’t, so I doubled down by suggesting that he give me every single meal from then on for free. He still didn’t get it, decided that I was morally suspect, and that was the end of that friendship.

The short order chef wasn’t the only one without a sense of humour. One day a friend of mine found himself standing behind a radio host ordering some soup. While handing the host the soup, the cook clumsily spilled it all over him. “I guess the soup’s on you,” my friend said.

The host—a former stand-up comic—wasn’t amused.

Down the hall from the cafeteria was Radio Master Control. Also down that hall were the Radio Operations Office, Studio B, Studio W, Tape Reclaim, the Delay room, the Recording Room, and Audio Systems. Tech Stores, the Mail Room, and the Sound Effects department were in the basement on the other side of the cafeteria. (Ivan Harris just reminded me that the machine shop was also down there somewhere, though I’m afraid I don’t quite remember where.)

The inhabitants of the Operations Office were genial front line supervisors who performed a host of technical supervisory functions and kept the radio technicians in line. If a technician was near the end of his or her shift and was bored and wanted to go home he or she would ask the Operations Officer on duty if they could leave early. Some Officers you could count on to say yes and others you could count on to say no. If you needed to call in sick, you called an Operations Officer. Operations Officers were usually well-respected, some even well-loved. It was almost a pre-requisite of the job. The night I screwed up in Master Control it was Operations Officer Malcolm McKinney who took pity on me and took me across the street to the Hampton Court Hotel to console me with a bottle of wine and good company.

Tape Reclaim was my least favourite place to work. In that hell-hole radio technicians would cut used quarter inch tape from audio reels to recycle the tape and free up the reels. They would hang the reel on a primitive slab of a machine and then haul down on a great lever to pierce the tape with a sharp steel point. Particularly feeble radio technicians usually had to yank on the lever once or twice to completely pierce the tape, which fell into a great bin of used tape. The process required a certain amount of strength and energy, energy I frequently lacked in the morning after skipping breakfast. I didn’t recycle much tape. Making matters worse, sometimes technicians had to work in there with a certain fellow with serious personal hygiene issues. Doing hard labour in a cramped space with a man with serious BO made working in Tape Reclaim the stuff of nightmares.

Studio B was a small control room with a McCurdy console and a tiny announce booth. It was used for simple production tasks such as two-ways and basic packaging. One day I found myself recording Patrick Watson in there. The broadcaster, not the singer. The man who created the Canadian Heritage Minutes. And who happened to be Chairman of the CBC at the time.

Patrick Watson (the original)
Patrick Watson (the original)

Before I go on you need to understand about reference tone.

There are several different types of tone. The tone I’m talking about here is 1 kilohertz tone. The idea is to play the 1K tone through the various broadcast equipment in the studio to line them all up (e.g., adjust playback and record levels). It’s also used to establish continuity, to ensure that the signal is travelling successfully from the studio to where ever you want to send it. For example, if you were doing a two way between Halifax and Toronto, you would want confirmation that the signal from your console was reaching Halifax, and vice versa. So 1K tone was quite useful. It could also be quite annoying. Especially if you were wearing a pair of headphones and some fool technician happened to blast tone through the board into your headphones, deafening you.

Which is the only thing I remember about the Patrick Watson interview: me accidentally blasting tone into his headphones, and Watson whipping off his headphones as fast as he could. I’ve probably accidentally done that to two or three people in my career, but it was particularly ill-advised to do it to the Chairman of the place where I worked.

Another memory of Studio B: working in Master Control and looking down the hall to see Canadian actor, writer, and director Sarah Polley hanging around the studio waiting to be interviewed. Seventeen years later I would escort her to studio 203 in the Broadcast Centre for an interview with Jian Ghomeshi. On both occasions I was struck by her charm and beauty.

Sarah Polley
Sarah Polley

Right across the hall from Master Control was Studio W. One day I was in Studio W conducting a two-way with a famous guest that wasn’t going well. The studio in Sydney, Nova Scotia could hear our guest but we couldn’t hear the interviewer in Sydney. Studio W had a weird one-of-a-kind console. I thought maybe I had done something wrong but that wasn’t it. Master confirmed that the problem was with the studio in Sydney, or perhaps the line itself. Meanwhile the famous guest proceeded to have a complete meltdown. He could not accept being kept waiting. The producer bore the guest’s rant stoically, professionally. I was astounded—astounded that this famous, well-respected person would behave like an ill-mannered child. I lost all respect for them. Until a handful of years later my father told me about a passage in this person’s autobiography in which they confessed to having serious anger management issues, issues related to events of their youth. The person was working hard to get these issues under control. Hearing this, I remembered that we are all fighting a great battle, and it behooves us not to judge others until, well, ever.

One wall west of radio master sat the recording room. Two guys alternated working in there. Techs like me would replace them on meal breaks and annual leave. The recording room was used to record everything we broadcast as well as “feeds” (audio content) from all across Canada and sometimes other countries to be used on our various shows. The job consisted of setting up tapes to do these recordings and box them up when they were done. In those days recordings were done on quarter inch tape and DAT tapes, obviously defunct mediums today (to this day Libraries and Archives is scrambling to transfer many of those recordings—the ones deemed valuable for posterity—to the digital realm, until that too becomes obsolete and it becomes necessary to transfer them to some other medium such as, oh I dunno, pure thought maybe). What little time I spent in the recording room proved most useful for getting a lot of reading done. I distinctly remember getting through a lot of Stephen King’s The Stand in there.

The Delay Room was little more than a closet, its size inversely proportional to its significance. There was an A and a B tape delay system, or a main and a backup. Each consisted of a couple of heavy duty tape machines that recorded everything we broadcast to Atlantic Canada. They would play this content back an hour later for the Eastern Time Zone, where it would be recorded again and played back for the next time zone. It would be recorded again in that time zone and played back yet again for the next one, until the content had been played back for the entire country. In this way every Canadian would hear their favourite show at exactly the same time, subjectively at least, because in reality someone in Vancouver would be hearing Morningside and every other show (except for the news) three hours later than it was originally broadcast. Because in those days this content was recorded on the medium of tape, this process affected the sound quality. Probably most people couldn’t really tell, but the sound quality of the programs broadcast in Vancouver, multiple tape generations after the original broadcast, wouldn’t be as good as the quality in Newfoundland, where audiences heard everything live, straight from the studio.

Peter Gzowski
Peter Gzowski

On the other hand, Eastern Canadians heard all our mistakes. If Peter Gzowski made a mistake during Morningside, everybody in the Maritimes heard it. If the mistake was serious enough, we would try to fix it for the rest of the country. If we got to it in time, we might be able to fix it in time for Ontario. We tried hard to do this because most if not all of the English Senior Executive Team lived in Ontario. Producers wanted our programming to be the best it could possibly be for all Canadians, of course, but they especially wanted it to be the best for the Senior Executive Team. Depending on the nature and the timing of the fault, sometimes the best we could do was fix it for Vancouver. When I messed up Two New Hours, we were only able to fix it for Vancouver. If Gzowski accidentally spilled his coffee and swore on air during the first half hour of Morningside (just an example—he never actually did this) it might have been possible to restrict the damage to the Maritimes by starting the show over again live in the studio while the first part of the show played to western time zones via the Delay system. We called this sort of thing a “remake”, and we actually did it a lot. As It Happens producers were particularly fond of “remaking” their show if they got something wrong.

I don’t have much to say about the rest of the denizens of the basement. I never worked in the mail room. I would go on to become the Manager of Audio Systems, but that was years in the future. I would also eventually spend a lot of time creating and performing sound effects, but those days were also a long ways off.

And the second floor I will leave for another post.


Studios

A year or so after I started at CBC Radio, after a stint in Radio Master Control, the powers that be made me a Group 4 Radio Technician, and started booking me in the studios.

The radio studios were challenging because there were a lot of them, and almost all of them were unique. They each had different consoles, different patch racks, different tape machines, different outboard gear. In them you would encounter different producers, different talents, and different requirements depending on the booking. You could be working on a McCurdy console, or a Studer, or a Ward-Beck, or an Audio Arts, or some weird one-off I’d never heard of before (or since).

It was about two years before I could handle myself in any situation in the studio without having to run to the tech lounge to find someone to help me figure out why the speakers weren’t working or why the microphone sounded funny. That’s just the run-of-the-mill studios—there was a whole other class of high-end studios used for recording music and radio dramas that I didn’t set foot in for years, with a completely different set of consoles, equipment, personalities, and expectations.

Karl Enke in Jarvis Street CBC Radio Studio
Karl Enke in Jarvis Street CBC Radio Studio

What I loved about working in the studios was that every day was different. If you didn’t like a gig, no problem: an hour, or a day, or a week later you would be on to something different. Many bookings in a studio lasted only an hour or two. Sometimes you’d be booked to a news or sports studio for a few days. Often a day consisted of multiple bookings for multiple shows. Only after you’d proven yourself would you get something resembling a regular gig with the same show and/or producers. In time I would become the regular tech for Writer’s & Company with Eleanor Wachtel, and Sunday Morning with Mary-Lou Finlay, and later for a series of French shows on CJBC, and beyond that a Recording Engineer for Radio Drama, and finally the Recording Engineer for Q, before joining the management team. But in the beginning I worked on everything they threw at me.

I recorded and mixed promos. I subbed for other folks who had regular gigs. I back-filled for Basic Black. I backfilled for As It Happens. I backfilled for Ideas and Morningside. I did many, many bookings for news and sports. I did Listen to the Music. Prime Time. The Inside Track. Quirks and Quarks. Shows for both Radio One and Radio Two. Shows I can no longer remember. Music shows, magazine shows, science shows, arts shows, French shows, sports shows, Venezuelan Beaver Shows. I worked on many remotes. I worked mostly out of the Jarvis Street facilities, but I also did time on Parliament Street, where they produced Metro Morning and Later the Same Day.

It was work but it was also fun and interesting, though not all my gigs were successful. For instance, I do not remember my time on Basic Black fondly. It was my first regular stretch. I was filling in for the regular tech for two weeks while she was on vacation. The show was produced in Studio E. I got along well with the host and two of the show’s producers, but the Studio Director made me nervous. He didn’t talk much. I never knew what he was thinking. I was clumsy and slow in his presence. I had trouble finding patch points on the patch bay. One day the console didn’t work properly so I called maintenance. All the maintenance tech had to do was breathe on the console to make it work again. I looked like an idiot. At the end of the two week stretch the Studio Director took me aside and critiqued my performance. Although not a disaster, it had left a bit to be desired. I was quite put off by his criticism. I was young and not great at taking criticism. But I got over it and learned from my mistakes.

Another show that gave me a bit of trouble was Sunday Morning. It was a current affairs show that could be quite nerve-wracking to work on. Journalists would arrive in the studio with complicated mixes. These days you would do such a mix on a computer. Back then you did it all manually. You would pre-record sound effects and ambiance and voice clips onto carts. What are carts? Well, they resemble eight track cassettes, which are—well, never mind: look them up in a history book alongside pterodactyls and other extinct species. Other sound elements you would record onto quarter inch tape (also extinct). You had to be organized. You had to strategize how to make all these elements accessible for when you needed them. The journalist would sit in the announce booth and read his/her script, and you would play back all these various sonic elements at the appropriate times according to cues on the script. The entire process could be quite a juggling act.

Sunday Morning’s regular tech, Peter Beamish, was a genius at this sort of thing. He had tons of experience, so naturally all the journalists wanted to work with him. Guys like me looked like a klutz next to Peter. I remember making a mistake during a mix with one journalist—probably playing a sound effect late, or getting a cue wrong. “Why me, God?” she exclaimed, sighing heavily and laying her head in her arms. I felt like crap. Still, there were many friendly producers on the show, and the host Mary Lou Finlay was pleasant, and Peter Beamish was never anything less than friendly, humorous, and helpful.

Working as a Group 4 Radio Technician was trial by fire. You paid your dues until you got up to speed. Until you earned peoples’ trust, which took some doing. One night I arrived for a random booking in Studio F. “Who are you?” the producer asked. We had never seen one another before. “I’m your tech,” I told him. He turned on his heels and skulked off to scheduling to complain about having to work with someone new. I had the confidence of the folks in scheduling and they wouldn’t have any of it. The producer returned to the studio and we completed the booking without incident. I worked with this producer several times later, and it was always friendly enough, but we never became friends.

Fortunately the positive experiences far outweighed the negative. I became friends with many techs, producers, and hosts. Meeting guests was always cool: Joni Mitchell, Margaret Atwood, Adrienne Clarkson, Dr. Spock, Pierre Berton, John Ralston Saul, Bob Rae, Jean Charest, Moses Znaimer, Clive Cussler, the list goes on and on. Lesser known guests were often even more interesting. Authors, artists, politicians, farmers, philosophers, home makers, all with something interesting to say. As a life-long fan of CBC Radio, I loved working alongside personalities I’d listened to on the radio for years. Peter Gzowski, Jay Ingram, Shelagh Rogers, Bob Johnston, Max Ferguson, Lister Sinclair, Arthur Black, Mary-Lou Finlay, Clyde Gilmour, Michael Enright, Alan Maitland, and more. And simply learning the basics of audio, how to use all that cool gear, and how to really listen to sound—that alone was worth the price of admission.

“How’s work?” people would ask me.

“Fantastic,” I’d tell them, and mean it.


Studio Q

Most of my time on the second floor of the Radio Building was spent in Studio Q.

Studio Q was a news studio. We did The World Report, The World This Weekend, The World at Six, and short four and a half minute long newscasts called Hourlies out of there.*

Like every other facility in the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Radio Building on Jarvis Street, Studio Q was kind of dusty and dingy. It had an analog console, probably a McCurdy, in the control room. Directly behind the technician were a couple of industrial strength quarter inch Studer A810 tape machines. To cue up tape on these beasts the tech would have to turn completely around. Several news items during the newscast would rely on audio from these tapes, so the tech frequently had his/her back to the console.

This Studer A810 has seen better days
This Studer A810 has seen better days

A news editor functioning as show director would sit beside the technician to the right of the console. A glass window separated the control room from an announce booth big enough to accommodate two news announcers. Hourlies and World Report only had one announcer but a show like The World at Six had two. A small recording room to the right of the control room contained four A810s and a second technician whose job it was to take in audio feeds.

About ten minutes before every newscast, the tech at the console would “line up” with a tech two floors below in Master Control using a dedicated phone line. After checking tone to ensure continuity, the tech in Master would relay the time, counting up a few seconds, to ensure that the clock in Studio Q was correct. Shows switched according to a strict automated schedule in Master Control, meaning that if a tech started the news early, the beginning of the show would be clipped.

Shortly after starting at CBC Radio I found myself observing a particularly chatty technician in Studio Q who forgot to line up one newscast. The phone from Master Control rang: a Master Control technician wondering why the news hadn’t started on time. The tech cursed and leapt into action, hitting the news theme, but it was too late. We already had about a minute of dead air. Afterward the Master Control tech phoned back and asked for the tech’s initials, which would be included on the inevitable fault report. My initials were MO (JM was already taken) and they would wind up on a few fault reports over the years.

There was usually a fair amount of excitement in Studio Q before a major newscast such as The World at Six. Providing the most up-to-date news reports meant that reporters often filed their stories at the last possible instant. As soon as a reporter finished recording a “voicer” an editor would appear and snatch the tape from the tech’s hands to prepare it for broadcast. This meant editing out mistakes and inserting a piece of leader tape—tape upon which it was not possible to record sound—before the actual audio to be played back. This would make it easier for the technician to find the item on the tape and cue it up. Sometimes, if it was seconds before the tape was to air, the recording room technician would simply hand the tape to the tech at the console, who would cue it up as fast as possible before whirling around to stab at the “play” button when the news announcer finished reading the intro.

Studio Q wasn’t my first exposure to radio news. Before joining CBC Radio, I’d spent six years off and on announce/operating in private radio. At my first station, CJRW in Summerside, Prince Edward Island, I worked evenings alone hosting a disc show (country on Friday nights and Top 40 on Saturday nights). During the show I was required to read the news every hour on the hour. Before the news I would put on a long song and then go down the hall to rip the news, sports, and weather off the wire machine. Over the previous hour the news wire machine would have spit out reams and reams of cheap yellow paper. It was my job to scan that (sometimes) thirty-seven foot long piece of paper for the information I was looking for. Fortunately, the news always came in distinctive blocks of print that made it easy to find. I would rip off the sections I required and go back to the studio and read it live.

I never read the copy ahead of time. I was a pretty good sight reader and because I was busy hosting a show all alone I didn’t have the time. Usually this wasn’t a problem, but I did get into trouble twice. Once, glancing up from reading the news, I saw my friend Andrew Fortier (visiting me at the station) making a face at me. I immediately burst into a big belly laugh right in the middle of the newscast. Another time I was reading an item about a contest to come up with a name for a new sports dome in Vancouver. After listing several serious suggestions, I came to the suggestion “the Unknown Dome”, which, coming as it did from out of nowhere, struck me as funny, and once again I dissolved into gales of laughter live on air. I giggled my way through the rest of the news.

A few years later I hosted an overnight show at CFCY/Q-93 in Charlottetown.** There, instead of reading the news myself, I used a news service called CKO. I would open up a line and someone in Halifax or maybe Toronto would read the news for me, after which I would resume my hosting duties live.***

Back to Studio Q.

After my stints in private radio I was rather taken aback by all the effort that went into making news at CBC Radio. I didn’t understand why it was necessary to have two people at the console (one operating, the other directing) while a whole other person—sometimes two—read the news. They made it all seem like such a big deal. There was a real sense of gravity. The work wasn’t actually all that difficult for the tech—the serious atmosphere made it feel harder than it was—but we did create quality newscasts.

Still, mistakes happened:

In between news casts, when not mixing items and taking in feeds, techs would often create a makeshift tape reclaim around the console. Employing pencils as axles, we’d spin the reels with our fingers and easily spool the tape off. Or we’d take a few minutes to see who could cue up tapes the fastest (an experienced tech could do it in less than eight seconds). Or we’d listen to the yarns of older techs such as Studio Q veteran Fred Park, who once warned a couple of us junior techs about a curious phenomenon that we were bound to experience sooner or later: in the middle of a show we’d push a button or flick a switch and at that exact instant silence would descend—dead air, the arch-nemesis of all makers of radio—and it would seem to us as though we had caused the dead air by pushing that button.

But in fact it would have nothing to do with us, and a second or two later the show would resume as though nothing had happened, because, in fact, nothing had happened, the silence was just a coincidence, somebody had paused in the middle of a thought, un ange est passé. Fred was right—in the years to come I would experience this all the time.

It’s no coincidence that the show q (formerly Q), hosted by Tom Powers (formerly by Shadrach (Shad) Kabangois, and before that, Jian Ghomeshi), is called q. When we were trying to come up with names for that show, one of the suggestions on the whiteboard was Studio Q, from which the final name of the show is obviously derived.

It was, at least in part, a deliberate reference to a certain hallowed news studio back in the Radio Building on Jarvis Street.

* At least, I think we did The World This Weekend out of there. (It was a long time ago.) We did some shows, like Canada at 5, out of Studio T across the hall.

** CBC news correspondent James Murray also worked at both CJRW and CFCY/Q-93. We went to high school together; he was one year ahead of me. There was a sign on one of the doors at CFCY/Q-93 when I worked there: please do not prop this door open with useless objects such as Jim Murray’s head. Jim and I are still pals—at least until he stumbles upon that little bit of trivia on this blog.

*** After completing my degree at Ryerson, I applied for a job at CKO. Someone from CKO phoned me up to offer me an interview. I was in the bathroom at the time. “He’s taking a shit,” one of my roommates told the caller. Despite my idiot roommate’s remark, they eventually offered me a job, but it was only part-time, so I declined. Shortly afterward I got the job at the CBC. A good thing, too—CKO went out of business shortly afterward, in 1989.

Radio Techness

i don't know who this is, but he's one of us, even if he is wearing a tie
I don’t know who this is, but he’s one of us

In 1988 there were over eighty radio technicians working for CBC Radio in Toronto. We were not the kind of techs who fixed stuff. That was a different kind of tech. Our job was to record, manipulate and broadcast sound.

We came in all shapes and sizes and two different genders but we were strikingly similar. We dressed casual but not too casual. It was radio; nobody cared what we looked like. At least, not much—there was a guy who wore sweatpants and another guy who wore a tie. They didn’t last long. A couple of the older techs wore blazers and dress pants. They got away with it because they were old. Like, fifty something. I was twenty-something. I wore jeans and shaved every second day.

A tech’s time was not his or her own. Techs lived and died by the schedule. The schedule told us where to go when:

Studio B at 9:00 for Infotape promos. Studio W at 9:30 for a Quirks and Quarks two-way. Studio D at 10:00 to voice track Lister Sinclair for Ideas. Studio L at 11:00 to package Writers & Company. After that, an hour of standby in the lounge.

And so on.

If you wanted a meeting with me, you needed to talk to my scheduler, not me. This wasn’t usually a problem. Techs didn’t go to many meetings.

I picked up my schedule in my mailbox just outside the scheduling office. My mailbox was one of eighty or so other metal mailboxes, many with weird paraphernalia taped to them, like headlines from newspapers such as “Beware of Doug”, and “Mysterious Face Found on Moon” (that one had my face photocopied beneath it). One day we got our schedules in a new format. Days off were indicated by the letters SDO. “What does SDO stand for?” I asked a friend.

“Stupid Day Off,” he told me.

We didn’t have a boss. We had many bosses. We all reported to someone somewhere on paper, but we rarely saw or heard from them. In the studio, everyone was our boss, or thought they were. Everyone from thirty-year veteran producers to associate producers hired six weeks ago. Somebody had to tell you what songs and clips to play, when to fade the music up and down. This was fine at first, but it grew old after a couple of decades.

Most techs played at least one musical instrument. Everything from guitars to pianos to bagpipes to hurdy-gurdys. Maybe because they screened for that in the job interview. “Can you read music?” they asked me. I could—I played piano, baritone, and trombone, skills I used a few times on the job, playing organ for a radio drama and piano for many sound checks.

There were techs we all admired. Impossibly experienced and competent techs. Super techs. Today super tech means something different—supervising technician. Back then it meant just what it sounded like: a super tech. Superman only smarter and maybe not as strong, with laser hearing instead of laser vision. There was even a tech who looked like superman. There were techs rumored to have maintenance backgrounds, who could fix their own gear. Techs who knew how to operate anything from a Shure FP42 to a Neve VR to a McCurdy Turret System. Who knew when to use an AKG 414 and when to switch to a Neumann U-87. Who had four arms for analog mixes and golden ears for concert recordings and the know-how to put together a live pickup of a six-piece band including a full set of drums in Studio R at the last minute. Techs not afraid to share their hard-won knowledge with lesser, mortal technicians like me.

As a tech, if you wanted to, if you were lucky enough and ambitious enough, you could travel from show to show peddling your technical wares, no two days the same, getting to do everything and know everyone. Some days you would be a hero, performing difficult mixes for journalists, trotting out long distance phone codes from memory for panicked associate producers, fixing technical problems at the last possible instant. But the day after that you might be a complete fool, accidentally playing the wrong piece of tape at the wrong time, maybe over a host’s introduction for all the world to hear. On live radio, I felt like a goalie. Nobody noticed when I made the save, but when the puck got past me, everybody heard the puck go in the net.

Sometimes I got blamed when it wasn’t my fault. Many’s the time I heard a host tell the world, “Having some technical problems,” when in fact the problem had nothing to do with me or my equipment.

During my time as a tech we endured one strike and two lockouts. Because we were in a different bargaining unit than everyone else, we endured two of these labour actions alone. While everyone else was inside, we were outside marching around the building or huddled around oil barrels in sub-zero temperatures. Not looking to dredge up the past—it’s water under the bridge. But for anyone who lived through all that, it became a part of our DNA.

It’s worth mentioning that radio techs had better Christmas parties than anyone else, at least at Jarvis street, and that’s probably all I ought to say about that.

The job barely exists now, at least the way I remember it. There are only a handful of radio techs left. Most of the techs I worked with are gone now. Of the ones still around, many have moved onto different positions.

I like to think that a bond remains between those of us who worked as radio techs—an invisible thread of 1/4 inch Ampex tape, maybe. We’re not quite the same as everyone else. Our hearing is notched at 1K, but we still listen better than most. And if you ever need someone to plug in a few cables and adjust some settings here and there, you could do worse than a radio tech.


Graham Greene

Summer 1991. Fellow radio technician Joram Kalfa and I were off to find lunch somewhere. We left the Radio Building out the back way, toward Wood Street.

You had to pass through a security kiosk to get out of the compound. The entire Jarvis Street complex was surrounded by gates and guards and kiosks—some people referred to the whole set-up as “Stalag CBC”. There’s a famous story involving thieves who, despite a plethora of security guards, successfully stole a Grand Piano from one of the radio studios simply by disguising themselves as movers, wheeling the instrument out of the building, and driving the thing away. The way the story goes the security guards held the doors open for them. 

Anyway, Canadian actor Graham Greene was at the CBC working on a radio drama on this day that Joram and I went for lunch, and come lunchtime it happened that as we were leaving the compound so was he. The security kiosk all of us had to pass through was a small structure, really only big enough for one person to pass through at a time, but for some reason Joram and Graham decided they could do it simultaneously. When this proved most awkward, Joram conceded right of way to Greene, whereupon the pony-tailed actor looked at my friend and suddenly announced, “Hey, I know you!” 

To which Joram replied, “No, I don’t think so.”

“No, no,” said Graham, “We’ve worked together before, I’m sure of it.”

“No, we haven’t,” insisted Joram. “Honest, I’d know.”

“You’re sure?”

“Oh yeah,” chuckled my friend.

Past the kiosk onto Wood Street now, Greene briefly considered this. Then he said, “Well, didn’t we work on that one thing together?”  

Joram said, for the last time, no. 

“Oh,” said Greene. “Well, neither did I. Must have been two other guys.”


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 “The Mooche”

As it Happened

The first few years I worked for CBC Radio I lived across the street from the Radio Building. It was brilliant. No commute. Five minutes to work. I could and did eat lunch at home many days. But there was a downside. If someone called in sick you were often the first one they called to replace them.

Or maybe it was a good thing, creating opportunities that might not have existed otherwise.

One morning on a day off the phone rang about eight in the morning, waking me up. I answered groggily. It was Heather from the scheduling department. “The As It Happens tech has called in sick. Can you do her shift?”

The As It Happens shift was from 11am until 7pm. Most of the day was spent recording interviews, followed by an hour and a half long live show. I’d never done As It Happens before, though I’d observed the show. I’d never done any live show with the CBC before, other than the news, which was pretty straightforward.

The thought of doing As It Happens scared the dickens out of me. I was still a relatively new, inexperienced tech. As It Happens has been on the air since the time of Moses (it’s still on the air today). It’s considered a flagship show (many shows are considered flagship shows, especially by those who work on them). It’s broadcast nationally. If I made a mistake the entire country would hear it. Screwing it up would sink my entire budding CBC career, I figured.

“Sure,” I told Heather.

I slept a bit more, by which I mean I tossed and turned for a bit. I got up. Showered. I may have shaved. Five minutes to ten I marched across the street to Studio F, the As It Happens studio.

As It Happens is a current affairs show. Chase producers reach out to guests, usually by telephone, pre-interview the guests, and arrange for them to be interviewed by the As It Happens host while the guests are actually living the news, or as soon as possible afterward. Most of the interviews are pre-taped the day of the show. Those that aren’t are broadcast live during the show, frequently in the first slot (at least when I worked on the show).

When I worked on the show the hosts were Michael Enright and Alan Maitland. Alan introduced the guests while Michael did all the interviewing. Michael would be in and out of the studio all day. Alan pre-taped the odd little bit but was mostly just in the studio during the live portion of the show. Alan was over seventy when I worked with him in my mid-twenties. I remember thinking that he would have been in his mid-twenties during the second world war. You can still hear Alan Maitland on As It Happens when they replay his superb reading of The Shepard by Frederick Forsythe every Christmas Eve.

Barbara Frum, Alan Maitland 1980 ( (Photo: CBC Still Photo Collection/Fred Phipps)
Barbara Frum, Alan Maitland 1980
(Photo: CBC Still Photo Collection/Fred Phipps)

I don’t remember a single interview we recorded the first day I worked on the show. For one thing, I was a nervous wreck. For another, technicians frequently finish shows they’re working on with no clue what they just broadcast. This isn’t because they aren’t paying attention. Quite the contrary: it’s because techs are listening extremely closely, just not to the same things as everyone else in the studio. Producers are listening to the content. They want to know if all the information is getting out, whether the narrative makes sense. Techs are listening to the sound. What’s the phone line like? Is it intelligible? Can you make out the guests’ words? Is there too much background noise? Are the levels okay? Why is the host sitting so far back from the microphone? Why is he/her putting his hand in front of his mouth? What’s that sound? Is someone hitting the table with their knee? And so on.

Once we finished recording the interviews on quarter inch tape, the producers would take them back to their desks to edit them for length, clarity, and so on. They would also “top and tail” them—insert leader tape before and after the interview to make it easier for the technician to cue them up for the live show. We also recorded other little bits between Michael and Alan—special segments, end credits, and so on.

At five-twenty I phoned Master Control and lined up. By this point on my first day I was a bundle of nervous energy, more or less convinced that the next hour and a half would be my undoing. Nevertheless, I was prepared. I had the first interview tapes cued up on the four Studers lining the back wall of the control room. I had three carts in the cart machine: the opening theme, Moe Koffman’s “Curried Soul”, edited for As It Happens by producer Volkmar Richter (he also did the closing theme), and a couple of stings that we would use as interstitials between Alan Maitland’s live extros and his intro to the next piece of tape. The studio director was seated on my left (when he wasn’t hovering behind me), and both Michael and Alan were ensconced in the announcer’s booth before us.

Ten seconds before air the studio’s confidence clock counted down the time: ten, nine, eight… when it hit zero a red light would come on and our studio would be live to the East Coast (the Delay System would broadcast to the rest of the nation.) At the top of the clock I hit the opening theme. At the appropriate point in the music, the studio director indicated with a hand gesture that I should lower the theme. Our hosts introduced the show over the music. When they were finished, I brought the theme back up for a few seconds before fading it gradually out as Alan Maitland introduced the first item, which was live on the phone.

While Michael interviewed the first guest, the studio director decided to change the sting music we had picked out to follow the interview. I piped the sound to a tiny “cue” speaker on the console that only those of us in the control room could hear. We auditioned several carts before he finally picked one appropriate to the tone of the interview (this would happen frequently throughout the show) and I loaded it into the top slot of the cart machine.

I was establishing several protocols that would serve me well operating live shows for the next nineteen years. For example, I would always push the fader associated with the next source I was about to play (e.g., cart, tape machine, etc.) up ever so slightly on the console, and only bring it up to full level just before hitting the play button. That way I would always know what I was supposed to play next. It was easy to get distracted in the heat of battle. Also, with the fader mostly down I wouldn’t ever accidentally broadcast something at the wrong time (which could easily happen if I auditioned something such as a sting without realizing that I’d left the fader up).

I soon learned that teching As It Happens wasn’t anywhere near as difficult as I‘d feared. In fact, the show worked like clockwork: intro, interview, extro, sting. Intro, interview, extro, sting (there were always a few extra elements thrown in as well such as caller talkback, a bit called For the Record, and so on). Each interview, whether live or on tape, was like an island, an oasis of calm. I could sit back for five or eight minutes and calmly survey the script for what needed to be set up next. The studio director was crystal clear in his directions, telling me what to play when. There were moments he got distracted; those times I needed to pry the information I required out of him, but as it was pretty important to keep me informed about what was going on usually this wasn’t a problem.

There was a fun little piece of business at the end of the show that I liked. During the extro to the last interview, I faded up the closing theme, which was another Moe Koffman song called Koff Drops (Allegro Sonata II). After a few seconds, I faded it down, allowing Michael and Allan to close the show. Immediately following their last word, I hit another cart, playing another section of Koff Drops at full volume. This other section began with a great drum riff (“BUMPA BUMPA bumpa BUMPA BUMPA bumpa”) that completely took over, allowing me to quickly and discretely fade out the first part of the theme. It was a simple but particularly satisfying piece of business. I would go on to tech As It Happens many times, and every time I did I savoured that moment.

One time, though, when I hit the cart to bring in the drums, the result didn’t sound right. It was not entirely inappropriate, it was just—wrong, somehow. Everyone in the control room went silent as we tried to figure out what was the matter. Then I realized: instead of playing the closing theme, Koff Drops, I’d play the opening theme, Curried Soul. I’d cheated myself (and everyone else) out of that moment with the drums. I was also embarrassed at my mistake. But it didn’t sound all that bad, so we left it, and I’m probably the only one on the planet that even remembers the day As It Happens finished with the opening theme instead of the closing theme.

These days As It Happens uses an updated version of the theme.

I have to be honest: I miss the original.

Here’s the opening theme, Curried Soul:

And here’s the closing theme, Koff Drops. The drums I mentioned happen at 1’18” in:


Morningside

Morningside had several skilled technicians who worked on the show a lot more than I did.

I just filled in from time to time.

But I did work on a summer version of the show with a couple of replacement hosts: Denise Donlon and Ian Brown. I did the actual show with regular host Peter Gzowski three times. The show looms large in my memory, though, and feels worth writing about.

The summer replacement version of Morningside was called Summerside. I was asked to do it and I never said no to opportunities like that. I thought it was appropriate, actually, considering I grew up in Summerside, Prince Edward Island. At the time the regular tech for Morningside was John Johnston. To prepare for Summerside, I shadowed John for a week. During that time John did all he could to convey everything he knew about how to operate a live show like Morningside, skills that I would find particularly useful over the next couple of decades.

Denise Donlon
Denise Donlon

By this time I had a fair bit of experience operating shows like as As It Happens, but Morningside was rather more challenging. As It Happens was microphones, phones, and tape. Morningside was microphones, phones, tape, wireless microphones, 2-ways, 3-ways, live bands, and any number of other weird setups depending on who the guests were on the show.

By the time John was done teaching me I knew every strip on the McCurdy console in Studio R inside and out, every aux and group, every patch point, all the (limited) outboard gear, and every wallbox in the booth. He covered soft skills as well, such as how to make the guests feel comfortable, whether they were physically present in the studio or talking to us down a line from the other side of the country. If they were on a line it was about checking in with them regularly, explaining the process, keeping them up to date. If they were in Studio R it was about teaching them how to control their headset volume, and adjusting their microphone properly so that there would be no popping or sibilance.

Ian Brown
Ian Brown

John instructed me on control room protocol too, advising me to keep the chatter to a minimum during the show, and to insist on clarity of direction. He suggested I keep the monitors in the control room at a consistent level, but I was never able to do that—I considered it a courtesy to turn down the volume if the studio director needed to be on the phone.

I didn’t get the full week of training. My shadowing was interrupted when we showed up Wednesday morning to find the console fried. We called Audio Systems (radio maintenance) and technologist Don Paterson arrived to help. Don quickly determined that the console’s power supply was toast. This wasn’t good as we needed to be on the air in an hour, and an hour wasn’t enough time to fix the problem.

We had no choice—we would have to do the show out of another studio. The logical choice was Studio F next door, which had a similar McCurdy console. Because I’d done As It Happens out of there recently, and was more familiar with the console and the studio, it made sense for me to do the show. So in the fine CBC tradition of trial by fire, I did. I have absolutely zero memory of what happened on that show that day, suggesting that I did the show in some kind of fugue state, but both the show and I appear to have survived intact.

Thanks to the crack Audio Systems team Studio R was back in service the following day. By Monday John Johnston and Peter Gzowski were off playing golf while I flew solo with guest host Denise Donlon. She would do the first two weeks of Summerside and Ian Brown would do the second (or maybe it was the other way around). Memorable guests included Michael Enright (host of As It Happens at the time) and Canadian actor Kenneth Welsh (fresh off Twin Peaks at the time, with more recent credits in The Day After Tomorrow and The Aviator, among others).

Michael was there to demonstrate Tai Chi. Yes, that’s right… Tai Chi on the radio, but if anyone could make that work it was Michael. I had to figure out how to mic him while he was standing up and demonstrating the moves. Tech Stores had recently acquired some wireless microphones so I used a wireless Lavalier. It did the job.

The Kenneth Welsh interview didn’t work out quite so well. The actor was quite pleasant, but a third of the way through the interview his AKG 224 microphone cut out. I punched the mic button on the console off and on and played with the gain but it didn’t help. I could still hear Welsh through Ian Brown’s mic, which meant that the problem was likely limited to the strip on the console, a cable, or the mic itself.

Kenneth Welsh
Kenneth Welsh

I tore out of the control room and into the booth. Brown and Welsh kept on talking even though Welsh sounded like he was in another room. There were four AKG 224s on the table: Brown’s, the one that wasn’t working, and two others not in use, which were presumably fine. Ian treated the nation to a play by play as I swapped out the bad mic for one of the spares. I plugged it in, skedaddled back to the control room, and brought the fader up.

It worked.

This sort of thing was not particularly unusual. It is said that no plan survives contact with the enemy and this certainly applies to live radio. Equipment breaks, bands show up late for sound checks, guests don’t show up at all, or when they do show up they behave erratically, and it’s up to the team behind the show, particularly those in the control room, to deal with it all.

It’s not life or death. It’s not like somebody will die if you screw up. But it sure feels important when you’re sitting in the hot seat. The listener experience is on the line. Ratings are on the line. And if you don’t get it right, your job might be on the line—or at least the plum gigs.

We had a guest in Moncton one day.

About twenty minutes before the interview was to start, when I thought there was a good chance that the guest had settled into the Moncton Studio, I pressed a button on the console and spoke down the line: “Hello Moncton, this is Toronto.“

No response.

The clock was ticking so I didn’t waste any time. I called Master Control and told them I wasn’t getting anything from Moncton. The tech in Master called Moncton. Apparently there was a summer replacement tech in Moncton who didn’t know how to split the console for a two-way. I got his phone number and called him directly. With the show in progress and mere minutes to the interview, the Moncton tech told me what kind of console he was flying. Together we figured out how to make it do what it needed to do. He got it working seconds before we would have been forced to cancel the interview.

It was a tense few moments for both of us, but that’s live radio.

My intent here is not to impress anybody. I wasn’t some kind of super tech, constantly saving the day. John could easily have done Morningside from Studio F. Any tech can swap out a microphone. And the tech in Moncton ultimately figured out his console himself. I am well aware of where I sat in the pantheon of the eighty or so techs working in CBC Toronto at the time and I can tell you with a fair degree of certainty that I was neither the best nor the worst of the lot. These are just a few real-life examples from my own personal experience of the kinds of challenges one faces attempting to cobble together live radio.

Still, despite the occasional bit of stress, I found working on live radio curiously therapeutic. Live radio can be all-consuming, deeply immersive, even cathartic. On a busy show you don’t have time to think about anything else. You’re completely in the moment. Something knocks you sideways and you need to pull a rabbit out of a hat and you’re not sure you can pull it off but somehow you do. It completely clears your mind. Whatever mood you’re in when you go to air, the show spits you out in a completely different mood. If you survive—and you usually do—you emerge calm and happy.

Kim Stockwood
Kim Stockwood

The next time I worked on Morningside was in the new Broadcast Centre. I was working with the man himself, Peter Gzowski. Pop singer Kim Stockwood performed live. Pierre Berton and Dr. Spock both dropped by for a chat.

The first day Gzowski and I never spoke. That seemed to be just the dynamic with him. Halfway through the show on the second day, during a piece of tape, Gzowski finally addressed me from the booth via the talkback.

“Hi,” he said.

“Hi,” I replied.

“You’re doing a great job,” he said.

“Thanks,” I said.

It’s the only thing he ever said to me.

It’s all I ever needed him to say.

Peter Gzowski
Peter Gzowski

Studios From Scratch

Most of the time, CBC Radio shows are broadcast out of special, purpose-built radio studios, all carefully designed, built, and equipped by experienced broadcast engineers. In studios like that all you have to do to get your show on the air is go in, sit down, and turn on a piece of equipment or two.

Other times, studios are built from scratch.

Sometimes this is as simple as a microphone attached to a recording device by an XLR cable, along with a pair of headphones.

Sometimes it’s rather more complicated than that.

When we go offsite and cobble one of these transient radio studios together, whether it’s simple or complicated, we call it a “remote.”

Some remotes are more remote than others. If a remote is just a few blocks away and the tech happens to forget a piece of gear, maybe a microphone stand or a clip, he or she can just dart back to the Broadcast Centre and get it. If a remote is hours away, maybe half-way across the country or in a completely different country, the tech had better have all the right gear.

Some remotes last only an hour or two; others never seem to end. Sometimes a show will broadcast live right from their remote location. Other times they’ll record what they want and edit the content later and broadcast it sometime after that.

My first remote was a music pick-up in the Church of the Holy Trinity in downtown Toronto, not too far away from the Radio Building. Recording Engineer Dave Burnham was recording a choir there to be broadcast later on a show called Listen to the Music. (The Cowboy Junkies had recorded their superlative album The Trinity Session in that same church a few months earlier.) My job was to help Dave, which mainly meant lugging all his equipment. Remotes almost always involved a lot of lugging.

Inside the Church of the Holy Trinity
Inside the Church of the Holy Trinity

It was a simple enough remote, on the surface of it: recording one small choir. Dave’s setup consisted of a handful of microphones connected to a small console. Still, there were several questions that needed to be answered. Just how exactly to make this choir sound as good as possible? What kind of microphones to use? How many? Where exactly to place them? What kind of outboard gear to use, if any? An experienced high-end recording engineer like Dave had plenty of tricks up his sleeves, and employed his own unique strategies. Recording music out in the field was an art, and although I accompanied engineers like Dave out on a few remotes, and did some music recording of my own privately, I never acquired anything resembling the expertise of someone like Dave.

After a couple of years of lugging gear for other techs and learning what I could, I started getting my own remotes. Despite my time observing, I was initially a bit handicapped. Unlike many other techs, I never did a stretch in Radio Technical Stores. Radio Tech Stores was where techs got equipment for their remotes. Working in Stores you assembled equipment for more senior techs and accompanied them on their remotes. If you paid attention, you learned what gear was best and how to make it work.

Motivated by a profound fear of failure, I overcame my handicap by spending time in Stores on my own, hooking up gear and figuring out how to make it do what I needed it to do. Over time my preparation paid off, though the knowledge of gear I acquired didn’t entirely compensate for certain other massive deficiencies, such as an inability to find my way around Toronto.

One of my first solo pickups was for a show on politics called The House. My job was to record the second last Mayor of Scarborough, Joyce Trimmer, on a Nagra in her office for one half of a double-ender. A double-ender consists of an interviewer back in the studio talking to a guest on the phone while somebody like me records the guest out in the field. Afterward, back in the studio, a tech eliminates the poor phone quality recording of the guest, replacing that recording with the high fidelity recording done in the field.

Joyce Trimmer, former Mayor of Scarborough
Joyce Trimmer, former
Mayor of Scarborough

I needed to be at Trimmer’s office by two pm. We only had the studio in the Radio Building booked until two-thirty. Unfortunately, I didn’t own a car and wasn’t used to driving in Toronto. I didn’t know my way around the streets of Scarborough at all. Driving a Stores van, I got hopelessly lost. I couldn’t find Trimmer’s damn office. Somebody had told me it was in the Scarborough Town Centre but I couldn’t even find that. When I finally did, I figured there must be offices in it somewhere. Maybe there is, but if so she wasn’t in any of them. Turned out her office was in a building behind the Scarborough Town Centre. Panting and sweating and lugging my equipment, I got there twenty minutes late. Back in the Radio Building the producer and host must have been freaking out. Trimmer herself was the epitome of graciousness. She offered me a glass of water, which I gratefully accepted, and we managed to get the recording done in the time remaining.

My remote skills (such as they are) really came together while working for the folks at CJBC. CJBC is a part of CBC Radio-Canada. An affiliate of the ici Radio-Canada Premiere network, they broadcast to Franco-Ontarians at AM 860 out of studios on the fifth floor of the Toronto Broadcast Centre. I was loaned to them for four and a half years after I took the better part of a year off to live in France. We did a lot of remotes during my time with them.

The first big remote I did for CJBC was for something called a Salon du livres, held in one of the big halls in the Toronto Convention Centre. Basically it was a book fair. We did one of those a year. Because the Salon du livres was a relatively big remote, and because I really didn’t know what the heck I was doing, I asked for an assistant. I was assigned fellow technician Carlos Van Leeuwen, who happened to be working in Stores at the time.

The remote consisted of a host and three guest positions set up at one table in the middle of the book fair, facing a small audience. The guests and hosts would use headphone microphones. There was a PA (public address system) set up for the benefit of a small audience. During the live show I would sit at a separate table with my mixing console and the producer and associate producer at my side. There would be a talkback set up for the producer and the host to be able to communicate with one another. An ISDN unit would transmit the show to the Broadcast Centre and live to air.

Tech Stores had something called a McCurdy Turret System for exactly this kind of remote. Carlos and I decided to give it a try. Only problem was neither of us had ever used it before, and we had only the barest idea how it worked. There were no instructions and we didn’t have access to anyone else who know how it worked, if such a person existed. The only way to figure it out was to plug it all together in various permutations until it finally worked. I would say that it was a completely unintuitive system except that I know people who used to work for McCurdy and I wouldn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.

For some reason that eludes me now, but that I’m sure made perfect sense at the time, we didn’t start trying to figure it out until the day of the remote. There were moments I didn’t think we’d ever get the bloody thing working. But we did, and I will be eternally grateful to Carlos for his help — without him I’d probably still be staring at it cross-eyed.

Once I understood how the McCurdy Turret System worked I began to use it on all my remotes. One day another tech watched me set it up. The connectivity was so bizarre that he couldn’t believe it worked that way. He insisted that I must be doing it wrong. Happy to entertain better ways of doing it, I challenged him to make it work another way, but he couldn’t.

During that first Salon du livres there were many long moments where nothing worked properly, during which I seriously entertained the notion that we wouldn’t make it to air. There is a moment like that on every remote. It can last seconds or it can last hours, but it’s always there. Sometimes it’s dead simple: you have a microphone set to line instead of mic on the console. Fine. You spot the problem and fix it. Sometimes it’s more complicated than that, and you have to troubleshoot your entire setup to find the answer, maybe a bad cable or a faulty mixer, and there are no maintenance techs around to help you (well, sometimes there are, on some big music remotes, but there never was for me). I had a rule of thumb that served me well: it’s never the cable. And it never was. Except for once, when it was.

Sometimes the problem will have nothing to do with your equipment. Once, during a setup for a remote in Welland, I couldn’t establish continuity with Master Control. I wasn’t too concerned; it was an hour before airtime. Forty-five minutes later it still wasn’t working. I was certain the problem wasn’t anything on my end. Nor was the problem in Master Control. Turned out it was in between, with Bell. A Bell tech fixed it ten minutes before air time — someone had patched a cable wrong.

Remotes were usually pretty straightforward once you got everything working. Once I had to deal with a bit of feedback from the PA, and another time a dirty turret developed a bit of a click whenever the host toggled the microphone on or off, but I never had a remote go completely belly-up on me.

I came close, though. The closest was during a remote in Niagara-on-the-Lake. I was working for the Radio Drama Department at the time. We did multiple remote pickups every summer at the Shaw Festival for the Bell Canada Reading Series. They were usually a lot of fun. Sometimes another engineer would tag along; sometimes it would just be you and a producer. On this particular day I was flying solo.

Because I had to be there early, I packed up my gear the night before and drove the CBC van home. Proud to work for the CBC, and proud to be seen working for the CBC, I always liked driving a CBC branded van (yes, I’m aware that pride is one of the seven deadly sins). I got up at five in the morning the day of and made the two and a half hour drive from Whitby to the Royal George Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Someone let me in in the theatre and I set up. I don’t remember what reading I was recording on this particular day. It might have been an adaptation of the French novel Le Grand Meaulnes, or it could have been something about Emily Carr. Whatever it was, it involved eight or so actors lined up in a row on stage reading from scripts on music stands. I typically used AKG 414s on the actors, plugged into a snake, fed to a Sony MXP61 mixing console. We recorded straight to DAT (Digital Audio Tape) in those days. I had two decks; one master and one backup.

I’ve always hated DATs.

When I first started doing remotes I would only bring as much equipment as I thought I would need. I mistakenly thought that sort of economy constituted good planning. And maybe it would if you were travelling to the North Pole. But it didn’t take me long to figure out that it was much smarter to bring as much as I could cram into the van. Extras of everything. Two consoles instead of one. Extra microphones, stands, snakes, whatever I could get away with. But sometimes even that wasn’t enough.

Royal George Theatre
Royal George Theatre

There is no air conditioning in the Royal George Theatre, and it was unbelievably hot that day. I wondered if it might be too hot for the DAT decks. I was parked right outside the theatre. I considered moving the DAT machines into the back of the van and turning on the vehicle’s air conditioning. We’d done that once before. But it was getting a little too close to show time, so I left the setup the way it was.

Patrons filed into the theatre. Soon the place was packed. With all those people it got even hotter. The show started. My top deck was a Panasonic. The bottom deck was a Sony. About ten minutes into the show the Panasonic deck stopped recording. No problem. I still had the Sony. I got the Panasonic going again. A few minutes later the Sony froze. Uh oh. What if they both froze at the same time? It went on like this for the entire hour it took to record the reading. First one deck locking up and then the other. I was sweating bullets, but not because of the heat.

Once the recordings were finished I tested playback. The Sony would play back but the recording was spotty. The Panasonic wouldn’t play back at all. This wasn’t good. It was a long drive back to the Broadcast Centre. I had screwed up the entire remote. How would I break the news to the producer, Barbara Worthy? I had never seen Babs angry before. Well, there was always a first time.

Usually, I would head back to the Broadcast Centre, unload all my gear, return the van, and head home on the GO Train. This time I unloaded all my gear as fast as I could and made a beeline for the edit suites. I needed to know if I could get anything off the DAT tapes or if in fact the remote was a complete failure.

The best way to retrieve material from a DAT tape is to play it back from the same machine it was recorded on. I didn’t trust the machines I’d recorded on so I found the same make of machine in two different studios. Playing back the tapes, I saw that some audio had successfully recorded on each tape. But there were gaping holes in both tapes.

I transferred the contents of each DAT tape into ProTools, then lined them up on separate tracks, allowing me to see visually just what was missing from each tape. Although each tape was missing several minutes worth of material, through some miracle each track compensated for the other. Between the two tapes I had an entire show. What a relief! I resolved to bring seventeen spare DAT machines with me to the next remote.

Fortunately, technology was constantly evolving, and I didn’t have to rely on DAT tapes much longer.

More on that later.


French Radio: CJBC

I spent four and a half years working for the French at CBC Radio.

Here’s an incredibly long-winded explanation why:

I grew up in Summerside, Prince Edward Island, amongst French Acadians. Acadians are French who originally settled the Maritimes hundreds of years ago. Back in those days, Prince Edward Island was known as Isle Saint-Jean (before that, it was called Abegweit, by the Mi’kmaq Indians).

Between 1755 and 1763, the British forcibly removed most Acadians from the Maritimes, confiscating all their wealth, possessions, and land. Fifty-three percent of the French Acadian population died, many by disease, others by drowning when three of the ships transporting them sank. (Sadly, the world doesn’t appear to have changed much since those tragic days, as recent headlines attest.) Although the British did not transport Acadians directly to Louisiana, many wound up there, attracted by the language, where they settled and developed the culture known today as Cajun.

Ships Take Acadians Into Exile (Claude Picard)
Ships Take Acadians Into Exile (Claude Picard)

The expulsion is a Big Deal in the Maritimes. I studied the events in high school, and in Grade Ten I played the man chiefly responsible for the expulsion, Governor Charles Lawrence, in a High School play called Evangeline, which was written and scored by a local High School teacher. I remember being roundly booed during the curtain call for the dress rehearsal. I believe the booing was because the character I was playing was evil, though I can’t be entirely certain that it wasn’t a comment on my performance: my English teacher had coached me on how to play the part, and after one of the shows I asked him what he’d thought:

“I thought your character would be much fatter,” he told me.

He declined to elaborate.

The expulsion was well known elsewhere, too. In 1847, the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem called Evangeline: a Tale of Acadie. The poem was about a bride-to-be wandering for years trying to find her fiancé after the expulsion forced their separation on their wedding day. Longfellow based the poem on a story he’d heard; some believe that the couples’ forced separation on the day of their wedding may actually have happened.

Some Acadians escaped the expulsion by hiding in the woods. After Quebec was formally ceded to the British in 1763, the British decided that the Acadians no longer posed a threat and allowed them to return to the Maritimes. By the time I was born, there were about five thousand Acadians on Prince Edward Island (there were more elsewhere: about thirty-three thousand in Nova Scotia and a couple of hundred thousand in New Brunswick). Not all of them spoke French anymore, but some did, and the more time I spent with them, the more it bothered me that I only spoke one language.

Thus was born my thirst to learn French (hey, I warned you it would be a long-winded explanation).

In 1993, I asked for a leave of absence from the CBC to study French in France. My boss at the time, Kel Lack, applauded the idea and was only too happy to accommodate me.

Before going to France, I seriously overestimated my proficiency in French. I had, after all, studied French in school until Grade Eleven. I don’t know what the heck I did in all those classes but it sure wasn’t learn French. My first few days in Aix-en-Provence I couldn’t understand anyone. “Qu’est ce que tu cherche (what are you looking for)?” a girl in a store asked me. I couldn’t understand her. I could trot out a few phrases learned from guidebooks, such as: “un hôtel s’il vous plaît. Quelque chose de bon marché (a hotel, please. Some place cheap)” or “une chambre avec une douche (a room with a shower),” but that was about it.

No matter. I set about making up for lost time. I studied hard at school. Although the school was based in Aix-en-Provence, it was a part of l’université d’Aix-Marseille, called Institut d’études françaises pour étudiants étrangers (years later I saw the actor Bradley Cooper conduct an interview in fluent French; turns out he studied at the same school). I made many ridiculous mistakes. I once asked a street vendor for “un chien chaud avec tout le monde (a hot dog with everybody on it).” One day, when a Frenchman asked me how much French I spoke, I attempted to tell him that I knew a few words. “Je connais un petit mot (I know a small word),” I told him. He asked me which small word I knew.

Garden of l'Institut d'Etudes Francaises, where I went to school.
Garden of l’Institut d’Etudes Francaises,
where I went to school.

By Christmas, though, I was able to carry on rudimentary conversations. I began to insist on speaking only French. There for the same purpose, my closest friends were only too happy to oblige. Unfortunately, everyone else wanted to practise their English on me. I began a battle of wills with the French populace. One banker I did regular business with insisted on speaking to me in English. I refused to cooperate. I spoke French while she spoke English. Few things are more ridiculous than speaking French as a second language to someone speaking English as a second language. The loser was whoever was forced to switch to their native tongue first. I always lost. Until the end of the year, when during our final encounter she ran head-long into a word she didn’t know and was forced to switch back to French first. La victoire était douce (victory was sweet).

I resorted to tricks to prevent people from speaking English to me. If I spoke French and they responded in English, I would say “Je suis désolé, mais je ne parle pas l’anglais,” (I’m sorry, but I don’t speak English).

Mais vous êtes américain, vous n’êtes pas (but you’re American, aren’t you)?” (They always thought Canadians were Americans.)

Non, je suis suédois (no, I’m Swedish),” I would tell them, and trot forth a few nonsensical phrases in Swedish to prove it: “Kan jag prata med Eva tack?,” I would jabber. “En hund. Och en annan hund. Sex sardiner i en sardin tenn. (can I speak to Eva please? A dog. Hey, another dog. Six sardines in a sardine tin.) I had plenty of Swedish friends in France who enjoyed teaching me nonsense.

By the time I returned home, my French had improved dramatically (my Swedish not so much). Ironically, I still couldn’t understand Acadians. Acadian French is not quite the same as what I had learned in France. The accent is markedly different. It’s said that Acadian French resembles the French spoken in France about four hundred years ago, when Acadians first settled PEI. I suspect there’s some truth to this.

When I returned to the CBC in Toronto in August 1994, my boss Kel Lack had retired and Charlie Cheffins had taken his place. Charlie thought it was brilliant that I’d learned some French. It meant he’d be able to place me in the French department. I agreed, and so began four and a half years of working almost exclusively for CJBC.

You might recall from an earlier post that CJBC is an affiliate of the ici Radio-Canada Premiere network, broadcasting to Franco-Ontarians at AM 860. They are a part of the CBC, and broadcast out of the Broadcast Centre in Toronto, but they report to French Services in Montreal. Or you might have skipped over this admittedly dry bit of exposition in both posts (I don’t blame you).

Everyone I worked with at CJBC was bilingual to one degree or another. My French was still very much a work in progress. I continued to improve, but at a much slower pace. My enthusiasm for speaking French had waned somewhat now that I was living my life in English once again. And I was having a bit of trouble with francophone accents in Canada. Not hearing one or two words in a sentence correctly can be enough to make the meaning of an entire sentence suspect. Making matters worse, almost everyone at CJBC was as bad about speaking French to me as the folks in France had been. Just like my banker frenemy, when I spoke French, they replied in English (there were a couple of exceptions).

Still, with all the French floating around CJBC, I couldn’t help but improve my French just by keeping my ears open. Here are a few of the words and phrases burned into my brain during my time with CJBC:

C’est mon lot (it’s my lot in life).” That was Guy Lalonde, the host of CJBC Express. I can’t remember what he was referring to. What I do remember is asking him to repeat what he’d said so I could add it to my vocabulary. I present it here not because the phrase itself is particularly interesting, but to illustrate one of the best ways to learn French, which is to ask people what the heck they’re saying when you don’t understand them. Otherwise it will be your lot in life to remain unilingual. (I learned a good portion of my French this way.)

Il bâille. Dans ma face! (He yawns. In my face!)” Frank Desoer was host of CJBC Express during my second year with CJBC. (I’ve no idea what happened to Guy Lalonde. CJBC Express went through hosts the way the French go through cheese.) Frank was just pretending to be angry, but his words lodged themselves into my brain, and I enjoy trotting them out whenever somebody yawns in my face.

Esther Ste-Croix was the producer of a show called De A a X (from A to X). Esther was a lovely woman, and you’ll have to take my word for it that I didn’t usually tease her, but I must have one day, for she replied, “Tu te moque de moi (you’re making fun of me).” Naturally I asked her to repeat herself, which she kindly did, allowing me to add that expression to my repertoire.

Other staff were fond of exclaiming, “Ben voyons donc!” to express frustration or incredulity. Taken literally it doesn’t make much sense—it seems to me that it would translate as, “well, let’s see therefore!” but francophones use it like anglophones use, “oh, come on!”, which doesn’t really make any sense either. Come where, exactly?

One particularly memorable day I ran into someone from CJBC whose name I must withhold to spare them undue embarrassment. We were on the second floor—not his natural habitat, and he was a little lost. He was also looking a little green around the gills.

“Where are the washrooms on this floor?” he asked me in English.

It was easier to show him, so I led him around a corner. A few steps down the hallway he placed a hand to his mouth and exclaimed, “Ca s’en vient! (it’s coming!)”

A half-second later he projectile-vomited his lunch the entire length of the corridor, a magnificent feat the likes of which I’ve yet to see equaled—and that I think of whenever I hear the words ca s’en vient. (You never know just what might be coming.)

Sometimes I would discern a jumble of words in the middle of an anecdote that I couldn’t quite make out. One day I got frustrated enough to ask someone what exactly they were saying. It took a minute to figure out which words I was talking about, but we finally narrowed it down to “a un moment donné.”

Literally translated, it means “at a given time.” People were using it to mean “at one point.” (It’s at this point that I must advise you to take any translations I provide with a grain of salt. Le français est pas ma langue maternelle—French is not my mother tongue). A un moment donné is (I believe) a rather common phrase, and I mention it here because it’s a terrific example of how understanding a single phrase can, in one fell swoop, render a foreign language infinitely more intelligible. And let’s take a moment here to pause and reflect on what a nifty expression “one fell swoop” is, and how cryptic it must sound to those speaking English as a second language.

More about CJBC in a bit…


Four Days Chez Margaret Atwood

In March, 1995 I was privileged to do a special series of recordings for CBC Radio. Accompanied by a Radio Producer from Rimouski, Quebec, I spent four days recording Margaret Atwood at her home in downtown Toronto.

When first asked to do the assignment I wasn’t all that enthusiastic about the idea, having recently returned from a leave of absence from the CBC and not feeling at the top of my game. The fact that the remote involved Margaret Atwood increased my apprehension. Though I had never read her work, I was well aware that she is considered the First Lady of Canadian Literature, and if I was going to fall on my face, I didn’t want her to be a part of it.

The recordings were to consist of Atwood being interviewed in French by one Victor-Lévy Beaulieu. Such was my lack of sophistication that I assumed Beaulieu to be a CBC staff announcer out of Rimouski. The Producer, Doris Dumais, had requested a DAT recorder, a cassette recorder, a console, two microphone table stands, and two AKG 414 microphones. I spoke with her by telephone a few days before the remote. She spoke slowly because the production assistant who arranged the call told her I was just learning French. We discussed everything I could think of that might present a problem. She assured me that she did these sorts of remotes often. I asked her why she had selected 414’s for voice recording and she indicated that I could choose other microphones if I preferred, but didn’t sound particularly convincing about it. I knew from experience that producers like to get exactly what they ask for, so I decided to stick with the 414’s. Doris sounded pleasant and easy to get along with. She had understood my French and I hers, and afterward I felt optimistic about the remote.

A Quebec announcer who was a friend of mine got terribly excited hearing that I would be working with Victor-Lévy Beaulieu. Beaulieu, it turned out, was actually a major literary figure in Quebec, on a par, perhaps, with Atwood. My friend informed me that Beaulieu not only wrote books, he wrote for television as well. His most recent project was a revisionist book on Voltaire.

At a quarter to one the first day of the remote I stood on the curb outside Atwood’s home in Toronto’s Annex, my equipment at my feet. A cab pulled up at one o’clock sharp. A woman with short curly red hair and glasses emerged and cheerfully introduced herself as Doris Dumais. Victor-Lévy Beaulieu accompanied her. Sporting a broad-brimmed black hat and a frizzy white beard which obscured most of his face, he offered to help me carry my equipment up to the front door. I told him, “C’est mon boulot” – it’s my job. But I was impressed that he had offered.

Margaret Atwood’s friendly young assistant Sarah Cooper answered the door. She made the introductions and Ms. Atwood and I exchanged greetings in French. I put on the best accent of which I was capable, which wasn’t that good, sadly, but just the same I fancied that Atwood’s initial impression of me was that I was a francophone. (In retrospect, however, considering both my accent and my last name, this is highly unlikely.)

Sarah led me to the room where we would be recording. I was to sit at the foot of a massive oak table with Doris on my right, Atwood opposite me at the table’s head, and Beaulieu close by on her left. As I set up, I listened to the others talk in the adjacent room. I had been wondering how good Atwood’s French was; I realised quickly that her active vocabulary was quite a bit more extensive than mine.

I called Atwood and Beaulieu in to do some voice tests. When Doris entered and saw my equipment she wrinkled her nose. She didn’t like the look of my console. I hadn’t felt the need to bring a large console because the recording consisted of only two microphones, and so had chosen only a tiny Shure mixer. Evidently Doris had never seen a Shure mixer before; the smallness of it concerned her. It featured rotary pots instead of faders that went up and down. She asked me lots of questions about it, chiefly, why didn’t it have faders that went up and down? The last time she did a remote like this, she informed me, the technician had brought a large console with faders that went up and down. I assured her that it would be fine, and she relented. I know that she was nervous; so was I.

We started recording and I began to regret using the 414 microphones. Atwood sounded just fine, leaning in close and hardly budging an inch from one day to the next; but for the movement of her lips she might have been carved in stone. Beaulieu, on the other hand, changed his position constantly. Often he wound up about as far away from the microphone as it was possible to get without leaving his chair. To compensate I jacked up his level and urged him to get closer to the microphone, and he obliged readily, but it was never long before he got wrapped up in the interview again and began sounding if he were broadcasting from a cave.

Atwood was unfailingly friendly throughout the four days of recording. We spoke to one another only in French and addressed one another using the formal “vous”. At one point she inquired if I found recording interviews such as this one boring. “Pas si c’est quelque chose d’interessant” – not if it’s something interesting, I told her, grateful to have found the words in French. Everyone chuckled and expressed the hope that this interview was indeed interesting. I assured them that I thought it was.

Each day was interspersed with several coffee breaks. Atwood made coffee for everyone, which we drank in her kitchen. I usually remained quiet as the others spoke in rapid French. Sometimes I stayed with the equipment to fret over the recordings. Once Atwood’s assistant Sarah dug out a copy of Atwood’s “Bare Bones” for me, calling it an “Introductory Volume for Men”. At Sarah’s request Atwood signed it for me, writing on the inside cover, “Good luck, Joe – Margaret Atwood”.

After recording was finished on the second day, Atwood asked me to show our Quebecois guests the way to a bookstore located nearby in the Annex, and to do any necessary translating for them. The owner of the store received us with open arms, having been informed by Atwood that we were coming. Feeling insecure about my French, I felt a bit like a fraud translating. At one point the owner said, “It’s funny; every now and then I understand some of the words that you all say.” Embarrassed, I tried to use more difficult French words after that.

The evening of the third day Atwood took us all out to dinner at Thai Magic on Yonge Street. I was the second to arrive, Atwood being the first. Seeing her seated alone in a booth just beyond the entrance, I thought, I don’t want to go in there and be alone with the First Lady of Canadian Literature. I was afraid she would insist on speaking French and I wouldn’t acquit myself well. Or worse, we would speak English and I wouldn’t acquit myself well. But it was Margaret Atwood, for God’s sake – it wasn’t everyday you were granted a private audience with someone like that. So I went in and she welcomed me with a smile and we spoke to one another in English for the first time. Among other things, I asked her how well she understood Beaulieu’s French, as I had experienced some difficulty with it. She confessed that he had a quirk of, after speaking several phrases of more or less incomprehensible French, summing up his question in one crystal clear phrase. It had saved her more than once.

Adrienne Clarkson joined us. She speaks French quite well, and when Doris Dumais and Victor-Levy Beaulieu showed up, it was Clarkson who dominated the conversation. At the end of the night Atwood insisted on treating. When we parted, everyone went his or her own ways. Atwood returned home alone in the dark. I thought afterward, perhaps I should have offered to accompany her. It might have been chivalrous to do so, but the idea didn’t sit right with me. I felt it might be taken as just wanting to be with this famous person more. I had the impression she preferred to walk home alone anyway.

After we finished recording on the final day it took me a while to gather up my equipment, and I was the last to leave. Atwood saw me off at the door, accompanied by her cat and Sarah Cooper. As I left, she wished me “good luck”.

Doris Dumais took the tapes with her back to Rimouski before I had a chance to listen to them in a proper studio. I thought I might never know exactly how the recordings turned out. Half a year later, however, a colleague heard the show broadcast and assured me the sound quality had been fine. I was relieved. Shortly after that I received an internal mail from Doris. On one of our coffee breaks she had snapped a photo of Margaret Atwood, Sarah Cooper, Victor-Levy Beaulieu and myself. She sent me a copy of the photo and brief note that told me everyone in Rimouski thought I looked like Paul McCartney. I was pleased. Not because everyone in Rimouski thought I looked like one of the Beatles (which I don’t, really – certainly not now, years later) but because I figured Doris wouldn’t have sent me the picture if she hadn’t been satisfied with my work.

Eventually the interviews were translated by Phyllis Aronoff and Howard Scott and published by McClelland & Stewart Inc. in a book entitled, like the radio broadcast it is based on, Two Solicitudes. I still haven’t read it. But one day I must, to see what Victor-Lévy Beaulieu actually said.

Sarah Cooper, Joe Mahoney, Victor-Levy Beaulieu, Margaret Atwood, chez Margaret Atwood March 1995

Plus de French Radio

Most days at CJBC began in the control room of studio 522. I would break the day in gently with a telephone interview or two for journalists such as Pascale Turbide (now of Radio-Canada’s Enquête). In between interviews, CJBC’s communications manager, Diane Belhumeur, might arrive loaded up with what she called, “les choses plats (boring stuff).”

Toronto Broadcast Centre, Home of CJBC
Toronto Broadcast Centre,
Home of CJBC

Les choses plat consisted mostly of recording and mixing Station IDs. Although the work was boring, it was always fun chatting with Diane as we did it. She frequently spoke to me in French. It was while doing les choses plat that I made my first successful French pun. I was dubbing audio one day when Pascale stuck her head in the door and asked me what I was doing.

“Dubbing,” I told her. “Comme D’dubitude.” It was a play on “comme d’habitude”, which means “as usual. I was rather proud of that one. (Not sure Pascale was quite as impressed.)

In between jobs, I would select Studio 521 on my console’s router and listen to music that the morning show tech, Steve Starchev, was playing through his console next door. Steve had a vast personal collection of music from all over the world that he liked to listen to in between shows. He once took all that neat music and turned it into a pilot for a radio show. Sadly, he only managed to get one episode on the air. Steve himself was a terrific musician, playing guitar, bagpipes, and hurdy-gurdy (and probably more).

Steve liked to crack jokes and tell funny stories. One of his favourite stories was about explaining preservatives to a Frenchman. Steve didn’t know the French word for “preservative” so he guessed that it was the same in French, like so many English words. But when Steve explained that North American food contains a lot of “preservatives,” the Frenchman got a funny look on his face. Only later did Steve find out that, for the French, “les préservatifs” are condoms.

Steve died way too young, and I miss him.

After lunch I would move across the hall to Studio 521 to operate a simple half-hour phone show called Les Petites Annonces, basically classified ads on radio. Les Petites Annonces was followed by De A a X, with host Francois X, produced by the lovely Esther Ste-Croix. It was followed by CJBC Express, a fast-paced current affairs show for the afternoon drive slot, produced by Daniel Martineaux, ably assisted by Brigitte Egan.

Sometimes I operated the Saturday morning show as well, Sameplait, hosted by Claudette Gravel. The first time I did Sameplait was back in Studio Z on Carleton street. The show started just after six am. I was decidedly not a morning person and was quite grumpy at having to get up early to do the show.

My mood persisted when I got to the studio and met the producer, Simone Fadel, a francophone from Egypt. I wasn’t surly, exactly, but I wasn’t particularly friendly, either. Until Simone toasted me up a bagel and offered me a cup of coffee and it became simply impossible to maintain a sour mood in the face of someone radiating such good cheer. Once I thawed, I confessed to Simone that I’d started the show a bit grumpy.

“Grumpy?” she said. “What is grumpy?”

I explained the meaning of the word. I believe the entire concept of grumpiness might have been alien to Simone, but she loved the word grumpy. Whenever I worked with her from then on, she would ask me,

“Are you grumpy today, Joe?”

Simone, as I mentioned, was from Egypt, a part of la Francophonie. La Francophonie is a group of fifty-seven states and governments where “French is the mother tongue and/or where a significant proportion of the population are Francophones, and/or where there is a notable affiliation with French culture,” according to Wikipedia.

It includes obvious places like France, Swizterland, Belgium, and Canada. Quebec and New Brunswick are singled out as member states. The Congo, Egypt, Vietnam and Ghana are also a part of la Francophonie. So (I suspect many would be surprised to discover) are Bulgaria, Lebanon, Madagascar, Romania, and Vanuatu, and plenty more.

Working for CJBC, I was fortunate to meet people from all around la Francophonie. People like Simone, mentioned above, and others like author/broadcaster Didier Kabagema. Didier was of Rwandan descent, and spent most of his childhood in Congo and Gagon before moving to Canada, where he worked as a journalist with CJBC. Didier was a bit of an inspiration. He published his first novel during my final months at CJBC, and has since published six others (writing under the nom de plume Didier Leclair), putting my feeble attempts to become an author completely to shame. His first novel, Toronto, je t’aime, won the Trillium Book Award.

Didier Kabagema
Didier Kabagema

Another perk of working for CJBC was exposure to French music. There’s a whole world of fantastic music out there that many Anglophones know little or nothing about. Music from all over la Francophonie.

Most English Canadians already know French Canadian artists such as Celine Dion, Roch Voisine, Mitsou, Gilles Vigneault, and Daniel Lanois. They may not know slightly more obscure artists such as Beau Dommage, La Bottine Souriante, Jim Corcoran, Richard Desjardins, and others, but they ought to.

Across the water there’s Edith Piaf, Jacques Brel (who was Belgian), Serge Gainsbourg, Johnny Hallyday, Vanessa Paradis, Maxime le Forestier, Lynda Lemay, Youssou N’Dour (Senegal), Cesaria Evora (Cape Verde)—the list goes on and on. Myself, I like Francis Cabrel (check out La Fille Qui M’accompagne and La Cabane du Pêcheur), Alain Souchon (Foule Sentimentale), and Laurent Voulzy (Le Reve du Pecheur). I’m missing many, of course—I’m about fifteen years out of date, having been most heavily exposed to French music and culture between 1993 and 1999.

I’ve mentioned before that Radio Techs threw the best Christmas parties. This was true right up until we moved from Jarvis Street to the Toronto Broadcast Centre, where we tried holding the parties in a windowless lounge on the third floor. It just wasn’t the same, and nobody ever came up with a better solution, so tech Christmas parties came to an abrupt and ignominious end.

The French, on the other hand, knew better than to have their parties in claustrophobic rooms with no soul. They booked private rooms at restaurants, and those became the best Christmas parties, but they were by invitation only. Fortunately, working for the French, I got invited. The food was terrific, the music great, and the atmosphere was always a lot of fun.

After four and a half years of working with CJBC and all its wonderful people, I was offered a chance to join the radio drama department. It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. I did my last Les Petites Annonces, my last De A a X, mon dernier CJBC Express. They wouldn’t be my final French productions, though. In the years to come French Producer Gabriel Dube would produce several radio dramas in French, which I would engineer.

Mais c’est un autre histoire (but that’s another story).


A Dramatic Turn of Events

Me in Radio Drama Studio 212
Me in Radio Drama Studio 212

In nineteen ninety-six, I auditioned to be in a play called Anybody for Murder for the Milton Players Theatre Group. Hoping for a supporting role, I landed the lead. Not trying to brag here; the director just typecast me as a conniving, murderous bastard.

It was a challenging role. Scads of dialogue on every page, all to be delivered in a pompous British accent. Having been weaned on Monty Python as a kid I didn’t think the accent would be a problem.

I trotted forth my best British accent for the read-through.

Susan Cranford, the director, happened to be from Liverpool (I think). She stopped me after a couple of pages: “Do you think you could do even a tiny bit of a British accent?”

Intensive accent training followed. Half the battle, Susan told me, was simply to enunciate every word. She reserved special coaching for words like “water” and “theatre” (“WOO-tah” and “thee-EH-tuh.” Or something like that). Fortunately I didn’t have to ad-lib in a British accent. I just had a select vocabulary that needed to sound British. If I got it wrong, Susan corrected me. I don’t expect I even came close to nailing it, but after one performance, someone told me I sounded like Carey Grant, who was known for his “transatlantic” accent. Not exactly what I’d been going for, but I guess it could have been worse.

Susan’s other wish was that I sport a moustache. I had largely given up on moustaches after an ill-advised attempt to grow one in my late teens, but no sacrifice was too great for my art, so I dutifully grew a prim and proper affair that elicited shudders from my colleagues at CBC.

Performing in Anybody for Murder under Susan’s direction was a great experience (one that deserves its own blog post). I wish I could have participated in more such productions. Still, that single experience was sufficient to have a profound impact on my career at the CBC.

Soon after my moustache had firmly established itself on my upper lip, I ran into CBC Recording Engineer John McCarthy at the St. Andrew Subway station. Although both of us were techs for CBC Radio, we didn’t really know one another. There were about eighty radio technicians working for the CBC at the time, and we didn’t all run in the same circles. John was ten years older than me and a high-end recording engineer working in Radio Drama. I was a Group 4 radio technician doing a stint for the French services. Until this day we’d barely spoken, and had it not been for the moustache, it might have remained that way.

Spotting me on the subway platform, John approached me, peered at the hair on my lip, and said, “What—is—that—THING—underneath your nose?”

Okay, he didn’t say that. But he did make some crack about the moustache.

Slightly embarrassed by it, I said, “It’s for a play I’m in.”

This immediately piqued John’s interest. “You’re into the theatre?”

I confessed that I was.

Unbeknownst to me, John was on the look-out for a new Radio Drama recording engineer. Had it not been for the moustache, I might never have mentioned the play. Had I not mentioned the play, John might never have invited me to join the Radio Drama department, and the rest of my life might have unspooled completely differently.

Though it remained a somewhat circuitous journey.

My friend Greg DeClute was already a recording engineer for Radio Drama, along with John, Janice Bayer, Drago Grandic, John Marynowicz, and sound effects engineers Anton Szabo, Joe Hill, and Matt Wilcott.

I remember Greg DeClute in particular in our early days as radio technicians. Greg was always reading manuals and spending as much time as he could in Studio G. It was clear that he was going places. Janice Bayer, too. Myself, I didn’t particularly aspire to be a high-end engineer. I had other plans. I was going to leave the CBC and become a full time writer or direct films or something. I was never quite clear on exactly how or when this would happen, but I had no doubt that it would happen (it hasn’t happened yet).

Also, I didn’t particularly self-identify as a tech the same way that Greg and Janice did. To me, the gear was a means to an end. True techs, it seemed to me, fawned over gear like lovers. They liked it for its own sake. I wasn’t interested in reading manuals from cover to cover, back then. I just wanted to know as much as I needed to know to make the gear do what I needed it to do.

I would come to change my mind about that.

Shortly after my encounter with John, somebody—I can’t remember who, it might have been Operations Manager Charlie Cheffins—mentioned that drama was looking for someone to replace Janice, who was leaving the CBC. Would I be interested in throwing my hat in the ring?

Surprisingly, looking back at it, I said no.

I wasn’t looking for change right then. I’d just gotten married and didn’t want to have to worry about learning a new job. Radio Drama seemed like a high pressure environment. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a part of all that. I just wanted to park my brain at the door for a while.

My friend Wayne Richards got the job instead.

(To be clear, he might have gotten it anyway even if I had thrown my hat in the ring.)

Fast forward to nineteen-ninety nine.

I’d had it with CJBC. I had come to regard it as a trap. The work had become quite boring; I couldn’t imagine doing it for the rest of my career. So I approached Charlie Cheffins about a new gig. There were a few possibilities. I could go back to the tech pool. I could join Radio Music as a Music Recording Engineer. Or…

“What about Radio Drama?” Charlie asked me.

“Nah,” I said. “I hear they’re kind of snooty.”

Again, looking back I’m amazed that I said that. I don’t think I actually felt that way for more than the few seconds it took me to say it. I think I was actually afraid that they wouldn’t have me.

But I wasn’t the only one with reservations. Greg DeClute was afraid that I got bored too easily. He knew that I’d recently taken a year off to study French in France and didn’t want to invest a lot of time training me only to have me take off again. There had already been too much turnover in Radio Drama. He wanted someone he could count on to stick around.

But Greg came around, and so did I.

And John hadn’t forgotten our conversation on the subway platform.

One day, while working in studio 522, the phone rang. It was John, asking if I’d be interested in coming to work for the Radio Drama department.

You bet, I told him. And instantly became quite excited at the prospect. I couldn’t wait to start.

A few weeks later I moved to 2F100 with the rest of the Radio Drama Recording and Sound Effects Engineers, and began a career in Radio Drama, that, despite Greg’s concerns, would last until shortly before they shut the place down.


Tools of the Trade

I felt as though I had been tailor made for Radio Drama. As though all my experience in radio from the age of sixteen, all the writing I had ever done, my stint in community theatre, my interest in music, all of it had conspired to prepare me for making radio plays. I had even written and produced a radio play before, as a student at Ryerson. Still, I had an awful lot to learn.

John McCarthy set about teaching me.

Up until this point, John had been an enigmatic figure to me, part of what I imagined to be an elite cadre of high-end recording engineers, well beyond anything I could ever aspire to be. Tall, bearded and bespectacled, from a distance he appeared aloof and serious. As I got to know him, I realized that he certainly wasn’t aloof, and although the jobs he occupied demanded a certain degree of seriousness and thoughtfulness—qualities that come naturally to John—you could not have a conversation with him without plenty of laughter.

A certain wizard
A certain wizard

There is something about John that has always put me in mind of a certain wizard. A staff in one hand and a conical hat and he would not be entirely out of place in a Tolkien novel. It is his bearing, his comportment. Like Gandalf, John is a counsellor, an advisor, a mentor. He was responsible for the two most pivotal moments of my career: inviting me into the radio drama department, and ultimately promoting me into management. Although he has never performed any actual magic that I’m aware of, I’m fairly certain he could kick Sauron’s ass.

On my first day in the drama department, John sat me down in a suite called Dialogue Edit and launched a piece of high-end audio editing software called Sonic Solutions. I had used similar software before, two programs in particular: D-Cart, also used by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation at the time, and Dalet, a version of which we still use today, but Sonic Solutions was considerably more powerful than either of these.

John showed me the basics, and then made a special point of showing me hot-keys—keystroke combinations that I could use instead of a mouse. He told me cautionary tales of people who had relied on “mousing” only to wind up with carpal tunnel syndrome. I heeded his words and learned every possible hot key combination. Not only did this make me a fast editor, I never suffered from carpal tunnel syndrome.

John gave me an edit of a radio play to practice on, an adaptation of Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood. I spent several hours replacing the existing sound effects with completely ludicrous ones, turning a serious dramatic work into something completely ridiculous. I was quite proud of the result.

“What have you done to my beautiful radio play?” John exclaimed in mock outrage when I played it back for him.

Once I was up to speed on Sonic Solutions, it was time to tackle the Neve Capricorn console in Studio 212. This was a rather more daunting task.

Recording Engineer Greg DeClute spent a few days teaching the console to me and a handful of my colleagues. On the morning of the first day, Greg challenged us to get tone up on the board. The purpose of tone, you might recall, is to line up audio equipment and establish continuity. Getting tone up on the board is the first thing I always do when confronted with a new console. I had never failed to get tone up on a board before. It’s pretty easy to get tone up on analog consoles.

Naturally, nobody who didn’t already know how to do it could get tone up on the Capricorn. On a digital console like the Capricorn it’s not exactly an intuitive process. After showing us how, Greg told us about a producer who was asked by a writer what would happen if everyone showed up to a recording session except the recording engineer. Would the producer be able to operate the Capricorn and record the show?

“Of course,” the producer told the writer confidently.

The truth is he wouldn’t have stood a chance. With all due respect to the producer in question, without training, he wouldn’t even have been able to get tone up.

I wasn’t sure I was up to the task myself. Did I have the kind of brain capable of adequately understanding something as complicated as a Neve Capricorn in an environment as complex as Studio 212?

This was nineteen ninety-nine, the year before my children were born. After taking Greg’s course, I had the freedom to come in on weekends to experiment. My goal was to make sure that I was able to record from every possible source, play it back through Sonic Solutions, route tracks through the various outboard processing gear, and mix it all using the Capricorn’s automation. This was the bare minimum I needed to know to make a radio play.

During his course, Greg had encouraged us to learn more than the bare minimum. “Be super-users,” he told us. “Seek to understand as much as possible about the gear you’re using. Don’t run to someone else for help every time you run into trouble. Figure it out for yourselves. Be the one that other people run to.”

Those are his exact words.

(No they’re not. It was a long time ago. And Greg doesn’t use words like “seek.” But it was something like that.)

I also needed to master Studio 212 itself. I needed to understand how to accurately translate the written word into sonic reality; how to get the most out of the acoustic spaces available to me. Doing so wasn’t necessarily straightforward.

On a conventional radio show, you position a microphone in front of the host and guests and make sure their levels are good. Sometimes it’s a little more involved, such as when you want to have a band in the studio or someone wants to cook something or practice Tai Chi live on air (I’ve dealt with both). Everything has to sound “on mic” all the time. This is presentational radio, where radio shows present content to listeners in a straightforward, unambiguous manner.

Radio drama, on the other hand, is representational. Much of what goes into a radio play represents something other than what it actually is. The trick is convincing listeners to accept the reality that is being represented. Actors represent characters that they’re not. Sounds represent sounds that they’re not—for instance, squeezing a box of corn starch wrapped in duct tape to represent a character walking on snow.

Few people I know actually think in terms of presentational versus representational radio. It’s not necessary to be conscious of the distinction unless you happen to be mixing the two, in which case you risk confusing your listeners, the way Orson Welles inadvertently did with his live broadcast of The War of the Worlds. When you move into the realm of representational radio it’s usually a good idea to let your listeners know that you’re doing so, though if done responsibly it can be fun to toe the line. The show This is That, currently airing on Radio One and Two, is a good example of this.

The challenge for those working in representational radio is how to make listeners believe that what they’re hearing is what you want them to think they’re hearing. For instance, take the sound of a nobleman getting his head chopped off by a guillotine. How do you create that sound without actually chopping off someone’s head? Even if you did chop off someone’s head (which I would advise against), listeners might not understand what they’re hearing without visual cues to make it clear what’s going on. It might be necessary to produce a sound that conveys the idea of someone getting their head chopped off that sounds even more like someone getting their head chopped off than the sound of someone actually getting their head chopped off, if you catch my drift.

I once recorded a scene from Romeo and Juliet with a novice director. Juliet was supposed to be on the balcony with Romeo on the ground. The director suggested that we place Juliet on a chair to convey that she was higher than Romeo. I explained to the director that height wouldn’t “read” on the radio. Placing Juliet on a chair wouldn’t convey to the listening audience that she was on a balcony. Listeners at home wouldn’t be able to see that she was higher.

What we needed to do was record the scene from Romeo’s point of view, with that actor close to the microphone, and place the actor playing Juliet an appropriate distance away from the microphone. Not so far away that the actor couldn’t be heard, but far enough away to convey the idea that the two characters were a fair distance apart. That Juliet was on a balcony would be clear from the context of the play. We just needed to nudge listeners’ perceptions in that direction. “Theatre of the mind” would do the rest.

I don’t mean to suggest that any of this is rocket science. But I did need to understand it all before I could get to work.


Cherry Docs

My first official sound effects gig was on a drama called Cherry Docs, written by David Gow, directed by Damir Andrei. Cherry Docs was originally a stage play, and is about a liberal Jewish lawyer defending a neo-nazi skinhead from a murder charge. Or rather, it’s about the journey these two men take together as they confront one another’s prejudices and their own. Or rather, it was about me learning how to make sound effects for a radio play.

David Gow
Playwright David Gow

Because the truth is, I remember virtually nothing about Cherry Docs itself. I had to look up the plot. This has nothing to do with the quality of the play, which is quite well regarded. It has to do with the fact that we recorded it a long time ago, and as we were making it, I wasn’t thinking about the story as much as I was thinking about how sound effects could help tell that story.

I had been schooled in the basics of the craft. I knew to comb the script to figure out what sound effects were required. I knew to divvy them up into three categories: sound effects that I would perform live with the actors, sound effects that I would create and record separately, and sound effects that I would source from CDs.

Damir Andrei
Director Damir Andrei

On the first day of recording with the cast, my very first sound effect was lighting a match for the main character, a foul-mouthed, violent neo-nazi skinhead played by Randy Hughson. Hughson’s character was supposed to be smoking a cigarette.

Why was I required to light the match? Couldn’t Randy have lit the match himself? For that matter, couldn’t Randy have performed all the sound effects himself? It’s true, Randy could have lit the match. But he probably wouldn’t have known where to light the match in proximity to the microphone. Lighting the match too close or too far away could have ruined a perfectly good take.

Also, lighting a match is simple, but it’s just one example. Sound effects sequences could be a lot more complex. Sometimes several sound effects were required during a single take. We preferred actors to concentrate on their performances rather than having to clink glasses, light matches, pretend to tromp around on snow and so on.

And then there was the business of how to create the sound effect to begin with. It wasn’t always exactly an intuitive process. Lighting a match is pretty straightforward. Lots of other sound effects aren’t. There are tricks, such as waving a thin stick in front of a mic to create the whoosh of an arrow, or touching a rag to a hot surface to create the sound of frying. We had an entire room full of bizarre contraptions and knick-knacks capable of making all sorts of weird sounds. Devices for making wind, doorbells, screen doors, the sound of someone getting hanged, or their head chopped off. It was useful to have someone around who knew where all these contraptions were, and how to make them work.

Actor Randy Hughson
Actor Randy Hughson

Anyway, there I was, the alleged sound effects specialist about to perform my very first professional sound effect. On the first take, at the appropriate point in the script, I dutifully lit the match, and promptly dropped the lit match in Randy’s hair. Fortunately, I was able to blow the match out before any damage could be done, but I was mortified. Thank God Randy wasn’t actually the foul-mouthed, violent neo-nazi skinhead he so effectively portrayed!

(I actually did see someone’s head burst into flames once. Fellow recording engineer Wayne Richards invited me to a party at his house at which he opted for candles over electric lighting. Joram Kalfa and I were in the kitchen talking to a young woman with long red hair when she stood too close to one of the candles. Her hair caught fire with a great whoosh. Within seconds her head was a great ball of flame. It was something to behold. Rather than admire it, quick-thinking Joram stepped forward, took a deep breath, and blew the woman’s head out as though it were a giant birthday cake candle. Her hair was slightly singed but she was fine.)

I mentioned that the main character of Cherry Docs was an intensely hostile neo-nazi. This set the stage for a slightly surreal moment when Damir, the director, instructed the actors to “just take it down to stupid f***ing paki at the bottom of page twelve.” Everyone laughed at Damir’s apparent obliviousness to the extremely offensive nature of what he’d just said (reflecting sentiments which, I hasten to add, no one present endorsed).

Shortly after my inadvertent attempt to set Randy on fire, the fire alarm in the Broadcast Centre went off. This was a complete coincidence, having nothing to do with my incident with the match. Moments later, standing on John Street alongside the rest of the occupants of the Broadcast Centre waiting to get back inside, Randy turned to me and asked, “So how long have you been doing sound effects?”

I looked at my watch. “About fifteen minutes,” I said, much to the amusement of recording engineer Greg DeClute.

Back in the studio, I recorded as many sound effects as I could with Randy and the rest of the cast. Recording sound effects with the actors is usually a good idea. Not only does it ensure that the sound effects are recorded in the right ambient space, it enhances performances as actors respond to the sound effects in the moment. It also makes for less work in post.

Still, it wasn’t something I particularly enjoyed. I always felt slightly embarrassed doing sound effects with actors. Sometimes the sound effects felt silly, such as using a knife and fork to eat an invisible breakfast on an empty plate. Or I’d make a stupid mistake, such as almost setting Randy Hughson’s hair on fire. We had two dedicated sound effects specialists on staff, Matt Willcott and Anton Szabo, guys who actually knew what they were doing. Me, I was just a dilettante. I never forgot that. Still, whenever called upon to perform live sound effects, I always did the best that I could.

Once I was finished with the cast, I turned my attention to recording wild sound effects, a process called “foley” after Jack Donovan Foley, a pioneer in the field of film sound effects. Foley is the process of recording sound effects in isolation. They’re mixed into sound tracks afterwards. I was a lot more comfortable doing foley than performing sound effects with actors.

Foley can be recorded anywhere. I recorded most of the sound effects I needed for Cherry Docs on the floor of Studio 212. Over the years my colleagues and I recorded car doors, squeaky doors, jail cells, elevators, breaking plates, baths, showers, decapitations, hangings, sword fights, fist fights, even gunshots in various parts of 212. For Cherry Docs, some of the action took place in a car, so I spent one afternoon recording myself driving my Pontiac Sunbird, speeding up, slowing down, turning, using the windshield wipers, buckling the seatbelt, and so on. We often talked about preserving and cataloguing the sound effects we created ourselves, to save time on future productions, but nobody ever got around to it.

Any sound effects that I didn’t record with the cast or as foley I sourced from CD. We had quite an elaborate sound effects collection. Thousands if not tens of thousands of sound effects, collections from Canada, Britain, the US, with names like Sounds of a Different Realm, Evil FX, Hollywood Edge, Top Secret, Wacky World of Robots, Widgets and Gizmos, Star Trek, Sound Ideas, and so on. Despite the breadth of our collection, it didn’t have everything, which is why we often had to create our own sound effects.

While I was busy recording and gathering sound effects, recording engineer Greg DeClute created the dialogue edit, choosing all the best performances from the actors and making a single continuous dialogue track. When he finished this to the director’s satisfaction, he handed it over to me to do the sound effects assembly.

When it came time to do the sound effects assembly, I was always grateful that I’d already recorded as many sound effects as possible with the actors. Anything that I hadn’t recorded (the foley sound effects and anything sourced from CD) needed to be loaded into my workstation (in those days a Mac G4) and then placed on separate tracks using our digital audio editing software, Sonic Solutions (we would move to Pro Tools a few years later). The sound effects usually took up a lot of tracks, layered on top of one another. A scene with characters arguing in a car might include a track of them arguing, another track with the sound of their car, yet another of passing traffic, several spot tracks of blinkers, wipers, seatbelts and so on, and maybe a music track as well.

Once I finished the sound effects assembly it was time to mix the show. In those days we almost always mixed big shows in Studio 212 with the cast long gone and the studio floor mostly empty. Cherry Docs was no exception. Greg sat on the left and I sat on the right before the Neve Capricorn console in the control room. Damir, the director, sat behind us.

Mixes were usually a collaborative process, although that depended on the director. For Cherry Docs, we followed Damir’s direction, but everybody provided input into what sounded best. As the mix progressed, we moved dialogue, sound effects and music around that weren’t quite in the right places. We added electronic processing where required (e.g., if a little reverb was required here and there). Greg equalized the dialogue track of a character who was supposed to sound like he was on a telephone. The Capricorn console remembered every move we made on the various faders and dials, and played it all back afterward just the way we mixed it.

Once we were happy with the mix, it was time to print it. We turned down the lights, launched the CD burner and DAT backups, pressed play on the console, sat back in our chairs and listened, hoping to God that we hadn’t made any mistakes. If we did, we stopped, fixed them, and started the print over again with a fresh CD.

I loved the Neve Capricorn, but it wasn’t perfect. Every now and then one of us would notice that it had fallen out of automation. When it did, we leapt out of our chairs cussing and swearing, trying to re-engage the automation before it missed any of our carefully programmed moves. If we caught it in time, we were fine. Usually, though, it was too late, and we were forced to start the print all over again.

Once the show was successfully printed, we turned up the lights and handed the finished CD and backup DATS to Damir, who (hopefully) checked it one more time before presenting the finished product for broadcast.

And Greg and I moved on to our next projects.


Requiem for a Studio

Yours Truly (R) with actor Andrew Gillies in Studio 212 during the recording of “Birth”

I loved working in Studio 212.

Studio 212 was our dream studio. It was the Radio Drama Studio in the Toronto Broadcast Centre, the successor to Studio G on Jarvis Street. It was a one-of-a-kind facility, built for the express purpose of producing theatre-of-the-mind, painstakingly designed to provide creative teams the ability to replicate acoustic environments with maximum flexibility.

I spent most of my time in Studio 212’s control room sitting behind a Neve Capricorn recording console (later, a Euphonix System 5). Typically, a recording engineer and a sound effects engineer would sit behind the console looking out over the production floor. There was a credenza behind them, beneath which sat patch bays and outboard processing gear such as effects and reverb units. Directors, writers, and associate producers would sit behind the credenza during recording and mix sessions, ordering the engineers around.

Writers J. Michael Straczynski and Samm Barnes behind Studio 212 Control Room credenza

Behind the control room was an equipment room. It housed the brains of the recording console, and doubled as a shortcut from the east side of the building to the west for those of us in the know.

The control room of Studio 212 was a hub, surrounded by several other rooms which served as different acoustic spaces in which to record actors. In front of the control room was the main studio floor, the largest and arguably most impressive space. The studio floor was deep and wide and two stories high. There were different materials on the floor to approximate different walking surfaces, among them wood, marble, and concrete. Two staircases led to a balcony. The staircase on the right (looking out from the control room) had two different surfaces (a good idea in theory, but in practice there wasn’t much difference between them acoustically). The winding staircase on the left was made of metal, and was perfect for approximating the sounds of stairs on ships and in prisons.

Close your eyes. Can you hear the difference?

There were baffles on the studio floor that you could wheel around to create smaller acoustic spaces. Each baffle had two sides: a soft, sound absorbing surface, and a hard, reflective surface. Which side you used depended on what kind of acoustic environment you wished to replicate. A small closet? Place an actor and your microphone inside three baffles and allow the actor’s voice to reflect off the hard surfaces. A living room? Four or five baffles with soft surfaces underneath the balcony. A castle, church, or gymnasium? Use the entire space augmented by a couple of mics on the balcony and maybe a soupçon of electronic reverb (which I always called “schmoo”, as in, “a little schmoo on that will help,” because that’s what CBC recording engineer Doug Doctor calls it).

Studio 212 Stairs

At the far end of the main studio floor was a combination kitchen/bathroom. It had a working stove, fridge, and bathtub. There were tons of dishes, pots, and pans in the cupboards. It’s said that they were originally going to put a working toilet in there but they were afraid that people would use it, and it wouldn’t get cleaned, and it would just get ugly. They were probably right. This space was relatively small and covered in ceramic tiles. It was perfect for recording kitchens and bathrooms (obviously) but served equally well for jail cells and locker rooms—any small, acoustically live environment.

Sometimes we’d make a mess in the kitchen

To the immediate right of the control room was a room we called The Neutral Room because it sounded, well, neutral.

Behind the control room, to the left of the equipment room, lay a room we called The Office. I’ll leave it to the discerning reader to determine what sorts of scenes we recorded in there.

To the right of the main studio floor was a tiny closet of a room with a sliding glass door. We called this the Acoustic Chamber. It became the default room for recording actors who were supposed to be in cars. Once I rented a car with a big trunk to do a remote in Niagara-on-the-lake. An associate producer came with me. On the way back, as we were talking, it occurred to me that our voices sounded exactly like actors recorded in the Acoustic Chamber. So it certainly worked as a double for at least one make of car: a Toyota Echo Hatchback.

Or sometimes we’d record car
scenes this way

Left of the main studio floor, through an acoustically reinforced door, was a long hallway that ended in a small chamber. Every surface in this space except for the floor was covered with Sonex Acoustical Foam, a sound absorbing material. The idea was that if you spoke in this room, your voice would not reflect off any surfaces. It would sound the way your voice would sound outside in the real world, theoretically. If you shouted down the hallway, which was something like thirty feet long, you would sound as though you were shouting across a large pond or a football field. If you spoke in the chamber at the end of the hall, you might sound the way you would on the beach. We called this room the Dead Room. Matt Willcott, one of our sound effects engineers, told me that he wanted to write an autobiography called “Live Effects in a Dead Room.” He’s long since retired and should have it mostly written by now.

Cynthia Dale in the Dead Room, as seen from a monitor in the Control Room. There’s a gaping hole in the wall left of the monitor because the other monitor fell out one day.

The floor of the corridor in the Dead Room consisted of shallow boxes. If you lifted the covers off these boxes, you would find several different types of surfaces: small rocks, pebbles, sand. Not often, but every now and then, we would have actors or our sound effects engineers walk on these surfaces to simulate walking on different surfaces. Rather less sophisticated, but no less effective, we also kept a medium-sized cardboard box in the Dead Room. It was filled with old quarter inch audio tape that had been liberated from its reels. When actors walked on this old audiotape, it sounded like they were walking on dead leaves.

SFX beneath floor in Dead Room (photo courtesy of Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)
SFX beneath floor in Dead Room
(photo courtesy of Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)

All our outdoor scenes (well, the ones not actually recorded outdoors) were recorded in the Dead Room. Properly done it worked pretty well, especially after you added outdoor ambiances to the voice tracks such as wind or rain or automobiles or ocean surf. If you tried to fake it by recording outdoor scenes in one of the other spaces, spaces meant for interior recording, listeners might not realize what you had done, but psycho-acoustically they would register that something wasn’t quite right.

You had to be careful though. Not every spot in the Dead Room worked well. If you placed your microphone too close to a wall, even with Sonex Acoustic Foam lining the walls, the actors’ voices would reflect back and sound boxy. So they might sound like they were at the beach, but inside a wooden box.

Leaves the old fashioned way (Photo courtesy Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)
Leaves the old fashioned way
(Photo courtesy Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)

Of course, outside in the real world there are many opportunities for sound to reflect off various surfaces. Often when I was recording outside on location I would find myself up against a brick wall or a wooden house or some other place that flavoured my recordings with odd reflections and other unique characteristics. So although the Dead Room provided an excellent approximation of outdoor environments, and allowed engineers a lot more control than might have been possible recording outdoors, nothing beat actually recording outdoors. Also, actors sometimes found it hard to be cooped up in the Dead Room for too long—you could start to feel a bit peculiar in there after a while. Which could be why one day shortly after the Dead Room was built, one actor carved her initials in the acoustic foam. It was never repaired, and she was never invited back.

The hall of Studio 212’s Deadroom

It could be said that studio 212 was ever-so-slightly over-engineered. I’ve already mentioned the staircase with the two surfaces that weren’t that much different from one another acoustically. If you really wanted to get fancy, you could place your microphone underneath an array of baffles permanently affixed to the ceiling (called “The Cloud”.) You could flip those baffles to either hard or soft surfaces using a long pole that we kept attached to a nearby wall. When I first started working in 212, I would dutifully flip the ceiling baffles depending on my acoustic requirements, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that it didn’t have much of an impact. Rarely was an actor’s mouth directed toward the heavens. Some of the floor surfaces were equally ineffective. They differed from one another so subtly that you couldn’t hear any difference between them, especially with actors wearing sneakers. We rarely used footsteps anyway—start putting footsteps in your radio plays and the next thing you know it’ll be all about the footsteps; you’ll drive yourself nuts. Just put them in where you absolutely need to.

But far be it from me to nitpick about such a unique studio. I shall not look upon its like again.


2F100

When I wasn’t learning how to make radio plays, I had a desk in 2F100, a cavernous room I shared with the rest of the radio drama technical gang, which, around Christmas 1999, consisted of me, recording engineers Greg DeClute, Wayne Richards, Drago Grandic, and sound effects engineers Matt Willcott and Anton Szabo. There was also another technician, but he left the department weeks after I joined the department. I’ve always felt a little bad about him. He wanted to be a part of the drama department, but it didn’t work out, and I took his place. My desk in 2F100 had actually been his desk.

As he was leaving on his last day, carrying a box with his stuff in one hand and a lamp in the other, I said, “Would you mind, uh, leaving the lamp?”

He looked like a dog that didn’t understand why someone had just kicked it. 

“Okay,” he said, and handed me the lamp.

Last I heard, he was working in Los Angeles, where it’s currently eighteen degrees Celsius. As I write this, it’s minus seventeen degrees Celsius here in Toronto. I expect he is having the last laugh.

2F100 was dark and dingy. There were windows all along one side facing the atrium. We kept the blinds drawn to prevent sunlight from striking our skin, lest it burn us, as though we were a nest of vampires.

We shared 2F100 with huge metallic shelves containing old 78 rpm sound effects records, none of which had been used in years. One day Drago Grandic moved the shelves to create a room within a room. He placed a long leather couch inside and created a curtain out of old magnetic tape to serve as a door. It was a perfect little hideaway, which came in handy after my twin girls were born two months premature, and my wife and I had to feed them every three hours day and night for weeks on end. I came to work each day utterly exhausted. During lunch I would use Drago’s room to catch a few sorely needed Zzzzs. Afterward I would splash my face with cold water and stagger back to work.

Around this time I became addicted to chewing gum. I’m chewing it now, as I write this, sixteen years later. I’d read that Hollywood writer William Goldman chewed gum to stay awake watching movies when he was on the jury at Cannes. I figured if it kept him awake maybe it would keep me awake too.

Eventually we were ordered to throw all the old 78s out. Drago lost his room and I lost my little hideaway. It wasn’t so bad for me because Keira and Erin were sleeping through the night by then, but it was a bit of a loss for the corporation. The 78s contained intriguing one-of-a-kind sound effects, including sound that appeared to have been recorded during World War II. But there was no budget to transfer them to another medium, and it was a little too early technologically to digitize them (slow transfer speeds, not enough storage capacity, and no funding to do it anyway). And there was no will to store them elsewhere, so they were all destroyed. We had a bunch of sound effects on cart, too, which we also threw out. I don’t think anybody missed them, though. Never once did I hear anybody say, “Gee, too bad we don’t have those old carts and 78s anymore.”

For the first eleven years I worked at the CBC I had no desk, phone, or computer. All I had was a locker and a tiny little mailbox. Now, for the first time ever, I had a desk, my own phone, and a computer. I also had my own CBC email address, though I couldn’t check it on my Seanix computer because at first my Seanix wasn’t connected to the BAN (Building Area Network). All I used the Seanix for was creating sound effects lists and doing “network testing.” Which, in retrospect, was extremely important.

So important, in fact, that we created our own private network for the testing, which could only be performed on breaks. To make the “testing” official, we were sometimes joined by one of our maintenance technologist buddies, our dedicated high end studio support specialist. This critical network testing consisted primarily of playing Need For Speed II. Sometimes as many as five or six of us raced together, testing the limits of our private network. Greg DeClute and I became especially proficient at these tests, often racing neck and neck. It was exceedingly important to keep the door to 2F100 closed during the tests because much like, say, the Manhattan Project, they were absolutely top secret, on a strict need to know basis. Just the same, I’m sure our fearless leader John McCarthy knew perfectly well what was going on. “Networking testing” was restricted to breaks and lunch. We told ourselves that we played hard because we worked hard. In fact, the longer I worked in the drama department, the busier I seemed to get. If we weren’t preparing for casts, or recording casts, or doing post production, we were supporting the department in other ways. The six of us (five after Drago left) supported shows such as Sunday Showcase, Monday Night Playhouse, Monday Playbill, Muckracker, Between the Covers, the Mystery Project, and Vinyl Café. Some of us—Greg, Wayne and myself, and Drago when he was still there—were loaned out to other shows in the A&E department such as Writers and Company and Definitely Not the Opera (DNTO). I always felt like I hit the ground running every morning and was still jogging by the end of the day. There was the odd slow day but mostly we worked our butts off.

That is, right up until somebody got the bright idea that we should all go out on strike.


Strike!

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.


Hybrids

When I first joined the radio drama department I was still a Group 4 Radio Technician. Greg DeClute, Wayne Richards and Drago Grandic, on the other hand, were all Group 6 Recording Engineers, a classification that John McCarthy had fought to have created several years earlier, and that was about to go away.

Not long after we got back inside after the strike of ’99, the CBC announced some pretty big cuts. Some thought this was to make up for the wage increases we’d just won. No doubt there were many factors, including the advent of desktop radio. In the past, radio technicians like me did almost all of the recording and much of the editing on tape in radio studios. Now a lot of the editing could done on computers. Technologists Deraj Ramnares and John Baldwin began installing a network wide desktop editing system for CBC Radio called D-Cart in 1993, which went into production in 1994. It was supplanted by a more sophisticated system called Dalet in 1996. (Desktop television was still a few years away.)

With the advent of these desktop editing systems a lot of the work traditionally done in the studios could now be done at producers’ desks. This did not bode well for radio technicians. Some technicians saw the writing on the wall. Glenn Gould’s favourite technician, Lorne Tulk, took me aside one day to warn me that there was no future in my line of work. Soon, he said, CBC would be purchasing shows produced outside the CBC. He was not wrong. Vinyl Café with Stuart McLean and The Age of Persuasion with Terry O’Reilly eventually followed this model, though as of this writing most shows are still produced in-house. 

Before joining CBC Radio, I had been an announcer at a couple of private radio stations where I operated my own shows. In fact, I was usually the only one in the radio stations when I worked. When I joined CBC Radio, I didn’t really understand why it took so many people to make a radio show. Still, I didn’t quite see eye to eye with CBC management. I didn’t think it was necessary to have the producer replace the technician. I wondered why the technician couldn’t replace the producer.

Of course, it wasn’t as simple as that. Most producers didn’t possess the knowledge required to replace a qualified radio technician. Nor did most technicians possess the full range of skills necessary to be a successful producer. In time, though, with the proper training and experience, individuals from both camps acquired the skills to both produce and engineer radio shows. Many people who had started as technicians, such as Kent Hoffman, Tom Shipton, Brian Hill, and Dean Ples, to name a few, went onto become successful producers. And producers such as Tracy Rideout went on to both produce and tech various comedy shows for years (Tracy eventually became Executive Producer of CBC Radio Comedy).

It’s absurd to suggest that a human being is only capable of a single skill set, that a CBC employee must either be only a technician or a producer. I was always interested in many aspects of production. At the CBC, I always resented being limited to a single skill set, pigeon-holed into one specific set of tasks. I was always trying to bust out of that. Sometimes I was successful; usually I was not. 

On the other hand, when you try to force someone to do something they’re not really interested in, results vary. I have seen producers forced to be technicians who clearly considered it a demotion, and who as a consequence did the bare minimum to get their show on the air, with no interest in understanding the finer points of audio engineering. Barely comprehending proper metering, zero interest in compression or equalization. The kind of person who relies on chalk marks to know where to set levels. People who fancied themselves true audio engineers refer to people like the ones I’ve described above as “operators.” It’s not a compliment. 

Likewise, I’ve also known many technicians with little interest in producing who were nevertheless forced to incorporate some producing functions (such as editing podcasts) into their work.

The upshot of all this is that one day in nineteen ninety-nine, Operations Manager Larry Alder plucked me out of Room 2F100 to escort me to Plant Manager Charlie Cheffin’s office, where Charlie rather apologetically handed me a redundancy notice. A redundancy notice meant that they were laying me off from my current position. According to the Collective Agreement, though, I had bumping rights. If it was determined that I was qualified for another, lower position elsewhere, I could bump whoever was doing that job out of their job and take his or her place.

Larry Alder escorted many technicians to Charlie’s office that grim day.

I didn’t blame either Larry or Charlie. I know they both felt terrible about it. In fact, Charlie quit the CBC shortly afterward. It’s my understanding that he quit so that he wouldn’t have to do that sort of thing anymore.

I was quite taken aback by this turn of events. I’d already worked at CBC Radio for eleven years. I thought I’d been there long enough, and was high enough in seniority, to be safe, but I wasn’t. Wayne Richards and I were the only ones in the drama department to get notices of redundancy, as we were lowest on the seniority list.

But that didn’t mean that the other technical types in the drama department—Greg DeClute, Matt Willcott, Anton Szabo and Drago Grandic—weren’t at risk. Word was recording engineers on the television side of the operation were threatening to bump into radio, which would threaten Greg and Dragos’ positions. So everybody was a little uneasy.

One day Anton Szabo, in his capacity as union rep, accompanied me to a meeting with Mark Kingston, a manager in the TV Presentation Group. Mark, I would learn much later, is true gentleman, a really nice guy. The purpose of the meeting was to see if I could bump into one of the positions reporting to Mark. (If I bumped one of Mark’s employees, that person could, in turn, bump someone else. Eventually, though, someone would get bumped right out of the corporation).  I believe the position Mark had in mind for me was overnight VTR technician. That Mark would have been a nice guy to work for I have no doubt. But that position did not sound at all attractive to me.

Two months after Wayne and I received Notices of Redundancy, we received actual lay-off letters. This was standard procedure as laid out in the Collective Agreement. I started to get a little concerned that this was actually going to happen.

One day Greg, Wayne and I ran into Operations Manager Charlie Cheffins down in the Food Court. He assured us that wheels were in motion to save most of us. He was referring to a scheme by Radio Management to turn our jobs into “hybrid” positions—associate producer/technician jobs that the TV recording engineers wouldn’t qualify for. This was a little bit of dirty pool, as it was subverting the bumping process laid out in the collective agreement, but in the end they got away with it (years later the same kind of dirty pool would prevent Greg DeClute from bumping into television).

There were several pros and cons to this approach. On the plus side, it meant that I had a shot at one of these positions. If I got it, I wouldn’t have to bump into overnight VTR, or worse, wind up on the street. It meant that nobody from television would be able to bump into one of these positions. Of course, this was a con for any TV recording engineers looking for a safe place to land after being let go.

The new jobs were classified as Band 7 associate producer/technician positions. This was higher than the Group 4 Radio Technician position I currently occupied, so if I did get the job, it would constitute a promotion with a corresponding increase in salary. And the title included the word “producer,” which I liked, as I was just as interested in producing as I was in recording.

However, they were only creating six positions, and there were seven of us, so one of us was going to get turfed. It also meant that all of us were essentially being forced to apply for our own jobs (albeit a slightly better job for me). Also, the work that we were doing in Radio Drama was that of Recording Engineers, not Associate Producer/Technicians. The AP/Tech jobs would not reflect what we were actually doing. Worse, a Recording Engineer was actually a Band Ten, not a Band Eight, so not only would our job titles be incorrect, but we would not be getting paid what we should be.***

In the meantime, the mechanics of redundancy chugged on. One day I got a call at home from Bea Guttman, who worked in HR. The call was to review what compensation I would receive when I got laid off. I was a little testy with her.

“If they actually lay me off they’re even stupider than I think,” I told her, in a classic case of “beat up the messenger.” Bea didn’t have to take that tone from me, and nor did she. She ended the call shortly after my remark. (I apologized to her several years later. She had no memory of the incident.)

In my defense, I was feeling the stress. Within the space of a single year I’d started a new job, been on strike, become a father to two month premature twins, and was now about to be laid off. Greg DeClute’s wife remarked to him during all this, “What are they trying to do? Kill Joe?”

Management arranged interviews for us so we could all apply for these new “hybrid” technical/producer positions. The CBC refers to such interviews as “Boards,” which usually consist of three or four management types grilling you for up to an hour. I was comfortable with all the managers on my Board and felt like it went well.

Still, there weren’t enough positions for all of us. One of us had to go. Drago Grandic decided to fall on his own sword. Saving management the trouble of choosing between us, he quit. I don’t know how it actually would have played out, but I’ve always felt that if Drago hadn’t quit, I would have wound up working overnight VTR. So, thanks Drago.

Anton Szabo was pissed at Drago though because Drago quit without telling him. Anton, who was President of Local CEP at the time, was pretty sure he could have worked out a deal for Drago where he would have received a decent severance. But because Drago just up and quit out of the blue he received only a pittance.

Drago had an exit interview in which he blasted the HR rep for the strike of ’99 and for making us essentially apply for our own jobs. It probably made him feel better but I don’t expect it had any impact other than creating a few unpleasant moments for the HR rep. Drago went off to work in IT for a former radio comedy producer named David Milligan who owned an automotive parts company. The company eventually went bankrupt.   

So, thanks in part to Drago, I was hired as an Associate Producer/Technician. Instead of getting fired, I got a promotion.

We weren’t the only ones who had to apply for our own jobs. Many others went through the same process, including one technician who, a few months after being made to apply for his own job, committed suicide. I’m not suggesting that being forced to apply for his own job made him commit suicide. I am saying that it can’t have helped.

As far as I know, no radio technicians actually got fired during this period. Most were redeployed to television. It was the end of an era for radio, which had to make do with one heck of a lot fewer radio technicians from that point on.


*** Over time the discrepancy in what we should have been paid would amount to several thousand dollars. This would be addressed eight years later when the CBC, cooperating with the CMG, reviewed every single job in the corporation. My colleagues and I made the case that we were actually Band Ten Recording Engineers, not Band Seven Technician/Associate Producers. We won, and were compensated several thousands of dollars in back pay.

Muckraker

The first radio drama series that I worked on regularly was a weekly half hour sketch comedy called The Muckraker. The Muckraker aired every Saturday morning at 11:30am, and promised to “take you behind the headlines for the real story on the latest news.”

The Muckraker was a fictional online newspaper staffed by five intrepid reporters, a device that allowed us to set up actual news stories from the previous week. Once the stories were set up, the show segued into comedy sketches about those stories, with the cast assuming the roles of various colourful characters poking fun at Canadian and International news.

According to the internet, The Muckraker was created by a fellow by the name of Gary Pearson. I never actually met Gary. I knew who he was because I’d once seen him perform an excellent impression of Captain Kirk in a live comedy sketch show, but I don’t remember ever seeing him set foot in the studio.* That doesn’t mean he was never there. Nor is it a bad thing, as the writing team was ably represented by head writer Jerry Schaefer (whom you might remember as Possum Lake animal control officer Ed Frid on the Red Green show).

Gary Pearson
Gary Pearson

Searching the net, I see that a fellow by the name of Chris Earle also wrote for the show, but I never met him either. It’s possible that others wrote for the show too, but if so I have no idea who they were.

The Executive Producer of The Muckraker was Anton Leo. Anton also directed most episodes. Anton apparently achieved modest fame in the seventies as “Waiter With Tray” in a series of beer commercials, but I had no idea about that until I looked him up just now.

I took turns recording and mixing episodes of The Muckraker with fellow recording engineer Wayne Richards, alternating weeks. Anton Szabo (not to be confused with Anton Leo) did the sound effects for most if not all shows.

The Muckraker cast was a talented bunch. I liked them all. Peter Oldring (currently featured in This is That) did an old man voice that is the funniest old man voice I’ve ever heard. It should be considered a national treasure. Every now and then I would get him to do it just for me. I don’t know why he doesn’t talk in that voice all the time.

I enjoyed Richard (Rick) Waugh’s performances so much that I wrote a part just for him in a pet project I did a few years later (more about that in another post). You know Rick, you just don’t know it—you’ve heard him many times doing commercials on private radio.

Richard Waugh
Richard Waugh

Mag Ruffman is well known as her alias Debbie the Tool Girl. Mag was a pleasure to work with.
Deann Degruijter was a ball of positive energy. Looking her up, I see that she recently finished a stint as the voice of Mayor Goodway on Ryder and the Paw Patrol. According to a website for the show, Deann is both “female” and “alive.” It’s great to have the former confirmed and I’m happy to hear about the latter.

Glen Gaston, according to the internet, has appeared in both movies and theatrical productions since Muckraker. Sadly, I can find no web sites confirming his gender.

We packaged Muckraker on a pretty tight schedule. The writers produced scripts for us late Thursday afternoons just in time for recording sessions Thursday evenings. While the cast read through the script a couple of rooms over, I’d peruse my own copy to determine the best way to block each scene. By blocking, I mean arranging how the actors moved through the scene with respect to one another and the microphone.

Sometimes, as I’ve written elsewhere, the blocking was as simple as having the actors stand next to one another facing the microphone. Other times it was more complicated. I’ve also written about that, but it won’t hurt to provide another example:

A mother is shouting out her window at her son, who’s climbing a tree outside on the front lawn. She’s afraid he might fall out of the tree and break his neck. How do you make a scene like that sound convincing on the radio without recording it on location? (We didn’t have time to visit all the locations in our script. Even if we did, they might not have sounded convincing. In the world of audio, with no pictures to help your brain figure out what you’re hearing, stuff doesn’t always sound like what it actually is.)

In Studio 212, I might have placed the son inside the Dead Room (no hard surfaces for his voice to reflect off, simulating an outdoor environment), and his mother in the main studio within some artfully placed soft-sided baffles. There was a window between the Dead Room and the main studio to allow interaction between the actors. By tweaking the actors’ proximity to the microphone and one another, and by adding the appropriate ambiance in post, I could make a scene like that sound pretty convincing. Studio 212 really was brilliantly conceived, designed to give production teams maximum flexibility to recreate just about any environment, internal or external, that they could conceive of.

Fellow Recording Engineer Wayne Richards

It was arguably the director’s job to do this kind of blocking, but not every director had sufficient experience or interest. Wayne and I usually helped Anton Leo block the scenes. This is not a slight against Anton: his expertise was comedy, not blocking radio plays. Directors such as Gregory J. Sinclair, James Roy, Bill Lane, and Bill Howell, on the other hand, who were profoundly interested in the medium of radio drama, were constantly pushing the boundaries, and often surprised me with their innovative blocking. Most of what I know about the craft of making radio plays I learned from them.

Despite assisting with the blocking, I was still pretty green when I was working on The Muckraker. And I was pretty much flying without a net. Recording during the evening, there was no one around to help me if things went south, apart from Anton Szabo, who, though resourceful, had not been trained on the Neve Capricorn.

I was so green, in fact, that I didn’t even know how to hard reboot the Mac Computers if they froze.

“Press the power button for five seconds until it restarts,” John McCarthy told me shortly before my first evening shift, courteously refraining from rolling his eyes.

In my defense, this was 2002. It was my first exposure to Apple computers. I didn’t like Macs at all back then. I’d been a hard core PC guy since I’d bought my first IBM XT 286 back in 1991. I knew the PC operating system. I was familiar with DOS. I didn’t know anything about Macs. There was a lot about them that drove me nuts.

For example, on the Mac Quads we used to run our editing software, it was not possible to eject the CD tray from the Mac computer itself. You had to do it through a button on the keyboard. The problem with this was that the computer was not located in the control room with us. Because the computer was noisy (not good when you’re working with sound), it was housed in a completely different room down the hall, connected to the monitor, keyboard and mouse in the control room via extremely long cables amplified by range extenders (I think). I’d go to the Mac in the other room to insert or remove a CD only to discover that I’d forgotten to eject the tray from the keyboard, forcing me to go back to the control room to hit eject.

Then there was the spinning wheel of death. When a Mac computer hung, it hung real good. It would display a colourful little wheel on your monitor that would spin forever and ever, and God help you if you forgot to save your work before the Spinning Wheel of Death showed up.

Back to The Muckraker. During each take, I would sit in the control room, hunched over the console, listening closely to each take. I was listening to make sure there were no issues with the sound, but I was also listening to see if I could help make the scene any funnier (I fancy myself a writer with a particular interest in humour). Sadly, the Muckraker team wasn’t the least bit interested in my input. Only once did they ever accept one of my suggestions. It was for a sketch that concerned an incident with Jean Chretien. Back in Aug 16th 2000, then Prime Minister Jean Chretien was touring an agricultural show in PEI when a twenty-three year old protestor shoved a pie in his face.

“You have developed a funny way of serving pies these days,” Chretien told supporters later. “I’m not that hungry.”

This sort of thing was right up Muckraker’s alley. The resulting sketch related the broad details of the incident: the Prime Minister getting pied in the face, and the protestor getting arrested. There was a line: “I’m taking you into custody.”

I suggested we change the line to, “I’m taking you into custardy. Uh, custody.”

Hey, I’m not saying it’s the funniest line ever. But of all my suggestions during my time with The Muckraker, that’s the one they took. It was Rick Waugh who agreed to deliver the line. Thanks Rick.

The infamous Chretien Pie Incident
The infamous Chretien Pie
Incident

We usually finished recording the cast around eleven pm. The cast and crew would bail, leaving Anton Szabo (not to be confused with Anton Leo) and me to clean up. Afterward, I would race home as quickly as possible to hit the sack because I would have to be back in bright and early the next morning to edit, assemble, and mix the show. Neither Wayne Richards nor I were particularly fond of this quick turnaround. Once, rushing home on Highway 401, I got stopped by a cop for speeding.

“Do you know how fast you were going?” he asked me.

“No,” I told him honestly.

“There are jets that fly slower than you,” he said.

Keen to get home, I’d been doing over 140 k/hour without realizing it. Luckily, I was only fined fifty bucks and didn’t lose any points. Except with my wife, that is.

During our Thursday night recording sessions, Associate Producer Tracy Rideout kept track of the good takes. (Tracy would go on to become the Executive Producer of CBC Radio comedy). Friday mornings when I came into edit and assemble the show, we worked off Tracy’s notes.

Fridays were as annoying as Thursday evenings were fun. It was a pretty intense day. For a while, the show aired on Friday nights as well as Saturday mornings, so there was a lot of pressure to finish mixing by eight pm.

The mixing process was essentially the same as any radio play except that instead of mixing it in studio 212, where it had been recorded the previous night, we mixed it in Studio 213, otherwise known as Sound Effects 3, or SFX3. SFX3 would quickly become my favourite studio. Mixing in SFX3, I had access to ProTools, a Digidesign Pro Tools Control 24 mixing board, one piece of outboard gear (a Harmonizer), and a suite of Waves Gold Plugins. Plugins are software effects processors that allow you to manipulate sound in all sorts of fancy ways.

On a conventional radio play the recording engineer would edit the voice tracks and then hand the project over to the sound effects engineer to assemble the sound effects, and together they would mix the show under the supervision of the director.

On The Muckraker, Anton Szabo (not to be confused with Anton Leo) always prepared his sound effects before the recording session, recording many of them live into the sketches. The rest of the sound effects he would load up in the hard drive, readily accessible. Having the sound effects already recorded and pre-loaded greatly reduced the time needed to mix the show. This was critical, because it still took a damned long time. Anton (Szabo) usually didn’t participate in the Friday mix sessions. SFX3 was a smaller studio. It was easier and more comfortable just to have one engineer working with the director and associate producer.

I can’t speak for Wayne (who, you might recall, engineered the show every second week), but the way I mixed the show was scene by scene, editing the dialogue first, then fleshing out the sound effects (and music, if there was any). Ideally, we’d take the best single take of each sketch based on Tracy’s notes. Unfortunately it never worked out this way. Anton Leo always insisted on listening to every bloody take. Then he’d take bits from several takes to create a composite take. All this futzing around slowed down the process and drove me and Wayne nuts (I can safely speak for Wayne on that point).

“Why doesn’t he just follow the damned notes?” we’d ask ourselves.

Of course, he was trying to get the funniest bits into the show. Ironically, years later, when Greg DeClute and I started directing, editing and mixing our own radio plays, we were infinitely fussier than any of the directors we ever worked with, including Anton.

Creating each episode was a painstaking process, but it was also pretty rewarding as the show came alive. It was also quite an education. I learned how to make dialogue pop. I made crazy edits that I never thought would work but that did anyway. I manipulated sound in crazy ways, using all the tools at my disposal, bending sound to my will, mwa ha ha.

At first, levels drove me crazy. You want the volume of the show to be consistent throughout, within a certain dynamic range, peaking at about -20 dBfs (decibels relative to Full Scale). I came from live radio where I managed levels on the fly. Maintaining consistent levels in the digital domain was trickier. I worked off two meters, a stand alone dBfs meter on my left and a similar meter on the DAT machine to my right. The meter on my left also showed me whether my content was in or out of phase (which you can hear, but it’s nice to have visual confirmation. More on phase later).

There’s a phenomenon called threshold shift. You probably experience this in your car when you’re listening to the radio. When you first get in the car, you set your car stereo to a certain level, then you get driving and the road noise is loud so you crank the radio up. You get out on the highway and it’s even louder so you jack the radio up even more. At the grocery store, you get out and buy your groceries. When you get back in your car and turn it on, you can’t believe how loud your radio is. You’re a victim of threshold shift.

I also experienced threshold shift mixing radio shows, but it was more about ear fatigue. As the day wore on, my ears got tired, and as my ears got tired, I gradually made everything louder, forcing me to revisit parts of my mix to make the levels consistent. Eventually, I acquired the discipline to do this as I went along, constantly checking levels on both meters to ensure consistency. And I would try not to vary the volume of the studio monitors, a lesson John Johnston had taught me a decade earlier.

They were long days, mixing Muckraker. Twelve, thirteen hours days followed by the long commute home. Once we finished mixing the show, we still had to print it in real time onto DAT tapes (later we burned it onto CDs). If there was a mistake, we’d have to stop, fix it, and start again (we didn’t usually make mistakes; we didn’t have time to). Once printed, Anton Leo would grab the tapes and run them up to the third floor to Radio Master Control for broadcast. More than once we weren’t entirely sure we’d make it in time.

After a while they stopped the Friday night broadcast so we only had Saturday to worry about. This bought us more time, but it also meant that we could tweak even later into the night. And when we switched from capturing the show on DAT tapes to burning it onto CDs, it didn’t really save us any time. In fact, it sometimes added time. To make a CD, we had to “bounce” the show into a two–track (stereo) version in Pro Tools, and then use a program called Toast to burn the CD.

This was usually pretty straightforward, if we set the bounce up properly. But there was one stretch of several weeks when the Mac Superdrive wouldn’t burn the CD properly. If we couldn’t burn the CD, then we couldn’t get it to Master Control for broadcast. When we burnt a CD that didn’t work, and that we couldn’t reuse, we called it “burning a coaster” as that’s all the CD was good for. I burnt a lot of coasters during that period. Eventually Audio Systems (which is what radio maintenance was called back then) fixed the Superdrive for me.

That wasn’t the only technical problem I experienced. One Saturday night I was at home watching a movie with my wife when the phone rang. Muckraker was on the air but I wasn’t listening to it. Having recorded and mixed the thing, I’d heard it enough already. It was Director/Exec Producer Anton Leo on the phone.

“They all sound like ghosts,” he complained. He was talking about the cast.

Reluctantly, I turned on the radio. Sure enough, half the cast sounded like they were only barely there. They sounded like I’d recorded them from the next room over. Anton told me that the cast sounded that way in most of the country. Curiously, they sounded fine in parts of Alberta. Although he was too polite to come right out and say it, Anton clearly wanted to know how the hell I’d wrecked his show.

Immediately I suspected that the cast sounded this way was because the show was being broadcast out of phase.

What does that mean exactly?

It means that the show’s audio, in particular the voices of the actors, was cancelling itself out.

How could this happen?

Sound travels through the air in waves. Saying that sound travels in waves can be misleading though. Many people think of sound as looking like the surface of water, with peaks and troughs, because the motion of sound is often represented visually as a sine wave. This is just a convenient way to visually illustrate what’s going on. The truth is sound waves travel through air as longitudinal waves. Longitudinal waves don’t have peaks and troughs. What’s actually happening is that as sound passes through a pocket of air, it displaces particles of air before and after that pocket as the energy of the sound wave passes through it.

Without going too far down this rabbit hole, when an object creates a sound wave that passes through air (such as a human voice), it creates low and high pressure areas in the air around it—areas where the air particles are bunched up, and areas where the air particles are spread apart. These are called compressions and rarefactions respectively. They are not the peaks and troughs of waves; they are just different concentrations of air particles.

Compressions and Rarefactions
Compressions and Rarefactions

How does phase come into this?

When two compressions come together—two areas where the air particles are bunched up—followed by two rarefactions—areas where air particles are less concentrated—the sound waves reinforce one another. This is called constructive interference and will result in louder sound. If, on the other hand, a rarefaction meets a compression—a low pressure area meets a high pressure area—then the longitudinal waves will cancel one another out. If they cancel one another out completely, the air particles will behave as though they were at rest, with no interference at all. This is called destructive interference, and will result in no sound.

Obviously, the interaction of longitudinal waves in a medium such as air is rarely straightforward, especially when enclosed within reflective boundaries such as walls, with other reflective objects such as furniture scattered throughout. So in the real world it’s unlikely that sound waves would completely cancel one another out. They can, however, do a lot of damage to one another, and that’s what I thought was happening to The Muckraker that night. I thought that I must have done something during either the recording or the packaging process that resulted in that particular show being out of phase.

Sound can wind up out of phase for several reasons. It can happen at the recording stage. An actor might stand in the wrong spot relative to the microphone. Recording using a style called MS Stereo (I’ll spare you the details of that), we kept a close eye on the phase meter when we had several actors ranged around our MS Stereo microphone. If an actor wandered in behind the microphone, he would get recorded out of phase. I was pretty sure I hadn’t let that happen.

There is an issue closely related to phase called polarity. They are often confused because both polarity and phase manifest themselves in similar cancellation and interference issues. They are not the same, though. Phase has to do with timing and signal delay. Polarity is when you have two possible choices that are mutually exclusive, such as a fan blowing air or a vacuum drawing air in, or flipping a coin either heads or tails, or observing positive or negative when you insert a battery, or deciding whether to be good or evil. When you’re talking about sound, polarity is a question of direction of flow of electrical current.

Polarity issues can arise from bad or incorrectly used cables, microphones, and loudspeakers. On the home front, for example, a listener might have audio issues because their stereo speakers are wired up wrong. Many people do this without even realizing it. If you accidentally reverse the polarity of one channel on one of your speakers—putting the black (negative) speaker wire where the red (positive) one is supposed to go, then you will mess up your speaker drivers, which work by rocking back and forth. If you reverse the polarity of a speaker, one speaker cone will behave opposite of what it’s supposed to, going forward when it’s supposed to be going backward, the opposite of the cone in the other speaker (assuming the other speaker’s wired correctly). When this happens, the longitudinal sound waves from the two speakers will partially cancel one another out, resulting in weak bass and weird stereo imaging, which you don’t want.

Here’s a trick: Take your two stereo speakers and place them about a foot apart facing one another. Turn the stereo up. If it sounds big and juicy, the polarity is likely fine and all is well. If it sounds thin and tinny, the speakers might be wired incorrectly. Try reversing the wires in the back of one speaker. You should hear a significant difference in the quality of sound. You want it sounding big and juicy, with full bass. (Note that if you reverse the polarity of both speakers, you’ll be fine, because then the speakers won’t be cancelling one another out any more. Don’t talk to me about absolute polarity.)

But the odds of everybody in Canada except those in parts of Alberta having all their stereos wired up incorrectly were inconceivably slim. So that probably wasn’t the issue.

I worried about it all weekend. When I got to work on Monday I immediately brought it up with the guys. Nobody could figure out what I might have done.

I’m afraid the punchline’s a bit anti-climactic. Within a day or so, transmission techs discovered that the problem had been a bad patch in the CN Tower. Either a cable had been patched wrong or the cable itself had been wired incorrectly, reversing the polarity. The reason the show sounded fine in Alberta was because Alberta received the show via a different means of transmission.

It was a good to know I hadn’t done anything wrong. Not that it mattered if I had; I would have had to just own up to it and learn from it.

Which some poor transmitter tech no doubt had to do this time round.

*Memory is a funny thing. It’s entirely possible that the man I saw perform Captain Kirk so effectively that night long ago was someone else entirely. However, I am absolutely certain that Gary created The Muckraker. I know this because it says so on the Internet.


Working with professional comedians on shows like Muckraker, you run the risk that eventually they will turn their finely honed wit on you. On the last day of taping a show called Man, Woman, and Child, featuring Canadian comedian John Wing, I managed to knock over both a microphone and a music stand. 

“First day with the new arms?” John asked.

“I just do those sorts of things to elicit witticisms from you,” I told him. 

“Elicit witticisms,” he repeated to co-star Kathy Laskey, chuckling. “I guarantee you’ll never hear those two words used together in the same sentence again.”

Taping comedy shows over the years, I often thought that it was too bad that audiences didn’t get to hear the bits we cut out. You get some of the funniest people in the country in same room and it’s not long before we’re all laughing just as hard between takes as during them. For instance, this exchange between John and co-writer George Westerholm:

George: “I really like it that your character thinks his wife is the sexiest thing on two legs.” 

John: “That’s good, isn’t it.”

George: “There are sexier things, but they have more than two legs...”

Arthur J. Vaughan: One Officer’s Experiences

One day Damiano Pietropaulo, the Director of Radio Drama, came to me with a proposal. He was putting together a series called “Where is Here? The Drama of Immigration” for Monday Playbill. He had in his hands an unpublished memoir written by a former immigration officer by the name of Arthur J. Vaughan. Damiano wanted me to adapt Arthur’s memoir into a kind of a drama and hire Gordon Pinsent to play the part of Arthur.

I was happy to be given the opportunity and immediately set to work adapting the memoir, but I just could not lift it off the page. Before long I came to the conclusion that it just wasn’t going to work, Gordon Pinsent or no. The best thing, I figured, would be to just get Arthur himself to tell all the stories he’d written about.

Immigrants in Baggage Area of Pier 21, May 1963
Photo from the Ken Elliot Collection

The only problem was that all the stories in question took place just after the Second World War. I didn’t even know if Arthur was still with us. He would have to have been in his eighties. But I picked up the phone and discovered that not only was Arthur still with us, he was sharp as a tack and enthusiastic about telling his story.

With Damiano’s blessing, I booked a studio for Arthur in Halifax and another studio for myself in Toronto and Arthur and I spoke for about an hour. At this time Arthur was eighty-five years old and only afterward did I realized just how inconsiderate I had been. Once we wrapped up our conversation and said goodbye, Arthur didn’t realize that the lines and mics were still open, and I heard him say to the technician in Halifax: “I like to talk, but by the jeez! That was long,” and I realized what an idiot I had been.

I had many opportunities to correspond with Arthur before and after the interview, and speak with him on the phone, and I came to really like him. Such a gentleman, warm and smart, all of which I believe is evident on the show that resulted from our conversation. Sadly, shortly after the initial broadcast, Arthur became ill. I phoned him up and asked him how he was doing, and he replied, “Miserable.” It turned out he had leukemia, and I do not believe that Arthur wanted to go gently into that good night. Later, his daughter informed me that when he packed his bags to go into the hospital, among the few possessions that he took with him was a CD copy of the show we’d made.

Being able to tell his story obviously meant a lot to Arthur, and it means a great deal to me to have been able to make it happen for him in the last year of his life.

Unbeknownst to me, Damiano arranged to publish the entire Where Is Here series with J. Gordon Shillingford Publishing, under their Scirocco Press imprint which specializes in drama. My interview with Arthur appeared in  Where Is Here: The Drama of Immigration (Vol. 2). Years later, a woman by the name of Diana Lobb contacted me for the rights, looking to produce One Officer’s Experiences for the 2016-2017 season of the Kitchener-Waterloo Little Theatre. I was stunned and delighted to learn that my work with Arthur had been published and made available to theatres for production. After establishing that I owned the underlying literary rights, I was only too happy to grant Kitchener-Waterloo Little Theatre the rights for nine performance dates.

“Tonight – we begin an encore broadcast of our series “Where is Here? The Drama of Immigration”: a double bill featuring two plays on the theme of immigration to Canada…we start with a memoir in the first person by the late Arthur J. Vaughan. In the years following the Second World War, a huge influx of immigrants arrived at Halifax’s Ocean terminal, comprising of Piers 20, 21, 22 and 23. Here, the immigrants were processed for landing in Canada. The customs officials they met were often their first taste of the country they were adopting and Arthur J. Vaughan was there to greet them with compassion and curiosity. The late Mr. Vaughan spoke with Joe Mahoney about his experiences, an account both touching and humorous.”

Promo for Arthur j. vaughan segment on “where is here? The Drama of immigration” sunday night showcase/Monday playbill
One Officer’s Experience: Arthur J. Vaughan

Barney’s Version

In March 2003, my radio drama colleagues and I recorded a play called Barney’s Version, based on Canadian author Mordecai Richler’s last book. The play was adapted for radio by Howard Wiseman, and directed by Greg Sinclair, or Gregory J. Sinclair, as he was always known in the credits. (Once, when one of Greg’s dramas went long and had to be cut for time, I suggested we save a second or two by cutting out the “ory J” in the credits.)

Barney's Version Cover Art

Matt Willcott, a year away from retirement but still giving it his all, performed sound effects. The glue in this massive production (and by CBC radio drama standards Barney’s Version was a definitely a massive production) was Associate Producer Colleen Woods.

There were many fine actors in this production, including Denis O’Conner (The Dragonfly of Chicoutimi, and a veteran of over 300 radio plays for CBC/Radio Canada), Kathy Greenwood (Whose Line Is It, Anyway? and The Wind At My Back), acclaimed actor, director and critic David Gardner, and Wendy Crewson (The Santa Claus movies, in which she played Tim Allen’s ex-wife, and Air Force One, in which she played Harrison Ford’s wife), among others.

Greg had briefly considered fellow Canadian Richard Dreyfuss in the role of Barney, but ultimately decided on Saul Rubinek, who was also Canadian. Rubinek had enjoyed big parts in major Hollywood productions working alongside the likes of Nicholas Cage, Clint Eastwood, Nick Nolte and Christian Slater. He’d been working as an actor since he was a kid, on the stage, television, radio and film. He had also written, directed, and produced.

Saul Rubinek
Saul Rubinek

How do you get someone of Saul Rubinek’s stature to star in a Canadian radio play? Our casting director, Linda Grearson, put a call into his agent. Not only was Saul available, he was interested. This wouldn’t be his first gig for the CBC. He’d cut his teeth working on CBC Television productions. Saul lives in L.A. with his wife and two kids, so Greg flew him in.

I’d first heard of Saul Rubinek at school at Ryerson, when a teacher had screened a copy of a film about a Russian named Igor Sergeyevich Gouzenko. In nineteen forty-five, three days after World War Two, Gouzenko defected to Canada along with one hundred and nine documents proving that the Russians were trying to steal atomic secrets. Gouzenko’s defection sparked the Cold War, as the West used the evidence of espionage to end their alliance with the Russians. Gouzenko, fearing for his life, was given a new identity and became known for wearing a sack on his head during public appearances. But he lived a middle-class life in the Toronto suburb of Clarkson and died of a heart attack in nineteen eighty-two at the age of sixty-three.

Igor Sergeyevich Gouzenko
Igor Sergeyevich Gouzenko

Curiously, the film about Gouzenko, which was written by well-known Canadian journalist and writer Rick Salutin, doesn’t appear on Saul’s extensive filmography on IMDB. Nor is it mentioned in a Wikipedia article about Gouzenko. It’s no doubt buried in the CBC’s television archives, and may never see the light of day again.

Since seeing Saul’s portrayal of Gouzenko, I’d seen him in the films The Unforgiven with Clint Eastwood and The Family Man with Nicholas Cage. He was an accomplished, well-regarded character actor. Rick Salutin called him “very funny.” Greg Sinclair believed that Saul, along with fellow lead Wendy Crewson, were among the best in the business.

When I first learned that Saul Rubinek was going to star in one of our plays, I thought, okay, that’s cool. My next thought was, I wonder how much of a pain in the ass he’ll be. I was thinking that a guy like him might be a bit full of himself, and used to being coddled with craft services, limos, trailers and the like. We didn’t have stuff like that in the CBC Radio Drama department.

Saul showed up on the first day all business. Okay, what’s happening, what are we doing, what page are we on. Short (5’7”, the same height as Tom Cruise) and plump (not fat), with big bushy eyebrows, he looked more like an accountant than a leading man. He could convincingly play Eugene Levy’s brother.

He insisted on wearing headphones during the first scene. I was not happy to hear this. I wasn’t keen on actors wearing headphones. There was the problem of headphone leakage, limited mobility for the actors (the headphones weren’t wireless), and actors becoming too conscious of their voices. In my view, the actors needed to perform their scenes without worrying about what they sounded like. Also, there were a lot of scenes in this play, with many different setups. It would be a pain in the ass to have to run headphones for Saul in every different scene. I was afraid this might be just the tip of the iceberg, the first of many such demands.

I set up the headphones for him.

Immediately after asking for headphones, Saul asked for a table to set his script and other assorted paraphernalia on. I hauled out an old desk that we used as a sound effects prop. Saul set all his stuff on it. Matt pointed out that the table I had selected, which was on wheels, was missing a wheel. It was liable to tip over. Oh. No worries—I found three or four old books to prop it up. But when I lifted it up to shove the books under the problematic corner, the table promptly flipped over, tossing all Saul’s papers onto the floor in a jumbled mess.

I braced myself for an outburst. None came. Without saying a word, Saul leaned over and picked up all his papers without complaint while I finished stabilising the table.

This was a good sign.

We got through several scenes in a brusque, efficient manner, with Saul completely focussed on the task at hand.

For one scene he needed to be sitting, so I provided a chair for him. He sat down before the microphone. We’d gotten rid of the desk, so I thought maybe he might like a music stand to put his script on.

“Wanna stand?” I asked him, holding up a music stand in one hand.

“I’m sitting,” he said.

Greg, Matt and I laughed, thinking that he was joking.

Brandishing the music stand, I repeated, “No, do you wanna stand?”

“Can’t you just lower the mic?” he asked.

I realized that he wasn’t joking, that he had misunderstood.

I repeated as clearly as I could, “Would you like a stand?” but by then he was talking to Greg about some plot point, so I left the music stand in front of him and returned to the control room.

Shortly after that Saul began pestering me about being heard in the control room. Whenever we finished recording a scene, and my presence was required on the studio floor, I muted the microphones, effectively turning them off. You don’t want to have microphones on if you think you might have to handle or move them. Also, when I was on the floor I wanted to be able to speak to the actors and sound effects engineer candidly, without anyone in the control room hearing me. Several times early on Saul tried to talk to the director in the control room after I had muted the microphones, and when he was unsuccessful he didn’t get angry per se, but he was visibly irritated:

“Why can’t he hear me? Can’t you set something up, you know, some kind of permanent mic on the floor which just automatically switches on at the end of every scene so I can talk to the director?”

I told him, “Saul, that might be a good idea with you, but to tell you the truth, other actors, we just don’t want to hear what they have to say,” which earned a laugh from Greg, Matt, and Wendy, and even Saul laughed.

“I’ll tell you what,” I told him. “I’ll suggest it to the other engineers, but it probably won’t go over very well.”

“Why don’t you just build it with a switch so you can turn it off whenever you want?” Saul suggested. “And remember: if you create such a system, you must call it the “Rubinek” system.”

So he was obviously not without a sense of humour about the whole thing.

When I did bring it up to the other engineers in one of our bi-weekly meetings, one of my fellow Recording Engineers said (referring to Saul), “Get over yourself!”

Still, I tried to be much more diligent about leaving the mic on so Saul could be heard in the control room, and any time I had to turn it off, I warned Saul that we wouldn’t be able to hear him for a couple of minutes. I continued to set up headphones for him in every scene. By the third day of recording, I felt that Saul had adapted to the pace of radio drama recording. He’d warmed up considerably (or maybe I had warmed up to him). He was calmer, more relaxed.

There was an old grand piano in the studio. Between takes Saul would sit down and play. He always played the same piece, Gnossienne 1, by French composer Erik Satie.

I was impressed to hear Saul play this piece because I happened to love it. My sister Susan had played it when she was studying piano in High School, inspiring me to memorize it myself. Other than my immediate family, I didn’t know anyone else (other than CBC host and musician Tom Allen, maybe) who even knew of the piece, let alone knew how to play it. Impressing me even more, Rubinek had figured out how to play it by ear, and he played it well.

During another break, Saul told us about working with Clint Eastwood on the set of “Unforgiven.” Saul had a major role in that film as a journalist by the name of W.W. Beauchamp. He told us that Clint always did two takes of every scene: one take and a safety. To block the big fight scene at the end, Clint came in and said to everyone, okay, you figure it out, I’m going for a coffee. Then he went away, came back a couple of hours later and asked, “You got it all worked out?” And then shot the scene.

After getting the master shot and the safety in the can, the cast and crew spent three days shooting extra coverage of the scene, getting all the little cutaways and close ups.

“If you watch that scene,” Saul told us, “you’ll see just one person sitting, and that’s me, because I knew they would take three days to shoot the coverage and I didn’t want to be standing the whole time.”

Saul was just getting into directing himself at that time. He spent a lot of time with Clint learning about directing, and has since directed several television features. The impulse to direct was strong in him. He couldn’t resist the temptation to direct other actors during the recording of Barney’s Version.

“No you have to say, “the Twelve year old!” very aggressively, not mildly,” he instructed David Gardner, who played Barney’s lawyer, referring to Barney’s favourite scotch. Gardner, an accomplished director himself, didn’t appear to mind. It was obvious that Saul’s intent was to make the scene as effective as possible.

Another time Saul burst into the control room to tell Greg to tell an actor something he felt strongly she needed to know, presumably not telling her himself out of fear of offending her. Greg took this all in stride. In fact, the partnership between Saul and Greg was a potent one as they constantly challenged the limitations of the medium.

One obvious limitation of radio is that you can’t see what’s going on. For this reason you have to exercise considerable caution when conveying action in a radio play, especially when attempting traveling shots. A traveling shot is a shot in television, film or radio in which the camera/microphone follows characters on the move. Think Xander on his skateboard in the opening shot of the very first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, skating down the street and into his high school. Another famous example is the seven minute and forty-seven second long tracking shot that opens Robert Altman’s The Player. Imagine how confusing that shot would be without pictures.

Travelling shots can be tricky in any medium. Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and director of the pilot episode, regretted the time it took to set up and execute the travelling shot with Xander. He was used to film. In film, you can take more time to get a shot, unlike television with its stricter shooting schedules.

In radio, writers often write travelling shots accidentally. They don’t even realize they’ve done it until they get to that scene in the studio and the recording engineer exclaims, what the heck? This is a travelling shot! You do realize how difficult travelling shots are to convey on radio, don’t you? To which the writer responds, why are you surprised? Didn’t you read the script before getting here? To which the engineer grumbles, well, the director should have caught it, at which point the director jerks awake in his chair and asks, what scene are we on?

Travelling shots are tough to present on the radio because the listener can’t see what’s going on. If you fail to convey the fact that the characters are moving through the only two options available—dialogue and sound effects—then the listener won’t understand what’s going on and your production will suffer.

However, it can be done if you know what you’re doing. There was a scene in Barney’s Version in which Barney runs back and forth between his living room and his kitchen trying to remember the word for “colander.” When I first read this scene in the script, I immediately considered it a mistake and began contemplating how it might be re-written so that it wouldn’t be a travelling shot. I thought it would be tough to make the listener understand that Barney was moving back and forth between a living room and a kitchen.

Director Gregory J. Sinclair
Director Gregory J. Sinclair

Greg and Saul begged to differ. As I’ve mentioned before, we were blessed with a terrific studio in which multiple set ups were possible. Greg instructed me to set up a living room acoustic space directly adjacent to our built-in working kitchen. The kitchen acoustic was completely different than the living room acoustic—listening to dialogue spoken in one, you could not mistake it for the other. This was critical.

To make the travelling shot work, we set up two stereo microphones, one in front of Barney’s chair in the living room, and another covering the kitchen. We kept both microphones live, so that when Barney (Saul) moved from the kitchen to the living room and back again you could clearly hear the change in acoustic. Saul made lots of noise while moving back and forth so that the listener could clearly track his movements.

By this point in the show we had completely established the living room as a distinct acoustic environment, by (among other things) consistently using the same sound props (leather chair, glass of scotch, tape recorder). This, together with liberal use of obvious kitchen props (cutlery drawer, dishes etc), made it abundantly clear to the listener exactly where Barney was at all times.

When I wasn’t setting up neat traveling shots for Greg, he kept me and Matt Willcott busy lugging stuff around, couches, chairs, tables, from one set up to another. Matt and I hardly ever did this kind of thing. It was radio, after all. It wasn’t like anyone was going to see the furniture. In most radio plays, we just imagined the chairs and tables were there, unless we really needed to hear them somehow, and even then we just used a stool to double as a table or to create the squeak of a chair being drawn back. But Greg was going out of his way to make the actors—Saul in particular—comfortable. Many of our actors were experienced film and television actors who preferred to perform their actions with real props.

From time to time, as we lugged one piece of furniture or another, Matt would grumble, “Who’s gonna see the table on the radio?” That’s when he wasn’t saying, “Tippets and Richardsons: you tip it and I’ll rip it!” (Tippets and Richardsons being a well-known moving company in Toronto.)

“You know, I’m a recording engineer, not a mover,” I told Greg. “I’m supposed to be more of a white collar worker.”

Wendy Crewson overheard me. “Well, you’re an engineer, right? There’s all kinds of engineers. Sanitation engineers, for instance. Don’t they move things?”

“I think whether I’m a sanitation engineer or a recording engineer depends on the drama I’m recording,” I told her.

I was rather proud of that one.

Later, I asked Wendy what it was like working with Harrison Ford.

“He’s a wonderful person,” she told me. “Not at all like he comes across in interviews. He’s a party boy, a lot of fun. He used to zoom up to my trailer on his motorcycle and bang on the trailer. Come on, let’s go! he would shout, and then with me on the back of his motorcycle, smoking a big doobie and thinking, if only they could see me now! we’d zoom off for Thai food.” Apparently Harrison loves Thai food.

Wendy Crewson
Wendy Crewson

When she told me that Harrison was a nice guy, I told her I’d ask Harrison the same thing about her.
“You know what I think he’d say? The exact same thing I said about him,” she said, and laughed, because really, what else are ya gonna say.

All of the actors in Barney’s Version were superb. This is not surprising. Casting Director Linda Grearson never let us down. We had no trouble attracting top-notch talent. Actors seemed to like making radio plays with us. The atmosphere in Studio 212 was always pleasant. And when you’re performing for radio you don’t even have to memorize your lines: you have the script right in front of you.

Two performances stand out. Kathy Greenwood was sincere and touching as Barney Panofsky’s ill-treated second wife. Kathy brought an endearing quality to the role that made Panofsky look like a fool for not loving her properly. And Saul as Barney Panofsky was a revelation to me. It wasn’t Method, I don’t think—when not in character, Saul was himself—but when he sat in Barney’s chair and drank Barney’s scotch and tried in vain to remember what a colander was called, Saul Rubinek inhabited Barney Panofsky. He didn’t just lift the words off the page. He strapped Saturn 5 rockets to them, achieved escape velocity, and placed them in orbit. As I recorded him, I tried to figure out how he was doing it.

For one thing, he knew the script cold. He may have memorized much of it. If not, he’d clearly gone over it many times. He was not one hundred percent married to the script. If he felt the need to change a line slightly to make it sound more natural, he changed it. Subtle changes here and there. He was not afraid to grunt and clear his throat and fart and burp and inject whatever other flourishes he felt were required to bring Barney Panofsky to life. Nobody objected.

I don’t expect I’ll ever fully understand the alchemy involved.

Saul’s work was illuminating in other ways, too. Looking back, I see that in a few short years I had become lazy, conservative, and rigid in my thinking. Saul was operating on a whole different level. His energy, enthusiasm, and professionalism challenged me to open my mind, to think bigger, to do better. His example has informed my work ever since, whatever form that work has taken.


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 excellent sound effects engineers, Matt Willcott, 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. Matt 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 Matt 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!


Faster Than Light

Once upon a time I made my own radio show. I mean one that was actually mine, as opposed to someone else’s (I’ve made plenty of those).

I only ever made one of these that actually aired. You might well ask, what’s the big deal? So you made one lousy radio show. Other people make their own radio shows all the time. What’s so special about this one?

Nothing, really, except to me, and maybe those who helped me make it.

It was, of course, a science fiction radio show. (This is me we’re talking about, after all.) It was a radio show about science fiction, featuring science fiction, hosted by a science fiction writer, and, on a meta-level, was science fiction itself. I still think it’s a cool idea.

You see, I’ve loved science fiction ever since I was six years old. I’ve loved it since I stumbled upon this crazy low-budget television show from Japan called Johnny Sokko and His Giant Robot. Johnny Sokko was extremely low budget and super cheesy, but it didn’t matter. What kid doesn’t want a giant robot as a best friend? Especially one that can fly, and clobber alien villains. Once I could read, it was Robert A. Heinlein’s juveniles (Have Space Suit Will Travel, Rocket Ship Galileo) and James Blish’s adaptations of the original Star Trek scripts (unlike most people, I read most of the original Star Trek television episodes before ever seeing one on TV), and then Isaac Asimov’s robot stories, and Cordwainer Smith (The Ballad of Lost C’Mell) and A. E. Van Vogt (Slan), and David Brin (The Postman), and on and on and on.

My favourite TV show when I was six

It so happens that the CBC has produced some excellent science fiction and fantasy over the years. My pals Bill Howell and Matt Willcott both worked on Johnny Chase: Secret Agent of Space, a radio space opera that aired for two years (featuring music by the Canadian Progressive Rock band FM). There was also Vanishing Point, a science fiction anthology series produced by Bill Lane, and Nightfall, a supernatural/horror anthology series created and produced (for the first two seasons, at least) by Bill Howell.

Working for the radio drama department, I aspired to join this select club. One day I mentioned this to producer Barbara Worthy, who doubles as a ball of enthusiasm. She promptly suggested we pitch a science fiction show, so off the top of my head I suggested a show based on science fiction magazines such as Analog, Asimov’s, and The Magazine of Science Fiction & Fantasy. I thought it would be fun to produce full cast radio adaptations of classic science fiction stories interspersed with interviews of science fiction luminaries and other fun, fantastical elements. Never dreaming that anything would come of it.

James Roy happened to be Deputy Head of the Radio Drama Department at the time. Shortly after our conversation, Barbara marched into his office and pitched the idea. To my astonishment, he gave us a greenlight, providing a budget and a broadcast slot for a pilot.

Barbara and I got right to work. The first order of business was finding a host for the show. Years earlier, I had worked on a couple of episodes of Ideas about science fiction produced by a young freelancer by the name of Robert J. Sawyer. Rob and I had a lot in common. We both loved science fiction and we were both interested in writing. Rob told me that he had a novel coming out soon called Golden Fleece. I told him I’d keep an eye out for it.

Secretly, I thought that Rob Sawyer would vanish into the ether like so many other freelancers I’d met and never heard tell of again. After all, I was going to be the famous author, not him. But in the time it took me to write one novel (A
Time and a Place
, which debuted October, 2017, thanks for asking), Rob wrote twenty-three novels. He also won many (if not all) of the field’s major awards, such as the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. In short, Rob became one of the most successful writers on the planet (of any genre, let alone science fiction).

Robert J. Sawyer in Studio 212

I read Golden Fleece, along with many of Rob’s other novels, and watched his growing success from afar with something akin to amazement. From time to time I would send him notes of congratulations. Rob always responded warmly. Once, he suggested I call him to chat, but he was already pretty famous by then, and I was kind of shy, so I didn’t. Until it became time to produce a science fiction radio show.

“You know who would be the perfect host?” I told Barbara. “Rob Sawyer.”

“Call him,” she said.

I was still kind of shy. I emailed him instead.

Rob was interested.

Rob, Barbara and I met to talk about it. We agreed that it would be modelled after classic science fiction magazines. That Rob would host. That it would include one adaptation and an original drama, the latter of which would be the first part of a potential serial. I would write and adapt the dramas and Rob would contribute an essay. Rob would also interview a science fiction personality still to be determined. Rob was enthusiastic and perfectly willing to collaborate.

I wrote what I thought was a fun opening involving Rob taking off in a spaceship of his own to launch the show (this was the meta-science fictional component, which grew more elaborate in subsequent pilots). We picked Canadian science fiction author Nalo Hopkinson (Brown Girl in the Ring, Midnight Robber) to interview in between the two radio plays. Once we had part one of the original drama (Captain’s Away) and the adaptation (Tom Godwin’s The Cold Equations) in the can (more on them in separate posts) we recorded all the other bits, including SF poetry by Carolyn Clink (read by Barbara Worthy) and Rob’s intros and extros. I also included a brief station ID recorded by William B. Davis, aka “Cancer Man” on the X-files, which I’d asked Davis to record when we worked together on a radio adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

I had some corrections for Rob’s essay. I feared this was rather presumptuous of me, considering Rob’s track record of having written several award-winning, best-selling novels versus my track-record of having (at that point) sold a mere short story or two.

I apologized as I gave him the corrections. “Who am I to correct your work?”

“You’re the producer,” he reassured me. “If it needs correcting it needs correcting!”

We needed a name for the show. Early on I considered “All in a Dream”, a lyric from a favourite Neil Young song—I even wrote a draft of the script using that name—but even now, a decade and a half later, I cringe at the thought. Fortunately, somebody—probably Rob—suggested Faster Than Light, which, in three simple words, perfectly encapsulated what we were up to. You could shorten it to FTL and literate fans would still know what we were talking about. We all loved it instantly.

Creating Faster Than Light was the most fun I’ve ever had making radio. I loved every single second of it. All the fussy producers I’ve ever worked with—and I’ve worked with some damned fussy producers—didn’t hold a candle to me on this show. Everything—every line, every level, every edit—had to be absolutely perfect. And it was, by the time I was done with it.

Faster Than Light broadcast Sept 22nd, 2002 on Sunday Showcase (in mono) and again Sept 23rd on Monday Night Playhouse (in stereo). We had a listening party at my home. Barbara Worthy, Rob Sawyer, Rob’s wife Carolyn, my family and several friends attended. It was great fun, though I have one regret. I happened to be watching my pennies at the time (public broadcasting, remember) so I purchased flimsy 4 ounce hamburgers to barbecue instead of nice plump 5 ounce burgers. What a cheapskate! Nobody complained, but I still wince every time I think about it. On the plus side, the show was well received by Rob and my friends.

Yes, these are the cheap burgers I’m frying up
during the FTL get together

The response from our listeners was even more positive. Faster Than Light did pretty good for itself. It was named a finalist for the Prix Aurora Awards 2003 for the Best in Canadian SF and Fantasy. One of its elements, “The Cold Equations,” a full cast adaptation, was selected by CBC’s internal jury for the New York Awards. The show received an unprecedented response for the drama department. Many listeners wrote to convey unbridled enthusiasm for the show. Particularly gratifying was feedback from as far away as California and Australia, from listeners who tuned in over the internet. James Roy informed me that it was the biggest response any Sunday Showcase show had ever received.

I would like to think that the response was a consequence of the effort we’d put into the show, and I’m sure that was indeed a factor—but I know it also had a lot to do with Rob Sawyer’s role in the production. Faster Than Light had been quite well promoted by Rob and his fans before the broadcast. I suspect that many of those who wrote in were already fans of Rob’s. Still, the feedback boded well. Everyone wanted more.

Adrian Mills, the Director of Programming at the time, invited me into his office to talk about the show. He asked me what I thought of it. I told him honestly that I thought it was the best work I’d ever done in my life on anything. I was inordinately proud of it. I still am.

We were asked to make a second pilot, and then a third, and even a fourth, but with each pilot the concept seemed to stray further and further from its original conception. In the end, I’m afraid the stars never quite aligned for Faster Than Light.

I treasure the experience just the same. I became friends with Rob Sawyer and his wife Carolyn Clink. I learned how to adapt a short story into another medium. I got to write, mix, and broadcast an original drama of my own. I discovered that directing was a lot harder than it looked watching from behind a console. And I acquired a modicum of empathy for fussy producers.

Faster Than Light: The Pilot

In a sense, Faster Than Light lives on. In the fictional universe of Robert J. Sawyer’s novel Rollback, published a few years later, Faster Than Light did become a regular series on CBC Radio. Where, for all I know, it continues to be broadcast to this day.

Rollback, where Faster Than Light the radio show lives on…

The Cold Equations

The Cold Equations is a short story by Tom Godwin, first published in Astounding Magazine in August 1954. You might want to read it before we go any further. I wouldn’t want to spoil anything for you.

The spoilers begin here.

The story’s about a teen-aged girl named Marilyn Lee Cross who stows away on an emergency space shuttle with disastrous results. I chose it as one of the two radio dramas we included in our science fiction radio pilot Faster Than Light.

I chose The Cold Equations because it was dark and sombre. I’m partial to humour, but I wanted something with a little gravitas, something that I thought people would take seriously.  I wasn’t the first to adapt The Cold Equations for radio. It had been adapted twice before, for an episode of the radio program X Minus One in 1955, and for the radio program Exploring Tomorrow in 1958.

August 1954 edition of Astounding Magazine,
which included Tom Godwin’s The Cold Equations.
Cover art by Frank Kelly Freas

In the story, Marilyn just wants to visit her brother on a nearby planet. The emergency shuttle is delivering critical medical supplies to sick miners on that planet.

Unbeknownst to Marilyn, the shuttle is designed with a strict set of parameters: it has just enough fuel to carry its sole pilot and his critical cargo to the planet. With Marilyn on board, the shuttle will run out of fuel, the mission will fail, and the miners will die.

Critics of the story point out that the writer, Tom Godwin, unnecessarily stacked the deck against the girl. Why was it necessary to design the shuttle with such a slim margin of error? Godwin might argue that fuel would be a precious resource in space; you wouldn’t want to use any more than was absolutely necessary. Of course, the real reason is that Godwin needed to create a very specific set of circumstances for the story to work. But consider the recent plane crash in Colombia that tragically killed most of the Brazilian Chapecoense Real football team. The plane ran out of fuel because the company that owned the plane skimped on fuel to save money, with horrific consequences. Godwin’s plot may not be so unrealistic after all.

Realistic or not, in the universe of the story the girl must be jettisoned from the shuttle into deep space for the mission to succeed. Not exactly a Hollywood ending. My story editor, Dave Carley, felt that Marilyn learns the consequences of her ill-fated decision to stow away too quickly. She spends the rest of the story waiting to die, while the pilot reflects on the cold, harsh reality of the universe. There is no hope and therefore no real tension.

I didn’t necessarily agree, at least initially. I’d originally come across the story in an English class in high school in one of our text books. I began reading it during class, during the teacher’s lecture, and quickly forgot about the lecture. I found the story utterly gripping. This was long before cold-blooded authors like George R. R. Martin began killing off our favourite novel and television characters with impunity. I didn’t believe that the girl was going to die. I kept waiting for her to be saved, and was utterly gobsmacked when she was finally jettisoned from the space shuttle. Reading the story as a teen-ager, I had never encountered such a brutal ending before. It left quite an impact.

But Dave felt strongly that we needed more tension, more suspense, so for my version of the story I concocted a storyline where there was some slim hope that another ship (the Stardust) would catch up with the emergency shuttle and rescue Marilyn. I made other changes as well. In the original story, Marilyn was older, in her late teens. I reduced her age to thirteen to make it more believable that she would do something so ill-considered as to sneak onto an emergency shuttle without understanding the consequences. This also injected a little more pathos into the story. Because it was radio, I needed her to speak at the beginning of the story to help illuminate to the listener what was going on. (You can’t just have a character say, “I’m sneaking into the shuttle now,” and so on. Well, you can, but that would be narration, and I didn’t want a narrator.) So I had Marilyn sneak into the shuttle while talking to her cat, Chloe (which happened to be the name of one of my cats at the time.)

Story Editor Dave Carley (far right) on the job in Studio 212 with Gordon Pinsent and Linda Grearson during the taping of the Radio Play Test Drive (photo by John McCarthy).

Writing the adaptation, I felt like I was writing yet another draft of Tom Godwin’s story. This may be horribly presumptuous, and my apologies to Tom Godwin, but I felt like it was an opportunity to correct some of the story’s flaws. For one thing, the original story was quite wordy. I cut an awful lot out of it. Now, I have a lot more respect for Tom Godwin than some, such as editor Algis Budrys, who reportedly once said that The Cold Equations was “the best short story that Godwin ever wrote and he didn’t write it” — referring to the fact that editor John W. Campbell sent the story back to Godwin three times before Godwin finally got it right—that is, before Godwin stopped coming up with ingenious means of saving the girl. Oh, and allegations that he borrowed the idea from a story published in EC Comics’ Weird Science #13 .

Anyway, Campbell recognized the true power of the story: the idea that the universe is impartial. It doesn’t care whether you live or die. Reading it back in high school, I glimpsed, perhaps for the first time in my life, a sense of the implacability of the universe. You play by its rules or you die. The stowaway is done in by cold, hard facts. For others to live, she had to die.

Several drafts into my version of the story, I was happy with everything except the ending. Something was missing. It didn’t feel complete, somehow. Endings don’t always come easy for me. I work hard at them because I consider them extremely important. Getting the ending wrong can ruin an entire story. Getting it right can elevate all that came before.

Producer Barbara Worthy

I discussed it with my wife. Something she said (unfortunately, I don’t remember what, exactly) made me realize that the pilot didn’t need to talk or think after ejecting Marilyn from the shuttle. He needed to acknowledge what he’d just been through. He needed to cry. It was an epiphany for me. It allowed me to cut a bunch of extraneous boring dialogue and get on with the emotion of the scene.

Later, one of my colleagues suggested that if you allow a character to cry, you are depriving the audience of the chance to cry themselves, because you’re doing it for them. I felt differently. Making the pilot cry felt like what would actually happen. I know that truth doesn’t necessarily equate to good fiction—the truth is deeper than that—but sometimes it does. So my pilot cried, and it felt right and true to me.

Matthew MacFadzean

Once the script was complete, we held auditions for the cast. An embarrassing amount of actors showed up for the casting call (we auditioned for both radio plays included in Faster Than Light at the same time, The Cold Equations and Captain’s Away). Ultimately we cast Matthew MacFadzean (not to be confused with British actor Matthew Macfadyen) in the role of the shuttle pilot, and Vivian Endicott-Douglas as the young stowaway Marilyn. Shawn Smyth played the stowaway’s brother Gerry Cross. Andrew Gillies played Commander Delhart of the Stardust. Sergio Dizio played the Clerk and Jennifer Dean one of the surveyors. Julia Tait was our casting director (replacing regular CBC Radio Drama Casting Director Linda Grearson, who, I believe, was subbing for Deputy Head James Roy at the time).

Barbara Worthy directed The Cold Equations while I sat behind the Neve Capricorn console recording the show. Matt Willcott did all the live sound effects. I was extremely happy with the work of our actors. I have to single out Vivian, though, who was extra-ordinary. She nailed every single take of every single scene. We could have used any of her lines in any take.

We did have trouble with one lengthy scene during which the pilot must stoically accept Marilyn’s fate. Couldn’t quite nail the pilot’s tone and neither Barbara nor I could figure out what direction to give Matthew to make it work. We did four takes and were running out of time—we only had the actors for so long. We were forced to move on and record other scenes. Just before production wrapped for the day we came back to that problematic scene and did two more takes. Matthew finally nailed the tone, sounding troubled yet together.

Vivien Endicott-Douglas

It didn’t take me long to edit The Cold Equations, probably a couple of hours. I used most of the scenes we recorded in their entirety, which was unusual. Usually we scavenged lines from other takes of the same scene. I mixed the twenty-five minute long play in a single day in Sound Effects Three, my favourite mixing studio.

I didn’t have the budget for much original music, but I was able to use an original piece of music for the opening called Snowfire Reprize, by Rod Crocker. I used a couple of Manheim Steamroller pieces from Fresh Air 1 for a couple of tiny music bridges. At the end, I had Mozart’s Lacrimosa swell up underneath the pilot’s tears. At first I thought it might be too much, a little too heavy, but after listening to the completed mix in the studio I was convinced that the pathos of the piece supported it.

The Cold Equations may not be the most accomplished or sonically interesting radio play I’ve ever worked on.

But I’m pretty darned happy with it.

The Cold Equations

The Cold Equations was originally broadcast as a part of Faster Than Light on Sept 22nd, 2002 on Sunday Showcase (in mono) and again Sept 23rd on Monday Night Playhouse (in stereo).


Captain’s Away!

Random Science Fictiony Looking Image

Once I finished producing The Cold Equations for our science fiction radio show pilot Faster Than Light, I turned my attention to the second radio play in the show, an original called Captain’s Away! (Which I always wrote with an exclamation mark in the title because I liked the look of it. According to Goodreads there are 758 books with exclamation marks in the title, most of which are kids’ books, including a bunch by Dr. Suess.)

I didn’t intend Captain’s Away! just for kids but it was something I thought kids would enjoy. It was based on an idea I’d had several years earlier that had stuck with me. Roy Orbison once said if you had to write an idea down to remember it, it probably wasn’t worth remembering. I’d written the idea for Captain’s Away! down somewhere but I hadn’t needed to. It was an idea that had definitely stuck with me over the years. 

The premise was pretty straightforward. A waitress is approached by a crackpot who refers to her as “Captain” and implores her to return to her ship in space to lead her crew on a dangerous mission.  Except that the stranger isn’t actually a crackpot and there really is a spaceship and circumstances force our hero to assume the identity of the captain with no idea what she’s doing as all the while the question lingers: is she the captain or isn’t she? And if so, why can’t she remember being the captain?

Intending the piece to be a serial, to be aired in ten minute episodes during each instance of Faster Than Light, I set out to write the first ten minutes for the Faster Than Light pilot. I wound up writing the first three episodes, but we only ever produced the first one. I wrote it as a light, comic piece with plenty of opportunities for cool sound effects.

I got into a bit of trouble during the writing of it. When I gave what I considered to be the final draft to James Roy, he pointed out that this was not the way it was done. I was supposed to have written an outline and then a first draft and then a second draft and then a third draft and a polish, with feedback at every stage to inform the next stage. I don’t think I actually knew that. I was used to writing fiction on my own. Writing with the input of others was an alien concept to me. But James was right. I was stomping all over the way things were supposed to be done. He accepted the piece just the same, though.

As I mentioned in an earlier post about The Cold Equations, we cast the actors for both The Cold Equations and Captain’s Away! at the same time. Casting, I discovered, is quite difficult. It was so hard to make up our minds. So many great actors to choose from. I really liked a fellow by the name of Julian Richings for the part of the crackpot stranger named Choki. Julian has a wonderful British accent that I thought would work nicely (I was delighted to see him turn up in both Orphan Black and The Expanse years later), but we opted for Sergio Dizio instead (whom we also cast in The Cold Equations), after Sergio wowed us with a faux Italian accent. Later, after hearing Sergio’s comic Italian accent in the production, Damiano Pietropaulo, Director of Radio Drama at the time, of obvious Italian descent, expressed some dismay at the accent. Until he brought it up, it hadn’t occurred to me that it could be seen as offensive. That certainly wasn’t my intention. But nobody else complained.

We cast Kristina Nicoll as the lead and Richard (Rick) Waugh of Muckraker fame as her boss (he also doubled as a bus driver for a couple of lines). Both were terrific.

I contracted Wayne Richards to contribute original theme music and he came up with a fabulous piece that I called the Ah Oooh Song (I don’t know if it has an actual name). I finished the play with another original piece of music by Rod Crocker called Turnaround, which I also love.

Turnaround (Rod Crocker, artist, composer)

Making Captain’s Away! was a lot of fun and I was disappointed we didn’t get to make any more. To make up for it, I’m hard at work on my second novel, working title Captain’s Away (this time without the exclamation mark). It’s not quite the same story as the radio play version—it’s a lot less silly and there’s a lot more to it—but it has a bit of the same spirit.

And maybe one day we’ll make a radio version of it.

Captain’s Away! (Well, the first ten minutes, anyway)

Faster Than Light: The Second and Third Pilots

As I’ve written earlier, after the success of the Faster Than Light pilot, we did not receive a green light to proceed with a series. But that wasn’t the end of the story. The Director of Radio Programming at the time, Adrian Mills, did not reject the show outright. The following summer James Roy, now Acting Director of Radio Drama, approached me about doing another pilot for a summer run of the show. Presented in a half hour format, it would be Faster Than Light “light”.  Unfortunately, James had no budget for it.

Robert J. Sawyer
Host of Faster Than Light

No problem. We took a radio play directed by Bill Lane from the archives and built a show around it. I wrote a frame for the show about auditioning for a new host. Rob’s main competition was a robot called Huey (played by Julian Ford) whose main claim to fame was starring as a robot in the classic science fiction movie Silent Running with Bruce Dern. Huey didn’t get the job. Linda Spence also acted in this pilot as a fictional Associate Producer. The concept for Faster Than Light was gradually crystallizing in my mind: it would be a fictional show about making a science fiction radio show. A show within a show. Very meta.

Faster Than Light #2

The summer series didn’t pan out, though. James was willing to proceed, but with no funding and very little time to write and produce ten episodes, I didn’t think I could do the show justice. Seeing as it appeared we’d have an opportunity to try again later with proper funding and adequate time, I opted to wait. 

That fall we did get funding to do another pilot. For this attempt, I brought in Fergus Heywood to co-produce. Fergus had been highly recommended to me by Greg Sinclair. He enthusiastically agreed to help out. We were assigned Alison Moss as Senior Producer, who I always loved working with. I would eventually work with her on the summer replacement series Next with Nora Young. So it was a good team.

Chris Boyce, Head of the Program Development Committee, organized a facilitated session to help us further define the show. Fergus, Alison, Rob Sawyer, Chris Boyce and I all sat down to figure it out. Richard Handler, an experienced Arts producer, was also involved. This third pilot was a serious effort, but the whole spirit was completely different than the first pilot. The show would be half hour instead of an hour. It would include one full cast radio play instead of two, and it would not include a continuation of Captain’s Away, although I had written several episodes.

Chris had us come up with a mandate:

“To fire the imaginations of Canadians by presenting thought provoking encounters with masters of science fiction and fantasy along with engaging dramatizations of their work.”

When we were finally ready, I hired Wayne Richards to write and record original theme music for the opening of the show. We would use an original composition from Fergus Heywood for the closing. Having decided to make the theme of this pilot “The Other,” we secured the services of Cathi Bond, an experienced freelancer, to produce a short documentary on “the other” in science fiction films throughout history.

I wrote a high production frame for the episode that consisted of three parts. In the opening, a mad scientist creates a host for the show in an homage to Frankenstein, a classic “other” in science fiction. The mad scientist was played by Tony Daniels, who did a brilliant German accent as Dr. Frankenstein. Once the host has been created, he takes over and introduces the show. After the first part of the show, a second interlude or frame features the mad scientist conducting an experiment in which he accidentally transforms himself into a fly (an obvious homage to The Fly). Rob the host returns to usher us into the next part of the show, an original adaptation of Born of Man and Woman by Richard Matheson, adapted and directed by Barry Morgan. The end credits featured Rob as the host along with the mad scientist. Not realizing that the fly trapped in the studio with him is the mad scientist, Rob swats him.

FTL #3

I was attempting to seamlessly mix representational radio with presentational radio. The drama and the high production intro, middle and extro were all representational. You listened to those the way you would watch a movie or television show. They weren’t talking directly to the audience. They were meant to be entertaining as opposed to informative. Whereas the bits with Rob talking directly to the audience, and Cathi Bond presenting her short documentary, were presentational. The trick was to guide the audience from one style of radio to another without confusing them.

Ultimately the fate of the show would be determined by the Program Development Committee, a group of several experienced broadcasters assembled by Chris Boyce. I remember one of the members of this group listening to the opening of the show after I had finished mixing it. I was quite proud of it. I thought it was funny and that the sound effects and mix had achieved what I’d set out to do. This person listened to it, gave me no feedback whatsoever, and left the studio. My impression was that he didn’t get it, and didn’t like it. This did not bode well.

We finished the pilot and submitted it to the Program Development Committee. A representative of the committee phoned me sometime afterward to tell me the bad news. They weren’t going to pick up the show as it stood. They just didn’t think it worked. More work was required.

I didn’t entirely disagree. I didn’t think it had worked as well as the original pilot. The original pilot had had room to breathe. It possessed a certain charm. We hadn’t overthought it. The elements stood on their own. Rob brought a passion and an authenticity to it. The second pilot had itself been a Frankenstein monster. I liked the frame we had created for it. But I had been forced to edit the heck out of the radio play that I’d borrowed from the archives to make it fit. Even the audio quality of the radio play hadn’t been up to snuff; it had originally been recorded on tape and sounded a few tape generations old. The third pilot had more going for it. I liked the frame. I liked the opening and closing music. I liked Barry Morgan’s Richard Matheson adaptation. I liked Cathi’s piece. But somehow it didn’t all gell the same as the original.

Nevertheless, the committee still hadn’t given us a definitive “no.” They offered us a chance to make yet a fourth pilot. By now people in the drama department were calling me Wing Commander Joe, I had so many pilots under me.

 So, with a thread of hope still dangling before us, Fergus, Rob, Alison and I got together to talk about it. Rob made the point that maybe the show needed to be more serious, that our problem was trying to mix humour with seriousness. Thinking of shows like MASH and Life is Beautiful, I didn’t think that was the issue, though it could well have confused the Development Committee. Rob also objected to the CBC’s obvious efforts to make the show “stealth” science fiction. They didn’t want the show to be overtly about science fiction and fantasy. They wanted it to be something else that happened to include science fiction and fantasy. I agreed with Rob on this point. There seemed to be a bias against radio plays. Against storytelling. Against the representational. (This would be made abundantly clear when the entire radio drama department was shut down a few short years later, ostensibly as a response to financial pressures.)

By now I had refined the concept even further. I was thinking that the host should be a sonic sorcerer. He would have the power to do anything, be anywhere. This concept, coupled with effective, liberal use of sound effects, would have several virtues. It allow us to harness the enormous imaginative potential of radio. If the host wanted to be on the surface of Mars, he could be there in the blink of an eye—faster than light, if you will.  If he wanted to lasso a comet by the tail, he could.  He could pilot a spaceship, visit Heaven or Hell, single-handedly battle an army of knights, or simply conduct an interview. It solved the conceptual problem of how to veer from the fantastic portions of the show’s “frame” to the magazine elements of the show:  

SFX: STATIC

FEMALE VOICE: (TREATED) Incoming vessel. You have three seconds to identify yourself before we open fire.

HOST: (TWO SECOND BEAT)  (TREATED)  I’m Robert J. Sawyer, commanding Faster Than Light on CBC Radio. Be advised that if you open fire, we will respond.

FEMALE VOICE: Acknowledged, Faster Than Light.  What, may I ask, will you respond with?

ROB:   How about an interview with Canadian Independent author Maaja Wentz?

You see how it would work? Playful and imaginative. Veering seamlessly from fantasy to reality. It would itself be science fiction and fantasy while presenting the same to our listeners.

Alas, it never happened. The committee never did say no outright, but the truth is, Faster Than Light as we conceived of it never stood much of a chance. What we wanted to do was too much at odds with what the powers that be at the time were willing to let us do. Greg Sinclair was head of the drama department at the time (but did not represent the Program Development Committee; I felt he was on my side). We discussed the project and mutually decided to pull the plug. To make it work for the CBC, we were going to have to turn it into a show that none of us believed in or wanted to do. Greg informed Rob Sawyer.

We never got the green light that I had dreamed about for so long.

Rollback
Robert J. Sawyer

Still, I wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything. I’m proud of all three pilots. Rob and I became friends. I thank him for his generosity and time in trying to make it work. Later, he asked me to read and comment on the third draft of his novel Rollback (about a man and a woman in their eighties who agree to undergo a procedure to make them younger. It only works on the man. Of course, this has huge implications on their relationship. It’s a great read.) Rob made the protagonist a CBC Recording Engineer/Producer, which is what I aspired to be. He also featured me as a character in the novel, on page ninety-nine.

I went back to my normal life working on other people’s radio shows. That year CBC Radio launched a show called WireTap. I could barely make myself listen to it, out of jealousy, I suppose. Finally listening to an episode one day, I found myself impressed. I wrote the producers of Wiretap and told them how much I liked the episode, which had included some science fiction. I used my cbc.ca email address so that they would know that it came from a colleague. Nobody from the show ever responded.

Had I managed to get Faster Than Light on the air, I would have personally responded to every single email the show received.                      


The Matt Watts Years


Live Effects With a Dead Dog

One day I showed my wife a picture. It was me performing sound effects for the radio show Dead Dog Café.

“You look a little silly,” she suggested.

She’s probably right. Judge for yourself: that’s the pic at the bottom of this bit. That particular picture’s staged, obviously, but it is an accurate representation of the sort of sound effects I was called upon to perform. Just—not usually all at once.

Of all the jobs I ever had to do for CBC radio, the job I hated most was working for the radio show Sunday Morning back in the eighties. There were a couple of jerks on the show at the time (not the host—I liked Mary Lou Finlay).

Performing sound effects came a close second.

At least I got paid for it.

Don’t get me wrong, I had nothing against sound effects per se: I loved sound design, for instance—taking sound effects from different sources and electronically creating worlds out of them that you could fully believe in. But I didn’t like performing sound effects live with actors. It just wasn’t my specialty. We had a couple of guys—Anton Szabo and Matt Willcott—who did specialize in it. They were good at it. Then Matt retired and the rest of us had to divvy up the job. Myself, I preferred being the recording engineer, or producing, or jabbing forks into my eyes. Anything other than perform sound effects live with actors.

Gracie Heavy Hand (Edna Rain), Thomas King (playing himself), Jasper Friendly Bear (Floyd Favel Starr), and me

So when I was assigned to do sound effects for the Dead Dog Café I was a bit dismayed. I concealed my feelings on the matter from Dead Dog producer Kathleen Flaherty. I really liked her and didn’t want to let her down.   

Making matters worse, I had been shipped a Compaq Armada laptop from Edmonton especially for the Dead Dog Café recording sessions that was not making me happy. It had an audio program on it called Dalet, a program I loathed at the time because of what I perceived to be its editing deficiencies. I’d always likened editing on Dalet to “editing with your elbows” when compared to other programs such as ProTools (I would change my mind later when we upgraded to DaletPlus and I received training from Brian Dawes). I was stuck with the laptop because it had been pre-loaded with many of the music and sound effects cues that I would be required to play back during the taping sessions, and I didn’t have time to come up with an alternative. (Eventually I would come to appreciate that someone had actually made my life a lot easier by prepping the laptop for me.)

Floyd Favel Starr, Edna Rain, Thomas King, and Tara Beagan taping the Dead Dog Cafe in Studio 212

I went into the first taping session with a sense of dread. I was afraid that I wasn’t adequately prepared, and that everything would go wrong. We were taping on a Sunday morning. Greg DeClute helped me bring some props in on the Go Train. He brought his son Randy’s hockey sticks and I brought some umbrellas belonging to my daughters. In the studio, I wheeled out the Dead Dog Cafe door—the one with the bell attached to it, held together with duct tape and wire—and several other props I would require. The cast arrived. Gracie (Edna Rain), Jasper Friendly Bear (Floyd Favel Starr), and Tom King (playing himself, or a version thereof), along with someone new to the show, a woman named Portia (played by Tara Beagan).

I had prepared my sound effects by reading the scripts and getting a sense of the sounds required. I deleted all the dialogue, leaving me a list of sound cues. Any sound cues that were kind of vague, I referred back to the script to see what the context was. Most sound cues were obvious. Like, say, “plunger.” How many different kinds of plungers are there? 

Greg DeClute
Greg DeClute with Dead Dog
Cafe SFX props

Shortly before our recording session I reviewed my list, a couple of weeks after having created it. Seeing a plunger listed I thought, well, we don’t have any of those kicking around in the studio so I’d better bring one in from home. I found one, disinfected it, stuck it in my bag, and carried it all the way in on the train along with the umbrellas and Greg’s hockey sticks. I placed it close by so that when the script called for it I would be able to grab it easily.

We started recording. The actors read their lines. We got to the sound cue that said, “SFX: Plunger!” I grabbed the plunger and begin vigorously plunging the floor, making “thwocking” sounds that I thought were really quite outstanding.

Producer Kathleen Flaherty immediately called a halt to the proceedings. “Cut! Joe, just what the heck do you think you’re doing?”

“Uh… making plunging sounds. Is it working?”

It was not.

Turned out the cue was actually calling for a plunger to test Tom King’s blood sugar level. It was a medical device. Which was obvious when I took a closer look at the script.

D’oh!

Fortunately the Dead Dog Café was a comedy show. Everyone had an excellent sense of humour. We had a laugh about it and moved on. And I learned to read my scripts more closely.

Margaret Atwood during Dead Dog Cafe taping

We had a guest on the show that day—Margaret Atwood. I’d met her years earlier—spent four days at her house, actually, recording her interviewing Victor Levy Beaulieu (and vice versa)—but she didn’t appear to remember me. There was no reason for her to have (it wasn’t like we’d stayed in touch over the years, exchanging Christmas cards). But she was friendly and pleasant, like just about everyone else I’ve worked with at CBC Radio over the years (there really have been precious few exceptions).

The entire Dead Dog Café team was unfailingly friendly. Always interesting, consistently entertaining. Tom King told us stories in between takes. He told us how he’d lost a lot of weight recently, after dramatically adjusting his diet upon learning that he had diabetes, remarking that although he still ate bananas, he took great care to eat only bananas that weren’t particularly ripe. He spoke of writing, of particular interest to me. He was fond, he said, of instructing his students to practise writing passages with no adjectives. And that is why, you will observe, there isn’t a single adjective in this piece.  

It was a privilege to be amongst these folk. And yet, as much as I appreciated the experience, I never did really warm up to performing sound effects with them. And not just because I’d made a silly mistake with a plunger.

I just never got comfortable doing it.

Whenever I was assigned to perform sound effects live with actors I almost always felt apart from them. Ill-at-ease. Often, the actors all knew one another. At the very least they could relate to one another. I was a part of the cast in that I had to perform with them, but I was not one of them. I was just this guy off to one side smashing plates and tinkling teacups.

Looking a little silly.

Me attempting to perform multiple Dead Dog Cafe SFX

Locked Out!

One Leg at a Time

Ra McGuire of Trooper

In 2006 I recorded several instances of a show called The National Playlist. The show was essentially a competition between a bunch of famous guests to choose ten songs for “the national playlist.” Compared to much of the stuff I did it was an extremely easy gig, and I enjoyed listening to the tunes and the opinions of the guests.

One day one of the guests happened to be Ra (pronounced “Ray”) McGuire of Trooper. This is the man who wrote “We’re Here For a Good Time”, “Raise a Little Hell”, and “The Boys in the Bright White Sportscar,” to name just a few of his hits. Unfortunately Ra was in Vancouver so I didn’t get to meet him in person. We were communicating with him via something called a “Switched 56,” which was basically a high falutin’ telephone line. He was in a studio that was successfully sending his voice to us, and he could hear all of us in Toronto in his headphones, but he couldn’t hear himself in his headphones, which was odd.

One of the producers of the show phoned Vancouver master control to try figure out what the problem was, and this person reported back to me that, according to the technician in Vancouver, I would have to send Ra’s voice back to himself to make it possible for Ra to hear himself. I was highly sceptical of this, because doing so would result in an extremely distracting echo for Ra. It would be difficult for Ra to do the show with such an echo in his ears. So I phoned Vancouver Master Control myself to ask what they were smoking.

The tech there said that yeah, he knew it would result in an echo, but the Vancouver studio was wired in such a way that the only way Ra would be able to hear himself in his headphones would be if I sent him back to himself. This was a real head scratcher. Why would anybody build a studio that way? Years later, after seeing a version of this story posted on my blog, former Vancouver Recording Engineer Chris Cutress commented:

"...the Vancouver Radio Master Control had a booth for two-ways that was problematic at best. If anyone changed any of the setup it would suddenly become a one-way headphone feed without the guest hearing themselves. It was eventually fixed (at one time a quick fix was one side of the headphones had the guest and the other side had the host)."

Embarrassed that there seemed to be no way around this problem, I broke the news to Ra. He took it like the pro that he was.

Ra seemed like a decent fellow. During the show he came off as intelligent and well-informed. In fact, he seemed like such a nice guy that I did something I usually don’t. When the opportunity presented itself, I separated him from the mix and spoke to him down the line. I just wanted to thank him for the music. In my entire career I’ve only ever done this twice.

He thanked me for complimenting his music, and then I asked him if there was a story behind his classic song, “We’re Here For a Good Time, Not a Long Time,” which is one of my all-time favourite songs. It accompanied me when I lived in France in ‘93 and is inextricably interwoven with my memories of Aix-en-Provence.

“Absolutely there is,” he said, and told me that he was feeling quite stressed about coming up with new material for Trooper’s third album. His driver (I’m pretty sure he said it was his driver) could see that he was worked up and asked him why. When Ra told him why, his driver/friend told him that he should probably just relax, and then uttered the immortal words: “We’re here for a good time, not a long time.”

Which, happily for Ra and the rest of us, resulted in a fantastic tune, and I appreciated hearing the story behind the song from the man himself, Ra McGuire.

Ra was just one of many “sort of” famous people I met while working for CBC Radio as a tech. Sometimes the people I met were, like Ra, just a little bit famous. Niche famous. Although I’m pretty sure most people in Canada have heard Ra McGuire’s music, probably most wouldn’t recognize him on the street or even know his name. I’ve met plenty of others in this category, musicians and politicians and authors and filmmakers and so on. And a few rather more famous—we had all sorts through the door when I worked on the show Q, for example.   

Most of the time I would pretend that I didn’t know who these people were. I found it easier to deal with them that way. I found it levelled the playing field. Still, meeting certain people was sometimes undeniably neat. I could pretend that Eric Idle was an ordinary human being just like me (and he is, of course) but my God, it’s Eric Idle of Monty Python, and he just said my name on the air! When Phil Collins, Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford of Genesis showed up one day I couldn’t help but tell them how much I loved their work (I remember them nodding at me and saying, “Thanks! Means a lot,” and I think they actually meant it, dammit.)

A weird thing about having famous people come through the door was that I didn’t really feel like I could talk about it afterward. Nobody likes name dropping (like I’m doing right now). After recording him on Q I’d have a great chat with David Cronenberg about martial arts and afterward I’d think, “hey, that was pretty cool,” and I’d want to tell people about it but I couldn’t really because it never felt right. Chatting with the likes of David Cronenberg was just a fact of my life at the time but I was pretty sure that people would think I was bringing it up just to impress them. So I would settle for savouring the experience silently. Even mentioning it here feels problematic, like broaching this entire topic was simply a sly (and ridiculously transparent) means of name dropping, akin to humble bragging.

My wife, for example, would never fail to be singularly unimpressed when I told her about some famous person I’d met that day.

“Who?” she’d ask, not necessarily because she didn’t know who they were, but because she just didn’t care. Whoever they were put their pants on one leg at a time just like the rest of us, and if I really wanted to proceed with whatever story I was about to trot forth it had better be about more than just who this person happened to be.

Which is why I think I’ll leave my Joni Mitchell story for another time.  


Asparagus

In nineteen-ninety-two, while on vacation in Halifax, my girlfriend and I went to see a play. There was a statue above the stage in a little alcove. I assumed it was just a part of the theatre’s decor. Before the play started, Lynda leaned over to me and whispered, “Do you think that statue has anything to do with the play?”

It's a Stone Angel, silly
It’s a stone angel, silly

“You mean that stone angel?” I asked, realizing as the words came out of my mouth that of course it did, because the play was an adaptation of Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel.

The play was directed by James Roy, who worked for CBC’s radio drama department back in Toronto. I didn’t know James then, but I knew of him, so when I returned to work I sought him out to tell him how much I had enjoyed his play.

Seven years later James welcomed me into the Radio Drama department, where I had the honour of working with him on many radio plays. Seven years after that I was invited to record a play in Blyth, Huron County, during the Blyth Festival, at which time I learned that not only is James an accomplished director, he was also the founding Artistic Director of the Blyth Festival.

The Blyth Festival is unique. James, along with his co-founders Anne Chislett and Keith Roulson, created a festival dedicated to the production and development of Canadian plays, which was at one time—and perhaps still is—the only five hundred seat theatre in Canada devoted solely to Canadian plays. Not content with merely producing plays, James and his partners also created an Art Gallery, and the whole enterprise is still going strong forty years, ten artistic directors, a choir and an orchestra later.

Blyth Festival
Blyth Festival

In the summer of 2006 I drove up to Blyth in a rented car accompanied by sound effects engineer Anton Szabo, who would be doing live effects for the reading we would be recording. That afternoon we sat through a rehearsal of the reading. Actually, I snoozed through the rehearsal in a really comfortable armchair. I was suffering from cat allergies which were waking me up in the middle of the night with the sensation that I couldn’t breathe, a sensation that would linger throughout the day. At the time, I had no idea that it was because of cat allergies, so it had me rather on edge.

Anton and I set up the next morning. AKG 414s on each of the actors and another one for Anton’s sound effects. Anton had a keyboard sampler plugged in for additional effects. I was situated on the stage not far from Anton’s setup, well behind the actors, but visible to the audience. I had two DAT machines but I’d learned my lesson at the Royal George; they were only for backup. My main recording would be done on ProTools on a Mac laptop. I was getting a 60 hertz buzz on one of the lines. Somebody that worked for the theatre lifted the ground on an extension cord. It did the trick.

We recorded one dress rehearsal, and then the actual performance. I don’t remember much about either recording except that they went well.

What I do remember is asparagus.

After the performance, James, Anton, myself and several others went for supper at the Stage Manager’s house. I am doing the Stage Manager a great injustice by not remembering her name. She had a house on a hill outside Blyth. But not just any hill—it was a hill from which you could see for miles and miles. A house from which you could see the sun set, but not set into the rooftops of houses halfway up the sky. Here it set directly into the horizon, painting half the sky wonderful shades of red, one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen. The Stage Manager had a garden out back in which she grew fresh vegetables, some of which I may have eaten, but all I remember is the asparagus. I’ve had asparagus soup before, and possibly actual asparagus, but I had never eaten fresh asparagus straight from anyone’s garden before.

I was astounded.

Hmm... fresh asparagus!
Hmm… fresh asparagus!

The asparagus was sublime—the food of, if not all the Gods, then at least those with sense enough to eat vegetables. I couldn’t stop eating it. We ran out. Seconds before I capitulated to symptoms of withdrawal, the Stage Manager went out and picked more, God bless her.

The asparagus wasn’t all that surprised me that night. I found myself enveloped in a wonderful sense of fellowship. It was a privilege to be part of such a company: directors, stage managers, writers, sound effects engineers, producers, and me. Colleagues, but also friends. We had a lovely meal, and a lovely talk. Such a night had snuck up on me unawares. I felt as though I belonged. I felt as though I could breathe. I felt as though I could eat more asparagus.

So I did.

A few weeks later I bought some asparagus at Sobey’s and served it to my family. It was the first time they had ever tried asparagus. It was stringy and tasteless. We all hated it, and have never eaten it since.


The Story of Q

This is the story of Q.

It’s the last show I worked on before joining 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 in January 2007 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, Monday April 15th, the day the show premiered, 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.

Somehow 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.

A later incarnation of the q studio with special guest Keira Mahoney on the piano

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.


Nigel Godrich

During my time on the show Q we averaged about three bands/musicians per week. Some performed live; others we pre-taped.

Nigel Godrich -- Super Producer
Nigel Godrich — Super Producer

The band Travis, for example.

Travis showed up just before two pm. We had finished the live broadcast for the day and I was eating my lunch in the studio. The plan was to record the interview and one song live to tape to be broadcast the following day.

A whole bunch of people came into the studio; I had no idea who was in the band and who wasn’t. I shook a few hands, then allowed them to settle into the booth while I gobbled down the rest of my microwave dinner. Then I went in to help the musicians set up.

The band’s manageent had requested a couple of vocal microphones and two direct boxes to plug an acoustic guitar and a bass guitar into. (Direct boxes allow you to plug an instrument directly into a console so you don’t have to mike it). So I had those all set up and ready to go. Although the entire band had showed up, only two of them were actually going to sing and play, lead singer Fran Healey and bass guitar player Dougie Payne. Fran asked me if I could mike his acoustic guitar instead of using a direct box. I said sure, that I preferred using a microphone, and had just used the direct box because the bands technical specifications had asked for direct boxes. He called out to somebody to change the tech specs.

“I’ll put an SM57 on it,” I suggested.

SM57 Microphone
SM57 Microphone

He said, “How ‘bout that AKG 414 you’ve got hanging over the piano?” I said sure and set it up.

In the control room I waited for Fran to finish tuning, then attempted to set levels as they rehearsed a song. Too many people were yapping in the control room and I couldn’t hear a damned thing. I told them all politely but firmly to pipe down. Fran was complaining about something. I turned all the mikes off so I could go into the booth and speak to them privately.

“I couldn’t hear anything, I had to tell everyone out there to shut the hell up,” I told them.

AKG 414 Microphone
AKG 414 Microphone

They laughed and said good on ya.

Fran told me he wanted a bit of reverb on himself and a lot on Dougie. Dougie was supposed to sound kind of ghostly. No problem, I told them, but I was thinking: damn it, all I have is a Rev 5, a reverb unit that dates back to the eighties. I can’t stand the sound of the thing and have been complaining about it since day one, but it would have to do.

There was something wrong with the sound of Fran’s guitar. It was distorting. I checked all my levels and the trim and couldn’t see why it was distorting. I’d never had a guitar distort that I could recall. I decided to swap out the 414 microphone on the theory that maybe it was overloading. This happens sometimes on condenser microphones if they’re getting too much acoustic information, they just can’t handle it. It’s called capsule distortion. At least that’s what I call it. But for a guitar to cause capsule distortion is kind of nutty; it usually happens when vocalists (or actors) are really belting it out.

Yamaha Rev 5 Digital Reverb
Yamaha Rev 5 Digital Reverb

I usually miked guitars for the show with an SM57 and I’d had good luck with them. We had Brad Deneen on a few days before and somebody wrote in to compliment me on the sound of his guitar, so I thought I would try it now. But when I went into the booth to swap out the microphones, unbeknownst to me somebody followed me in. This fellow spotted a Neuman U-87 and suggested that I use it instead. Fran introduced him as “our producer.”

U-87 Microphone
U-87 Microphone

Now, the fact that he was a producer didn’t impress me much. Most producers I knew, while being perfectly acceptable human beings, didn’t know much technically. In fact they often had half-baked technical notions. I told this fellow that I didn’t want to try the U-87 (even though it is an awesome microphone) because, like the AKG 414, it was a condenser microphone.

“What’s wrong with that?” he asked.

“We might be getting capsule distortion,” I told him, confident that he wouldn’t know what the hell I was talking about.

“On a guitar?” he said.

This had two immediate consequences. First, I realized that this guy might actually know what he was talking about. Second, I instantly felt like an idiot, because the truth is it was highly unlikely that we were getting capsule distortion from a guitar.

“Okay, I’ll try it,” I told him.

He said, “I don’t mean to get in the way.”

I said, “Not a problem, tell me anything you want. I don’t mind, really.” I still had no idea who he was.

“There you go, butting in, making everyone tense,” Fran said.

“No really, I don’t mind, it’s not a problem,” I said.

Which was the truth. I didn’t get my back up at all when people piped in. It made them feel a part of the process and I could potentially learn something. I didn’t have much ego invested in engineering. When it came to recording music I was just a meatball engineer. I told the guy as much and invited him to stand behind the console and help me with the mix.

Dougie Payne
Dougie Payne

We tried the song again with the U-87. Fran’s guitar was still distorted, damn it. There were other issues as well; my helpful new friend had me tweak all the levels, and he thought Fran’s lead vocal was peaking out of the mix too much. He wanted more compression on it. This was a problem. I didn’t have separate compression on the various vocals. I am aware that ideally you have access to separate compression on everything but I didn’t have that many compressors. It was a radio studio, not a recording studio, and because we usually had to do things fast I tried to keep it simple.

So there wasn’t much I could do about Fran’s lead vocal except try to keep the guitar and bass up. Except the guitar was still distorted. I was starting to feel under the gun. We needed to start the interview. My new friend suggested there was a problem with the strip on the console. I agreed and plugged the guitar into a different strip. It corrected the distortion but I was still wasn’t happy with the sound of the U-87 on the guitar. But we were running late and I had to let it go.

I was starting to regret allowing my new friend to help. Although I was no crackerjack music engineer, when I did a mix on the fly I pretty much had to trust my instincts. He was taking the mix in a different direction than I would have and it wasn’t sitting properly. I had no doubt that if he was sitting at the board he could have made it work. But he wasn’t sitting at the board, I was. I had to forego what I would have done and second guess him. Second guessing rarely makes anything better. Plus I was embarrassed about the distorted guitar and the lack of compression, and (as Fran had predicted earlier) starting to feel a tad tense.

Fran Healy
Fran Healy

In this fellow’s defense, he had apologized for interfering and I had invited him repeatedly to help. And in his mind I was probably butchering his baby.

Finally we decided the sound we had would have to do and began the interview. Fran and Dougie would play the song at the end of the interview. Halfway through the interview, Jian (our host) asked Fran and Dougie why their superstar producer was tagging along. Only then did I realize that this producer fellow helping me might be someone special in the world of rock music.

They played the song and I wasn’t really happy with the sound. It wasn’t awful but it wasn’t great. I was too embarrassed to even look at the producer. He made a couple of suggestions about levels and I tried to follow them.

“I’m sorry it probably wasn’t as good as you would have liked,” I told him afterward.

He clapped me on the shoulder and shook my hand, and I thought, well at least he’s a decent guy.

Fran and Dougie were decent too. They thanked me sincerely and shook my hand on the way out. I listened to the mix afterward with another engineer and we decided that it wasn’t quite as bad as I’d feared. My Q mates seemed to think it was okay.

Shortly afterward I was standing overlooking the CBC atrium when a friend looked out and said, “Geez, is that Nigel Godrich over there?”

I told him I’d just worked with him and asked him just who the heck this Nigel Godrich fellow was, anyway. And he proceeded to tell me.

And I was awfully glad I hadn’t known ‘til then.


The Last Remote

This is as far as I’ve gotten with my memoir-in-progress Something Technical. Well, there’s more written, it’s just not ready for prime time yet.


All material in this post, audio and otherwise, is presented under the Fair Dealings provision of Canadian Copyright law. This blog does not generate any revenue. However, if any copyright holders wish me to remove any creative material, please contact me at ilanderz(at)gmail.com and I will do so immediately.

Stay tuned…


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