One of a series of posts about working in radio back in the day.

(Here’s some more).

Studio 212,
Where the CBC Radio Drama Magic Happened

In late 2004, Damiano Pietropaolo, the Head of Radio Arts & Entertainment (which included Radio Drama), stepped down from that position. Greg Sinclair took his place. Greg immediately made two significant moves. First, he took me off The Schedule. Second, he put out The Great Radio Drama Submission Call.    

Taking me off The Schedule meant that I could no longer be assigned to ordinary technical bookings. I thought this was absolutely brilliant. I’d been an audio technician seventeen years and I was sick and tired of The Schedule. My every move was dictated by The Schedule. I had no control over The Schedule. If you wanted to have a meeting with me, you had to talk to the scheduling department, not me. I couldn’t plan my days or weeks because if I did, my plans could and would be overwritten by the scheduling department. I would explain this to other people in the CBC. They would have no idea what I was talking about. The Schedule was a phenomenon unique to technicians.

I was also tired of feeling like a second-class citizen. In the studio, producers called the shots. They were the bosses. They weren’t really the bosses; I didn’t report to a producer. But in the studio, if a producer said, “Do this,” I pretty much had to do it. It didn’t matter if I’d been on the job seventeen years and they’d been on the job seventeen days. Taking orders from people with a lot less experience than me was getting real old.

I got so fed up with being a tech that one day I decided I didn’t want to be credited on air as a technician anymore. I told Writers & Company producer Mary Stinson this.

“You don’t want to be in the credits anymore?” she asked.  

“By all means put me in the credits,” I told her. “Just don’t call me a tech.”

 Officially I was an Associate Producer/Technician. In my mind, I was a Recording Engineer. I aspired to be a Recording Engineer/Producer. I asked Mary not to refer to me as anything other than somebody helping put the show together. Of course, the nation didn’t care what CBC Radio called Joe Mahoney. Only Joe Mahoney cared. But Mary respected my wishes.

The second thing that Greg Sinclair did was put out The Great Radio Drama Submission Call. He wanted to reinvigorate CBC Radio Drama by attracting new talent and projects. Between The Great Radio Drama Submission Call and being taken off The Schedule this was an exciting time for me.

 The Radio Drama department received over four hundred submissions for potential projects. We divvied them up between the recording engineers and the producers to sift through. Each of us would choose one or two to develop and produce. Finally, I thought. Another shot at producing! One step closer to my dream of becoming a Recording Engineer/Producer.

I enjoyed sorting through the slush pile. As an aspiring writer my short stories had been in enough slush piles over the years. It felt good being on the other side. I loved being able to announce to the Canadian science fiction community that I was looking for their submissions on behalf of CBC Radio. I was pretty puffed up about it. But the actual work of reviewing the submissions turned out to be quite a slog. It was maddeningly difficult to discern the wheat from the chaff. So many submissions were just kind of the same. Average. Very few were obviously terrible. The whole process was so subjective. I could easily have missed projects with potential because I just didn’t know any better. Over time, though, certain submissions began to stand out, for different reasons. Sometimes the distinguishing factor was who submitted the proposal. Other times it was the proposal’s obvious quality. Yet other times it was because the proposal spoke to me in some way. And sometimes it was a combination of the above.

Robert J. Sawyer, with whom I’d worked on Faster Than Light, submitted a proposal with his friend Michael Lennick for a half hour radio play called Birth. Birth explored the accidental emergence of sentience among robots on Mars. It wound up on my final list.

Another proposal that stood out was a play called Worms for Sale by Stacy Gardner. Worms for Sale was about a witty, bored high school graduate in Newfoundland trying to decide whether to stay or leave while being a friend to her heartbroken mother. It was “a play about who we are and how we survive the elements of place.” Stacy’s proposal, which included snippets of dialogue, exhibited a fresh charm and an originality of voice that appealed to me. Worms for Sale found a home on my list.

Meanwhile, Greg Sinclair received a proposal by Joe Straczynski, otherwise known as J. Michael Straczynski, also known as JMS. Greg was quite excited about telling me about this because he knew that as a science fiction fan I would know who JMS was. He was right; I’d been aware of Joe Straczynski’s work for several years. Straczynski had been the main creative force behind the hit science fiction television series Babylon 5. He’d written most of the episodes. As far as I was concerned, he was a genius. And now Straczynski had proposed an action adventure fantasy series for CBC Radio.

Sinclair and I had images (sound bites?) of Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in our minds. Adam’s bestselling books had started life as a hit radio series on the BBC.  That was the Holy Grail Sinclair and I sought. Surely a project with the likes of Straczynski would bring science fiction and fantasy fans to our doorsteps in droves, and completely rejuvenate the radio drama department. J. Michael Straczynski’s The Adventures of Apocalypse Al made the final cut.

I don’t know how many radio plays we ultimately selected, but it was a fair amount. The next step was to develop each project. I was excited to get started on my choices, Worms for Sale and Birth. I contacted Stacy Gardner and Rob Sawyer to tell them the good news and arrange times to meet. (I would wind up producing sound effects for three other projects: ManRadio, The Thing from Beyond My Closet, and The Adventures of Apocalypse Al.)

Rob arrived at the Toronto Broadcast Centre to discuss Birth accompanied by his writing partner Michael Lennick. Michael was the brother of former CBC Radio host David Lennick, who had had a radio show about fifteen years earlier called Sunny Side Up. (Sunny Side Up had actually been one of the first shows I’d ever engineered as a brand-new CBC Radio tech. Nervous, I’d managed to drop a CD on the floor. Fortunately, it had still played.)

Michael Lennick had his own claims to fame. For CFMT-TV in Toronto he’d co-written The All-Night Show, which had featured Chuck the Security Guard, played by Chas Lawther, with whom I also made a couple of radio shows over the years. It’s a small world. After that Michael toiled as a visual special effects artist for two decades, working on David Cronenberg’s Videodrome and The Dead Zone, and TV series such as War of the Worlds (1988). When I met him, Michael was producing well-regarded science and history documentaries.

The Lennick boys had come from famous stock, too. As a member of Wayne & Shuster’s repertory company, their mother, Sylvia Lennick, had famously played Julius Caesar’s wife, uttering the immortal line, “I told him, Julie, don’t go!”

After meeting Rob and Michael, I met with the author of Worms for Sale. Stacy Gardner turned out to be a charismatic young woman originally from Newfoundland in Toronto working for Covenant House. Worms for Sale was the first time she’d submitted any of her work anywhere.

We brought in experienced story editors Greg Nelson and Bev Cooper to work with our new crop of writers. Greg Nelson drew Birth and Bev Cooper Worms for Sale. Each writer (or team of writers) was contracted to write three drafts and then a final polish of each script. The producers and story editors would make notes on each draft and the final polish. The purpose of the polish was to correct any remaining superficial issues once all the major problems had been (theoretically) addressed. After all that the plays would be considered ready to record.

First up for me would be Birth.

More on that next.