A conversation between producers Jiri Slavicinsky and Chris Brookes about radio features.
It is a lazy spring afternoon in Chris’ studio in St. John’s, Newfoundland. The studio is located on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean at the bottom of the cliff where Marconi received the first trans-Atlantic radio signal. It is surrounded by the sounds of waves, wind and seagulls. We are seated at a window with black tea and croissants.
JIRI: Your features have a wide range of themes. How are the initial ideas for a feature born? What forces you to make radio features?
CHRIS: I often wonder what makes a good feature as opposed to an ordinary one. It seems that the maker is dying to make the program, and they are frustrated and they don’t really know exactly what the feature is, but they have a feeling that they have to make a program about this idea.
JIRI: So you feel the need to explore something through the feature …
CHRIS: Yes. I think if you know the answer, then why bother raising the question? If you already have a very good idea what the feature is going to be about, then it will be rather boring. It won’t embody that sense of discovery.
JIRI: And it can be a journey of discovery for the listener as well …
CHRIS: Yeah, if it’s not a journey for the feature maker, I don’t think it’s a rewarding journey for the listener, actually. Yes, that’s right. Is it the same for you?
JIRI: Yes, but strong ideas like that don’t come every day to me.
CHRIS: And because of that I am often drawn to things that strike me as a bit impossible. You know, I wanted to make a program about a dance, because I thought it must be hard to make a program about a dance in audio. In the end it actually became a program about cultural change. But the magnetic pull that pulled me through it was that I wanted to make a program that would be impossible to make. Perhaps that sense of impossibility is a helpful thing to have.
JIRI: Which program was that?
CHRIS: It was called ‘Running the Goat’ … I think that is often the case with the documentaries that really appeal to me. I was reading a book on the weekend by Molly Peacock and in it she asks the question of the reader, ‘Which is more true: a fact or a metaphor?’ I think for me metaphor is where real truth lies. I am thinking of a beautiful French program ‘Who killed Lolita’ that I heard in Berlin at Prix Europa last fall. I don’t know how that was for the people who made it, but I think it must have been a journey into the unknown. It wound up almost like a biblical parable, but it couldn’t have been their original intention. What pulled them through it, I don’t know. But it certainly wasn’t an attempt to lay out the facts. They were intrigued by the unknown.
JIRI: Could this be a defining quality of a feature? That it is not just simply delivering information but rather creating metaphors?
CHRIS: Yes. Isn’t that what metaphor is, really? The metaphor requires the listener to engage with it. I mean, fact is just fact. You hear it, you see it, you recognize it. But metaphor you have to think about, you have to become part of piecing it together. You have to make that bridge. That’s a quality we want in our features. We want the listener to walk into it, to put it together with us. And then it becomes a powerful experience for them, we hope. But if they don’t do that, if they are just sitting back and listening to it, then it’s flat – just a bunch of facts.
JIRI: We want the listener to walk into our programs, to take part in it. When you are in the process of making a feature, do you have some particular listener or listeners in mind? Do you think about someone?
CHRIS: Maybe we all make them for ourselves. I don’t know. That’s a good question … I have truth in mind, I guess. I think a good feature sets out to reveal a truth, but not by describing it or nailing it down. More by circumscribing it, by working around the edges rather than going in and trying to nail it. Because that would destroy it, it would be a dead truth, and not one that lives in your mind. So you kind of chalk a sonic pentagram, sprinkle some toad’s blood and chicken feathers over it, mumble some words and if you’re lucky, and if the wind be blowing from the east then the spirit, the essence, of what you’re after will manifest itself. Of course it may not appear at all for some listeners, and they’ll turn the program off. And for those who stick with it, it will reveal itself a little differently to each of them. Because personally I’m not interested in explaining, or informing, or educating any particular listener. I used to do that years ago and nowadays it seems to me unbearably deadly. So I’m just working with the chicken feathers and hoping for the best. I’d like to hope that the people in my features recognize something true about themselves. That maybe I’ve revealed a truth about them.
JIRI: Could you give me some example?
CHRIS: I am thinking of the three old men down across the road in the shed – a feature I made last year called ‘Annotated Jack’. Because I love the fact that people like that exist in the world. They grew up together, were fishermen and athletes and musicians and now they sit and share memories and tell stories together. The stories keep them going, they say, as if they will keep breathing as long as the stories don’t end. It’s their quality of being alive that I think is important, I wanted to celebrate that. When I was making it I thought, when it’s finished I will play it for them and they are not going to get this. It will seem pretentious; my middle class take on their view of life. But they actually listened to it! They listened to it all the way through and I think they recognized themselves.
JIRI: You mentioned how a feature can be a celebration of life. When you are listening to features are there some particular moments that you really enjoy?
CHRIS: Lots and lots of different kinds of things, auditory things … It makes me think of a Canadian storyteller named Dan Yashinsky who told a story about a man and a snake. It’s a long story, but the end of it is that the man asks the snake, ‘What on Earth possessed you to give me all these things?’and the snake says, after a long pause, ‘Why would you spoil the richness of your question with the poverty of an answer?’ And that’s one quality I really like about features, that they ask difficult questions that do not have easy answers or do not have any answers. But life doesn’t either, right? That’s the most moving, and also the most heartbreaking thing about life.
JIRI: Do you listen back to your features? Do you listen to your features that are years old?
CHRIS: I taught a radio documentary course at Memorial University of Newfoundland this fall. So I listened to some of my features for that course. And some of the features I still like.
JIRI: Do you have a favorite program among them?
CHRIS: Sometimes it is the most recent one, but ‘Songs my Mother Taught Me’, I think that’s a program of mine that I am still pleased with from a narrative point of view. I had intended to make something rather different, a more ‘objective’ information-type documentary. But then circumstances in my personal life happened that kind of catapulted me into the program as a character. So I think the feature captured some of that unexpected discovery, and maybe there is some life in that.
Something I love about working with documentary is that we all spend so much time farting around with editing voices, that there are certain phrases and expressions you remember forever. I can still hear a fisherman talking about how he had to take the hickles and snarls out of his trawl lines … hickles and snarls … I can still hear his exact modulation the way he said it just because I edited that so many times. That’s a nice thing about working in radio. Don’t you think? It must have happened to you too.
JIRI: Yes. Sometimes I find it almost surrealistic. In small conversations of everyday ordinary life you discover a moment that gives it another meaning, more sense maybe.
CHRIS: I find – don’t we all find? – all those little pearls that you place along a string that make up a day, or a week, or a month, or a year of your existence are more special because we pay extra attention to them when we’re recording. It’s a more intense way of being in the moment.
JIRI: Maybe a more focused, concentrated way of being in the moment …
CHRIS: I wonder if it is, yes. As a feature maker you are doing your utmost to capture the sound, the reality of a particular moment. You walk in and you have a mission to find the most vibrant reality of that particular moment in time. Like Rene Farabet, the great French feature maker said once “Listen for the centre of every sound. Even if the sound is silence, listen for the centre of silence.” So we pay attention more. More than we do when we just walk in without a microphone.
JIRI: Yesterday I met some of the students that attended your radio class at the university. They mentioned that they loved your young spirit.
CHRIS: Oh, that’s nice for a 67-year-old-geezer to hear. Thank them for that!
JIRI: Maybe feature making is the recipe for a young spirit.
CHRIS: I think that’s what artists have to do, isn’t it? Feature makers are artists, aren’t we? And how do you stay creatively alive as an artist? Getting old is taking things for granted, isn’t it?
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