Cathy FitzGerald

Intro from Jay Allison: Cathy FitzGerald understands that sound is entrancing, and that it is capable of more than stories; our work can contain magic. Cathy's manifesto is a lovely reminder that we should sometimes just STOP explaining, telling, expounding--and remember to weave a bit of wonder. If you're stuck in the usual narrative modes of public radio and podcasting, take a moment and listen to what she has to say. It may change the way your next piece sounds. I hope so.

Radio In Wonderland

Seems like there’s a lot of story-telling in audio; we’re always explaining. This is how it works. Here’s what’s going on. Did you notice that. . .? It’s there in the historic BBC voice — the patrician expert offering context — and in the new-tradition of the US podcast host, the clever friend enlightening with a gag. There’s nothing wrong with this. I’m a fan of thinking — and I’m often very happy to think along with whoever I’m listening to. . .to let them make the headway, while I follow in their wake. But as Anglo-American audio-makers it’s become our dominant mode — and it doesn’t leave much room for another way of experiencing the world that’s less analytical and more intuitive and instinctive.

It doesn’t leave much room for wonder.


(Noun): a feeling of amazement and admiration caused by something beautiful, remarkable or unfamiliar

Or as my friend Ben puts it: “That feeling you have when you lie outside on a dark frosty night shivering as stars fall and the earth rotates.”

When someone tells me an intriguing fact or a funny anecdote, I feel intellectual interest. I’m curious; I’m engaged. But when I experience wonder, I’m transported, awe-struck, deeply moved. Explaining is about bringing clarity; making sense of the complicated and the confusing. Wonder is about spell-bound incomprehension in the face of the strange. It’s allied to my favorite word, the beautiful archaic numinous — “arousing spiritual or religious emotion; mysterious or awe-inspiring” — and to the sublime, and to poetry, which reveals deep feeling obliquely, through the concision of imagery.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not arguing that one mode is better than the other. I’m arguing for balance — that we’ve skewed very literal lately and it’s time to correct. We’ve been so busy clarifying and educating, we’ve forgotten that it’s also our job to do the opposite: to mystify, to dazzle, to awe. . . to be magicians. I mean that in two senses of the word: first, we’re circus hucksters, here to entertain, not just explain, but second, we’re the real deal — modern-day Merlins, if we want to be — able to take the ordinary and imbue it with magic. . . or more often, reveal the magic that’s already there.

Here are a few ways we might do that. It’s not an exhaustive or a tidy list, because I’m still thinking — scratch that, ‘wondering’ about all this. But it’s a place to start.

Be Alert to Your Own Experience of Wonder

You know how in electricity an ‘ohm’ measures the capacity of an object for resistance? Well, there should be a word for the capacity of an object (or an experience or a concept or a person) to generate wonder. Let’s call it a ‘zap’ for now. A magic carpet, for example, scores very highly on the zap scale — it’s imbued with millennia of stories and uncanny weirdness. A bath plug does not score highly on the zap scale. And yet. . . wonder is a deeply personal thing, and if you look at that bath plug and you see it with clear eyes and an open heart, its potential for zaps may be revealed.

For me? It’s that moment half-an-hour into an interview when the person I’m talking to suddenly says something beautiful and I realize I’m not quite breathing. They’ve surprised me by being more than I expected: with their hope, generosity, bravery, vulnerability — or usually, love. It’s the feeling I get when I read the novels of Marilynne Robinson or John Steinbeck: a deep reverence for the ordinary and the everyday. Or — in a very different key — it’s things uncanny, magical or dream-like that shiver away on the boundary between real and unreal: the works of Charles Dickens, Guy Maddin, Jean Vigo, Powell and Pressburger, Béla Tarr. Paradox can do it too: the negative capability of a work by an artist like Cornelia Parker, who requires me to hold two or more opposing thoughts at the same time, tension forever unresolved. (I like her piece The Negative of Whispers best: a pair of ear-plugs made from the dust in the Whispering Gallery in St. Paul’s Cathedral.)

One thing I know: if we feel wonder — assuming we don’t crush it under foot in production — there’s a good chance the listener will feel it as well.

Catch it on Tape

Bleedin’ obvious, this, and yet so hard. If something magical happens during an interview: KEEP QUIET. Hold your breath, don’t move, count to ten if it makes it easier and look as if you’re utterly transfixed because then more magical things might happen; your interviewee might unfurl the most beautiful set of wings in front of you and take flight. Of course, this is easiest to do if you are utterly transfixed, if you’re listening — even through the boring bits — with the kind of focus that dissolves bodily identity. . . that makes you mirror the mannerisms of the person you’re talking to, makes you start to walk, talk, breathe at their pace.

If something numinous happens right in front of you — shut up and feel the awe. (Full disclosure: this may lead to an awkward choked feeling during interviews and possibly tears.)

And Breathe. . .

Imagine if we could see the shape of feelings in Pro Tools; if we had a ‘feeling-track’ to go with the music and the SFX. A great crash at the beginning. . .a long tail. . .a slow swelling crescendo. Perhaps then it would be easier to judge how long to let an emotion resonate in a piece. Without one, there’s a tendency to cut the reverberations off early — an urge to jump in and do a little explaining (just in case, you know, just in case). I like work that gives me room to experience a feeling “to the depth and breadth and height my soul can reach” (to borrow from Elizabeth Barrett Browning). Work that cherishes silence or that uses music as emotional punctuation.

Storytelling that holds our hand too tightly leaves no room for the mysterious — because it’s always busy explaining.

Be Wary of Plot

Plot drives us forward; it’s a constant stream of what’s next? What’s next? What’s next? The wonderful, the numinous, the marvelous exists in the moment — in a breath held and a brain dazzled. Don’t allow the urge to keep the listener moving blind you to a chance to let them stop and feel. The best stories shift between these two modes; they vary the pace.

And while we’re at it, let’s throw some shade in story’s direction: the whole hierarchy of arcs and acts and dramaturgical rules. Know them, make use of them (you can’t escape them, after all) but be aware of how predictable they can make creative work when applied in too unimaginative a spirit. There’s not much room for the miraculous when you’re plodding through an over-familiar story structure, ankle-deep in clichés; the experience of wonder and sublimity is about not knowing where you are. . . finding yourself in new terrain that asks — demands — your attention.

So be on your guard against clichés of storytelling thought and form and structure, both the industry’s and those that are peculiar to you alone. They make the work predictable, and more dangerously, the world too: imposing an often artificial order on the complicated, chaotic mess of existence. Our job is to distill complexity and chaos into an intelligible form, not to tidy it away; we’re here to expand, not shrink, perspective.

And that’s what wonder does. It’s the shiver in the spine when we’re confronted with our smallness before the immensity of the world. . . the grace-filled moment when we fully feel and appreciate the ineffable mysteries of love and of death. It makes us shorter and taller at the same time.

Be a Little Strange

The idea of wonder is traditionally associated with wunderkammer or cabinets of curiosity — collections of mysterious objects, such as corals and stuffed crocodiles and unicorn horns. . .marvels far beyond the viewer’s experience, on the cusp of science and magic.

The world is so much more known now, that it’s harder to make it strange. But it’s not impossible. In Routes: Dancing to New Orleans, documentary film-maker Alex Reuben travels across the US from living rooms to street-corners recording people dancing. There’s no commentary, no explanation: just a series of dream-like, bliss-tinged scenes. Odder still is Guy Maddin’s wonderful docu-fantasia My Winnipeg, in which the Canadian city becomes the sleepwalking capital of the world, a place where everyone carries keys to their former homes in case they blunder back while asleep.

We work in a realist genre — documentary — but that doesn’t mean we have to be slaves to realism. Create work — or passages within work — that are dream-like, weird, irrational: aim to make the listener’s brain stutter in incomprehension. Because that stutter — the creative version of WTF? — is where the interesting stuff happens. New connections are made; new possibilities dreamt.

Delay the Telling

Show don’t tell, right? That’s what I’m banging on about? Well, no, actually — show AND tell. . .get the balance right. Don’t trample on the moment. But when it’s done. . . when we’ve felt the awe and the wonder. . . then there’s nothing wrong with offering context and insight — particularly if you can find a way to do it without crashing out of the story-world entirely and back into the studio.

Pay Attention to the Subconscious of the Program

When we tell / explain we tend to talk directly to the listener. We’re rational, logical, up-front. But how about more subterranean forms of communication; meaning that’s partially sensed, rather than fully grasped? I like to bury patterns of metaphor and imagery in my documentaries: recurring ideas and themes that deepen and intensify the activity on the surface. Sounds too can work in the same way (for more on this see Alan Hall’s beautiful, coruscating essay, “Cigarettes and Dance Steps” in Reality Radio). The listener rarely processes this kind of stuff consciously — but that’s good. . . we want these subtleties to sink into the dark water of the deep mind almost without being noticed. They create a sense of wholeness in a work, a feeling of hidden depth and meaning.

Don’t Let Go of the Balloon

Wonder is about transcendence — if humans weren’t such gravity-bound critters the experience of such a divine feeling would surely be accompanied by accounts of unexpected soaring and the accidental growth of wings. But the thing is — we are gravity-bound critters and frankly too much transcendence, too much floating around in the air, can get a bit much. Over-do the wonder and it stops being wonderful; it starts being vague and abstract and hard to follow. Try to balance the poetic with the prosaic; the beautiful with the bawdy. Read Shakespeare for tips.

Make the Listener Feel Safe

Take your listener to the dark wood. Let them experience it fully: the smell of pine and damp earth, the crunch of needles underfoot, the flutter of a bird hopping between branches. Give them a chill or a thrill if you can; a sense of something malevolent, a feeling of smallness in a vast world. Let them tremble in the shadows; be enchanted by a slant of winter light. But don’t — don’t! — wander off for a skinny decaf cap and a banana muffin, and leave them stuck in an icy bog without a water-proof anorak and a good map.

In other words: get the craft right. Lost in the moment is great. Lost, per se, is bad, an enemy of wonder. Tell the audience what they need to know, when they need to know it and make sure they’re not distracted — consciously or unconsciously — by clumsy storytelling: an awkward choice of music here, a shonky edit there.

When the listener trusts you enough to forget you? That’s when a forest made of words and sounds can be lovely, dark and deep.

Keep Your Heart Open

Yeah, sappy, I know. But also — everything. The reason. The point. The holy grail.

I have a tendency to live in my head. I’ll do it for months, now and again, years, at a time because it’s interesting up there and also necessary: how else will articles get written and documentaries get made? But there always comes a time when the world points out how one-dimensional, how small I’ve become.

Sometimes it’s been a gentle nudge. I wrote my PhD on the works of Charles Dickens and there’d be days when I’d wake up and my brain would think ho-hum, whatever, or just NO. No, I don’t want to read more crumbling tomes on Victorian psychology. No, I can’t face one more pass through David Copperfield. No, I don’t give a flying f@$%! if Dickens liked pickled eggs. Times like that I’d get in my car and drive to the salt marshes at Cooling — the churchyard where the opening of Great Expectations is set. I’d sit there with a flask of tea and I’d stop thinking and I’d start feeling and I’d stay until Magwitch loomed out of the mist and I cared again.

Other times the world’s given me less of a gentle nudge and more of a vigorous shake. Everything’s going fine; I’m meeting my deadlines, I’m making good work — and then I notice I’m thoroughly, deeply miserable and lonely in my bones. That last happened a few years ago — I took a month or two off and I gardened and made cakes and saw friends and sat in the sun and read books and after a while I started to love pretty much everyone and everything.

So — as Henry Miller used to say — ‘keep human!’ Wonder requires all your body, not just your head. It’s about knowing the world with your finger-tips and your lungs and the soles of your feet and — yes, very definitely — your heart. Spend half an hour with a Turner sunset; listen to Strauss’ Four Last Songs; jump up and down like a mad thing to music too shameful to admit (this currently works for me, but I don’t wear the tracksuit); kiss someone for kicks; plant a garden full of crocuses; fly a kite. Do this ’till you run out of money or better, ’till the world makes you joyful again (it’s like having a tiny ballerina pirouetting in your gut). Then take that joy — and make beautiful, wonder-filled work.

Cathy FitzGerald

Cathy FitzGerald

Cathy FitzGerald took a circuitous route to documentary-making via charity fundraising, journalism, academia and museums, but now she's here it feels like a vocation. She made her first documentary – The Magic Carpet Flight Manual – in 2010, and has since won Whicker's World, Prix Marulic, Third Coast Festival and Radio Academy Production awards for BBC programmes on topics including angry Vietnamese ghosts, reindeer-racing, and a museum of broken hearts. The Radio Times calls her "One of radio's most original voices." You can find her work at her website and you can follow her on Twitter.


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  • Stephanie



    Oh my goodness Cathy, thank you. Suitable for framing and posting above my bathroom mirror where I can commit it all to memory.

    • Cathy



      Thank you! You have plenty of wonder going on yourself.

  • Diane Hope



    Couldn’t agree more with you article Cathy. So much radio is like audio baby food … a mush of narrator dominated readily digestable explanations.

    I say ” let the interviewees just talk”.Here are some programs I’ve made with minimal or no narration:


  • Cathy



    Thanks Diane! Though I’m definitely not arguing for montage rather than narration per se. I think it’s equally possible to generate the kind of feelings I’m talking about in either mode… and as a writer, I really love working on a script and figuring out how to deliver information in a way that leaves just the right amount of room for the listener to speculate and dream.

  • Siobhan McHugh



    Inspirational, Cathy – and hopefully will help podsters understand that audio/podcasting is not just about talk! There is so much cinematic audio storytelling out there, that evokes character and place and mood by triggering our imagination and emotions, just as the best novels do. And for more on how that’s done: hope you don’t mind if I plug RadioDoc Review here, on behalf of the international audio community who’ve contributed in-depth articles that critique great audio features (selected by the ed board, themselves a mix of renowned producers, significant industry folk etc). All pro bono – done for love of the crafted audio form. Issue 5 out now!

    Siobhan McHugh

  • Mukti Jain Campion



    This is lovely Cathy. Thank you

  • David



    I am doing some research into the educational and social class background of public service broadcasting in the UK and would be grateful if Cathy Fitzgerald could supply such details as her early education and life (i. e. private fee paying school, single sex or co-ed, professional status of parents etc) as this seems to be lacking on the Internet. This would enable me to judge whether my view that the so called “wonders” she talks about here are the product of a privileged white middle class background as is much of the BBC where she largely works and is thus unrepresentative and disconnected from the bulk of the population.

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