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This book plus experience will
be a good start for radio documentarist
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 radio-making.
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 on air.
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 pub.
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