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Producer's notebook: producing radio that's 'a cherry on top of a crap pie'

I had been circling around the idea of pitching an idea I had for years. I knew it had a story arc, it was interesting, original and the characters were all well spoken. But what kept me back for years was the fact that it’s my own family's story. I wanted to pitch a story I knew would cause friction in my family. Tension I wasn’t sure we would recover from.
The Tunney family: siblings Joe, Catharine and Eve along with mom, Jane and dad, Mark.

In journalism school they never explicitly told me not to record key interviews while drinking wine.

Maybe it was covered. I probably skipped that day.

But there I was, sitting with two principles in the story I was working on after finishing one two a few glasses of wine. The package of cigarettes on the coffee table depleted as the digital clock climbed, one a.m., two a.m., three.

My Almost Brother

More than a decade ago, Catharine Tunney's family was planning on adopting a child. But her family decided not to go ahead with the adoption. Catharine has never been able to shake the feeling they made the wrong choice — and that it was all her fault.

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And that's when I decided to turn on the microphone.

That's right. I was about to do an important interview half in the can.

***

I've always loved longform radio, but I've never produced anything longer than seven minutes until now.

I had been circling around the idea of pitching an idea I had for years. I knew it had a story arc, it was interesting, original and the characters were all well spoken.

But what kept me back for years was the fact that it's my own family's story. I wanted to pitch a story I knew would cause friction in my family. Tension I wasn't sure we would recover from.

My documentary for The Doc Project follows a nice(ish) family of five who tried to do the right thing, but it all went wrong. When I was about about 13 to 14 years old my family decided to try and adopt another child. We were paired up with a boy who was around 12 years old. He was sweet and kind and did nothing wrong.

But I couldn't accept him. At the time, I couldn't even pretend to love him.

But of the three siblings in my family I was the most vocal. I wanted my "original" family back. I was 14 years at the end of the adoption — angsty and afraid.

So before signing the official adoption papers, we cut ties with the boy. He went back to his foster home and despite promises to stay in touch, we never did. It was just too painful.

More than a decade later, I found myself still struggling with the intense guilt of what happened.

Catharine Tunney with JP.
So, I decided to reach out to the boy (now 23) and apologize.

When I started the documentary I had no idea if he would want to talk to me. Hell, even my family wasn't thrilled about pulling these lead-like skeletons out of our closets … on national radio.

My sister, 24, summed it up well when I called her for approval: "I could spend the rest of my life repressing these memories."

Which puts you in an odd position as a reporter. Crying, yelling and harsh truths all make for great radio, but what do you do when it's your own mom holding back tears?

I don't know if I have perfect answers, but I've learned a few things producing a personal radio documentary.

Wine helps. (It was my parents who I interviewed over a few drinks.) But it's not the answer.

You have to be ready to be brutal. You have to be aware that you're telling a story and push through even when it's painful. You can't put your microphone down every time someone you love gets emotional. There would be no story.

It helped me to go into the experience knowing my defined roles — sometimes I played daughter and sister, but when the red light was on on the recorder I was a documentarian.

At the same time, I think producing a personal documentary makes you more compassionate as a journalist. As reporters we often find ourselves asking a lot of sources. "Tell me what it was like the day your son died." "Describe the moment when you realized your house was destroyed in a fire."

I don't come off well in my documentary. Probably selfish. Maybe even exploitive. But I didn't think it was fair to the audience to hold back or edit out the awkward moments.

There's also a horrifying moment where poetry I wrote in Grade 9 is read out loud. I still can't listen without blushing. (I've attached it for mocking purposes.)  
The poem written by Catharine Tunney in Grade 9.

As my brother so eloquently said, "This [doc] is a cherry on top of a crap pie."

In that case, why record the most difficult conversations my family has ever had and put it on radio? Because I realized it's radio I would want to listen to.

Hopefully someone listens and gets angry. Or sad. Hopefully they miss an important meeting because they can't leave the car while listening.

I just hope they're not indifferent.

Because at the end, that's what I think good radio is about — that moment where you get a stranger out there to feel something.

If you want to produce a personal documentary I don't know if I have a sugarcoated ending for you.

My story doesn't end with 'this documentary made us a stronger family.' But we got through it. It didn't break us.

And I did find that boy. And we did have a conversation 12 years in the making. And we still stay in touch.

I'm still unsure what I'll take away from all of this. How I'll change as a person. But I know I don't regret reaching out. And that's probably a good sign.

More than a decade ago, Catharine Tunney's family was planning on adopting a child. This wasn't just an abstract plan, the boy they were going to adopt was someone they knew well. But her family decided not to go ahead with the adoption. 27:30

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