Audio Documentary – Advice from a Lecturer

One of the reasons I’m absolutely loving my time as a lecturer at the University of Sunderland is working alongside skilled lecturers who have been.  And occasionally, I get to sit in on a class.  I never took a specific radio documentary class during my Media Production BA, so it was great to see what I’d missed out on first time round, and gather some more techniques from an industry professional/lecturer.  Intellectual osmosis at its best!

And in the spirit of paying it forward, I’m passing on the insight to you too.

So, a lot of Andy Cartwright’s documentaries on BBC Radio are unified in some interesting way by a running theme; something that ties the documentary together.  For example, in a documentary about the “shoddy” trade in Batley, he used a train ride linking the towns in West Yorkshire together, and explored the landscape through stopping at different destinations.  Narrative shaping devices like this smooth the structure, and give the documentary a hook to keep a listener on board.

But don’t be afraid to be experimental.  I’ve heard radio documentaries that are tied together by a dramatic narrative as well, such as the Charles Parker 2015’s prize-winning entry; it’s an investigation into the supernatural story of Black Shuck, however we’re led expertly through the supernatural segments by atmospheric sound pictures bringing the stories to life.  We hear the dog, the trees, the creaky church doors…  It’s structured almost like a radio drama at times, and I really enjoyed these elements.  However, he did mention that when using sound effects to support an audio documentary, it’s best not to mirror what the interviewee is talking about.  Be more suggestive. But, whatever technique you do, follow a journey, and get your listeners invested!

Another cool tip is to introduce an interviewee with one of their key sentences, or a great stand-alone soundbite, before the presenter introduces them (if you do opt for a presenter led documentary).  It’s another way to hook your listener; and continuing to do that throughout your piece is so important, especially for longer documents, to keep your audience attentive and on your frequency.

The audio documentary industry has established certain ground rules over its time, and so it’s wise to stick to some key structural elements and avoid sounding jarring.  In a documentary section that features two voices at once, crediting is key.  If you order people “incorrectly”, if there is even such a thing, it’ll sound “wrong”.  Here’s what to do – if your narrator is saying the name of two or more people before you hear them, they credit the first person you hear last, whereas if your narrator speaks afterwards, they should credit the last person you hear first

Think about your structure, using likeminded interview segments together effectively, or use juxtaposition (strikingly different) when you want to be shocking or thought-provoking.  Think about a male-female balance, or (when relevant) different accents – make your piece sound “colourful”, as they say in radio.  Think about the eb and flow of speech, of each indivual, of the story.

Because audio documentaries by definition are, well, audio, when there’s no sound there’s nothing else – no images like visual mediums can rely on.  Successful radio dramas use this lack of sound, this silence, effectively.  A well-placed silence can have big impact, draw the listener’s attention, and be very interesting.

The world has changed a great deal since digital technology began, so here’s something I would never have advised – but having sat through the class, I certainly saw how this had merits.  Log your interviews.  Transcribe your material, even just a rough transcription.  If you’re making a long documentary, it’ll help leaps and bounds.  If you’re looking for someone some says, it’ll be much easier to search for specific words in a document than painstakingly trawl through your audio.  Andy also showed us how using the transcriptions allows you to construct a structure quickly & effectively, by highlighting on paper what you intend to include.  And, you know what?  I learnt something there!  (I’m a huge believer in the notion that you never stop learning.

So.  Just some handy tips if you’re interested in producing audio documentaries.  Because of technology today, It’s never been easier to put together an effective audio documentary – you can head out with a smart phone, interview some people you know and mix them together in an editing software.  And if you’re already producing audio documentary, (or even video documentary), hopefully you can take something else away from this blog post.

And if you have any suggestions yourself, do leave a comment below.

Until next time…

Stay productive, stay awesome!

– Jay

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