I have, I’m aware, a tendency to get a little obsessive about things I like. I’m also aware this may get ‘a little’ boring for those around me, as I preach on the subject of my latest obsession. Which, ironically, I realise is exactly what I’m about to do here. I can’t help it. I’m so convinced that you’ll join me at the heights of appreciation, as soon as you know about ‘the thing’, that you’ll forgive the pushing and cajoling that’s caused you to relent. The current ‘thing’ is radio, not just any sort of radio but that particular form of radio documentary for which the USA is most associated.
It all started with This American Life which is a radio programme and/or podcast depending where you live. Each episode is based around a theme with generally three or four stories loosely tied to that theme. If you’re intrigued let me recommend this classic episode – I’ve done it again, I’m like a pusher, there’s no hope! Twice a week I endure a fairly long commute (about three hours each way) so I’m always looking out for new things to listen to. I can’t remember when I first heard This American Life but since that first programme I’ve been hooked.
Towards the end of 2014 the producers of This American Life made a second show, Serial. As the name suggests, Serial, is a single story told over a number of episodes. It really is very good. It shot to the top of the podcast chart and stayed there for it’s entire run. It suddenly occurred to me that maybe This American Life wasn’t a one off, there could be other shows like this waiting to be discovered. Like a man possessed I googled, download and listened. I’ll give a brief list at the end but trust me I’ve listed to a whole load of podcasts.
Somewhere at the back of my mind a thought germinated, maybe I could make a radio documentary, nothing as ambitious as This American Life, but possibly something that could compliment my documentary photography. I started listening, not only to the documentaries themselves, but also podcasts that discussed the making of the programmes. It was at this point I experienced something I’d not been aware of experiencing before. The fact that one artistic form, in this case radio, could inspire another, in my case, photography. I’m often inspired by great artists or by film and television, but they’re all visual media. This was audio inspiring a visual medium. The shear enthusiasm of these people talking about the programmes they’re making, the research they’re doing, the craft of radio inspired me as much as any Rembrandt painting or Irving Penn photograph.
Once I started researching making radio I realised we have something of disadvantage in the UK; which I can only put down to that behemoth of all things media, the BBC. Before you jump to your keyboards to complain let me reassure you, I’m a huge fan of the BBC and BBC radio in particular. I’ve said before, I’d happily pay the equivalent of the Television Licence for Radio 4 alone. (note for those not in the UK: the BBC is funded by a sort of television tax with the antiquated title of the ‘Television Licence’). The issue with the BBC in this context is that it does radio so well and so extensively. We don’t have the type of disparate local public radio they have the US, because there’s just no ‘need’ – well, that’s debatable but you take my point. The US model, as I understand, isn’t so well funded and so that encourages a large number of small regional and community stations. I’m not based in the US, so excuse me if I’ve missed represented the situation. However, the upshot is, the US has a range of conferences, organisations, courses and groups encouraging documentary radio we just don’t have here in the UK.
I have found a part-time course run at UCL, but it’s the only one I’ve found in the UK so far. I’ve listed some of the US based resources which may be of interest.
* This American Life have a page with lots of related links, and have produced a book How to Make Radio.
* Ira Glass : the driving force behind This American Life
* Transom.org : runs workshops, lots of ‘how to’ articles, gear guides etc.
* Radio Diaries : make documentaries and also produced The Teen Reporter handbook
* This American Life
* Serial : podcast by the makers of This American Life
* Howsound : podcast produced by Transom, which is a mix of great audio and behind the scenes interviews
* Tape : ‘a radio show about people who make radio’ – a subtitle which doesn’t really do it justice, inspiring people talking about making good radio
* State of the Re:Union : ‘Telling the story of America, one community at a time’. I only mean it as a compliment when I say, it’s very similar to This American Life.
* Radiolab : Multi-award winning podcast which covers a range of topics. Radiolab has a particular style which I didn’t get on with, but that probably says more about me than it. I know many people would have it at the top of their lists.
* Invisabilia : ‘A look at the world you can’t see. NPR’s Invisibilia – a new show about human behavior co-hosted by Lulu Miller and Alix Spiegel.’
I’m going to add to this list over time. If you know of any UK training or resources I’d really appreciate you getting in touch.