Writer, Broadcaster

Tag: CBC Radio (Page 1 of 6)

Neil Munro and Barry Morgan

I stumbled across the following recently which had appeared on an early version of this blog (July 14th, 2009, to be precise), before the blog self-destructed shortly afterward (one of a handful of blog implosions over the years). I like to recapture this sort of thing for the modern incarnation of Assorted Nonsense so that it doesn't get lost to time and also because it keeps alive the memory of some important, interesting people in my life. 

Neil Munro

aka “Inspector Nickles” (Photo by David Cooper, Shaw Festival.)

Neil Munro has passed away at 62 years of age.

I was fortunate enough to work with Neil off and on over the course of two or three years. Although they don’t mention it in the notice at CBC.ca, one of Neil’s many accomplishments was starring as Inspector Quentin Nickles in The Investigations of Quentin Nickles , for CBC Radio’s Mystery Project.

Working on these plays I had the opportunity to observe Neil’s craft up close.

You had to be a skilled actor working on these shows. Producer/Director Barry Morgan was a one take wonder. Rarely did we ever make it up to take two. So the actors had to get it right the first time, and they almost always did. If we had to do a second take it was usually because one of us technical types had screwed something up, or one of the sound effects engineers was caught on tape snoring during a brief siesta (that actually happened once).

Neil also wrote/adapted several radio plays; I remember recording and mixing two or three wild and crazy examples of his work. The names escape me now, but I recall them as full of mirth and inventiveness.

I remember Neil Munro as not only a consummate professional but as a genuinely warm and friendly man. He deserved better than to have died at 62, it seems to me. As Truman Capote said, life is a moderately good play with a badly written third act.

In Neil’s case, I’m afraid someone eliminated the third act altogether.

So long, Inspector Nickles.

My friend and colleague Barry Morgan, whom I referenced in the post, responded with a comment which I thought was gently chiding in nature. I realized that I may have irked him slightly with my remark about doing everything in one take. I hope not, because Barry was a great guy and I hate the thought that I might have annoyed him.

Anyway, here's what he wrote in response:

Barry Morgan

Writer, Producer, Director, All Round Nice Guy

 Joe, a really nice appreciation of Neil.

Perhaps I can clarify the “one take” reference.

It was because Neil brought his incredible energy and focus to the rehearsal session before we ever got to the studio floor. The work was already done. And beyond that his electricity energized his fellow cast members to the point that the performance bar was raised far above the level of `excellent`.

We have enjoyed a long history of fine radio actors from the days of John Drainie, Jane Mallet, Frank Perry and a great many others. Neil Munro was certainly among the front rank of those incredible talents.

It was a great privilege to have him around to make all of us look better.

I will always treasure his friendship.

One Leg at a Time

An excerpt from Something Technical:

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? I expect there was more to the story but I don’t suppose I will ever know. 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.  

Strike!

Communications, Energy and Paperworkers
Union of Canada

Excerpt from Something Technical:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

(Here’s some more).

A Host of Data

Photo by Markus Spiske from Pexels

I worked on a summer replacement radio series called NEXT once with host Nora Young and producer Alison Moss. They were so great to work with, and indulged my passion for high production radio with bits like this one, which introduced one of the episodes.

Boy I loved making stuff like this.

Here’s the script, with the actual produced version at the end.

NEXT: A Host of Data

SFX: OFFICE AMB BG

NARR: Indefatigable Nora Young surfs the net, quietly sipping tea.

NORA: (LOUD SIP)

NARR: She is thinking furiously:

NORA: Hmm… I wonder what today’s show should be about? 

NARR: Friend and colleague Alison Moss appears in the doorway.

ALISON: Hey Nora!

NORA: Oh!

SFX: KNOCKS OVER TEA CUP

NARR: Startled, clumsy Nora knocks her tea onto the computer.

SFX: COMPUTER SHORT CIRCUITS

NORA: Dag nabbit!

SFX: OFFICE AMB BG OUT

SFX: WOOSHING DATA STREAM

NARR: A freak chain reaction occurs.  Our hapless host is drawn inside the computer!

NORA: Noooooooo!

SFX: NORA LANDS WITH A THUMP INSIDE COMPUTER

NORA: Oof!  (GRUNTS IN PAIN) Where am I?

NARR: Nora is trapped in a virtual landscape of ones and zeroes.  Drowning in a sea of binary information, Nora comes face to face…. with herself.

DRONING NORA VOICE: Nora Esmerelda Young, born nineteen sixty-four, daughter of Clem and Doreen, brothers John, Alfred, Immanuel, postal code L2N 3G5, (CONTINUES BG) 

NORA: (OVER VOICES) All this information… about me!

DRONING VOICE: (CONTINUING) Favourite food: schnitzel, last purchased July 28th, 2004 at Loblaws on the corner of Dufferin and Brock…

NARR: Clever Nora can only to come to one conclusion:

SFX: OFFICE AMB BG

NORA: That’s it!  I’ll make the show about data!

END

Nora Young: A Host of Data

Trouble Report Follow-Up

Text Box:  Saturday May 15/04
The boys in Master Control circa 1990: Joram Kalfa, Joe Mahoney, and Peter Chin in Radio Master Control, Jarvis Street, Toronto

Whenever I was responsible for an on-air radio production fault, I was required to fill out a form called a Trouble Report Follow-up. Here’s one for an issue I was responsible for on Stuart McLean‘s The Vinyl Cafe. As you will see, the consequences of making such a mistake on air were quite dire.


Please answer the following questions providing as much detail as you can.

PART A – For the person responsible.

Which fault are you reporting on?

Saturday May 15/04 9:05 out of Toronto MCR The Vinyl Cafe

What caused the fault? Please be specific.

The Toronto MCR tech considered the show levels a tad low, maybe 2dB low I believe he said.  He boosted the levels using an analog DA before the show aired. 

Have you experienced a similar fault recently? What was the cause?

Nope.

Is the supervisor aware of the fault?

I expect so.

What can be done to correct the cause of this fault?

I will ensure that future show levels are a tad hotter. Also, as punishment, the boys in master control will not allow me to consume any master control cake for the week of the fault.

« Older posts

© 2020 Joe Mahoney

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑