When the personal becomes public: the art of making intimate radio documentaries

How do producers build trust and navigate their relationships with their interview subjects/storytellers while making intimate radio documentaries? Michelle Macklem asked four experienced audio producers.
Tally Abecassis produces the documentary podcast, First Day Back.

Making my radio documentary Longing to Belong was a transformative, intimate and often difficult process. That's the funny thing about crafting immensely personal pieces as they unfold – you have to relinquish a lot of control as a producer and constantly re-work the script in your head.

Longing to Belong was recorded over a 6-month period, during which I worked closely with my interview subject/storyteller Lorrie Edmonds. Lorrie and I had a very open dialogue about the project from the start; I didn't really know where it would end up, but I told her I was motivated to turn her story into a feature-length documentary.

Lorrie Edmonds with her grandmother. Her story is chronicled in Michelle Macklem's documentary, Longing to Belong.
Lorrie is a radio producer and artist too, but when we started recording she felt that she was too close to the story to do anything with it. When we started recording the piece we were casual acquaintances who had met in university, so the documentary really transformed our relationship.

Lorrie said the experience was very cathartic for her and appreciated that the process gave her an opportunity to share her story in a new way. She says, "to do something with the trauma of what happened over the past year ... has been really important. That you are the one working on it, finding something to do that's creative with it, is truly humbling, but so very therapeutic." As a documentary maker, Lorrie's positive feedback was the  greatest reward.

I wanted to hear from other producers about how they build trust and navigate their relationships with their interview subjects/storytellers while making intimate radio documentaries. Here's what they had to say.

Kate Montague | Murder in a Small Town (2015, for ABC's Earshot)

Kate Montague produced a two-part radio documentary that digs into her own past as she returns to her hometown and reconnects with her friend whose mother was murdered when they were 10-years-old. The documentary is striking in a number of ways and it took months of planning, recording, and editing for this story to come together. Kate says that taking the time to craft a documentary of this magnitude was an essential part of its construction.
Irene Glanville with her children.

Since she grew up with the people she interviewed, Kate had shared experiences and understanding that allowed her a level of pre-established proximity to her subjects. While these relationships created the foundation of the piece, she also had to negotiate them carefully.

Tally Abecassis | First Day Back (2015)

Tally Abecassis is a documentary maker of many forms. Before starting her documentary podcast in 2015, Tally worked as a filmmaker, giving her a unique understanding of the  documentary-making process. I asked Tally about getting close to her subject and how that can be tricky both professionally and personally for a producer.
First Day Back is a documentary podcast that follows filmmaker Tally Abecassis as she faces the challenges of picking up her career after an extended maternity leave.

Openness and trust are fundamental to this type of documentary making and it's important as a producer to explain your intentions in making the piece, so there aren't surprises for your interview subject or storyteller in the final piece.

Mira Burt-Wintonick | Kaddish (2016, for CBC's Love Me)

Mira Burt-Wintonick and her co-producer Cristal Duhaime worked with emerging producer Grant Irving to produce a story about his struggle coming to terms with his father's suicide. The result was a heartbreaking piece that explored the emotional depth of the difficult relationship with father and son, but Mira also recognizes how the story you tell as a producer can't include every nuance of the full life experience that the storyteller expresses.
Grant Irving with his dad.

It's important to note that the final story is always different from how your interview subject or storyteller tells it; it's the nature of crafting a documentary. As a producer, you aren't re-creating someone's life experience, rather as Mira puts it, but are building a bridge between listener and storyteller:

Neil Sandell | Between Friends (2006, for CBC's Outfront)

Neil Sandell's award-winning documentary told the story of how a past secret told between friends has an enormous impact on both of their futures. Neil worked with producer Jody Porter to share her story of sexual assault as a young girl and the impact that keeping this secret had on her childhood friend. Complex, profoundly personal, and genuine, this documentary is a hard listen and a portrait of an intricate friendship.

More from Neil Sandell ...

We are awash with personal stories on radio and in podcasts. We live in a culture of confession. There is very little that people won't talk about. What really distinguishes the personal stories I want to listen to are three qualities:

  • Some personal insight, that is, making sense of your story
  • Authenticity
  • Storytelling that keeps me on the edge of my seat and makes me want to know what happened next

Dealing with traumatic experiences can put producers in a difficult role. Its often instinctual to reach out and comfort people in a time of distress, but Neil says it's important at times to ignore that impulse.

There's lots of other fantastic resources and pieces to listen that exemplify personal documentary making, including Neil's Third Coast Session Secrets, Whispers and Lies, Masako Fukui's documentary Will Kate Survive Kate about one young woman's experience with anorexia, Veronica Simmonds' collaboration with The Heart about discovering your sexuality in Coming of Age, and finally Sook-Yin Lee's masterful radio show Sleepover, which brings together three strangers overnight to share their personal experiences together.

About the author

Michelle Macklem
Michelle Macklem is a Canadian radio producer. Currently she is the associate producer for CBC Radio's Sleepover.

Her documentary radio work has been featured on Third Coast and CBC's Spark. Michelle dabbles in the world of radio fiction and has produced work for the Australian Broadcast Corporation and Radiotopia podcasts. Her sound-rich work, Swimmers was short-listed for the Third Coast Short Docs 2016 competition.


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