Writer, Broadcaster

Tag: Ideas

The Great Bookshelf Tour: Fourth Stop

Welcome to the fourth stop on the Great Bookshelf Tour of 2020, which I hope you find a bit of a distraction during these unusual times.

First up on today’s tour we have the books of illustrious Prince Edward Island based author Susan Rodgers. Susan Rodgers, you should know, is my sister, younger than me by one year, one month, and three days. I call her Sam because her initials are Susan Ann Mahoney, or at least they were before she married that Rodgers guy.

I could write an entire book about her, and our fabulous childhood together, including that incident where she heroically defended me from a pack of bullies who had stolen my mittens, and the time we got trapped on a cliff-face together (she made it off first), and so on, but that’s not what this tour is about. This tour is about books, and if you want books, Susan has written something like eighteen of them. I’ve lost count. My wife and I once marched into a bookstore and bought all of them, back when there were only nine. There, we’re done, we’ve supported her, we thought. Then she promptly wrote nine more. We’ve yet to pick those up. But we will. Maybe. Someday. Anyway, if you like angsty books about love and relationships and music and Prince Edward Island, you will LOVE Susan’s Drifters series (and related books).

Sitting in front of Susan’s books is one of my favourite books, Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace, by Gordon MacKenzie. A few things about this book. It was a thoughtful gift from a friend, which makes it special. I love everything about the design of this book, the illustrations in particular. If you look inside you will see that it is positively littered with the craziest drawings and sketches, all speaking to the nature of the content. I’ve long wanted to produce a book myself in this style. The book is about creativity and leadership, and it has many sage notions about all of that. There isn’t a much in the way of information online about MacKenzie himself. He’s a bit of an enigmatic figure, but video of him does exist. The books is based on a talk he used to give, which you can see online (and when you do, you’ll see just how much of the book is based on the talk). Curiously, despite the cult status of this book, hardly anybody has viewed MacKenzie’s online talk (145 views as of today). Something else I love about the book: it was originally self-published before Viking (Penguin) picked it up.

Next up, Robert J. Sawyer‘s Rollback. Rob has written even more books than my sister, and has known great success. I’ve known Rob since before he published his first novel, Golden Fleece (which I understand wasn’t actually the first one he wrote). I met Rob working on an episode of Ideas for CBC Radio. He was a guest contributor and I was the tech. He told me about his upcoming publication and that he wanted to be a professional science fiction writer. Little did he know that it was actually ME who was going to be the professional science fiction writer! Unfortunately, I turned out to be a lazy slug of mediocre ability, whereas he is a juggernaut with a big brain and actual talent. Which explains why he’s written so many successful books and I’ve written two, one of which COULD be considered successful if you fudge the criteria for success a bit.

Fast forward a few years (ahem; that would be a Sawyer pun there, if you know the man’s oeuvre). I decided to make a radio show featuring science fiction called Faster Than Light. I asked Rob if he would host it, and he agreed to. The pilot was wildly successful, but the network didn’t pick it up as a series, the Director of Programming at the time telling the Acting Head of Radio Drama that “if we put a show like that on the air, we’ll never get it off.” Oh well.

Fast forward a few more years. Rob writes Rollback. Some of the novel involves the CBC. Rob asked me to read the third draft of the novel to fact check the CBC bits. I did, and was surprised to discover that not only was the main character based on my profession at the time (a CBC Recording Engineer), but I was actually a character in the novel! So you can see that this is kind of a special book for me, beyond being an excellent story, well told, of a man restored to youth, and the impact on those around him.

And sitting beside Rollback up there is another Sawyer novel, Hominids, the first in his well-regarded Neanderthal Parallax series. I’ve actually read many of Rob’s excellent books, though not all of them are on this bookshelf (I do have other bookshelves in the house, and at the office), and I heartily recommend them all.

One day when I was about twelve I had just finished reading a good book and was looking for another of comparable quality, so I asked my father if he could recommend one. He led me downstairs to one of his bookshelves and picked out Cappy Ricks or the Subjugation of Matt Peasley by Peter B. Kyne, published in way back in 1916. What a yarn! I loved this tale of a crusty yet loveable shipping/lumber magnate and the feisty young sailor Matt Peasley he puts to work and torments on one of his boats. I’ve read it many times since. Kyne, incidentally, also wrote The Valley of the Giants (upon which the movie is based), among many other books.

Moving on we have another ancient tome called Lud-in-the-Mist, by Hope Mirrlees, first published in 1926. It was recommended by fellow writer Dale Sproule (former editor of the magazine TransVersions, with Sally McBride) and I’m so glad he brought it to my attention. It’s an adult fantasy about fairies that as many observers have pointed out pre-dates Lord of the Rings by many years, and quite possibly influenced such magnificent works as John Crowley’s Little, Big and Susanna Clarke‘s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, both of which I also loved.

Hmm. Lots to write about on this shelf! Next up we have another book by a friend, this time Thrice Burned, the second novel in Angela Misri‘s excellent Portia Adams mystery series, which I reviewed on this very blog, favourably, I might add. And beyond her a medical thriller by yet another friend, Stockholm Syndrome, by Melissa Yuan-Innes, writing as Melissa Yi. This is one of Melissa’s Dr. Hope Sze‘s books, selected as one of the best crime books of the year by CBC Radio’s The Next Chapter‘s Mystery panel.

And finally, kinda hard to make out there at the far right, we have The Lost Millennium, by Floren Diacu. This is a fascinating book, exploring the premise that history might be off by oh, say, one thousand years. That what we think of as the dark ages might be dark because they actually never happened! Whether this is true (spoiler alert: it’s probably not) this terrific little book provides great insight into how history is actually recorded and conveyed to the rest of us. It’s nowhere near as straightforward as you might think.

Other Stops on the Tour

Radio Tech-ness

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, even if he is (I suspect) wearing a tie

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.

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