A Rush and a Push: The Making of a CBC Radio Piece

CBC Radio’s Sook Yin Lee, host of Definitely Not the Opera

If you’re ever in the Edmonton City Centre and you see a person sprinting past the stores and coffee shops, pounding over the hard tile floors, doing that funny, ginger stomp down moving escalators, either you’re witnessing the flight of a very bad shoplifter or the frenzy of someone late for a taping at the Canadian Broadcast Corporation studios located at the far eastern end of the building.

Last Friday, that CBC bound mall-sprinter was me.

It was the seventh time I’ve done work for CBC Radio.  Sure, the very existence of Canada’s public broadcaster is considered controversial by some and acknowledged as tenuous by just about everyone.  But for now, it’s still a functioning organization that treats its contributors with respect and class.  I’ve always enjoyed working with them.

My first CBC gig was with the Sunday afternoon spirituality and religion program, Tapestry.  I put on a big, foamy headset, leaned into a microphone and read an essay I’d written about my grandmother – an essay I eventually re-read at her funeral as an exhausted 30-year-old involuntarily fasting with grief.

The six other pieces I’ve done for the CBC have been for the Saturday afternoon story-telling magazine, Definitely Not the Opera (DNTO).  As my producer told me the first time we met, “DNTO is way cooler than Tapestry.”  That’s not to say none of my DNTO work will ever be part of a eulogy but it does tend to be lighter and less lyrical.

A DNTO piece isn’t supposed to sound like it’s being read.  There’s no script and no rehearsal.  It’s supposed to sound spontaneous and conversational.  But like my sister-in-law, a veteran on-air personality of the University of Alberta’s student radio station says, “The best off-the-cuff speaking is the kind that isn’t really off-the-cuff at all.”

She’s right.  And though I can’t make any pre-show notes, I can’t help spending the hour-long car ride from my house to the studio babbling to myself, ironically practicing sounding breezy and conversational. As I speed along the Alberta Autobahn, I compose and repeat the story to myself until the sad parts don’t make me cry and the stupid parts don’t make me sound quite so stupid and every extraneous “um” goes away.

I begin the trip convinced that, this time, I’ve left early enough that there’s no chance of me having to make that desperate, frantic dash from the crowded downtown Edmonton parkade to the studio at the far end of the building.  This time, I won’t be standing in the elevator, trying to catch my breath, aware that the producer is already on the line from Winnipeg, waiting for the hack freelancer to appear.  But it never happens the way I’ve planned.  The mad rush to the finish is just part of the experience for me, I guess – just another pre-game adrenaline spike.

The recording itself is the easy part.  DNTO pieces are personal stories and there’s nothing most of us are better at talking about than ourselves.  The producers prompt with questions and politely ask for clarifications.  The process takes about forty very pleasant minutes.

And from that forty minutes, the story is edited into a tight five minute item.  I’m always nervous during the editing process.  I’m not included in it.  The whole thing happens in a black box about a thousand miles away from where I wait for the results.  It’s not until I tune in my radio with the rest of the country on Saturday afternoon that I hear how my rambling story-telling has been carved up and digested.  The waiting and fussing — it’s scary.  But I haven’t been disappointed yet.

The CBC and I are on again this Saturday, March 30 2013 at 1:30pm.  Hope to talk to you then.

Until then, here’s something from the archives, a previous DNTO piece featuring me:

http://www.cbc.ca/player/Radio/DNTO/Warm+your+Cold+Heart/   Click on the link called “The Joy of Silence.”

UPDATE: The episode of DNTO I’m talking about above has now been posted.  Here’s the link.  It’s not a hardship to listen to a whole episode but if you’re my mom or something and you just want to get to my bit, it’s at about 38.5 minutes into the program.

http://www.cbc.ca/dnto/episode/2013/03/20/when-did-you-face-the-odds/

One thought on “A Rush and a Push: The Making of a CBC Radio Piece

  1. Pingback: Facing Up to Poetry | Jennifer Quist

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