Radio For Filmmakers

Intro from Jay Allison: Unlike its companion feature, Ben Shapiro offers serious tips about how filmmakers can dive into radio, about which skills are transferrable and which you'll need to learn. Some storytellers think with their eyes, some with their ears. Ben's piece helps make the translation.

(TRANSOM COMPANION FEATURE: Andrew Norton is back with another installment of his pseudo-archival series, "Sounds Good!". These are the best fake Canadian instructional videos about sound recording in the world. This episode covers recording sound for film, and reminds us that "movies were originally just books." We hear about George Orwell's "Citizen Kane" and creating the film's "Sound Trek." We learn how to record in a green suit so you can be removed from the picture in post production, along with safety tips like, "Never point your microphone directly toward children or animals". This is a classic.)

Filmmaking Vs. Radio Making

To make a film is easy; to make a good film is war. To make a very good film is a miracle. –Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

It’s true: filmmaking is hard. Making good radio is also hard. The challenges of crafting radio and filmmaking are conceptually akin, but are unique and specific to each. These notes are meant as an introduction for filmmakers about how radio producers in some sense think about storytelling. I’ve tried to present these in relation to conventions of film storytelling, its vocabulary and process.

Before launching into formal specifics, we can’t ignore that radio and film feel different. Film can be (and some theory describes it as) a kind of waking dream. We focus our attention to the screen — big or small — and if all goes well, we lose ourselves in that story space to the extent that we forget even who and where we are. Being able to orchestrate dreams, to engage audiences that way, can be an exciting thing, and a rich and interesting challenge.

Radio stories fill the very air we inhabit. Our personal space vibrates with reproduced voices and sounds, the room itself acoustically excited by the world of the story. Maybe this is why the radio experience seems less “show” and more first hand, more visit than spectacle.

It’s a truism that listening to radio stories requires more of our imaginations than does watching a film. I disagree — when we experience each, we engage in a process of constructing meaning from the sounds or images that are provided to us. When we watch a film we’re busily at work, constructing a world and its living characters from the fragmentary glimpses at hand within the frame. Our job as storytellers in either film or radio is to provide the specific “fragments” that will allow the audience to engage in that process of their own story creation. And it is because the audiences’ job of experiencing, of interpreting film, and radio are so different, that our task and process as makers must be too.

Let’s take a look at some of those differences that confront us as we shift from one medium to another — what storytelling devices do we “lose” or might best abandon as filmmakers moving to radio, and what correspondingly do we gain and adapt with stories in sound?

Ah, Freedom!

One thing is for certain: it’s easier to gear up for radio production. Every time I go out to gather sound or do an interview for an audio piece, I look down at my shoulder bag and smile: this is how documentary gathering should be! A few pieces of gear — absurdly light and compact and rugged, as compared to cameras, lenses, lights, support. . .

Out in the field, the differences are even starker. When you shoot video, people don’t see you as just another person — and they’re right, you’re a cameraperson, with your own rigorous intentions and that capturing-machine between your face and theirs.

When gathering sound for radio, you’re a person holding a mic. You enter a room, introduce yourself, strike up conversations, ask for a story in return. Sound gear doesn’t assume so much power as a camera, or dominate a room. From a technical standpoint, field production for radio is usually simple: if you gather sounds, recorded close-up and cleanly, your tech job is largely done.

Stories In Sound — Upsides And Downsides

But of course, cameras have their advantages. Shots of a character or a place convey tons of information — the physical and visual manifestations of life lived, shifts in expression, and revealing gestures or movements of characters. In radio, meaning is created through discrete sonic elements. One might say that film editing is to a degree subtractive — the paring away of unessential footage and story — whereas radio storytelling is additive, combining elements of narration, actuality sound, and perhaps music. In film, you can silently observe a character in thought. In radio, a character is only present, and only exists for the audience, when they are talked about or when they speak. In radio, to speak is to exist, at least in the audience’s view. As is true often in life, speaking is action.

Because of how we experience aurally, radio storytelling also has its limitations. Filmmakers recognize the power of sound: it’s great at evoking empathy and sharing experience — but it is poor at transferring data and information. Radio listeners get confused fast and drift away easily. Conventional film structuring devices such as parallel action, frequent flashbacks, or time shifts, don’t transfer easily or clearly to radio.

Group scenes are common in film — numerous characters can move in and out of a shot, each speaking a line or two, and audiences take it in stride. In radio, we can have maybe three or four speaking characters in a scene. Put eight characters chatting around a table and the listener is lost. We can visually identify faces on sight. A film audience will remember a character that appears briefly when they return 20 minutes later. In a radio piece, if we introduce a character who goes away for five minutes, listeners will need a repeat introduction or at least some mental reminder of who they were.

Story points are most easily followed when clear, linear, and simply told. Imagine telling a story to a friend on the phone.

Flexible Radio

But unlike film, radio also allows a kind of unconstrained flexibility in editing and scene construction. Imagine being able to edit within a shot, down to the length of the pacing between words or phrases, and even the rhythm and movement of each scene action. In film, this kind of play with form is limited. In radio, it is straightforward and typical, and offers countless possibilities. The radio producer (who is also usually the cutter) becomes a kind of writer/director, marshaling the words and speech of others. What appears a straightforward portion of a finished piece — a well-shaped monologue, a direct scene that conveys the necessary information to advance the story or build character — was likely the result of much deliberation, construction, trials, re-shuffling, reconsiderations, often among a group of collaborators.


Example: Juan

Here is a short scene from Juan: 16 Years Later, a piece from the Teenage Revisited series (Produced by Joe Richman and Sarah Kate Kramer of Radio Diaries, I co-edited with Deborah George and mixed). I don’t hold this up as an ideal by any means, but I can offer some of the intentions that went into making it what it is. It’s also worth noting that this is a particular kind of radio: a highly crafted diary piece consisting mostly of scene tape. But the deliberateness we took in assembling it is not exclusive to this form. Ideally, every facet of any radio piece is placed with deliberation and specific intention (and again we see parallels to writing, and even musical composition).

The story is a portrait of Juan and a life that looks a lot like the typical American dream: a house, two cars, three kids — except for the fact he’s living illegally in the U.S. In this scene near the beginning of the piece, we meet Juan’s family and get a sense of their typical day-to-day life. It takes place first thing in the morning, and launches the action of the story. It’s composed of narration and actuality sound, though in this case the narration is self-performed in “diary” mode — Juan is reporting his life to us, while it happens. (The scene after this follows Juan to work at his plumbing job.)

Here is a clip of the uncut raw tape that Juan recorded, a bit of his “diary tape” and some actuality:

Listen to “Radio For Filmmakers”

Here is the final produced scene, with notes on what I imagined (right or wrong) is meaning or information conveyed by each bit of sound or speech:

Listen to “Radio For Filmmakers”

:00 A small pet dog, yapping in the echoey hard-tile acoustics of a kitchen. Apart from narrative purpose, it’s generally useful to have a sharp sound to punctuate the beginning of any scene or chapter from the silence that preceded it.

:03 Juan greets his kids who, at a distance off mic, are minding their own business in the background. They don’t care much what dad is up to. Juan’s wife enters, he greets her, they kiss.

(So, five seconds in we’ve established a little scene — family gathering in the kitchen in the morning.)

:07 Kids continue chattering in the background, steamy liquid pouring by somebody (coffee? Stirring spoon).

:08 Juan introduces his wife Milly, he references her action of pouring (ok, yes, coffee!).

(This moment seems akin to a medium shot: Juan and Milly sitting together at the counter with kids bustling around in background.)

Narration (Juan): We live in Colorado, three-bedroom home (more scene-setting as that phrase suggests a suburban house, and evokes certain kinds of rooms) we rent, don’t own (clues to socio-economic status perhaps — and it turns out, an important detail for story later in the piece).

:17 Allen (his son, brusquely and maybe sleepily interrupting Juan’s diary recording): Uhh!

Juan asks his son to keep quiet, which also reiterates that Juan is recording live. There is a slight sense of annoyance at his son’s interruption, but then he drags his son towards the mic — that combination of parental frustration and pride. Juan wants us to meet his son, and asks Allen to introduce himself, which Allen does with childlike gusto:

:27 Allen: Allen!

:28 Juan laughs, amused by his son’s energetic self.

:30 Unidentified kid singing in the background, at a distance from the mic, in a rambly way. It is a house populated with happy kids.

:31 Narration (building on the previous kids’ appearance): I have three beautiful kids. (Intros them by names, this is the first time we’ve id’d them as characters.) I’m head of the household, we’re not rich but doing pretty good.

(More basic info about their lives now, and also sets the stage for later developments as we follow their ups and downs, and whether they can achieve what Juan sees as the American dream. This is a central question for the story: how does Juan’s legal situation impact their lives and ability to possibly achieve that dream?)

:45 Juan to listener: 6:27 and off to work, see you guys later. (This sign-off to us indicates the end of the scene. Outdoor ambience appears as he heads out the door, sounds of the outside world rushing in.)

:51 Allen: You leaving? (Kid sees his father going, runs after him on the front walk to the driveway to say goodbye. Meanwhile Juan opens car door, standing and about to step into his vehicle, pauses until his son runs up and gives him a goodbye kiss. Juan gets in and slams door shut.)

:56 Juan: I’m out!

And you can see what the scene looks like when laid out in ProTools here:

So. . . This is highly-constructed, though all the sounds and Juan’s narration were recorded by him that morning. Our goal was to do what one typically must early in any story: convey foundation information allowing subsequent details to be added as the story progresses; to introduce the characters and, we hope, to engage the listener with them enough to stay with the story; to plant some question or challenges central in the characters’ lives. When we built this sequence, I visualized the scene in the house as it played out, placing sounds with a clear sense of each imagined action, and tweaking timing, levels, etc., until it sounded comfortable and seemed to clearly depict those particular events. It’s a process familiar in some ways to filmmakers; ideally, we listen to our pieces not with professional distance, but with a kind of self-aware spectatorship. We are both audience and maker.

Listen to the complete piece Juan: 16 Years Later here.

Transferable Skills

Despite our emphasis so far on the differences between filmmaking and radio, many of the key tasks are very similar. Let’s quickly mention a few here:

Interviewing: Engaging with subjects, asking questions that elicit compelling and meaningful answers, anticipating the needs of storytelling in the edit.

Researching story and character: Identifying characters that are great talkers, practicing a nose for stories in the world and the ability to refine and hunt those down.

Writing: Filmmakers know to make language conversational, to write for the ear, building information cumulatively in easily absorbed pieces.

Interactivity with audience, building a fan base, promotion of the finished work.

Sustainability! How to keep yourself solvent and sane and productive in a culture that often little values (or pays for) what we do.

Pursuing a new craft takes time and energy, and that will inevitably pull resources away from what is already an incredibly difficult job. But part of building a career over the long-term involves pursuing new directions — or perhaps finding multiple avenues for our existing interests. Real sustainability means not only strengthening our existing body of skills, but also trying things we aren’t as familiar with, crafts that will refresh our thinking and our primary practice through the act of trying something new.

Ben Shapiro

Ben Shapiro

Ben Shapiro is a New York-based documentary maker working in radio, film, and television. Over the past 25 years his productions have appeared on NPR, PBS, BBC, CBC, Netflix among others, and at festivals and museums internationally. His feature documentary Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters premiered at SXSW and was released theatrically. He has been editor, mixer, and co-producer at Radio Diaries since 1996, and edits a range of radio projects, recently including Midroll’s Stranglers podcast. Among other awards his productions have received DuPont, and Peabody Awards, and an Emmy for cinematography. He teaches at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

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  • Lissa Cook



    Great article – really useful – I’m teaching Radio Production & Presenting students alongside Film students this semester and this will be great to bring them on to the same page. Thank you.

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