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Producers' notebook: how to make a collaborative radio documentary

Hotel Limbo was a collaboration between three producers. We worked as equals — sharing in the work of reporting, writing and editing our documentary. This is unusual in radio documentary production and in media organizations overall, where job specialization and hierarchy are most common because, frankly, it’s an efficient way to work.
From left to right, producers Yasmine Hassan, Craig Desson and Julia Pagel at work on the documentary, Hotel Limbo.

Hotel Limbo was a collaboration between three producers. We worked as equals — sharing in the work of reporting, writing and editing our documentary.  

This is unusual in radio documentary production and in media organizations overall, where job specialization and hierarchy are most common because, frankly, it's an efficient way to work.

What you gain though, when you're part of a team where nobody is the boss of another, is you're forced to move past your own creative boundaries, habits and old tricks. You get to view another person's process from beginning to finish, and have your own process examined too.

The work that's made is a mixture of other people's taste and skills, different than what we would have made alone.

Collaborative production workflow

This kind of collaboration wouldn't have been possible without Google Docs or some other cloud storage service like Dropbox.  

The platform allowed us to share audio files and scripts, it saved us from having different versions scripts and audio, living on our own individual hard drives and email accounts. Though, of course we had back ups!

It allowed us to contribute to the project on our individual schedules, and not have to be together to get work done.

It also meant no one person was the keeper of the master script or edit of a particular audio file.  

This is what our Google Drive drive looked like:  

As we collected interviews and sounds at the hotel we would file them into clip-archive. Inside clip-archive was a folder for each day we were at the hotel and within that, was our raw tape and a transcription of it.

After we had done most of the reporting, we got together and played what we had each recorded. At that point, we divided the tape into a series of scenes and assigned an approximate length for them.

Then we created a new folder called ... you guessed it … scenes.

From there we worked independently and clipped the best moments from the raw tape and uploaded them to their own scene folder.

Once our audio was cut we started a Google doc, which we all began to write our scenes into.    

Editing collaboratively was really difficult.

For starters only two of us knew how to use Pro Tools and there was no quick way to share our project file, which by the end was over six gigabytes.

Pro Tools had recently released a cloud service, which promised to be a kind of Google Docs for audio, where your session and audio files are kept online and you pull down new versions as different people make changes.

However, it was a bit more complex than we were hoping, and after a few frustrating experiences Julia put her down and we abandoned it. As we've learned, collaboration means picking your battles carefully. Not to say it couldn't be a great option for you, we just didn't have the time to properly research it. In Pro Tools' defense, the product was made for people making music and not radio documentaries, which are longer and involves hundreds of audio files.

In the end, we had to take turns editing the doc and transferring the project file between our computers. A bit of a pain, but it was worth it to have two brains on the editing.

Working together with other … humans …

These are the values this kind of collaboration requires: trust in your teammates (by far the most important value), accepting you are not in control of the final piece, and the ability to be patient while other members of the group work through an idea or decision. Also, we were always kind and friendly as a group, even when we were stressed about a decision or timeline.

With all of us so invested in the project, and each of us having big ideas and lots of opinions there was the potential for things getting really tense. We were lucky, we never had any blow out fights. But this is something to be aware could happen. We found working together was generally more fun than working alone, and having fun leads to making some risky decisions, which is a good thing!

When Collaboration makes sense

Should media companies be run as egalitarian collectives? We think this would be a lot more fun, but for obvious reasons is not possible. But we would propose that it's a great thing to push whoever you're working for to let you try.  

We believe that if we want media organizations to be places where creative and inventive work is made, there should be opportunities for alternative working methods.

If you walked into the Toronto Plaza Hotel today you probably wouldn’t notice anything — the carpets are a bit more worn, a few paper signs in Arabic linger on the walls — little evidence that this building was recently packed with Syrian refugees. 32:39

About the producers

Julia Pagel is currently the associate producer of The Doc Project radio program. She's also worked at other CBC Radio programs such as As It Happensq and Metro Morning

Craig Desson is a producer at CBC Radio. He previously worked at the Toronto Star, TVO and Journalists for Human Rights.

Yasmine Hassan is an associate producer at CBC Radio. She's currently working on documentaries for Metro Morning.

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