Lessons from Making a Historical Documentary

Intro from Jay Allison: Making historical audio documentaries is tricky. All the action is in the past, for one thing. Plus, you typically have masses of research to do, lots to organize, and, if you’re lucky, scratchy archival recordings to incorporate. Transom has two new features to help. First, Yowei Shaw and Alex Lewis describe what they learned producing their first historical documentary for radio, and help you avoid beginner’s pitfalls. And who better to share insights on mixing documentaries than Transom TOOLS Guy, Jeff Towne, who worked with Alex and Yowei on their piece. He includes tips on making archival audio sound beautiful, along with a general guide to making your hour-long piece broadcast-friendly for radio stations. This will be very helpful for anyone who must encounter the Clocks of Public Radio Land.

Our Lessons Learned

In early 2012, we were hired by Mighty Writers, a Philly youth literacy nonprofit that had just received a big grant, to produce an audio documentary examining the legacy of Black radio, with a special focus on the legendary WDAS station in Philadelphia. Going Black: The Legacy of Philly Soul Radio is an epic story — about the evolution of soul and R&B, of civil rights and progress in the African-American community, and of how the radio medium has drastically changed in the last century. To get a better idea of what this is all about, listen to the billboard.

Listen to “Going Black Billboard”

This was our first time making anything like this. And it was really exciting… and really scary! Throughout the course of the year spent working on this project, we consulted with fellow radio producers who had done this kind of work and all their advice was really helpful. But we also wished there existed a single resource we could go to for answers. That’s why we’ve written up our biggest lessons learned, so that future first-time historical documentary-makers will have a place to turn for at least a little guidance!

1. Figure out your distribution plan at the very beginning.

Talk to distribution people right from the start. You need to come up with set deadlines for when to start promoting the documentary, and also when to finish it. Thanks to PRX and our distribution consultant Steve Martin, our documentary aired on many stations across the country — despite our having fallen behind schedule.

2. Organize, organize, organize!

We used Dropbox to store our archival audio, interview tape, research materials, photos, and logs. Whatever system you choose make sure it’s simple and easy to explain to team members so everyone is on the same page.

3. Decide exactly what research and archival audio you need, and go get it.

We worked with historical archivist Jack McCarthy to gather archival audio, photos, newspaper articles, and books. But because we weren’t clear and specific about what we wanted, we ended up acquiring too many non-essential materials (like photos) early on, and didn’t get the archival recordings we really needed until late in the game.

Another note: libraries and museums can be very bureaucratic and slow moving, so the key is to get your requests in as soon as you can.

4. Gaining the trust of your sources is a crucial, but tricky process.

Georgie Woods
Georgie Woods

Unless you’re doing a documentary about your own community, you’re going to be an outsider. As two Asian Americans making a documentary about Black history, we certainly were. We wanted to approach the subject matter with extra sensitivity, respect, and care, which can go a long way toward making friends and gaining trust.

So how do you do this besides being charming and gracious? First, do enough research to know what you’re talking about and whom to approach first. Impress people with your knowledge of the subject. A lot of times, people just want to feel that you’re going to do their story justice.

Of equal importance is to stay outside any drama. Being a friendly, knowledgeable outsider is perhaps the strongest way to earn trust. And trust can get you a lot of things: leads for other sources, personal collections of archival audio, and even an advocate for you and the documentary, which can come in handy with people reluctant to participate.

When someone is reluctant, be persistent, communicate his or her importance to the project, and just generally show that you really care about doing a good job.

5. Do enough interviews to know what your story is, but know when to stop.

No matter what, you’ll need to do a bit of wandering in the beginning, to even know who (and what) is central or peripheral to your story. But once you know what questions you need answered, track those down and move on, especially when you start getting the same answers over and over again.

6. Find macro and mini story structures for the scope and content.

After collecting everything you need to make the documentary, how do you put it all together to make a thorough, but entertaining piece? While we can’t go into our whole process, one important thing we learned was that the story structure of a documentary operates on a couple of levels.

First, the macro level: how the overall documentary is structured. Our documentary is an epic tale about the rise and fall of Black radio in Philadelphia. Keeping that in mind, we realized that Going Black wasn’t going to follow one main character. Rather, we assigned themes to different stretches of time, allowing characters to pop in and out. This made the work seem more manageable because it suddenly felt like we were just making a bunch of small radio features. Something we’ve done before.

Which brings us to the micro level: the structure of each small section. For this, you can pull from the bag of storytelling tricks you utilize as a radio producer. There are many story structure tips out there for when you get stuck (we recommend this episode of How Sound “My Kingdom for Some Structure” and Nancy Updike’s excellent Transom manifesto on radio writing).

In particular, we had a lot of trouble figuring out how to structure the very beginning of the documentary. Our solution was to use Rob Rosenthal’s “e”-shaped story structure. You can listen to how that worked for us here:

Listen to “Beginning of “Going Black””

7. Budget time for lots of edits for your script and mix.

We went through between 15 and 20 script drafts for Going Black, including four rounds of edits with our supervising editor Jacquie Gales-Webb. Before we recorded our narrator, Jacquie suggested we record and produce draft versions of the documentary with scratch versions of the narration read by us. It was a lifesaver! The draft versions allowed us to edit the script to the second.

Listen to “Going Black with Alex Narrating”

8. The narrator is critical to your documentary’s success.

We wanted star power for our documentary and batted around names like Samuel L. Jackson, Bill Cosby, Questlove, and Patti LaBelle… But how do you actually find these people and convince them to commit to a few days in the studio for not much money?

Our biggest tip is to start looking for a narrator as soon as you can. Turns out it takes quite a bit of time to get in touch with the PR teams of famous folks. Luckily, by the time our initial requests were either ignored or declined, we had someone perfect in mind, the legendary TSOP producer Kenny Gamble, who has a great voice and is deeply connected to Philly Black radio. After an onslaught of daily texts, emails, and calls making our case, Kenny said he was down with it and would work for free. (Apparently, it is customary to offer an honorarium of about $3,000 to celebrity narrators, as a gesture.)

We ended up tracking Kenny in the studio three separate times: two 5-6 hour sessions, and a one-hour session for fixes. To help the script narration fit Kenny’s voice, we took personal anecdotes from his interview and wrote them into the script, and made on-the-fly adjustments when he suggested good changes.

Listen to “Kenny Tracking with Yowei”

9. Hire Transom’s Tool Guy Jeff Towne to make everything sound great…or if you can’t, read lessons from him… coming soon.

10. Be ready for criticism.
This one might be obvious, but it’s worth emphasizing. No matter how much time and effort you put in, some people are going to have a beef with the final product. It comes with the territory of making any radio; especially historical documentaries because you’re covering a lot of ground that specific groups of people have a lot invested in. So prepare yourself for the criticism that will inevitably come your way.

People may be upset about not making it into the final documentary. Others may not think you went deeply enough into certain subjects. Try to learn from the feedback and not take it personally.


Listen to Going Black: The Legacy of Philly Soul Radio (Two Hour Special) here. Or you can listen to the one hour version here.


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  • Sally South



    Great read, thanks.

  • Amy Joy



    This is great! So thoughtful and helpful. Seems like you hit on some really important themes, especially about recognizing your power as the lens and voice of a really complex situation. Do your best, and humbly, but know you will never get it right for everyone.

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