Curtain call for radio plays in Canada

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Late in 2012, CBC's radio drama and sound effects facility fell silent; never to clank, quack, clomp, scream, ding-dong or boing-boing again. Of all the many austerity measures, fiscal cliffs and layoffs that swept the world last year, Studio 212 was one of the quieter cuts.

CBC produced radio plays such as Midnight Cab, Monday Night Playhouse, Rumours, Canada 2056, Borders, Peggy Delaney, Backbencher, Afghanada and more. But that’s all done now.

Unlike CGI visuals, radio relies on engaging the imagination and the possibilities are all the greater because of it. Images let you see, but sound makes you feel. Even the best special effects Hollywood film still relies on an ear-splitting soundtrack to scare or sadden.

You could say radio is in my DNA. My grandmother was a radio actress between the wars. As a legally blind kid, shortwave connected me to a wider, more textured world. The first radio play I remember was “the Hound of the Baskervilles,” which scared the living daylights out of me, Arthur Conan Doyle’s canines baying out of my speakers. I went on to be a college radio DJ in Ottawa and Victoria in the 1990s. Today I’m a freelance broadcaster.

Sound FX

Studio 212 fabricated sound effects, room tones, background noises, and soundscapes. The facility had various surfaces – tile, concrete, marble, wood and a kitchenette full of utensils and crockery - to produce the sound of anywhere: cavernous, echoing cathedrals; desolate, windswept tundra; rancorous Commons debates; a cramped, claustrophobic mine shaft. The “dead room” had no sound reflecting surfaces, creating a total absence of echo.

Now, all the megaphones, sirens, creaky-door and footstep-fall foley devices, noisemakers, wind-effect cranks, rain sticks, and the rest will be packed off for storage.

According to CBC radio exec, Chris Boyce “Years ago, for the sound of a breaking window pane, someone would smash glass. Today they’d pick up a digital recording.”

Loads of sound effects are available on-line. If you listen carefully to commercial radio and TV, you can hear the repeated use of the free samples, like Apple’s Garage Band “loops.” Their variation is limited. Every footfall sounds exactly like the last.

Many DJs and audiophiles still swear by vinyl, some engineers use analogue gear and guitar players love Marshal tube amps. Drum machine programs have built-in variation and human error. Sometimes real cymbals are added because the ersatz digital variety just doesn’t sound right.

I love Atari Teenage Riot, Le Tigre and other bands that use digital sound elements intentionally, who are not just outsourcing flesh and blood musicians. Roland’s classic drum machine bears little resemblance to a good drummer with a pulse. But I agree with the Beastie Boys: “nothing sounds quite like an 808. The TR-808’s very digital-ness sounds awesome, but not like an traditional drum. The world needs both.

OK, full disclosure. I use digital recording for my music and broadcasting projects. It’s cheap, easy and accessible. This is not an anti-digital manifesto.

Reality has a left-wing bias

When cuts came to the CBC last year, something had to go. A bunch of things, actually.

As one political insider said to me, if the CBC doesn’t want their budget cut, they shouldn’t be so critical of the governing party. But lately it seems that the CBC has been trying to cut against its supposed liberal bias.

For example, the last big CBC radio drama was “Afghanada,” a Canadian “grunt’s eye view” of the war in Afghanistan, from a politically “neutral” perspective, with a support-the-troops subtext. The writers should be praised for their creative dialogue alone, having managed to script six seasons of combat drama without any swearing. There was a lot of “frig” this and “frig” that.

Last summer CBC ran a free market primer, “the Invisible Hand.” Even with shows such as these and the omnipresence of conservatives like Kevin O’Leary and Rex Murphy on the network, the axe still fell hard on the public broadcaster. And radio drama was among the casualties.

Last year I eulogized Canada's shortwave programming and the disappearing payphone in poor communities. But during Hurricane Sandy, a good deal of the New York and New Jersey coast was knocked off the grid -- no electricity, no Internet and no cell network. But both shortwave and pay phones were drafted into service as emergency communication infrastructure. Older technologies should not be so quickly abandoned.

I have not yet marshaled an argument for why we need radio plays during a national state of emergency, but when the Internet becomes self aware and turns on us all, then where will we get our sound effects?

The art of market forces

The studio space was only part of the cuts. The jobs of people who worked there have been cut too. One of them was Matt Watts: "writing for radio has been one of the great joys in my life. [but] the sad truth, and reality, is that it [radio drama] doesn’t get that many listeners, and it doesn't justify the cost."

 I feel for Matt, but I have to object. If we let market forces pick our art, we can look forward to a future of only reality TV.

Arts and culture are a major part of Canada's GDP and labour market. The arts receive subsidies just like (but not to the same degree as) the oil and gas, mineral or forestry sectors. Or sports. Popularity is not the metric by which most opera companies decide if they will have another season.

Aside from providing jobs, the arts are social vegetables. They are good for us. Why should the ballet exist and not radio plays? Who decides? Besides, radio is undergoing a renaissance because of the Internet. Canada should be in the forefront.

At Studio 212, the red “RECORDING” light has been switched off for the last time. But if Orson Well’s radio drama “War of the Worlds” taught us anything, it’s this: don’t panic. 

Radio drama will live on. You will just have to look harder to find it.


Garth Mullins is a writer, broadcaster, long time social justice activist and three-chord propagandist living in East Vancouver. You can follow him @garthmullins on Twitter.

His radio documentary “the Imaginary Albino” airs on the CBC Radio One program “Ideas” on February 18, 2013.



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