Q&A: The Born Freelancer talks with Sam Levene about the life and times of CBC Radio drama

This series of posts by the Born Freelancer shares personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something to add to the conversation? Your input is welcome in the comments.

As a follow up to my previous post about the death of CBC Radio drama I contacted CMG freelancer Sam Levene whose excellent CBC Radio documentary on The Sunday Edition about “The Investigator” inspired me to write my post in the first place. “The Investigator” was a 1954 CBC Radio drama production that many still consider the high water mark in this country’s “golden age of radio” drama output.

Sam Levene spent almost 30 years working in current affairs, documentary, and drama as a CBC Television producer. Afterwards he began making radio documentaries as a freelancer. Coming to radio late he finds it “perhaps the most satisfying work” he’s ever done. Sam resides in Toronto and remains a lifelong fan of radio drama. He currently produces videos for a charitable organization that works with underprivileged children. What follows is an edited version of our recent conversation.

About “The Investigator”

First, I asked Sam to speculate on “The Investigator”‘s contemporary appeal — particularly for its American listeners — which took many Canadians by surprise when a bootleg album of it mysteriously appeared south of the border and enjoyed a widespread cult success.

SAM LEVENE: Americans who came across the bootleg recording and who’d been frightened and scandalized by the career and even life-destroying tactics of McCarthy and his colleagues — well, they were stunned by its power and wit and how it cleverly skewered McCarthy and everything he stood for. One of my interviewees, an American who’d settled in Montreal, spoke of the relief he and his left-leaning family felt when they heard it. So Canadians could enjoy it and feel a bit smug. Anti-McCarthy Americans were thrilled because it so accurately depicted their dilemma at the time.

THE BORN FREELANCER: Isn’t it true that “The Investigator”‘s scriptwriter was treated horribly by the American authorities at the time and was actually deported back to Canada, which in some way inspired him to write the play?

SL: The Canadian writer, Reuben Ship, had been working in U.S. radio, writing, among other things, the popular comedy series Life of Riley. Somehow he came under the scrutiny of McCarthy’s Senate Subcommittee on Investigations. He was not only blacklisted but actually rudely deported from the U.S., treated like a criminal. So he came back to Canada and wrote four plays for the CBC, two of them produced for The Stage radio series produced by Andrew Allan. One was Ship’s way of getting even — “The Investigator.”

TBF: Why do you think the production was so important in its day — aside from its outstanding creative qualities?

SL: I believe it showed that Canadian writers and producers in the radio medium at the time could create not only brilliant, but tough and hard-hitting, daring, controversial scripts and productions. Mind you, taking on a villain from across the border was perhaps easier than attacking someone here, had someone like that existed. Still, it was brave in the atmosphere of the time, for the influence of McCarthy and his ilk, the HUAC and etc., could be felt here to some extent. Fear-mongering is catching, and I think there were a few assholes in public life at the time who supported the attacks on “commies and pinkos” out to destroy our Canadian traditions and way of life.


To hear some sample audio from “The Investigator,” click here. The full broadcast is available here (though in a file format that requires you to download RealPlayer).


CBC Radio documentaries

TBF: Your 2005 documentary “Subversive Radio: The Story of The Investigator” for The Sunday Edition was recently repeated by them to commemorate the death of CBC Radio drama. Did you have to pitch them in order to do it?

SL: I didn’t have to sell this particular one to The Sunday Edition. It was their idea and they knew and, I guess, respected my work and thought I was right for it.

TBF: So how did you come to do radio documentaries for them in the first place? Was it your impressive background as a staff producer at CBC Television?

SL: If you mean generally as a freelancer… my experience was limited. After I left CBC staff as a TV doc and drama producer I returned on freelance contracts, initially writing a couple of scripts for CBC TV’s Life and Times series. I was able to sell myself based on my long years of experience there. Radio was another matter. I knew no one and when I showed my CV it was all TV work and perhaps the first reaction was “So this guy’s been working in TV all this time. What makes him think he can just waltz in here and start doing radio? They’re not the same thing.” However I got a trial run, on an idea I proposed honouring the 100th anniversary of the great composer-bandleader Duke Ellington, a hero of mine. They liked the result — although I had to have a lot of technical help with the editing on that first one — and I was welcome to contribute more ideas and to consider stories they suggested to me. It was a very happy working relationship with The Sunday Edition, one of the happiest of my entire 40-plus years career.

TBF: Let’s talk shop. Regarding the mechanics of putting together your documentary (albeit back in 2005) for The Sunday Edition — what was the actual process?

SL: I worked in exactly the same way as those on staff or full time. Initially I used their recording equipment. After a couple of shows I bought myself a mic and a Sony MiniDisc recorder — as they were using them at the time (I never saw anything become obsolete so fast) — and went out in the usual way and recorded the interviews and other sound as needed, came back and edited on their equipment in their little editing rooms, using a then popular computer-editing program called Soundscape. I had quickly learned how to do it myself, feeling pleased with myself as an old dog who’d learned a new trick. Now of course, seven years later, Soundscape is in mothballs.

TBF: I noticed your “Investigator” documentary had no scripted narrator. It worked extremely well. Did your other documentaries for CBC Radio use the more traditional “narrator” technique?

SL: Most of mine did. But here the voices of the interviewees — each of whom introduced themselves — and the excerpts from the drama carried the whole thing. I had quite a few interviews and used some archive interview material and, of course, a lot of excerpts from the original show as well as a couple of short clips from the actual Army-McCarthy hearings to show how eerily accurate was John Drainie’s performance. Completing an edit of the program I played it for The Sunday Edition producer, Karen Levine. She suggested a few changes, I made them — and that was it. I usually wrote an introduction to my docs which host Michael Enright would revise as he wished.


You can find Sam’s documentary “Subversive Radio: The Story of The Investigator” as part of The Sunday Edition‘s recent farewell to CBC Radio drama here [scroll down to HOUR THREE and click “listen here”]. Sam’s doc was a 2006 Finalist in the category of International Radio Programming in the prestigious New York Festivals.


The death of CBC Radio drama

TBF: Finally, let’s talk about the death of radio drama on the CBC — which was the reason The Sunday Edition repeated your doc just recently. What are your thoughts — what does it mean to you?

SL: I’m of the generation that grew up listening to CBC Radio drama — I came along in the last part of the “golden age.” I loved it, it meant a great deal to me and it was one of the inspirations that led me to a career in broadcasting and to remain here in Canada despite having gone to school in the U.S. So I’m saddened and angry about the decision to kill the last of CBC Radio drama. I know that the people who are forced to make cuts because of the Harper government’s brutal chopping of the budget have to cut something, and no doubt they feel that radio drama is a thing of the past with a tiny audience potential. But I can’t believe that the cost of radio drama is a significant one, and I don’t accept that there is no audience. Audio drama is alive and well on the internet, as I’m now learning, and radio drama continues on the BBC. But here once again we find ourselves dumbing down, placing too much emphasis on ratings, commercializing the Corporation. It’s a shame, as it has been for a long time. This is just the latest example. I know it’s easy to sit here and take potshots and it’s tough to make the cuts, but I regret the lack of a sense of our cultural history and of what we lose by abandoning it.


For more information about the history of CBC Radio drama Sam suggests looking into the CBC Radio drama archives site created by Dr. Howard Fink at the Centre for Broadcasting Studies, Concordia University.


My thanks to Sam Levene for generously submitting to my interrogation for this post! Perhaps another time he will be willing to talk again in more detail about his unique transition from CBC TV producer to fellow freelancer. Meanwhile I look forward to his next documentary on The Sunday Edition — whatever its subject.

I’d like to say again how much his “Investigator” doc inspired me to reflect upon what CBC Radio drama meant to me and to Canada — and what its passing will mean for the future of audio drama in this country. It demonstrates (to me anyway) that a well-executed radio documentary has an unparalleled power to engage and to motivate and that as such it is a power every freelancer with an issue they feel passionate about should learn to harness.

Posted on May 11, 2012 at 9:54 am by editor · · Tagged with: , , , , ,

2 Responses

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  1. Written by Beverley Cooper
    on September 10, 2012 at 10:46 am
    Reply · Permalink

    Hi there,
    Thanks for these posts about radio drama.
    I was so upset about the death of radio drama, back in the spring I wrote a letter with many prominent Canadians quoted, telling what radio drama meant to them. You can see it here:


  2. Written by editor
    on September 10, 2012 at 12:17 pm
    Reply · Permalink

    Wonderful letter, thank you for sharing the link.

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