Uniting listening Canada, pushing hard musical drugs and making a show that’s actually a show: Colin Marshall talks to Laurie Brown and Andy Sheppard, host and producer of CBC Radio 2’s The Signal

Laurie Brown and Andy Sheppard are the host and producer, respectively, of The Signal on CBC Radio 2. Since debuting in March of 2007, the program has evolved to provide a highly distinctive listening experience that offers two skillfully-curated hours of late-night contemporary music to listeners across Canada — and, via the internet, the world — that’s neither predictable nor easily genrefiable. Brown accompanies Sheppard’s unusual sonic selections with commentary that’s long impressed fans with its friendliness, intimacy and wealth of odd stories. Colin Marshall originally conducted this conversation on the public radio program and podcast The Marketplace of Ideas. [MP3, with music] [iTunes link]

Signal1 I got hooked on this show when an American friend of mine who moved to Vancouver sent me a link and said, “You've got to hear this show they've got going up here.” I listened to it, and I was pretty immediately hooked. I've tried to spread the word to people who aren't Canadian and thus don't have a great knowledge of what the CBC puts out and why they should listen to it even if they aren't Canadian. But I've had a little problem describing what sort of music The Signal plays. All I can say is that “it's really good” and “you've got to listen.” “Modern” comes to mind, “contemporary” comes to mind, but these are vague words. What do you guys call it?

Laurie: It's just as hard for us as it is for you. This has been a real head-scratcher since the show went on the air. We've got lots of different names, and because we play so many genres of music, it's really easy to spout off a whole bunch of different things: “Oh, it's ambient, it's electronic, it's electronica, it's sort of freaky folk, it's avant-garde jazz, it's post-rock…” You can list and list and list. The thing that makes the most sense to me is, just think about late-night radio and think about the kind of music and the places you really want your brain to go at 10:00 through to midnight. “Late-night radio,” for me, makes more sense than anything else. Andy?

Andy: It's a trick, isn't it? We're programming a lot of music that exists at the intersection of different styles. I think that's the big thing I'm looking for. We're not going to play straight folk music or straight singer-songwriter or neo-classical music but music where the lines cross. You'll have a classical musician paired with a DJ or a world musician and an electronic artist. Those kind of crossover intersections I find the most compelling, and it's one of the ways I frame the idea of contemporary music. It's how people are making music now. What are they doing differently now, so it sounds like it's coming from this time?

I don't know if “dissipation of genres” is the right term, but do you hear genre borders breaking down in music at large, or is this one one current of many in contemporary music?

Laurie: I think I hear it happening more and more. A really easy way to tell is, when we started in 2007, the little pile of CDs we started the show with were well-used. I would say in the last six months, maybe a little more than that, all of a sudden we're finding way, way, way more music that fits for us. I can only look at the amount of CDs that we're able to play and say, “Something is happening here.” We're hearing way more of that kind of cross-genre music-making going on.

Andy: I think, too, it's not just the crossing of genres that are closely related, but things that are fairly distant — or you would think they're fairly distant. I just picked up Sam Amidon's recent recording that has been orchestrated by a classically trained composer, Nico Muhly, and the songs sound like they were written during the Civil War. They have that American folkloresque feel, but they're totally recontextualized. That's a big part of our show, taking music that people can get and can understand and can hold on to, but placing it in a different space. All of a sudden it becomes something new.

I want to get back to this idea you mentioned, Laurie, of music as material to craft a nighttime space. As I believe I read in a blog post about how The Signal is put together, you guys originally came together at the CBC with simply the idea of making a night music program. Was that the actual seed of it, no more than, “We want to make something that is music suitable for the nighttime,” then it grew from there?

Laurie: What we were told is, it needed to be a contemporary music show. That's what we were given. We knew we would be dealing with all kinds of new classical music, and we were actually allowed to come up with the definition of “contemporary music” ourselves. But we knew that it would include the whole end of new classical music as well. Basically, that was it. I said I wanted to do a radio show, and Andy was the producer they wanted to create something new with. We sat down together and started naming artists, seeing where we collided musically. It turned out to be in exactly the same place.

What opened up the opportunity to create The Signal? I talk to people who are longtime Radio 2 listeners, and they'll say, “Essentially they were playing jazz before, and then things kind of suddenly changed up to something…” There are jazzy elements to some of the tracks, no doubt, but what opened the space to create this?

Andy: There was a long period of study of the audience listening to CBC Radio 2. It was decided by management that things needed to shift. Jazz is still a major component on the schedule, but it has been moved to earlier in the evening to target those most interested in that style of music. So they commissioned this broad study looking at what Canadians were interested in, what types of music, as a public broadcaster, we should be playing on the air.

This grand plan came along to redevelop the whole network. Part of it was to appeal to a wider demographic of Canadians. It's a diverse country. Wide ranges of cultural backgrounds and ages. It was decided that the service needed to open up and be more things to more people. That was where they decided to create this block of contemporary music, to appeal to those sort of musically curious types who were interested in staying up late and discovering new music. That was a big part of the idea behind it.

Laurie: And that's what I wanted the show to be, too, because I didn't have a place I could listen for new music. My friends were telling me, “Oh, have you heard this? Have you heard that?” but there wasn't one place I could go and find the kind of music I was looking for. If there's been a response that seems universal, it's like, “Wow! Now I know I'm listening to find new music.” People are always saying, “I need more information on this artist or that artist.” To me, the thrill of discovery, of finding a new artist that you fall in love with, is so important. That was really missing for this kind of music. For me, that's the best part of the job, thinking that I'm playing new pieces of music that somebody out there is just going to fall in love with, and that's it.

It is something I found about the show: it was a reminder of something that had become a rarity, which is hearing something broadcast on a radio and actually being intrigued to find out more. Another thing that really surprised me, hearing it, is that I never really expected — and I'm not quite sure how to put this — to hear something quite so adventurous come from a national broadcaster of the CBC's size. What about Radio 2, or maybe the CBC, is it that allows that much freedom? Typically, I don't hear it in most broadcasters that are nationally-based, if you know what I mean.

Laurie: Wow. I'm surprised. I listen to a lot of NPR out of the states, and I hear a lot of very adventuresome music. When I think of going for something different, I always think of public radio. The CBC has had a long history, particularly in radio, of doing very wild, adventurous things. I keep thinking back to when they let Glenn Gould loose in the studio to make his fantastic radio documentaries. There are all kinds of those gems that the CBC can pat itself on the back for, taking chances and doing crazy things like that. I don't think that way about public broadcasting, and I'm not sure that Canadians do, either. I think Canadians expect something different from their public broadcasters, and whenever we veer too close to sounding or looking like the mainstream, they let us know it very loudly and clearly.

It does get to an issue I'm fascinated to ask about. This is, of course, a show on the CBC. It's a Canadian show. What to your mind, is especially Canadian about it? Of course there are Canadian composers played on it, Canadian musicians played on it, more Canadian composers and musicians than a listener like me could get anywhere else, certainly. I know this is a vague, nebulous sounding question, but what is the Canadian-ness of the show?

Laurie: Andy's pointing at me to take this question. I feel like the show is on the edge. It's on the edge in a few ways: first, time-wise, at night. It's late night, and you can be a little more adventuresome. You're on the edge at night, when you're playing things and you can go further. I always think that Canadian artists have felt they've been on the edge, close to the outside of things, never quite being accepted fully into the mainstream. It's partly living right next to the United States and trying to compete with the kind of bellowing that comes from American culture over the border.

If there is a sense of something Canadian about it, it's that it is on the edge and playing things that maybe are not going to get a huge, widespread, mainstream audience, and that's okay. It's music that's perhaps a little quieter, a little more introspective, a little more personal, a little more intimate. I think that all fits with the time of night we're playing it, and it feels like home to me.

Andy: There's an element of Canadian composers and Canadian musicians looking outwards as well, trying to frame their worldview in a different way than you might hear from European or American artists. There's certainly a connection to space, the vast spaces we have in this country, that really amazing diversity of cultures and languages. Because the CBC in Canada, like the railway, is so key it's such a vast country and communities are spread so far apart there's this thing happening in the where artists are finding each other virtually. It's a nexus point that's happening now with this show.

In fact, we recorded a concert recently by an Inuit throat singer who lives in Nunavut and a violinist who lives in Vancouver and a drummer who lives in Toronto, bringing these three diverse musicians together. They created an incredible performance. They're separated by thousands and thousands of miles thousands of kilometers, I should say. It's a kind of unlikely country, in many ways, and the way that we talk to each other is different than a lot of countries.

So, unlikely country translates to unlikely music?

Andy: Yeah, I never thought of it that way, but I wonder if it's part of it. We're separated by such distance and such history that the fact that we're able to communicate over these long distances by radio and by internet creates something that is unique.

The aesthetic of the program — there's so much more I want to know about this. Of course, we mentioned that there is the element of the late night, but what else did, in the beginning, you consider to be the sensibility to be crafted? How defined was the aesthetic to start off with, and how much has it been simply a process of evolution, that it's come to have a certain feel with time? Did you want to create something specifically a certain aesthetic way, or has it developed, or what kind of balance has been struck?

Andy: It's a work in progress. Every day, when we put the show together, it's an attempt to create this perfect, seamless journey from the beginning of the show to the end of the show and from the beginning of the week to the end of the week. It's difficult, but it's an interesting challenge. One of the things we've tried to do is start the show in a way that is on the more accessible side, to lead people in. I like to joke and call the music the “gateway drugs to the harder stuff” as we progress further on into the night. So we're music-pushers, I guess.

That's sort of the idea: if you listen to the show from start to finish in a night, it'll start off in a fairly accessible way — shorter, song-based pieces that somehow connect to more challenging and interesting and artistically creative types of music as the show progresses. Over the week, we're looking at moving from more popular styles into improvised music and into electronic music and into contemporary concert music and world music. There's these two axes, one through the day and one through the week.

Laurie: My job and our job is to play music and to take people on the journey, one that tries to help them keep their ears open and create a sandbox of lots of different kinds of sounds that are new and that are challenging but not scary. To try to keep people curious about music, because I really am, and Andy is too. If we can just keep that, then you're okay. When people e-mail and say, “I just hated that piece you played with so and so and so and so, but then I loved the next one,” that's what we're looking for. People can say, “Oh, I just hated that piece, but I'm sticking around because I know that next one's going to be completely different.”

How often do you actually get feedback to that level of extreme, where someone will write in saying, “I hated this,” someone will write in say, “I loved this” — someone will say both, as you've just illustrated. How much of the polar feedback to you get?

Laurie: It's remarkably positive. I keep waiting for it to not be remarkably positive. It isn't very often that you get somebody even saying they dislike a track that much. That's the good part. If we end up putting people in a certain mindset and creating a certain atmosphere, that's a better thing. Between the blogs and the Facebook page and the e-mail address, we get a fair amount of feedback.

I'd like to know a bit about but nuts and bolts of the actual production of the program. What is the system you two have set up, where you do the selection and the review and the recording and the final production of it? What has gelled as the way The Signal comes together?

Andy: I don't want to bore you with the technical details, but musicians from across the country, composers, record labels — from around the world, for that matter — send us CDs. We also have access to a vast music library in the CBC network. We have built our own library specific to the show; a big part of my job is loading in material I think is going to work well for us, either as I'm programming music or for later. The first part is, we've built this library. A large portion is Canadian, but we play all sorts of music from around the world as well. Then we have remote producers from across the country, in all the CBC locations, who go out and record concerts, live music performances, of mostly Canadian artists but some international artists. We play a certain amount of live-recorded material every week.

I'll assemble a skeleton playlist, and I do a lot of it in iTunes, believe it or not. I hand Laurie an iPod with the latest mix, and she feeds back to me with ideas and suggestions of other pieces that could fit into the mix. We sort of build it that way. Then we have a snazzy studio that we put everything together in during the week. We record the show to a computer system and it gets broadcast out to the air that night.

It is a very attractive element of the program that there's an actual — maybe this just speaks to the sad state of a lot of music radio in the world, but — it's actually a program. I've worked a bit in music radio, from time to time, and whenever I do, the music show under construction is thought of by management more as a block or a chunk or a stream than as an actual show that is built, that goes through phases of development, that is designed to, as we said before, start out with a gateway, then move to something different and maybe a little more challenging.

How much of the goal was to make a show that was, for lack of a better term, a show? Is this even something in you guys' minds, or is it just the default — “Of course we're making a contained program every night, because that's what we do at the CBC.” It doesn't register as a stand against the increasingly unprogrammed programs that are very prevalent in music radio?

Maybe you're getting at this idea that a lot of mainstream radio is programmed by a computer, that things are pre-selected. I don't think we're taking a stand against that in particular. Commercial radio has figured out what works for them, and they use formulas to determine how often to play a song, that sort of thing. But for us it's just nice to be able to hand-pick the music, and to find sonic connections between pieces of music that a computer wouldn't be able to recognize. Laurie weaves these amazing stories through the show that she couldn't do if the material was being spit out by a computer. It's more time-consuming, granted, but it's a nicer way to make music radio.

Laurie: Yeah, I don't think I'd be interested in doing radio if it wasn't like this. This is how both Andy and I get creatively satisfied, feeling like we are creating the journey, and that every night is a different picture we're painting. For me, that's where I get my creative kicks, feeling like we're creating a mood and we're painting pictures every night, and the mood is different because of the music. In some ways, it is kind of old-style radio. I said from the beginning I didn't want to write anything, so we're hand-picking the songs, and I'm listening to all the music and I'm just spouting. It really is like old-style radio.

Because you mention, Andy, that Laurie weaves a lot of stories into the show, I'm reminded of a question that I know my Signal-listening friends would get angry if I didn't ask. Laurie, how exactly have you accumulated so many interesting stories in life?

Laurie: I've lived it, I guess. I just happen to be living it. I have no idea. People ask me, “Are you going to run out any time soon?” I couldn't possibly! You think about it; how many stories could you tell about your father or your uncle or your cat or your grade four English teacher? The trick is just to keep open to those stories. The programming actually has an awful lot to do with that, because there have been other times when different people have programmed, or I've been trying to do the same thing to different kinds of music, and the stories just don't come. The music does a lot to creatively inspire people. But no, I only made up half of a story once

Andy: And I called her on it.

Laurie: He said, “Is that true?” And I said, “Okay, the ending part isn't true, but everything else is true.”

To tack a more serious question on to that, what do you think of — to the extent that you think consciously about it — as the companion you want to me to the music? Of course, you do talk about the music, but you don't spend all your time explaining the music. I can't quite break down the proportions, but what do you think of as the kind of presence you want to be on The Signal?

Laurie: I want to be someone who understands that the people listening know as much about music as I do, and that their opinions matter just as much as mine. I'm not an expert. I want to be someone who you feel, when you're listening, that you know me really well, and I'm speaking to you as if I know you really well. It's that time of night. How many people, at midnight, are whispering in your ear, other than the people who know you incredibly well? It is a very intimate time of night to be speaking with people, and it's something I think about quite a bit, because I could cross the line. It's a very sort of precious space. That's the fine line I'm trying to find all the time, to be real and be honest and talk about real things to people so that they'll nod their head and go, “Yep, I thought that too.”

It is a complicated issue in radio as well, that it is what I'll call a “one-way” at the moment you're recording it intimacy. When you're recording the show, the listeners aren't actively feeding back to you. They're not hearing it at the time. What is your strategy to maintain that level of intimacy without having synchronous feedback from the listener, if you know what I mean?

Laurie: It's looking at Andy. That's what it is. I look at him through the glass. He is every listener, all rolled into one great package at the other side of the glass.

That's intriguing, because this seems to me to be unusual, from what I've done in radio. This is a show that's recorded, but it's recorded in real time. You're both there, then? You're present, hearing the show as it records, as it develops, as you talk, as the music plays?

Laurie: Yep.

And what does that contribute to it, you think, that method?

Laurie: It means, a lot of the time, that what I thought I was going to say at the end of a song doesn't happen. Something else happens again. Andy, for you, listening in real time makes a difference to your programming, doesn't it?

Andy: Yeah, we'll make changes as we go, as you hear a show unfold. That happened today. We were recording the show, and there was a piece that just kind of went on a little too long, so we made a nip and a tuck and moved on. It helped the pacing. You can connect to what's happening, and I find, certainly when I'm programming the night before and listen the next day, I think, “Oh, well, this could change.” There's a different perspective you bring to it, and it's always nice to have another set of ears listening to it before we send it out into the world.

I'm a pretty huge fan of openness to chance and improvisation myself. How often does that sort of thing happen, where, on the fly, something changes? Do things change to a large magnitude, or is it a lot of little ways The Signal changes from the plan as you put it together:

Andy: Because Laurie's not scripted, the time of the program expands and contracts, so we have to make decisions. A lot of programming, certainly on CBC, happens this way. A lot of the live shows that happen during the day on Radio 2, producers are making decisions as they go. If news happens while their show is on, then they might make changes. The same for us. I will have sent a playlist home with Laurie the night prior, and then the next day some important person may have passed away, or some big news has happened and we want to make changes. We want to be connected to what's happening in the world of music, and in the world at large as well.

If you'll forgive me for dropping such a grand question in the final few minutes of the show, when you're recording, when you're planning, when you're selecting music, when you're talking, whatever you two are doing, how do you envision, or who do you envision as, the ideal Signal listener, the one who is extremely engaged in the show? Who do you picture when you picture that?

Laurie: Me. I love this show. I love this show

That makes two of us, and probably three, if you love it, Andy.

Laurie: For me, the mystery of it is that there are loads of different kinds of people. I see university students stuck with headphones on their head coming out of their laptop late at night, far away from home. The other night, there was a guy that was sleeping in the back of his 1986 Crown Victoria in Summerside, P.E.I. who had traveled from California. He'd turned off the car, turned up the radio and was looking at the stars, listening to the show.

I picture all kinds of people. There are people up north in cabins that have constructed some kind of strange rabbit ears situation to be able to get the program and are feeding wood into a wood stove. The scope of there the program can reach and the number of different kinds of people it can reach is just mind-boggling and overwhelming to me. That is the joy of being able to do a national radio show.

Any visions from Andy?

Andy: Music that speaks to me is the stuff that I'll program. From that perspective, I'm wanting to share things that have touched me in some way. I'm trying to imagine people listening and finding common ground. There are so many different ways to listen to music, and I think that's where some of the success of our show happens. People with open ears and open minds can find different ways to experience this music. Like Laurie said, it's kind of impossible to picture a single person.

I know some shows do audience focus testing and stuff like that, and you have your kind of ideal 27- to 32-year-old executive or whatever, and I think for us, we're constantly surprised by the range of people who are listening, who are interested in the show, who bring their own unique perspective to the music. They'll hear something in the songs we've played that we've missed. All of a sudden, we'll hear it in a different way.

There's a kind of community that's being built around this show. Certainly the musicians that have been featured on the program are starting to get to know us, and we're finding this really wonderful feedback loop happening where an artist will have been listening to the show for a while and will create new music. Or new art, for that matter; we had a blog posting where artists from across the country were listening to the show while they were creating their sculptures or their paintings. That openness and the idea that anything can be art, that the experience and the creation of art is manifold and different for everyone and we're all in this together.

Laurie: Listening is an art, too, really. You remind me that, right at the beginning, we decided that, whatever kind of music we were going to play, we had to have an emotional connection to it. At its base, there had to be some kind of an emotional connection. That has been a guiding principle. You've got 80-year-old shut-ins who are listening to the show and connecting to it, and I think that's where they're finding it. At its heart, it's got a lot of emotion to it, I hope.

All feedback welcome at colinjmarshall at gmail.