Chapter Forty-three

It wasn’t until several weeks after I had returned from Europe that I came face to face with my retirement. That’s what those two months overseas had done to me. In effect, I hadn’t had a chance to truly retire: from July 1987 until April, 1988 had been one long holiday. True: my first three weeks in Europe had been spent working. But the hosting job at Blue Danube Radio really didn’t count. I knew to the day when it would end, and there was always the chance – a slim one, as it turned out – that I would be able to return one day for another tour of duty.
Meanwhile, I tried to get casual work in broadcasting. Montreal seemed a good place to start because the city was producing films of all kinds at the time: industrial, educational, even animated cartoons and full-length features. There was talk of an emerging “Hollywood North.”
I thought my rather bland voice was well suited to voice-over narrations and even the less aggressive commercials. And I had been complimented enough on my mimicry to dream of furnishing one of the voices heard on children’s animated cartoons.
I got a few auditions, enough to hear that old line: “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.” And, true to form, they didn’t.
I was still in demand as a writer – as long as I didn’t expect to be paid worth a damn. I recycled some of my radio skits into a sort of housewarming present for some radio friends with journalistic ambitions. They had scraped up enough cash to buy a little country newspaper. Until I ran out of them, the skits – each with a matching cartoon – ran as the paper’s humor column.
A seniors’ paper in Montreal wanted a comic strip. It led to enough work writing and revising to earn me a title: Associate Editor. It was fun while it lasted, and I even got paid in one way or another: a hundred dabucks here and there, and some wonderful freebie travel; because everyone else on the paper’s staff had to work full tilt to keep the little paper afloat, I got to take most of the trips that kept coming our way: among them all-expenses junkets to Jamaica, Malaga, and Marguerita Island.

And then there was the Catholic press. My Edmonton friend, Frank Dolphin, had left The Western Catholic Reporter to return to the CBC, but not before he recommended me to his counterpart in Montreal: Eric Durocher of The Catholic Times, a newspaper for Quebec’s English-speaking Catholics. The resulting association lasted 13 years.
I think I did some of my best and most difficult writing for Eric. That job in the CBC’s Edmonton newsroom had honed my editing skills to razor sharpness and, under Eric’s direction, The Catholic Times approached Readers’ Digest standards for brutal condensation.

It was while I was still writing for The Catholic Times that Brother André came back to haunt me.
I wasn’t the only ex-announcer working for or near The Catholic Times. There was a fellow just down the hall who had been in commercial radio, and still accepted freelance work from time to time. Over lunch, he told me about his latest involvement, a project that took him awfully close to where I had spent the better part of my quarter century with the CBC. Until our conversation that day, I didn’t know that a religious order maintained a fully equipped sound studio immediately across the street from the CBC building.
“They’re doing the sound for a slide show and I’m one of the voices,” he told me, adding: “They’re looking for a few more. Why don’t you apply?” He didn’t tell me what the ‘slide show’ was about.
I took his advice and, about a week later, turned up to face a microphone once again – for the first time since Vienna. There was a round of introductions and someone handed me a script to read over. A few lines into it I cringed. With minor changes, it was what I had written for Marcel Lefebvre and Paul Baillargeon back in 1984!
I didn’t tell the director about my earlier involvement until this new, abbreviated version of “The Shrine” had been recorded. I’m not sure he believed me, but I was paid on the spot, and I suppose that was the main thing.

Being so close to the CBC building that day, I couldn’t resist dropping in. I headed for the 15th floor where all of the CBC’s English-language radio was still being produced. Those deep staff cuts that had hastened my retirement had continued apace; only two or three of the old gang remained. There were so many unfamiliar faces; I soon began to feel awkward and left.
Another disappointment awaiting on the lower levels of the building where I found that the space allotted to live English-language radio has been relegated to a far corner: another nudge and it would have been out in the street.
English-language TV production had declined to a token. It was painful to remember that CBC Montreal’s English side had served to groom so many personalities who now enjoy national and even international stature:
Vince Carlin, Bob McKeown, Peter Downey, Alan Fryer, Moses Znaimer, Tom Harrington, Wayne Grigsby, Hana Gartner, Richard Monette, the two unrelated Browns – Hilary & Patrick, Michael Enright, Fred Langan, Tony Burman . . . And these are just people I worked with in one capacity or another. There are, of course, many more.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Write About What You Know.
It’s the most common advice offered a would-be author. With me, that would be broadcasting, right? So when I wrote three mystery novels in retirement, I made my protagonist a radio announcer and had him sleuthing in radio stations.
I indulged myself by locating the first two books in old-fashioned radio stations, but I decided to set the third novel in a more contemporary setting. I had been away from broadcasting for 13 years by then, and some pretty sweeping technical changes had been in the works the year I retired even at the comparatively stodgy CBC. I knew I would have to find out more about the radio of the 21st Century before I could dump my broadcaster-sleuth protagonist there.

As it happened, Montreal was the logical place to start: the broadcasting authority had just granted two new radio licenses in my city and the new companies were promising “state-of-the-art facilities.” Another attraction: the twin stations would offer a relatively new wrinkle in the business – all-news radio, one in English and the other in French.
I started agitating for a tour of the premises well before the stations went on the air.
Remembering what turmoil was involved in setting up Radio Station CKY back in 1950, I wasn’t surprised when the new Montreal stations brushed me aside at first, but I persisted, playing the ‘retired compatriot’ card for all it was worth. At last the owners caved in and, a matter of weeks after the two all-news stations hit the airwaves, I was granted a tour.
They couldn’t have shocked me more if they had handed me a pair of live wires! Touring the new stations turned my cozy notion of broadcasting on its ear. I had anticipated that the computer would by now have taken an increased role in modern day radio, but I hardly expected to see an announcer reading from the screen rather than from a script. It made perfect sense, of course. What the announcer was reading had been compiled and sent to him by newsmen and commercial writers only a click of the mouse away in another part of the building.
But what really shook me was the announcer’s working environment. Gone were the soundproof booths, each with its double-paned windows and ‘air lock’ entrance, considered absolutely essential to radio broadcasting only a few years before. The control room was the only part of the modern stations I visited that provided that sort of protection.
The announcers on duty sat at desks facing the control room where they could keep an eye on the operator through a small window. Behind them, unobstructed by as much as a screen, was all the clatter and conversation of a busy newsroom.

“Hey, Terry! Have you started the school board piece yet? I’ve got an add.”
“Where’s my lunch? Who took my lunch?”
“Anybody seen Paul? I’ve got a call for him.”

It should have all gone flooding out on to the air. It should have elicited anguished shouts for silence. Instead, the announcers concentrated on their monitor’s screen, listening to nothing but their own voices on earphones.
The answer was in their microphones: highly directional models that only pick up what can be heard a few inches from the announcers’ lips. These new mikes were everywhere, sleek little cylinders that look like a good sneeze would blow them off the table.

It set me to thinking about microphones.

In the 1950s, when I first came on the broadcasting scene, a heated argument was still raging as to how microphones should be used. Two warring camps emerged:
– Camp One preached, “the fewer mikes the better.”
– Camp Two would have a separate microphone planted in front of every source of sound.
Back then, the poster child for Camp One could be found hanging from the ceiling of La Scala in Milan: one gigantic microphone that was lowered into place to record operas being performed on La Scala’s famous stage.
“Think of it, Pat!” a CKUA engineer enthused, “the entire cast of Aida, soloists and chorus, plus the full orchestra in the pit – all captured by a single mike!”
That was back in 1950 when I spent an hour every weeknight spinning classical recordings delivered to CKUA from the University of Alberta. The liner notes for the opera discs – all in Italian – were set around a grainy photo of the La Scala stage, taken from somewhere near the theatre’s entrance. The CKUA engineer pointed out La Scala’s solitary microphone where it had been retracted all the way to the ceiling. It was at least the size of any of the opera house’s chandeliers. If, at a climactic moment, the supermike had slipped its moorings and come crashing down on a performance of Aida, it would have made for a more spectacular burial scene than Verdi had ever intended.

Contrast the La Scala monster with the tiny, buglike things in common use today. You see them most on talks shows, clipped to a male guest’s tie or the neckline of a woman’s blouse. They seem to work fine despite their size. I think we’re supposed to forget they’re there and focus all our attention on the folks they’re attached to.
But woe betide the talks show guest who forgets what’s been pinned to his clothing! Looking down at it he might think a spider has abseiled on him from the ceiling. I can see him springing to his feet to brush the creature to the floor.

Not that long ago, pop stars used the microphone as a prop. The young Frank Sinatra would draw his close and fondle it suggestively: it drove the bobbysoxers wild. Bobby Darin noticed, and followed suit. And more recently, Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip made the microphone on its stand a part of his act, abusing it both vocally and physically.
But most of today’s entertainers find the microphone mounted on a stand too inhibiting. It gets in the way and keeps them from strutting all over the stage Mick Jagger style and making sudden, unprovoked gestures – like ripping off a crucial part of your partner’s costume.
The answer seems to be a sort of abbreviated bridle that suspends a miniature microphone in front of the performer’s mouth. Every time I see one in use, I lose track of what the performer is singing and think of Lili Tomlin’s famous telephone operator routine:

One ringee-dingee!

Or am I dating myself again?


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