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So you want to make the move to producing radio? Lessons learned from three converts

For the first time since Orson Welles took to the mic to announce a Martian invasion, audio storytelling is the cool kid on the block. We asked three CBC Radio staffers — who made the jump to radio from other mediums — to share some thoughts, tips and lessons learned while crossing over.
Karen Chen (newspapers), Nick McCabe-Lokos (TV), and Ify Chiwetelu (live comedy), have all made the move to radio.

You've read the articles and heard the stats — the audio 'explosion' is staggering! Unprecedented! Astonishing!

According to the Pew Research Centre, monthly online radio listenership in the U.S. has more than doubled since 2010

Who's getting into the podcast game?

Radio show/podcast hosts have catapulted to mainstream pop culture stardom, even parodied on Saturday Night Live.

For the first time since Orson Welles took to the mic to announce a Martian invasion, audio storytelling is the cool kid on the block. And everyone wants to be friends. Which is awesome! The more creativity, brains and heft, the richer our medium and all its offerings will be.

Here at The Doc Project we regularly receive pitches from stellar and experienced folks with backgrounds in television, digital media, print journalism and performing arts. They usually possess transferable skills, qualities and characteristics that promise a relatively smooth transition to radio … although making the jump is never totally seamless.

We asked three CBC Radio staffers — who made the jump to radio from other mediums — to share some thoughts, tips and lessons learned while crossing over.

Nick McCabe-Lokos

Formerly: Producer for CBC's The National, The Hour, and CityPulse

Currently: Executive producer of Quirks & Quarks

Working in television is a waste of time. From the moment you begin working on a story you start burning minutes, hours and days on things your audience will never see.

Find a source or guest. Pre-interview them. Convince them to appear on camera, which most people are allergic to. Book a camera. Wait. Find a location. Wait for permission to shoot there. Wait for your camera person. Load gear. Drive across the city. Sit in traffic. Meet your contact at the location. Set up lights. Wait for your guest. Do make up. Shoot the interview. Shoot cutaways. Shoot re-asks. Pack up your gear. Stop for a union mandated lunch. Drive back across the city. Ingest your viz. Transcribe your interview. What do you have in the end? A 20-second clip and you still haven't gone into editing.

Nick McCabe-Lokos is the executive producer of the long-running science radio program Quirks & Quarks. He also ran q and Day 6. Prior to that he worked in TV and print at places including The National, George Stroumboulopoulos’ The Hour, CityPulse and the Toronto Star.
Total waste of time. On deadline too.

The first difference I noticed after moving into radio was how liberating it was to drop all that logistical and production baggage and just focus on the story.

The second big difference is that television stories are kneecapped by location and for the most part radio stories aren't. In TV you are always limited by who you can get in front of a camera and most often that's someone who lives in the same city that you're shooting in. You are literally cutting off a world of people because you have to shoot them talking. Sure you can drag someone into a studio, and talk to them down a satellite line, but that looks like garbage because they aren't in the same room as your reporter or host. This has a direct impact on the quality and intelligence of your story. Does the most deeply connected, well spoken person you need to tell the story live in Nashville? Too bad. Book a professor from a local university. Do the same story for radio and if your Nashville guest can pick up a phone, you've got them.

The third difference didn't dawn on me right away. But now I think it's the most important distinction. Radio understands its audience. Television is trying desperately to relearn who's watching and why. People tune into current affairs radio and podcasts for context and to hear people smarter than we are explain and understand the world around us. That's as true for local programs as it is at the national and international level. Here at the CBC we've taken that understanding of the radio audience and applied it to the incredible new podcasts we are turning out. You don't make a show like Love Me or Someone Knows Something (hat tip to David Ridgen's incredible TV work) without knowing what your audience wants to hear.

I mean come on.

  • Love Me is a show that explores "the messiness of human connection" and it hit #2 on iTunes in Canada and was top 20 in the U.S.
  • Someone Knows Something shot up to #1 on iTunes Canada as soon as it launched, spending 2 months in the top 10 (including 40 days at #1) and has over 6 million downloads to-date
  • Missing and Murdered: Who Killed Alberta Williams is made by some of the top talent from CBC television and radio. It hit #1 on iTunes Canada. It's not on television

This isn't to say that TV won't get a handle on what viewers want. Some of the most intelligent and committed people I've ever worked with are thinking hard about that now, especially as The National moves into its next phase. Nor is it to say that radio won't ever lose its grip on what listeners want. But maintaining that connection is crucial to the survival of not only public broadcasting, but also our democracy. Heavy!

Karen Chen

Formerly: Investigative reporter for the Houston Chronicle

Currently: Associate producer with CBC Radio, Out in the OpenqAs It HappensThe Current

What works for print may not work for audio. Duh, right? But it took me months to understand the distinction. When you're writing, you have a lot more control. You're interviewing people for facts, emotion and colour, but you may only end up using one direct quote. You can paraphrase, you can use facts from multiple sources to paint a scene, you can use documents and text sources far more easily.

In audio, you have to surrender a lot the storytelling to your interviewee, and if you're working on a show, your host. Because if the interviewee takes too long to make a point, or if they don't speak in complete sentences, trail off, talk too fast, or are difficult to understand, you can't write around it. You're stuck with what you record.
Karen Chen has worked for CBC Radio's Out in the Open, The Current and q. Prior to that, she worked as an investigative reporter in Houston, Texas and did stints at The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, The Star in Johannesburg, and Ottawa Citizen.

When I started at the CBC, people would say, "Tape is king," which is one of those things that doesn't really make sense until you're sitting there with a bunch of crappy tape, no coherent story and having a meltdown. Unlike in print where you can re-read the previous paragraph if you missed something or forgot someone's name, when you hear something on the radio, you can't rewind. So it has to be really, really clear. And it has to be engaging. If before you focused mainly on what they're saying, in audio, it also matters how they're saying it.

What this really means is a gigantic amount of planning, starting with the pitch. Let's say you want to pitch a story about psychics and what their clients are really looking for. For print, it might be okay to pitch a concept like that and wait for the thumbs up before you find the right characters to tell your story. But for radio, you generally already need to have names attached, and ideally, have already spoken to them to get a sense for how they talk. Are they charming? Candid? Stilted?

This also means some stories are just much harder to tell with audio: stories with lots of characters or a complicated timeline, difficult concepts that take heavy explanation, using lots of archival material and documents ... all easier in writing. They're not impossible for radio, but they demand a lot more creativity.

Past that, there's — yup — more planning! This time, for the interview. You have to think about how you're creating a narrative arc through your questions. When I was writing for newspapers, I would follow my curiosity and only write out a few questions beforehand. Now, I spend a lot of time thinking about what wording will elicit the most emotional response, what my themes are, and what's the most logical order for the questions.

Then, you have to be annoying. At the moment of the taping, you have to get very used to asking the people you interview to answer again but more succinctly, or to answer again this time with a full sentence, or to repeat themselves because the wind ruined their last answer. Because if you missed a crucial detail the day of, you can't necessarily call them up and ask what you forgot, and fill in the gaps later.

And then there's the hardest lesson for us big dreamers: your first radio piece will (most likely) not sound like Radiolab or This American Life, and that's okay. I often get frustrated with myself when I can't make the story sound like it does in my head, when I know I could in print. I'm a beginner and giving it my best is the best I can do. And sometimes, that means saving my most ambitious ideas for down the road ... when my skills catch up!

Ify Chiwetelu

Formerly: Stand-up comic, improv performer and comedy writer

Currently: Host, Now or Never

The thing about radio is — yes, this is how I start every sentence now that I'm one month into making radio — the thing about radio is, it is still mostly a mystery to me. My journey to radio was an unexpected one. I was cobbling a life out of comedy shows, writing contracts, and arts administration when I was approached to apply for the position that would eventually have me moving to a new city for a new career.

The amount of scripting that goes into radio-making was a surprise to me, a testament to the many talented hosts and producers who make things sound effortless and natural. My first attempt at recording a prepared script was ... clumsy. I was trying to have a measured and controlled voice that seemed more knowledgeable than my own. There is a cadence and tone of voice that I associated with public broadcasting, and assumed I would have to adopt. Peter Mansbridge, I am not.

Ify Chiwetelu is a Nigerian-born, former Calgarian who charted her career path as a stand-up comic, improv performer and comedy writer. She has written articles for CBC Comedy and is a contributing writer for the upcoming season two of CBC's hit television show, Baroness Von Sketch Show.
Who I am is a Nigerian-Canadian woman who laughs loudly, and has equal number of opinions on The Baby Sitters Club's legacy as Lauryn Hill's. Mine is not a voice I thought was welcome. I was both surprised, and grateful, when the producer asked me to speak more in my own voice. This has been getting easier with each episode as producers get to know me and my way of speaking, and I get more comfortable following my instinct and releasing my preconceptions. Although, it does still feel like I'm getting away with something every time an off script thought makes it to air.

I thought my performance experience would ease the transition to hosting a radio show, and it has, but I was not prepared for performing without a live audience. Soundproof walls don't give the feedback that a room full of (mostly drunk) people do. Without that immediate gauge of success or failure I find myself desperately seeking a glint of approval in a producer's eyes and analyzing every sigh from my co-host.

There is an immediacy to live performance that I love, the ability to be spontaneous, react to what is happening as it does, most importantly the inability to over think what happens on the fly. As a chronic over thinker, hosting Now or Never has been a kind of exposure therapy. Not only do I have ample time to think about a reaction, it also gets recorded, and re-recorded, then I get to hear my voice in surround sound as people around me edit and cut tape. Hearing clips of your voice in an editing loop from multiple computers is a torture technique the UN has yet to acknowledge.

The thing I'm learning about radio is to listen to feedback, observe those with more experience, and trust my instincts. I'm working on channeling the spontaneity and abandon that give me the most joy, and relying less on immediate audience reaction. My favourite performances, regardless of medium, have always been ones that seem the most authentic and honest. I'm excited to bridge the gap between radio and stage, I imagine there is magic at the intersection of the two.

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