Anna-Liza Kozma (ALK): You’ve just retired from your thirty-plus-year career in radio. Congratulations. When did you finish writing Adventures in the Radio Trade: A Memoir? Why did you wait until now to publish it?
Joe Mahoney (JM): Thanks! I finished writing Adventures in the Radio Trade in the summer of 2021, after which I sent it to my editor Arleane Ralph. We finished the editing process in the spring of 2022. At that point I started working with CBC Business and Rights to see if I could publish it while I was still employed with the CBC. At first, they were okay with me doing so but eventually, they changed their minds and asked me to wait until after I retired. I gather this decision didn’t have to do with my book specifically but reflected a wider policy about employees writing books about the CBC. This contributed to my decision to retire from the CBC after 35 years a little earlier than I intended to, though it wasn’t the only reason. But I really didn’t want to wait to publish this book.
ALK: In many ways the book is a love song to public broadcasting and the techs, hosts and producers it takes to bring radio shows to air. Like all institutions dependent on public money, CBC is both beloved and criticized. Did you feel you had to pull your punches in some areas, that there were some things that you couldn’t or didn’t want to write about?
JM: I did not want to write hagiography, a memoir that idealized the CBC, because I didn’t think there was any value in that. I wanted to write honestly about my experiences, so this is warts and all. But I also wanted to be able to look my fellow employees in the eyes after publishing it, so I chose to be kind. For example, I didn’t name several people with whom I had unpleasant experiences. There was nothing to be gained by exposing or shaming them. There is no element of revenge in this memoir because that is not my nature and because working at the CBC was mostly a positive experience for me. I did name a couple of people that I did feel behaved less than ideally on occasion, but they played major roles in the narrative so not identifying them would have constituted pulling my punches. Also, ultimately, they redeemed themselves, so I didn’t feel bad about the way I represented them. I was also careful to be strictly factual about those events. All the dialogue I included with them was written down within hours if not minutes of those conversations taking place.
I did minimize inclusion of a certain radio host with whom I worked because the scandal involving him broke several years after we worked together, beyond the time frame of this book, and I didn’t feel I had anything meaningful to contribute to that conversation of value to readers. Nor was the book about any of that. It’s about making radio.
ALK: There’s lots of funny scenes and dialogue in your memoir. How much did you refer to notes or journals to retrieve the memories you describe so vividly? Or did you find the memories came flooding back as you wrote?
JM: I kept journals and maintained a blog throughout much of my career. A lot of what I wrote expands on that material. I like to be as factual as possible. I wrote a version of the chapter about being on strike for the first time several years after that strike. Only afterward did I discover notes buried deep within my laptop that I’d taken during the strike. It was fascinating to see how much my memory of the experience had diverged from reality. For example, I thought for sure I’d worn sneakers my first day picketing in the snow and slush and switched to boots later, but my notes said I’d worn boots that first day, which had proven uncomfortable, so I switched to sneakers with two layers of socks for the rest of the strike. A minor detail, maybe, but illustrative of how imperfect our memories can be. And I think details like that matter. They add up. So as much as possible I relied on notes to get those details correct. I also checked facts with many of the people I wrote about such as Matt Zimbel and Phillip Akin and so on. Occasionally I employed tools learned from writing fiction to provide dramatic structure. There’s nothing like snippets of dialogue to make a scene pop. But the dialogue I included represents as much as possible the spirit of what was said, if not the precise words.
ALK: You decided to put an index in the book. It’s great but it must have been a lot of work. Why did you feel that was important?
JM: I wanted to write a memoir that could stand up favourably against other memoirs I’ve enjoyed, especially those written about the CBC, of which there have been a lot lately. Many of my favourite memoirs include indexes. I find indexes helpful. I suspected that some of the people I’m writing about might enjoy seeing their names in an index. Also, it’s my understanding that libraries appreciate books with indexes, and I thought this book might be appropriate for libraries. And I simply enjoyed learning how to create an index and the process of putting one together. But yes, it was a lot of work!
ALK: It’s fascinating to read about the detailed technical knowledge you had to acquire on the job to run the old master control, or to mike a concert or record a radio drama or a live broadcast or an old-fashioned double-ender. How does it feel now that digital seems to render much of this hard-won knowledge redundant?
JM: Although some of the tools have evolved, the concepts and general principles haven’t. Many of the techniques I describe about how best to make radio and record a radio play and so on are still relevant. Microphones still work the same way. Levels are levels, playing for distance is playing for distance, gathering sound effects and applying them properly hasn’t changed. A proper mix is a proper mix whether it’s done via analog or digital. I still do some sound work on my own and although I’ve had to learn new gear and software, I enjoy doing that and it’s still all the same basic principles. What is sad though is that CBC Radio itself, while still creating excellent content in many respects, is no longer making full cast, high-production radio plays and hasn’t for many years. This is a shame because podcasts, which are so popular these days, are perfect for this kind of content. Radio plays would be relatively cheap to make compared to similar content for film and television. Despite the absence of the radio drama studio 212 that we were privileged to be able to work in back in the day it would not be difficult to fire this all back up again. A writer, a director, a shotgun mic, location recording, a laptop, some flying faders, a knowledgeable recording engineer, some actors and musicians and we’d be right back in business.
ALK: This is a big question: What do you feel has been lost with the move from analog recording digital?
JM: I would rephrase the question as “What has been gained?” I enjoyed working in the analog realm. Splicing tape was fun! But digital’s easier, faster and (I think most people would agree) better quality. I would rather have a MacBook in my basement today than a Studer A80.
ALK: How and why did you decide to write this book as a work of non-fiction? Did you consider using the same material but presenting it in a fictionalized form?
JM: I did consider fictionalizing the material and tried writing it that way, but it just didn’t work for me. I wanted people to know what it was like to work for CBC Radio during the period that I was writing about and the only way to do that effectively, in my view, was to just tell it like it was. I think there’s plenty of room for made-up stories about CBC Radio that are just fun or that reveal some deeper truth the way that only fiction can, and I may well tell those stories someday, but it wasn’t the right approach for this project.
ALK: What is the most valuable piece of writing advice you have ever been given?
JM: Finish it. Finish it! Then move on to the next one. And then the one after that.
ALK: Are you aware of having taken some deliberate risks in the preparation of this book? Please explain.
JM: Writing about real people and real events and a real company that I spent thirty-five years working for felt risky. I wanted to share my experiences and my approach to creating radio in a way that wasn’t mean but that also didn’t gloss over hurtful, baffling events like strikes and lockouts and so forth. I tried to mitigate the risks via expert editing and by sharing what I was writing with the people and the organization I was writing about to flush out any concerns. I think that strategy worked.
ALK: Please tell us a little about the writing spaces or environments that work best for you. Are there particular items that you like to have in place?
JM: I never seem to have enough time to write so I can’t be precious about when and where I write. I will write on planes, trains, beside pools, in cafes, morning, noon and night. I will write on laptops, scraps of paper, cellphones, and the palm of my hand. I will write in noisy environments and quiet environments. I come from the Madeleine L’Engle school of writing in which I will write five words, change a diaper (so to speak, though that once was the case for me), and then write five more. All that matters to me is that I eventually finish what I’m writing, whatever it takes.
ALK: How was the title chosen for this book? Who had input and what were the deciding factors?
JM: I chose the title myself. I didn’t overthink it. I just wanted a fun title that summed up the book. I think Adventures in the Radio Trade accomplishes that. It starts with A so it’s going to come near the beginning in any list. It also references one of my favourite memoirs, Adventures in the Screen Trade, by William Goldman. Much the same way the photograph on the front cover references another memoir I enjoyed, Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, which also features three guys poised to do their job.
ALK: Was there anything edited out of this book that you wish you could have included? Why was it cut?
JM: I had intended to include an unflattering anecdote about a well-known individual who visited our studios one day and had a bit of a temper tantrum when technical issues resulted in the booking taking longer than expected. I included the anecdote initially because I thought it was dramatic and revealing. But I wanted to be fair to this individual, so I reached out to them for their recollection of the incident. This person was under no obligation to respond to me, but they did. Not surprisingly, they didn’t remember the event, which took place over thirty years ago. They challenged some of the details I’d included which I realized I couldn’t prove and could well have had wrong, like in the “boots versus sneakers” example I provided earlier. To their credit, this person said, “It’s your book, you can write whatever you want.” But considering the magnitude of this person’s positive contributions to society versus this one tiny error in judgment on their part, the context of which I may not have understood and may have had wrong, and the fact that my book is about making radio, not embarrassing people, I decided at the last moment to cut it. It was the right decision.
Joe Mahoney is a writer and a broadcaster. As a broadcaster, he has produced multiple radio documentaries on science fiction. Joe’s short fiction has been published in Canada, Australia and Greece. He’s been nominated three times for an Aurora Award, one of Canada’s top awards for science fiction and fantasy, though he’s yet to win the damned thing. A Time and a Place is his first novel, but he’s well into his second, working title Captain’s Away. He has also published a collection of short fiction entitled Other Times and Places and a memoir on his career in radio called Adventures in the Radio Trade. Joe lives in Riverview, NB with his wife, a Sheltie, and a Siberian forest cat.