Cool people doing cool stuff with audio: Eleanor McDowall and Radio Atlas

The Doc Project profiles producer Eleanor McDowall and her new site, Radio Atlas — a place to hear inventive documentaries, dramas and works of sound art that have been made in languages you don’t necessarily speak.


The Doc Project profiles producer Eleanor McDowall and her new site, Radio Atlas — a place to hear inventive documentaries, dramas and works of sound art that have been made in languages you don't necessarily speak.

Who are you and how would you describe your connection to doc making?

I'm a radio documentary maker with Falling Tree Productions, an independent production company based in London. I've been making documentaries with them for almost a decade now on subjects like roller derby, riot grrrl, Italo Calvino and the political subtext to Dr Seuss's stories (I was particularly excited by the anarchist undertones to Yertle the Turtle). I'm also the series producer of a radio show and podcast called Short Cuts, which is a space for new, inventive short documentaries and works of sound art hosted by the British comedian and activist Josie Long.

In the past, I've been very interested in ways in which we can make audio more visible online — collaborating with animators on short docs, making archive-led 'music videos' for documentary songs and getting Josie (who's a delightful illustrator and zine creator) to make accompanying web comics for editions of Short Cuts.

Eleanor McDowall is a senior producer at Falling Tree Productions. She is the series producer on BBC Radio 4's Short Cuts, nominated for Best Speech Programme at the 2014 Radio Academy Awards where the show was praised for 'demonstrating the power of spoken word radio'.

Eleanor McDowall
Her documentary work has been broadcast across the BBC networks as well as in international strands including 360 Documentaries (ABC), Radiotonic (ABC) and UnFictional (KCRW). In 2008, she received the silver award for Best Scripted Programming at the National Student Radio Awards and in 2011 she received a Silver Sony Award for Best News Special as the co-producer on The Reunion: Hurricane Katrina.

She has helped to pioneer animated radio in the U.K. with her work on Short Cuts forming the basis of the talk Making Radio Visible at 2014's International Features Conference and she has appeared as a speaker at CPH:Dox, Sheffield Doc/Fest and Open City Documentary Festival.

What is Radio Atlas?

Radio Atlas is an English-language home for subtitled audio from around the world. Essentially, they're mini subtitled films for radio documentaries, dramas and sound art. No pictures, just text. The intention is that it should make listening to audio in languages you don't speak as natural-seeming as possible. I'd like it to help you forget that you're reading and encourage you to focus on the inventive things that are happening in the audio.

So far there are documentaries from Denmark, Italy and Belgium up there, as well as a dizzyingly inventive Finnish hybrid of music feature and drama.

Why did you want to create it?

I'd been lucky enough to start hearing audio outside of my own language through the work of incredible organisations like In The Dark in the U.K. and the Third Coast Festival in the U.S. In fact, In The Dark were the first people who I saw subtitling audio in the cinema and I was captivated by how immersive an experience it could be — you weren't sitting there thinking about reading the text, you could just lose yourself in what you were hearing.

Travelling to audio festivals in Europe I started to hear more and more work that I loved. I was so intrigued by the docs I listened to from producers like Rikke Houd, Tim Hinman and Martin Johnson and deeply frustrated that language barriers would stop me from diving into their vast back catalogue of programmes. My experience of listening was also hampered by having to sit with a thick paper transcript on my knee, anxiously worrying that I'd lost my place and had missed the crucial sound cue which would tell me to turn the page.

Recently, I've found it increasingly baffling that, given the tech explosion in audio apps, platforms and devices, no one has offered a simple tool to access audio outside of your own language. Why doesn't it bother us more that we aren't hearing the majority of work being made in languages other than English? English-language work is penetrating the iTunes charts of countries where it isn't the first language but almost nothing is coming out the other way. It feels like a conversation that is becoming dangerously one-sided.

I wanted to make the platform to help encourage conversation more than anything and to give a taste of some of the innovative, challenging, engaging work that's out there. I think secretly I also just want an easy way to push the work I love at people and shout 'listen to this! Isn't it brilliant?!' without having to give them an accompanying 65 page PDF transcript.

How do you see this opening up new avenues for radio production/connections?

I hope that the work of these producers will open up conversations about style, approach, treatment of ideas and much more. Each one of these countries has fascinating, diverse documentary traditions that can offer a real challenge to our broadcasting conventions in the U.K., Canada, the U.S., etc.

We've been living in such an exciting time for our industry technologically — it feels like lots of borders are breaking down online. Audio no longer evaporates the moment it hits the airwaves, it can have a memory, a canon, vast digital archives. Everything's getting more and more accessible. I hope that language barriers are the next frontier — that we'll find a way to break them down so that we can really listen to ourselves as an art form.

What are some of your favourite places to find new radio documentaries?

I subscribe to a lot of podcast newsletters: The Audio Signal, The Podcast Broadast, YSLTF, read The Timbre and Radiodoc Review and rely on a lot of personal recommendations.

One of my favourite things of the last year has been starting a Podcast Club (it's like a book club but with podcasts) with Helen Zaltzman, Martin Austwick and the men behind the Picturehouse Podcast. We each pick something we want the group to listen to, then meet in the pub and argue about it. I've been exposed to so many new shows this way (both transcendent and unforgivably awful), the serendipity of it and the accompanying pub fights are very enjoyable.

There are also certain producers who I'll always be on the lookout for what they do next, like Cathy FitzGerald, Michael Umney, Kaitlin Prest, Phil Smith (it's an endlessly long list). As well as following the work of In The Dark and Third Coast Festival as they're curators with great taste.


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