Notes from an intensive workshop on the art of the radio documentary.

[[{“fid”:”4108″,”view_mode”:”default”,”fields”:{“format”:”default”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:””,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:””},”type”:”media”,”link_text”:null,”attributes”:{“height”:”431″,”width”:”573″,”style”:”width: 400px; height: 301px; margin-left: 10px; margin-right: 10px; float: right;”,”class”:”media-element file-default”}}]]By Deanne Bender

Within hours of my arrival at CBC’s Toronto headquarters this past  February, I found myself standing across from veteran Living Out Loud radio producer Steve Wadhams, microphone in hand. A jumble of objects lay scattered across the table beside us: a pair of enormous plastic ears, a bit of painted leather, a pair of bobblehead figurines. 

My challenge, after a morning spent listening to radio documentaries from around the world, was to use that paraphernalia to turn a conversation with Wadhams into a compelling radio scene. I picked up the scrap of leather and pointed my microphone toward Wadhams. With that, my initiation into CBC Radio’s Doc Project boot camp began.

Launched in the fall of 2014, The Doc Project is the first program of its kind for the CBC. The brainchild of CBC Radio director of programs Lynda Shorten, it aims to build connections between the public broadcaster’s old guard of radio documentary—a generation of expert producers such as Wadhams, many of whom are on the verge of retirement—and less-experienced journalists looking to advance their storytelling skills. 

It combined applied documentary-making workshops with a community lecture series that has featured sessions with in-house experts such as Anna Maria Tremonti, Ira Basen and Mary Wiens, as well as guest appearances from the likes of Alex Blumberg, the producer-turned-entrepreneur known for his work on Planet Money and This American Life. 

Beyond the lecture hall, the Doc Project’s intensive mentorship and boot-camp programs offered freelancers and CBC employees an opportunity to step away from their desks and tackle the doc-making process hands-on. In each program, participants were paired with experienced CBC documentary makers to produce a story they’d pitched with the goal of getting it on air. More than 200 journalists across Canada applied. Although there were only 26 spots available, the project’s committee made a point of offering personal feedback for each and every application.

“It really is a professional development exercise,” says the project’s co-ordinator, Tanya Springer. “So we’ve been focusing on people, not pieces—and potential, not perfection.”

The Doc Project’s winter boot camp was composed of seven producers from across Canada, at various stages in their careers. On day one, we hit the ground running. In addition to a crash course in scene-building with Wadhams, we got tips on story structure from Shorten and an audio recording how-to from The Sunday Edition’s Karin Wells. 

Over the next few weeks, armed with Marantz recorders and a set of new techniques to try out, we split up to gather our tape. Each of us was partnered with a documentary editor from one of CBC Radio’s national programs. In my case, that was The Current’s Joan Webber, who provided wonderful advice and encouragement throughout the process.

In early March, we reconvened at CBC headquarters for three intensive days of script writing, audio editing and exclusive workshop sessions with the likes of Tremonti and As It Happens head writer Chris Howden. The days were long, and the learning curve was steep. Inevitably, we made mistakes along the way. But with donuts and mutual encouragement, we persevered.

Here are three of the key lessons I learned—in workshops, in the field and in the windowless seventh-floor editing suite I called home for those three days in March.


Preparation matters

As Shorten reminded us, it’s important to have a rough story outline in your mind ahead of time. That said, don’t over-prepare: extensive pre-interviews and planning can hinder spontaneity. 

Wadhams encouraged us to think of our microphone as a camera lens—recreating every scene, shot by shot. When arranging a time and place to meet with a character, it’s important to think about the sounds you’ll need to gather to create a vivid “picture” for the listener.


In the field, focus on the moment

Multi-tasking is essential. Tremonti described the careful lookout she keeps during interviews for details the microphone can’t pick up: the subtle tremor in a character’s hand as they speak, the inch of dust on the kitchen table. Those notes are invaluable when writing scripts.

Past moments are also invaluable. Wadhams encouraged us to mine characters’ memories for poignant details by asking: “What was a moment that really stood out for you? And what did you see?”


Make the most of what you get

Even after hours of workshops, the tape I collected was far from perfect. Still, if there’s one thing I learned from the experience, it’s that there’s usually a way to work your material—if you’re willing to experiment. The story might turn out to be totally different from the one you set out to tell. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth telling.


On our final day, we gathered in a glass-walled boardroom for one final exercise: a listening session featuring short excerpts of our projects. It was inspiring to hear the diverse quality of the work everyone had produced: evidence of what can be achieved with the luxury of time and the licence to experiment.

At the end of the session, with the lights dimmed, Wadhams produced a box of tea lights and passed them around the table. We lit them one by one, celebrating the proverbial  “passing of the torch” from one generation of radio producers to the next. Fire hazard or no, the sentiment stayed with me. 

Opportunities for young journalists can seem dishearteningly thin on the ground these days. At the end of March, the CBC announced the loss of another 244 jobs from its local news services across the country. As budget cuts continue to put a strain on resources and morale, the Doc Project offers a reminder that the CBC is committed to producing great radio and encouraging those who want to learn to do it better. For a young journalist in an uncertain industry, that’s an encouraging message. 

Illustration photo by Tim Wilson, via Flickr.