Radio Adjacent

By Olivia Collette

My mother hard at work
Bill Peterson hosting The Top of the Charts.
Me at age 4, getting a head start.

Most people don't know this about me, but I grew up in the radio environment. Through a series of unlikely events, my mother and I ended up in Lahr, Germany from 1977 to 1987, where the Canadian Armed Forces were based. She worked at their TV and radio station called CFN/RFC. All told, it was a bit smelly. Back in those days, you could smoke indoors, at work. The recording studio had a stale, fungal odor, and I'm pretty sure the padded beige walls were white once. I remember the newsroom, which was empty but for a row clunky machines spitting out frantic wires from around the world.

It was an earnest environment with upbeat broadcasters, who consistently looked nothing like their fluid voices suggested. Since my mother worked in the media library, she got acquainted with each DJ's musical preferences. Neil always clutched a bundle of classical records. Bill liked predicting the next big hits (he and my mother both prophesied Corey Hart mania).

At around this time, I started taking piano lessons. My mother's friends had a daughter who could play a beautiful version of Richard Clayderman's "Ballade pour Adeline." After hearing it, I declared "me too!" We discovered that I had a knack for this piano thing. I learned songs quickly thanks to a good memory and double-jointed fingers. I carried on with piano lessons for most of my young life, taking a brief break between the ages of 14 and 16. What prompted the return was hearing a performance of Jean-Philippe Rameau's "Gavotte in A minor."

In 1994, I was admitted into the Université de Moncton's music program. That first year of college is something you just can't recreate in scale or greatness. Having my own place was the cherry on top. I lived in a boarding house for women run by a kind German landlady. There were six rooms, each fully furnished. You could add a TV or phone, but that was extra. Otherwise, rent covered electricity and the room. When I moved in, I only brought my clothing and the boombox I'd had since I was 13 and discovered I wanted to listen to my music in my room on my terms.

Then came the routine. My classes were all in the morning and my afternoons were spent practicing piano for hours. When I didn't give in to the temptation of campus bars, I'd retreat to my room for the evening and study. On quiet nights, I'd turn on the radio, always at the same station: CBC. Each evening had its own purpose: radio theatre on Mondays, contemporary Wednesdays, organ Thursdays and so forth. It was like coming home and applying what I'd learned in class. It was exquisitely peaceful, and it was all mine. I loved being a music student, but I eventually switched programs because of a BMus grad's limited career options. It was one of the hardest decisions I've ever made, and that's never going to change.

A whole English degree later, I'm in the workforce. Despite a slow start, my career has taken me to all sorts of interesting places: community journalism, travel writing, PR for luxury brands, advertising. I've also freelanced quite a bit, which meant working from home in surroundings that I shaped to my liking. It also meant a lot of radio. Some people like to work in front of the telly. Me? I need a soundtrack. One job I landed didn't let employees listen to music while working; I lasted about 3 months.

I like to start with a bang first thing in the morning, then I shift to classical until the early afternoon, a bit of talk radio until roughly 3:30pm, and some energetic electronica to wrap things up. I can't be bothered fiddling with a playlist so I let broadcasters do it for me and tune in to whoever can suit my whims. With the advent of streaming and Internet radio, my world got bigger, and for the better. I couldn't have discovered "This American Life" in any other way, or anything on NPR, really.

A career in radio evaded me, but I did get to write for the medium at some point. It was when I worked in advertising. I was a junior copywriter and I'd been assigned my very first radio ad. I was nervous. I wasn't sure what to do, and condensing a lot of information into 30 seconds is more difficult than you've heard. It's the one instance when copywriters aren't paired with art directors. We're just left alone to figure it out.

I consulted "Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This," and the picture introducing the chapter on radio advertising sums it up beautifully. I talked to my colleague who'd done a few radio pieces herself, but it didn't help. Then the senior writer came into my office to chat.

"I heard you got your first radio spot," she said, with more enthusiasm than I could manage.

"Yeah," I shrugged. "I'm worried about it, though. Can't wrap my head around it."

"Really?" she said. "I love radio. It's just you and a pen." Funny how clarity rarely gets all dressed up.

So I put my headphones on, picked a stream and started writing.