To script or not to script: that is the [audio storyteller's] question

It can feel like we all have our own personal systems for how we approach a script. How do other people go about it? We decided to ask three incredible radio producers about their scripting process.

To script or not to script? This is a question I'm often asking myself.

Depending on what my project is and who I'm working with I'll either work directly in my tape or I'll have my tape transcribed and then craft a written script that I'll use as a road map while I'm putting the piece together. I find that if I'm just making something relatively simple (e.g. one voice narrating one story), I like to just stay in the tape and cut the thing based on my ear. But if I'm working on a larger story with multiple voices it can be helpful to have transcripts available to search through for the golden quotes and then to make a script so I know where I'm going.

The process of working with transcriptions has been one I'm always honing and adjusting depending on what I'm working on and I've become really curious about how other producers go about this delicate task. I feel like we all have our own personal systems for how we approach a script and I really want to know how other people go about it. So I decided to ask!

I reached out to three incredible radio producers and asked about their scripting process.

  • Britt Wray is a science storyteller of the highest order. She is currently a PhD candidate studying Media, Cognition and Communication at the University of Copenhagen.
  • Rikke Houd is an independent radio producer based in Denmark. Her pieces are spacious and poetic and capture the essence of humanity in a way that is truly breathtaking.
  • Julia Barton is a radio maven who has produced docs for all your favourite shows on Panoply, PRI The World and Radiotopia. (After you read this blogpost you should also check out Cultivating the Editor in Your Brain, where she categorizes types of radio producers as vegetable, mineral or animal — it's brilliant!)

These women are the best of the best and luckily they agreed to answer some burning questions I've had. I've triangulated their answers here and I hope you find them as helpful as I did.

1. Do you transcribe your own interviews? If not, what do you do?

Rikke Houd is an independent radio producer based in Denmark.
RIKKE: I usually do it myself if I do it. If I don't then it's because there's no time/budget to transcribe. But when I do transcribe it usually gives me a valuable feeling for the material and a great opportunity to search the material while editing.

BRITT: Yes, usually I do. Lately I've been working on a documentary that has me doing upwards of 50 interviews, so I've been sending some of those off to a transcription service because I simply want to stay sane. But normally I insist on transcribing everything myself. I find that it really helps me get connected to the story if I get in the trenches with all of the interviewees by transcribing their words first.

JULIA: I like to transcribe them if possible. That way I can hear good moments and also re-experience the interview from a distance.

2. Once you get a transcription in hand what do you do next? Can you walk me through your steps to making a script out of it?

RIKKE: Everything happens in the edit. I write narration as I go along if needed, record it immediately and try it out. I usually find my way through the story this way and then re-write and re-read narration and mix.
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      BRITT: Once I get a transcription, I go through to identify what one of my mentors, seasoned producer Sara Wolch (of CBC's Ideas) taught me to call "the greatest hits." What this entails is literally taking a highlighter and marking out all the parts of the transcripts that speak to you as salient, intriguing, surprising, brilliant, fascinating, relevant, strange (in a good way), etc. Once I get the greatest hits that I'm happy with, I give them numbers, according to each interview. Then you literally pull those hits out of the transcript and put them into a new document, next to their allocated numbers. It's then helpful to write jot notes about what the clip is about, in plain language in a new document, next to each clip number, so you really know what you're working with (see an example in the slideshow above).

      JULIA: I'll go through the tape logs and highlight potentially good bits, as well as other research. I came of age in the Analog Times, so seeing everything on paper works best for me. I'll write up an outline with blocks of tape represented by a rectangle and maybe some words around it. Then I'll start on a script, refer to the outline, and either get it to some place I like, or write another outline. Once I'm done with the script, ideally I have time to leave it overnight and get back into it in the morning with fresh eyes/ears. At this stage I'll also ideally have time to line up actualities in a sound file and fine-tune my writing around the clips.

      3. How do you think about spending time in your script versus spending time in the tape?

      RIKKE: When I work on a piece I spend time in the universe of the story, sound, words, etc. I don't think about scripts. The words usually are written after I have edited the sound.
      Britt Wray has produced and hosted national radio shows at the CBC, and as a broadcaster and academic, she has harnessed the ability to make complex topics like synthetic biology not only accessible but engaging and entertaining.

      BRITT: Oh man, I think they're totally entangled. It does feel like the tape comes first because of getting the tape of course, then transcribing it and finding the greatest hits that I just talked about, but that division between tape and script quickly becomes a false binary as soon as the writing starts. I am constantly going back to the tape and playing it, moving it around, writing into it, writing out of it, etc. in order to make a script, so it feels like those elements are tightly interlaced.

      JULIA: I come from a writing background so the script stage is my favourite part. But I'm also conscious that audio stories unfold on multiple levels and the sound has to be a big player. I look for moments where the sound can act as a pivot, as a character, and also where things happen in front of my mic that I wasn't expecting. I try to get the writing out of the way, but if I don't articulate ideas first and cut them back, then usually my editor is confused. So I overwrite at first.

      4. How do you decide what you need to narrate?

      RIKKE: I often try to tell as much as possible with other means, but it also depends on the approach of the piece and of my position as a storyteller. I like the narrator to tell something more, to have a position or somehow a character. If it's just information I try to get that through in another way.

      BRITT: I think a lot of amazing radio is completely non-narrated, so there is always a case to be made for considering letting it go altogether depending on the tape you have. This is the common approach taken by the producers of Love and Radio, for example, where the character usually just speaks for themselves, though they may be interrupted a few times by questions from an interviewer the listener is never formally introduced to.
      Julia Barton is a radio maven who has produced docs for all your favourite shows on Panoply, PRI The World and Radiotopia.

      However, if you are going to narrate, I often find that the need for narration arises easily when you simply should say something that your interviewee did not in order to push the story along further to its next point. Or, sometimes the interviewee has said something brilliant while the tape wasn't rolling (my bad of course for not having the tape going yet when that happens to me) and I'll insert it in narration as an illustration of how they think.

      Often in my work, because I largely work on science stories, narration comes in handy to simplify a concept in layman's terms that the interviewee (often a scientist) didn't manage to say in a way that non-specialists would easily grasp. Narration is also great of course for times when you decide to insert yourself in the story as a producer/character. In those cases you can use it as a device to reveal what you were really thinking/feeling/seeing/hearing/touching/tasting while all of the action in the story was going on around you.

      JULIA: Narration for me establishes voice and POV, it offers visuals, it streamlines ideas and sets out the stakes. I've done a few self-narrated pieces where I really felt like I had a good source and I had nothing to make that story better. But I need to go into a piece with the intention that it should be self-narrated (unless my editor and I change our minds later). It's almost impossible to get a self-narrated story if that's not your intent at the outset.

      5. What is the most satisfying part of the whole scripting process for you?

      RIKKE: To me the process of making a radio feature — whether scripting it first or working directly in the edit — is a strange process every time, it never follows a pattern or a schedule. I often feel reluctant to go into it and then there's that point when all that raw tape and all the thoughts one has suddenly begin to take shape and you feel that the story has found its way. I like that moment.

      JULIA: I really value the moments when I discover something I didn't realize until I started writing it. Or when I go back to listen to tape and make a conceptual discovery, or connection between two ideas. When I learn the same way the listener will be able to learn with some context and guidance.

      BRITT: In a nutshell — satisfaction comes from sharing the draft scripts with other people out loud and realizing where the story is really coming to life (or dying) from the impacts of script. Then working with that new realization to get the crystallization of the story world sharper in a way that it wouldn't be if I hadn't shared it with others. Sometimes, sharing the scripts with others allows new relations between ideas to come forth that can totally transform the feel of the script — for the better.

      About the author

      Veronica Simmonds
      Veronica Simmonds is an experimental radio producer. Her documentaries have aired on CBC, ABC and BBC, as well as in a weather observatory in France and a former grain silo in Norway. Her feature, Dr. Clock, was a finalist for the Prix Italia. These days she is a Producer on the CBC series Sleepover, and she hosts a show called Braidio where she braids hair on air.

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