Assorted Nonsense Episode VIII: My brother-in-law (and fellow author) Brian Wyvill and I visit the Blue Shank Road outside Summerside PEI, where Barnabus J. Wildebear and Doctor Peter Humphrey first return to Prince Edward Island following their trip through the gate in my novel A Time and a Place.
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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.“
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.
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.