This book plus experience will
be a good start for radio documentarist
The Radio Documentary Handbook: Creating, producing and selling
by Jurgen Hesse, International Self-Counsel Press,
Vancouver, 135 pp. $8.95
Reviewed by Robert Carty
As one story goes, Albert Einstein couldn't tell you how many feet
make up one mile. But the brilliant scientist was unperturbed by
his informational deficiency. Why fill the mind with data you can
look up in a book, he argued.
It's that distinction between the mind as repository of information
or as creative force that makes me suspicious of "how-to"
books. A little voice tells me that important things – the meaning
of life, say. or how to make a compelling radio documentary – can't
be taught by an A-through-Z checklist of do's, don't's and dictums.
Another voice says we learn from doing, from failing and from others
much better than we learn from books. And finally, my cynical side
simply groans that "how-to" books are dull.
Still, there's a place for the self-counsel book. For the novice
it's a starting point for exploring the unknown, a quick briefing
on what's involved in an endeavor. For the Einsteinian expert it's
the kind of book you might pull off the shelf to look up how someone
else does it.
That's the kind of book Jurgen Hesse has written. Wisely, he's avoided
claims of making someone off the street into an award-winning radio
producer. He's written a modestly titled "handbook" for
making radio documentaries. It's shy on conceptual thinking about
what makes a good documentary, but in 135 pages, Hesse gives sound,
crisp, and very practical advice about how to start thinking about
Jurgen Hesse has been a broadcast and print journalist for 25 years.
His CBC production "Trotsky in Exile" won the 1982
ACTRA award for best radio documentary. He draws on that experience
to explain the stages in developing an idea into a radio program:
how to make a proposal and "sell" it to editors; how to
begin research and reduce a bulk of information into a radio-sized
synthesis; what recording equipment to choose; how to use a microphone
and record clear interviews and sound effects; how to edit tape
and assemble a final product. He gives tips on the kind of voices
which sound good on radio, how to find both professional and amateur
interviewees, and how to make the narrator's voice carry a story
But Hesse is best when revealing some tricks of the trade – those
"how-to" secrets that sound so simple but come only from
experience. It's the small things, for example, that are invaluable
in a producer's kitbag: adhesive tape (repairing cords, taping microphones
in position), a small screwdriver, extra batteries, a good windsock.
Hesse extols the value of packing an umbrella – in a steady wind
an open umbrella can block the rumbling sounds of wind noise.
Hesse stresses the importance of quality recording. Listeners can't
fall back on all the messages people convey non-verbally. They only
get a voice. It has to tell the whole story in content and tone.
In the end, a radio producer's most important equipment is his/her
ears. It's simple, common sense. Still, all too often the novice
free-lancer or print journalist trying out radio will ruin a fascinating
interview by bad recording.
If you want good tape you have to get the microphone right up to
the interviewee's mouth. You do that by getting people out from
behind the barricade of their desks. You re-arrange the furniture
(one of the best configurations is two chairs, parallel but facing
each other so you and the speaker can sit almost side by side with
your microphone-holding arm moving smoothly from interviewer to
interviewee on the arm of the chair). You help the speaker not feel
intimidated by this spatial encroachment by being confident about
your recording machinery and your subject matter.
Hesse also correctly stresses the importance of writing for radio.
The ears take in information and begin processing it in ways that
are different from reading. It's the difference between spoken
and written language, a difference we all recognize if we compare
what someone writes about their most recent overseas trip and how
they tell stories about it while drinking beer with friends in a
Writing for radio documentaries means discovering the art of story-telling.
Story-telling engages the listener's imagination by appealing to
emotions as well as intellect. It is logical but not predictable.
It contains the sound of truth, directness, simplicity, and honesty.
It's a sound that must be in the voice of the narrator and the voices
of the interviewees. It's a sound too often killed by long and complex
sentences designed for print not radio. Hesse's handbook doesn't
give enough attention to the skill of writing for radio, a skill
still greatly lacking on Canadian airwaves.
But in the end, technique is not enough. In my experience it is
not too difficult to teach technical skills – recording, editing,
writing for radio, voicing, mixing. Experience is the best teacher,
and courses and books can accelerate such learning. But it's much
harder to develop the intangible skills: how to analyse events in
context and reassemble a clear synthesis; how to develop creative
angles and treatments for stories; how to pace the presentation
of material with the skill of a story-teller; how to engage people
in conversations that go beyond the ordinary and become intimate
moments of revelation.
A radio documentarist needs to develop many skills. Some of them
are difficult to convey in a beginner's handbook. Jurgen Hesse has
succeeded, however, in summing up the basics of the practical knowledge
required. The aspiring radio producer will have to turn to experience
to develop the more difficult and challenging skills of the craft.
Robert Carty has been foreign editor and senior producer for
CBC Radio's Sunday Morning. He was asked to write this review just
prior to being chosen one of the Southam Scholars at The University
of Toronto for 1987-88.
Published in Sources, Winter 1988
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