Slightly overdue, but I wanted to write a quick post reporting back on the day I spent on the RIGtrain audio docs course ‘The audio doc will see you now’. The course was in Elephant and Castle at the end of March 2017, and it was a one day jobby run by two amazing radio producers from Whistledown Productions – David Prest and Deborah Dudgeon (with help from Katherine Godfrey later in the day too).

The first thing to say is just that I had a brilliant day. I learned a lot, met some great people and – probably most importantly – it definitely helped build my confidence up. I realised that to a certain extent, everyone has their own way of approaching making radio, and that there isn’t one ‘right’ way to do it. It made me feel like the most important thing is just to make things, and not worry too much about whether you’re doing it exactly how a seasoned pro would do it.

Over the course of the day we covered topics like:

  • What is a radio documentary
  • How to use sound effectively
  • A little bit on equipment
  • Structuring a documentary
  • Pitching

During the session I did lots of thinking about ethical considerations, like how to reflect on the preconceptions you bring to a story; and how to get the balance right between telling your own story vs. letting the story your subjects are telling come through in the work.

There’s also the thorny topic of when it is and isn’t appropriate to openly bring a judgement to a story. For example, when a subject or interviewee crosses a moral line that might seem to demand some kind of judgement. Clearly many documentarians do make their moral stance known in the telling of a story, but how do you decide when that is appropriate?

I think there are some cases where it may be fairly clear, but there’s also the risk that a community outsider could mistake their own prejudice for a necessary moral stance. An example that springs to mind is a Louis Theroux documentary I once saw where he spent time with a group of swingers in the US. Louis didn’t hold back from painting the subjects as freaks and as disgusting people. But as a viewer, I thought they seemed like a very open, thoughtful and consent focused community. Plus there’s the undeniable fact that lots of people in the world do attend sex parties, so I felt it was disingenuous to present swinging as some kind of totally weird, fringe activity. I think that kind of overly judgemental documentary can happen when you’re thinking too much about who your audience is and how you think they’ll want the story presented, instead of just observing situations and listening to the subjects’ points of view.

One bit I found really helpful on the day was looking at simple ways to approach starting a story. For example, David and Deborah talked about opening with a pretty broad interview with a subject, and then structuring the piece around exploring the things that come up in that interview – it can be a simple way of finding a natural structure. They also talked about how finding some chronology to hang the story on can be really important; as well as having a strong introduction, questioning things as you go, including elements that will surprise the listener, and thinking about the questions listeners will have and how to resolve those.

I also got a lot from Deborah talking about the physicality of recording. For example, thinking about where to stand and moving the mic around to capture the different sounds in the environment (she gave the example of holding the mic down as you’re walking to pick up the footsteps more clearly).

They gave a few equipment recommendations that I think are worth recording for reference:

  • Portable recorders:
    • Zoom H4N (which is what I already use)
    • Tascam DR40
  • Mics
    • Sony SN909 (stereo)
    • AKG D230 (mono)
    • Rode i-XY for iPhone
  • Headphones
    • Sennheiser HD480

Lastly, over the course of the day we listened to lots of clips from documentaries, including ones David and Deborah had worked on. So here’s a list of audio we listened to or which got mentioned on the day (although not all of them seem to be online to listen to, sadly):

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