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The Essay Project


Dispatches is well known to champion the radio documentary - a craft where expressions like "people are our pictures" and "sounds are our scenes" are prominent. But we also pay deep respect for the oldest of all dispatches. The letter home. The craft of the written word. Short. To the point. A little personal. Sometimes cheeky.

These radio essays (click "read more" below) spell out timely observations, wrapped in the tone of the voice of the writer. Sometimes a little sound punctuates that.

It's a selection of letters home from (mostly) Canadian correspondents abroad, that we've been happy to feature since Dispatches went to air in 2001.

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They'll bring you the world: the next generation

Our program for the August 6 holiday on Radio One highlights some of the young Canadian freelance reporters we heard during the past Dispatches season -- our final one on CBC Radio.

They take us on a walk around Change Square in Yemen and breathe the dust and stench around a surprising real-estate boom in a Mumbai slum.

Our China contributor endures the sting of Dr. Wang's miracle healing bees.

We hear how Colombians make deals with the no-name dead -- victims of violence floating down their largest river. 

And below, on this page -- a whole lot more stories from afar..


Our correspondent gets a nasty reception in the one country that mourned Muammar Ghadaffi.  

Listen to the program now (left click)

Download the podcast (right click: save target as) 


Mourning a dictator in the mosque that Moammar built

Rokupa's Freetown Central Mosque (aka Gadhafi Mosque) (photo: Ambrose Boani.)

If Moammar Gadhafi still had friends in Libya, they're keeping their mouths shut when he was overthrown and killed.. 
Not so in distant Sierra Leone, where they held all-night vigils at a mosque he constructed in the capital; one of the many he funded in various African states in a bid to become "Emperor of Africa."

Ghadafi also funded rebels Charles Taylor and Foday Sankoh, who unleashed civil war and the blood diamond trade on the west African state in the Nineties. 

But his largesse since then seems to have erased the bad memories,  and it makes folks mad when Canadian journalist Damon van der Linde comes to visit.

Damon's dispatch 


Children dance at the main stage in Change Square, Sanaa, Yemen - the primary venue for Yemen's protest movement. Protests continue despite a new president, hand-picked by his predecessor. (Photo: Samuel Aranda)

Plus ça change, in Change Square

Meanwhile In Yemen,  Reporter Lindsay Mackenzie  watched Arab Spring become an all-season affair this year -- after protestors ousted President Ali Abdullah Salah, only to see him hand power to his deputy. 

Advocates for democracy peacefully occupyed the streets around Change Square for months, biding their time with gardens and foosball and  -- and relentless demands for democracy.

Here's one of the scenes she captured from the Square:

Lindsay's foosball game

And here's her full March 1 View from Change Square in Sanaa, where despite the new president, demands for democracy continue.

Lindsay's View from Change Square


Mumbai slum dwellers go for the green

An aerial view of the Dharavi section of Mumbai, often described as India's largest slum. The area is experiencing a surprising boom in real estate prices (photo: Reuters) 

Edward Birnbaum is an urban planner by trade.  One of his dispatches from India featured the huge slum in the middle of Mumbai.  A messy place that doesn't have much going for it except location, location, location.

Which seems a contradiction. But developers are eyeballing the land.  It's already pricey, and would be worth even more if the residents would just sell up.

Instead, many are playing it cagey, and renovating by stealth, hoping to cash in if and when it goes to market.

Edward met some of the players.  

 Edward's documentary

Other dispatches from Edward are below

Worker bees: Bees are traditional health workers in China, stinging to help cure what ails you. (Photo: Danielle Nerman)

Bee-sting therapy: no gain without pain

In China -- our correspondent took the sting out of Dr. Wang's miracle bees in a painful test of traditional medicine.


And while the bee therapy did cure the sinus problem, after the treatment Danielle developed a huge swelling in her neck on the side where she got the full sting.  It took a week to go away

The March 15 Dispatches program


Following these pieces from the August 6 program are many more reports from young Canadians abroad -- including Danielle's beautifully told tale of some lost and found photographs and a romanitic reunion. That's one we called Visions Of Joanna. 

Also: reports from Congo and Uganda by Dennis Porter, Seraja Coelho's features from Europe, Lori Chodos in Peru,  Myles Estey in Mexico, Susanna Ferreira with the former soldiers searching for a payday in Haiti -- and many more.


No-Name dead enrich lives of the living

Hernan Montoya is the town mystic in Colombia's Puerto Berrio. He conducts ceremonies for souls in purgatory, particularly those who are among the "no name dead"  Photo/Nadja Drost

In Colombia, the Magdelena River snakes the length of a country long caught in the coils of drug and political violence.

And the river has become a conveyer of the dead.  A place to dump the bodies.  

In downstream cities like Puerto Berrio, it's given rise to a kind of  obsession with the dead, where strangers claim and name the floating remains. 

But what began as compassion, has turned into a competition. Canadian journalist Nadja Drost found the living have come to expect favours from the dead.

Hear Nadja's documentary 

Listener response, in Your Dispatches

Nadja Drost is a Canadian print and broadcast journalist covering Colombia for "GlobalPost," an online international news site. This was her first contribution to Dispatches.


Below, a selection from many other Dispatches reports from young Canadian reporters living and travelling abroad.


The website In2EastAfrica featured the wedding of Education Minister Jessica Alupo and news that her groom paid her family a "bride price" of more than $20,000. Those pushing for reform of marriage laws in Uganda say the payments make men feel entitled to abuse their wives. (Screenshot: In2EastAfrica.net)



Uganda's marriage trap

In Uganda, women's rights are decided by men. Especially when it comes to marriage.

The rules seem crafted to stifle a woman's wishes at virtually every turn. Parliament wants to change all that, but is catching flak from all sides.

Even from women, in a country where their wedding terms of endearment are counted in cattle. Dispatches contributor Dennis Porter picks up our story with a couple preparing for their big day.

Listen to Dennis' documentary 




Chinese poet and dissident Liao Yiwu was forced into exile for his critcism of the Chinese state. Photo/AP

Compelled to write, forced to flee China

China once again leaned on noted dissident Ai Weiwei in an effort to shut him up.

He's been accused of tax evasion and ordered to pay millions, but defied a gag order and went public with the story. 

He remains in his Beijing home, but other dissidents are not so lucky.

For them, exile is the only answer as China moves to silence dissenters who might be getting ideas from the Arab Spring. 

Correspondent Saroja Coelho has the story of Liao Yiwu, who used to be bound by shackles to fellow victims of state repression.

Having fled the threat of yet another prison term in China, he is today a celebrity in Germany, where he now feels bound to tell the stories of the downtrodden. 

Saroja's documentary

Our thanks to the Digital Archive for Chinese Studies at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands for the original recording of Liao Yiwu's poem, Massacre.


A tarp baring the insignia of Guatemala City's "volunteers" covers a drug-trade murder victim. Photo/Myles Estey

Gruesome Guatemala

While covering the war in El Salvador back in the 80s, Rick remembers well bumping into a Canadian diplomat visiting the capital from his post in neighbouring Guatemala.

The city of El Salvador was under seige at the time.

The nights were a flickering horror show of screams and gunfire and phosphorous flares strobing wildly in the night sky. By day, there were running battles and bodies in the street.

So Rick asked, "why on earth would you choose to visit...this...when you could be in Guatemala City?"

He's never forgotten the answer.

"It's safer here" he said, kidding only a little. In his view, a war zone was safer than the Guatemalan capital. But if it was true then, it's unfortunately still true all these years later.

Drug-driven street violence is so bad, they have thousands of volunteers  driving around each night just tending to the carnage, and Canadian journalist Myles Estey is with them to witness it. 

Listen to Myles' dispatch


Hawa Jundi in a temporary camp where she sheltered after her village of Sally was bombed from the air. Photo/Jared Ferrie

       Blue Nile bombers

Bosco Ntaganda's not the only person wanted for war crimes that's enjoyhing a free pass these days.

Malawi this week refused to honor its obligation to arrest a visiting president, Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, who's accused of genocide in Darfur. 

In Malawi, a spokesman said it was a matter of "brotherly co-existence."

Now, as it did in Darfur, Sudan started an aerial bombing campaign against rebels in its southern border area.

President al-Bashir denies his government is bombarding the Blue Nile State. But Dispatches contributor Jared Ferrie hears different on the ground... 

Jared's dispatch

Members of Haiti's rogue military parade through the streets on March 29th, the country's Constitution Day. (Photo: Susanna Ferreira)

Haiti's rogue paramilitaries

The political process in Haiti has lurched back to life in an effort to cap a restless challenge to its authority.

It's promising back pay and pensions to ex-soldiers who were demobilized in the 90s without any. It's either that, it seems, or they might start signing up to a nascent but sinister-sounding paramilitary movement that's beginning to flex some muscle.

It's not clear where its loyalities lie, or if they're just up for rent.

In the meantime, Dispatches contributor Susanna Ferreira is with the former soldiers searching for a payday.

Listen to Susana's documentary

People in Instanbul enjoy the newly-revived Baklahorani Carnival. What was once a pagan Christian rite, has morphed into one of the few celebrations of Turkey's multi-cultural past and present. Dominant Turkish nationalism has made its organizers tread with caution. (Photo/Meghan MacIver)

Dancing to the tune of reconciliation

With a history of conflict dating back more than 600 years, Greeks and Turks are not often found at the same party. As recently as the 90s, they sent warships into the Aegean in a sovereignty dispute over a tiny rump of rock cherished only by goats. And don't even get them started on Cyprus.

But now it seems, times are changing, ever so slightly.

Canadian journalist Meghan MacIver has found some Greeks and Turks dancing to the same tune at an unusual, and very historic party in Istanbul.

Listen to Meghan's dispatch


Resort push could shake Sri Lanka's new peace

Fishermen need the beach for their traditional method of stringing and bringing in nets from the shore rather than from boats. New resorts would displace them. Photo/Yasmeen Qureshi

The south Asian island of Sri Lanka is in a hurry to overcome its wartime past.

Just two years since the end of a long military confrontation, it plans to bung 17 resorts along one stretch of sandy shoreline.

But with developers pre-occupied with building a better beachfront, there's growing concern among those still fishing off it.

And the situation has echoes of the conflict only recently ended as we hear from Canadian journalist Yasmeen Qureshi, on the beach. 

Listen to her dispatch

Produced with Lily Jamali in Sri Lanka.

Thanks to the CBC's Flavia Missier and Jeevan Pragasam for voicing the English translations in that report. 

A view of Sara Gomez' apartment building (Left) in Mexico City. Inside, every wall seems slanted, the floors uneven. It's a victim of the widespread sinking of the city, due to the unstable earth below. (Photo/Myles Estey)

Mexico City: a sinking metropolis, on a swamp

Italy's famous leaning tower of Pisa tilts an alarming four metres off-centre. That's a list of about four degrees. More than enough to get your attention.

But in Mexico City, that kind of architectural abberation wouldn't rate a mention.  

Because it's so commonplace.

If a house in the Mexican capital has a level surface, well, it's only a matter of time as we hear from Canadian journalist Myles Estey, in a home that would defeat even Holmes.  

Myles' documentary

Inna Shevchenko (R) and Sasha (L) are the most prominent members of FEMEN, which uses female sexuality, including nudity, to demand women's rights in Ukraine and elsewhere in Europe.   (REUTERS/Gleb Garanich) 

Feminism laid bare in Ukraine

Well, the spark that ignited the Orange Revolution in Ukraine just a few years ago is more like a damp squib. Seems the days of political protest are mostly over.

Except for a small and controversial group trying to revive them in the name of women's rights. Controversial, because they use their sexuality to gain attention.

They went topless at KGB headquarters. And the Vatican. This week one of them peeled off and grabbed the Euro 2012 soccer trophy. Anything to advance the cause. They put their half-naked bodies on the line, occasionally with brutal result.

But Dispatches contributor Saroja Coelho says some wonder just what their cause is, and went to see whether their tactics help or hurt it.

Listen to Saroja's dispatch


The picture that triggered a magnificent obsession

The introductions to our stories usually tip you to the key components of what's coming up but this one's going to be a little different, because this one's a yarn, as we used to say in St. John's. 

A story that zigs and zags and asks you to lie back and enjoy a banquet of images crafted by a gifted storyteller.

All you need to know is it takes place in China, and involves two people who've never met. And yet they're about to have a reunion, all of it, set in motion by chance, and a picture.

Danielle Nerman's Visions Of Joanna


Tibetan exiles dressed as Chinese soldiers enact the killing of a Tibetan student during a protest in Dharamsala, India, in January. Tibetans are debating the best way to protest Chinese rule, and whether self-immolation is justified. (Photo: AP/Angus McDonald)

The debate over suicide by fire in Tibet protests
Tibet's New Year is normally cause for celebration, but not this year.  

A rash of suicides and protests among Tibetan Buddhists prompted the Dalai Lama to call for prayers and not parties last week.

Tibetans continue to bristle under Chinese rule, which began in 1950 when Beijing sent troops into the independent state. The anger often turns violent.

But Tibet's plight has gained new urgency lately as a growing number of monks and nuns set themselves on fire to draw attention to it.

The use of suicide is causing division in Buddhist ranks.  But Canadian journalist Edward Birnbaum watched a vivid demonstation of the reasons for in neighbouring India. 

Edward's documentary



People near Lukanga, DRC dig a trench that will divert water to provide electricity to their village.  It was all planned and built without government help.  Photo/Dennis Porter

Congo: the DIY State

If you want something done in the Democratic Republic of Congo, you've pretty much have to do it yourself.

It has some of the trappings of a state, but public services aren't one of them.

There are towns where you can't call a cop because the station has no phone.

Congo's holding elections at the end of this month.  But after three decades of a dictatorship that taught looting by example, followed by a lingering civil war, its 70-million citizens aren't expecting much change from the top down.

No, in Congo change has to come from the ground up, as we hear from Canadian journalist Dennis Porter at the outdoor grocery store.

Dennis' documentary  

A lesson in insecurity

The Romans called it "Arabia Felix".  Happy Arabia.

But Yemen, as it's known today, is anything but. Buffeted by rebellion and its own Arab Spring, political instability is on vivid display now that miltants have seized an entire province and sent its residents packing.

Today many live with the legacy of unrest that's driven them from their homes to refuge in distant schools where Canadian journalist Lindsay Mackenzie says the only lessons they learn, are the hard ones.

Listen to Lindsay's documentary


David Rocha finds wood for his instruments in vacant lots like this one in Villa Nova. (Photo: Lisa Hale)

From trash to musical treasure in Brazil

A story now, about making the best of what you've got. You know the old adage about life givng you lemons, so make lemonade. As Lisa Hale reports from Brazil, life gave David Rocha garbage. You won't believe what he makes of it.

Listen to Lisa's documentary







Peru's Bomberitos to the rescue

Bomberito means "little fireman" in Spanish and in the Andes Mountains of Peru groups of them use their homemade carretas  to help stranded motorists and truckers along the highway.  The tips they earn help them support their families.   They often help out when there are fires and natural disasters as well. 


Hevert (left) was a bomberito as a kid, helping rescue stranded motorists and victims of disasters.  They get their carretas up the steep highway through the Andes by attaching ropes, or just their hands, to passing transport trucks.  (Photos: Romi Burianova)


More on the film about the Bomberitos, The Little Firemen

It was one of those dinner party stories that sticks in your head. A rumour about kids racing homemade carts high in the Andes, acting as first responders during accidents and disasters.

They have a catchy name. They're said to do dangerous work in a dangerous region.

But are they real?  For Dispatches contributor Lori Chodos and a colleague, the voyage to find out was a story in itself.

 Lori's documentary

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Award winners

Here's a chance for you to listen to some of Dispatches' prized pieces, stories that have won us awards over the years:

  • The Eyes of Rosa and Antonio
  • Shovelling the Rain Away
  • Israel's Shministim
  • Nuclear Renaissance
  • Afghanistan's Left Behinds
  • The Garbage People of Cairo
  • Scrapping Over Scraps
  • The Headchoppers
  • Gees Bend: The Crossing
  • Too Many Ways to Die
  • The Democracy Project
  • Jody's War
  • Impeach, Inform And Unite
  • Water Wars
  • Muna's Story
  • Who Killed Father One-Speed 

To listen to any of these pieces, click below

Read more »
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What Is A Dispatch

We have a journalistic field guide, What Is A Dispatch, that we sent to serious story-pitchers. The Nieman Foundation For Narrative Journalism, at Harvard, published a nicely edited version of it in three parts, on its website, and it's also reproduced here: 

Dispatches is a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Radio News weekly show of documentaries, essays, interviews and reports from around the world. Most are by traveling freelancers. Many are from CBC reporters on the trail of breaking news for our newscasts. So we're mostly at the mercy of where other people choose to be and for how long.

After 10 seasons, we're getting more pitches than we have time or money for, so we wanted to formalize some of the standards we use to decide what to do and how to do it. We also wanted to share with our contributors some of the thoughts about craft we've had over the years.

We wanted a document that aimed for high standards, yet offered help for people risking their lives in places they're just learning to spell the names of--to grind out $100-a-minute pieces for overworked editors with short deadlines and dwindling budgets.

We've included some pieces to listen to at the end of this post. They don't correspond one-to-one with the points we make, and they aren't all spectacular. But they're the kind of stories most professionals are capable of doing, and they serve as good examples of how to get more out of a piece by using a few simple strategies.

Part One: sounding out your story

What is a dispatch?

A dispatch is a report from a specific place - by a narrator telling us things only someone who is there could tell.

Good dispatches include vivid images, tension, change, conflict, contradiction, or irony. Humor is always welcome. A surprise isn't bad. The most memorable dispatches contain a strong "Who knew?" factor. The best ones shine a light into the lives of people.

A radio dispatch gets its veracity from the authentic sound of the reporter being in the scene--even interacting with others in the scene. That means, in a dispatch the sound doesn't stop. We don't broadcast "script & clip" items (where the reporter reads a script in a studio and plays clips).

Except for host interviews and on-scene conversations, our contributors talk directly to the audience. We don't use generic sound effects or music beds under the clips (unless the music is from a scene, or part of the story). And we don't put reporters or characters into scenes they really aren't in.

Be crafty and creative

We're telling people about the state of the world by taking them to the rarest of places, inside a stranger's life. How can you do that?

Flesh out your characters. Ask subjects about the things that define them. Hopes. Fears. Food. Heroes. Music. Weapons. Family. Childhood.

That's how you find out that your Congolese driver hasn't had three meals a day in 30 years. And the 11-year-old guerilla doesn't like the AK because it pulls high and to the right. These things might work into a clip. More often they work into your narrative, alongside the other things we like. For example, physical descriptions: hands, faces gestures, habits, tics.

Sticking with stuff you actually see shouldn't be restrictive. If the subject is audibly spitting tobacco juice during the interview, don't stop him. If a subject tells you how best to anaesthetize a pygmy elephant, it's probably worth a mention. For God's sake, tell us something we don't know.

Your presence is organic to the piece. Insert yourself in it. Leave some questions in your clips, so we hear you learning and thinking out loud. Leave in the ragged, unplanned moments that add to the intimacy.

If the nervous woman in a Sarajevo church suddenly tells you to shut up because a stranger has walked in, then she grabs your mic and causes some nasty hand noise--it's a telling moment.

Structure is your friend

We use elements of good narrative to pull these pieces together, starting from the simple fact that a story has a beginning, a middle and an end.

The beginning tells us what's at stake in the story and gives us reasons to care about what happens. It introduces characters and sets up a conflict or a challenge. It might be the start of a journey, the middle of a standoff or the result of a troubled history. But, as a beginning, it engages us, makes us want to know what comes next, and how it got that way. It also lets us know what kind of a piece we're in for, and sets a mood.

The middle is about people working through this situation. In a good story, this leads to moments of suspense - turning points, at which the story could go one of two (or more) ways. Those turning points, as short story masters have learned, are the opportunity for digression--back stories, facts, history. There's usually a dramatic "what it's all about" scene in this middle part.

The end does double duty. It's the conclusion of the story and the last thing you leave the listener thinking about. Conventional news reports just trail off or embrace some rhetorical form of "Time will tell..." closing. We want to boost the effectiveness of Dispatches endings. Don't be surprised if we ask you what the closing scene is before asking for the opener.

Your dispatch might not be a full-blown narrative piece. It might be a simple report of an event, or a profile of a person, or a complex account of a developing situation. To succeed, though, it most likely will employ some of the things that make good narrative journalism work--things that you can easily incorporate into your story.

Here are some sample clips (some may take a minute to load):

Be in the scene--Connie Buys A Burka (Oct 15, 2004). For Connie Watson, things were pretty cool in Kabul in October 2003; but she learned if you're going to Kandahar , you best pack a burka. So she went shopping. It's good example of being with people doing what they do for a living--even though most of it was scripted and voiced later.

Let people tell the story--Mender of Lost Hearts (Part One - January 2009). Samite Mulondo is a Ugandan refugee and now a professional musician based in Ithaca, New York. He worked with former child soldiers in a recording project in Congo.  We let him tell his own story - and the stories of these kids, in two parts.

Use personal experience--Anthony Eats Penis (April 4, 2006).Anthony Germain stretched his assignment as CBC's correspondent in Shanghai to sample some of the organs on the menu.  It might have shades of cultural snobbishness, but it's good storytelling, which reveals a lot about himself.

Narrate your story--Jody's War. In early 2007 Dispatches host Rick MacInnes-Rae interviewed a Canadian Afghanistan amputee in a Toronto hospital. Jody told his own story. Rick broke it up using the simple technique that comes straight from the narrative journalism bible: stop the story (in this case a simple monologue) at key points of suspense to digress into scripted background. Then continue.        

Part 2: composing with sound

The following are things you should start to figure out before you go out and collect your sound. And continue to figure out while you're collecting it. And consider again when you're putting your piece together. In all memorable sound pieces, the sound you collect determines the structure and presentation more than anything you can do afterwards in the writing or the mix.

Aim for compelling, sound-rich scenes. Don't leave a scene until you have the sound that can recreate that scene. By the time you're in the middle of collecting your sound and interviews you should pretty much know which are good candidates for (at least!) your opening, closing and "what-it's-all-about" scenes.

While background sound--the lull of street traffic or birds outdoors or waves--is good behind a short script or inside a clip, it's often too lame to drive one of these anchoring scenes. You want something distinctive. Don't just hold your mic in a crowd for a minute. Walk around; point it at individuals--talking, laughing.

With these anchor scenes in place, it's usually pretty clear how to get from one to the other. For example, a digressionary "how did it get this way" scene might follow a "what's it all about" scene--and set the direction toward the final scene.

Present strong characters. Strong characters require strong entrances and good lines. Introduce characters with material that shows what they're like, as well as their role in the story. For example, when Rhoda Metcalfe introduced us to the stoners who were abalone poachers, she signaled that this was a story about social conflict, not just a threatened species.

Memorable exit lines make solid connective writing a lot easier. It's all right, for example, to flip sentences in a clip to achieve this.

Let people make your pictures. As much as possible, get subjects to describe what's happening, what they're doing and what we're "seeing" on radio. You shouldn't have to do it all the talking. It's also a good way to break the ice with the person, and it might give you a line that makes for a good entrance or transition.

A colleague from Newfoundland said he was taught to "look for the doily" whenever he entered a home with his recorder. "What a nice doily! A lot like my aunt makes." was good enough to get a shy person to open up. There's a doily, figuratively speaking, in every home and office. Even in a cubicle you might see something personal. Better still, find a doily relevant to the story. If the person is a teacher ask them to show you drawings or essays or remember outstanding students. Ask questions with answers that help connect the character with the listener.

Use scenes where characters do what they're in the piece for. We don't want to hear every person just sitting at a desk or a computer or in a café. If he sells real estate, go out with him while he's showing a house or closing a deal; if she's a doctor, listen to her consult with patients. Let a writer read some writing or go somewhere she's written about; go to the market with a family that's scraping by. It just might get you something substantive as well. Good things happen to reporters when they go out.

Get your subjects to tell stories. Don't ask the subject "How did you feel when you found out?" Better: "What did you DO when you found out?" or something that might start a story. "And what did you do next?" "Yeah, and what made you think of that?"

Before you ask a question, think: could a person say just "yes" or "no."  If so, ask it differently. Don't ask: "Is it a good thing?" Ask: "What difference will this make?"

Make distinct scene changes. Shifting sound and scene underlines dramatic shifts in the story. Give scenes good entrances--another reason to get foreground sound to layer over the background.

Contrast the sound of your scenes. As much as possible, play intimate scenes against crowded scenes, loud against soft; or play against type--in a crowd, go up close to one person cheering or laughing.

Don't bore us with facts. Filling in background information is hard to do without bringing the piece to a halt. Pick a time when the conflict or drama of the piece will leave listeners hanging in suspense--a turning point. When your character faces a decision, stop. Tell us how he got there. The listener will tolerate scripts longer when there's a good sense of what's at stake.

Good use of sound is not gimmicks; it's not bells and whistles. It's what makes a radio piece work--that and a few well-chosen words. A photo editor once said: "A picture isn't worth a thousand words. But a picture and ten good words are worth a thousand and ten words."  We can add that good sound and some well chosen words--and a solid structure--are worth a million and ten words.

Some relevant sound clips

Structure and digression--Capetown Tabloid (Jan 28, 2008). Making the structure essentially a "day on the job " of a couple of tabloid newspaper people, Rebecca Zandbergen gets a grabby opening and a closing payoff for herself--while bracketing the heart-tugging scene with a murder victim's family AND setting up a digression at a journalism conference discussing what it's "all about." Strong characters (some good entrances) and contrasting tones of scenes.

Dynamic scenes--Baboon Break-ins (Sept 10, 2009). A couple of short scenes at the top establish the drama and the menace of the marauders, and suspense for digression.  More important, the opening sets off a more engaging structure than the straight sequence of scenes you normally hear in one of these situational pieces. The action jumps around a little more.  Rhoda Metcalfe did a similar job with turning her story about threatened abalone populations from a wildlife piece to a story about human conflict.


Part 3: writing for radio 

We at Dispatches have seen thousands of first-draft scripts across the 10 seasons of the program. Most are problematic. Some just require moving a scene or two for the structure to click into place. At other times we've had to make the reporter tell us the whole story again to find why we assigned it in the first place. When it's the dog's breakfast, we look for some kind of order: Chronological? Sensational opening? Two funny scenes that just have to go together?

As in billiards, when you break the proverbial rack, tracklines for writing sharpen up once a few items fall into place. From here, give and take between a reporter and producer becomes teamwork rather than confrontation. This is the start of what we call the vetting process, where the reporter and the producer work together to brainstorm, reorganize, and negotiate until they get a structure that works.

We on the desk like to think of the vet as the guts of what we bring to our pieces. But we know the best vets happen after the reporter does a good job in the first place (see parts 1 and 2 in this series).

After vetting the structure, the writing is what fills in those tracklines. We've figured out tips to help you avoid a few of the standard "tripping" points.

Tell the truth that you know. Report what you really see and can verify. "The overworked officer approaches a homeless man sleeping on the sidewalk"  might not work so well--you actually often can't verify he is sleeping, or homeless even, or that the officer is tired. Try:  "The officer is in the 12th hour of an overnight shift. He approaches a figure--bare feet sticking out from a pile of old blankets and newspapers on the sidewalk."

In the first description, a listener's pre-formed opinion of police and homeless people will shape his value judgments more than your description does. In the second, you're not only more accurate, you're in better control of the subjective aspects as well.

Create the image you saw and want the listener to see. Start with a lot of details; you can edit it down in the re-write, or save them for the print edition. Picture those details when you're reading your script too.

Read your script out loud, in your real voice, while you write it. Then try it out on a partner or colleague. Don't be shy; after all you're going to read it on the radio.

Don't be sentimental. Your writing and characters must provoke emotion. How do you know when you cross the line into sentimentality?  Drama teachers tell us that sentiment is unearned emotion. Earn emotions. Also, avoid assumed emotions, such as: "He was devastated."  Try: "He was so upset that he..." or simply just describe what he did "...so he broke it into little pieces."

Move the plot along by pointing your sentences. Pointing is moving the writing along via logical baby steps--each sentence or clip ends with an image or thought that points to the beginning of the next sentence or clip, or the next sound we hear. Don't make big leaps or refer back to things we heard a while ago or won't hear until the end of the clip that follows. Again, it's all right to flip sentences inside a clip to achieve this, as long as you're not distorting anything.

Write into the sound. Write from the sound. Yes, set up sound, but don't telegraph new sound. Let new sound happen before you address it. Don't tell us what we're going to hear next. Let us hear it; then fill us in.

Avoid passive voice and long subordinate clauses. Make new sentences.

Use more verbs and fewer adjectives. Verbs show people doing things. Vivid verbs work better than dull ones.

Write to the ending. An important thing that narrative journalists teach us is to avoid the inverted-pyramid structure-where all the best stuff is at the top, and the disposable stuff is at the end. We want strong endings. When you know the ending, a lot of the earlier writing is easier. It also helps you choose the telling detail your ending will reinforce, so you can find the right place in the story to foreshadow the ending.

All the above (including the material in Parts 1 and 2 of this series) add up to a lot of time and effort, especially in the field. But these strategies save time in the writing, vetting and production stages. Not to mention the next time you do a piece.

At Dispatches, compiling these thoughts has given us a common language to use when we talk shop.

But most of all, we believe it pays off for the listener.


Here are some examples of reporting what you see:

Michael McAuliffe in Baghdad Children's Hospital (January 28, 2004). One prolonged scene, one character-but a story with a wallop. Michael dropped in on the hospital on a whim. He got an hour of walk-around sound with an English-speaking doctor. We cut it by half. Then Michael listened to it in his earpiece, and simultaneously recorded a running commentary on another mini-disc. We cut and mixed the two tracks back in Toronto and ran it the next day. That voicing is also a great way to achieve a personable storytelling tone, speaking in natural voice.

Jared Ferrie in Guinea-Bissau (November 24, 2008). Jared found this basket-case country is a major packaging place for illegal drugs bound for Europe. Even though a lot of his recorded material was wiped clean by police working with the druglords, he got great scenes, because he took risks and remembered the details. His first radio story.  The PM was assassinated a month or so after this ran.

David McDougall essay from Congo (November 17, 2008). David was doing mostly print work in Congo when he was invited to in meet the crazy warlord Laurent Nkunda.  It's a good example of recalling personal reactions and impressions and noticing some telling details-even though, as you hear, he lost his equipment in the end. That's why it's an essay.

Both David's and Jared's pieces are triumphs of naivety.

Read more »
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Your comments, on the run of Dispatches

yourdispathces200135.jpgYour Dispatches is a selection of the hundreds of emails we received from listeners after CBC announced it was cancelling Dispatches because of budget cutbacks. 

Please read on: you will find you are among good company as a member of the Dispatches audience. Thank you.


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Child "bomberitos" on Peru's most dangerous highway

Peru's Bomberitos to the rescue

Bomberito means "little fireman" in Spanish. In the Andes Mountains of Peru groups of them use their homemade carretas  to help stranded motorists and truckers along the highway.  The tips they earn help support their families. 

 Hevert (left) was a bomberito as a kid, helping rescue stranded motorists and victims of disasters.  They get their carretas up the steep highway through the Andes by attaching ropes, or just their hands, to passing transport trucks.  (Photos: Romi Burianova)

The photo that started it (below). Filmmaker Quincy Perkins saw this picture of two Bomberitos -- kids on their own in the mountains of Peru who make their way to mountain accidents and disasters. Our Dispatches contributor went with him to the Amazon valley as he made a film about them (Photo/StefanSonntag) 

It was one of those dinner party stories that sticks in your head. A rumour about kids racing homemade carts high in the Andes, acting as first responders during accidents and disasters.

They have a catchy name. They're said to do dangerous work in a dangerous region.

But are they real?  For Dispatches contributor Lori Chodos and a colleague, the voyage to find out was a story in itself.

 Lori's documentary

May 31 Dispatches