The Doc Project

Stuart McLean's former radio students remember his most unforgettable lessons

Stuart McLean's radio documentary class at Ryerson University was one of the best courses I ever took. As a teacher, Stuart was the same "national treasure" you got to know on the radio: a humble, witty raconteur who loved to pass on what he learned.
Stuart McLean, left, and his radio documentary class from the 1996-97 academic year at Ryerson University in Toronto.

Stuart McLean's radio documentary class at Ryerson University was one of the best courses I ever took.

Every week, during the second and final year of my journalism program in 1996/97, I got to sit around a big table with a bunch of other students and learn radio-making from one of the masters.

Celebrating a side of Stuart McLean you may not know: documentary maker

In the late 1970s the U.S. was losing the battle in their war on drugs. Stuart McLean travelled to Florida — the distribution point of marijuana to North America — and aboard the United States Coast Guard cutter, Steadfast, for his documentary, The New Goldrush. Listen →

As a teacher, Stuart was the same "national treasure" you got to know on the radio: a humble, witty raconteur who loved to pass on what he learned. His classes always unfolded in a fun, easygoing way, just like his radio programs. And I always felt better at the end.

Stuart's class involved just as much listening as teaching. Even though it was 20 years ago, I still remember one of his radio documentaries that he played for us.

It was about a Canadian snooker champ named Cliff Thorburn and it kicked off with an intense scene of Thorburn nailing a rare perfect game.

Not surprisingly, Stuart had recorded impeccably clear sound of Thorburn's poker cue tapping the billiard balls. But all these years later, what I remember most about the doc was Stuart's writing.

As we like to say in radio, it painted a picture. And it was incredibly present. It made me feel like I was right in the room with Stuart and the champ.

"Thorburn is moving around the table like a cobra," said Stuart, "from side to side, end to end. His head sinks down until his chin almost touches the cue. And as the head sinks, the cue slows down. And you know he's about to shoot."

The importance of creative writing was one of the many helpful lessons about radio-making that Stuart taught me in journalism school.

Many of my classmates from those years still work in journalism, as do I. I asked some of them what they remember learning about radio-making from Stuart.

Stuart McLean, centre, out with students.

Steve Rukavina, Reporter, CBC Montreal

I remember that one poor kid in our radio skills class ended one of his reports with, "Only time will tell."

Stuart asked him to come up to the front of the class. Then he asked him to grab a chair. Then he asked him to stand on the chair. Then he asked him to repeat after me: "I will never again end a report with the words 'only time will tell.'"

All of this was done with good humour and graciousness, and we all learned an important lesson with a smile on our faces.

Robyn Reed, Senior Reporter/Producer, CTV Calgary

When I think back to journalism school, I remember how insecure I was about my skills. I thought I couldn't write. I was nervous to cold call people. I questioned whether I was smart enough for this business.

When I presented my first documentary to the group for feedback, it was the most nervous I had ever been. But you know what? The read through went great. The feedback I got from Stuart, and the class, made it even better. And when the process was complete, I sold it to the CBC.

Turns out I was good enough. I just needed guidance to get there.

Virginia Smart, Producer, CBC-TV's Marketplace

The first radio doc I ever pitched was to Stuart. I wanted to tell the story of the Halifax community known as Africville, and incorporate music from Joe Sealy's Jazz CD Africville Suite.

I quickly dismissed my pitch: it was too far, it would cost too much. But Stuart's imagination was boundless, and he helped me find the funds for the project. He wouldn't accept "I can't do this." Off I went, armed with great ideas on how to interview, and how to set scenes.

That doc was one of the hardest stories I've produced. But the lessons I learned were invaluable. I now work in television, and still remember Stuart's words clearly. "Show, don't tell." I can still hear his voice in my mind.

It took a long time to learn that craft (and I'm still learning!), but Stuart's words became one of the guiding principles in my stories.

Stuart McLean, right, with a student from his radio documentary class.

Jet Belgraver, Senior Producer (Canada Bureau), Al Jazeera English Television

My takeaway from Stuart's class was the importance of good, realistic sound in storytelling. I recall Stuart played us a doc he'd done, from somewhere in small-town U.S.A.

He was about to enter a local corner store and then he had that familiar creak of the screen door opening. It put you right there, in front of that store, swatting the flies in the fetid heat.

It was an excellent lesson on the importance of good sound and how powerful the role of sound and radio can be. People notice bad sound or the absence of sound, but when a doc or story has proper sound, it just sounds right.

Piya Chattopadhyay, Host, CBC Radio's Out in the Open

I learned a lot from Stuart. I learned to read Orwell, which seems so appropriate these days! But the most important lesson was when a classmate and I got in a big fight over something editorial when we were producing a radio newscast.

Stuart told me to be nice to all my classmates — whether I liked them or not. That there was a difference between pushing back editorially and making things personal.

He told me, "One day, many of the people you don't like will be your boss, and they will remember."

David Michael Lamb, Senior Producer, CBC Radio's World Report

We walked into class one day to find the lights turned off. Stuart was sitting at the front, with nothing but a lit candle on his desk. He instructed us to take our seats, remain quiet and listen closely.

In hushed tones he described a couple walking together on a journey through a forest. They were looking for something, but exactly what wasn't clear.

After stringing us along with this story for the better part of 10 minutes, Stuart told us the couple finally arrived at a spot in the forest where there stood a table with a lit candle on it and an old woman sitting at it.

As they stared into the light, the wind picked up. It blew out the candle and the old woman whispered to them, "One thought per sentence."

Stuart then blew out his candle and told us the day's lesson was complete.

One thought per sentence. A radio writing rule I have never forgotten.

David's memory reminds me of another small but helpful lesson I learned from Stuart that I keep in mind to this day: repetition is good.

Our author, Kaj Hasselriis, at Ryerson convocation in 1997.
It's not a bad idea, for instance, to repeat your main character's name many times. After all, listeners are tuning in out and of the radio, and often distracted by other things, while our work is airing.

Finally, I have one last tip to share from Stuart: listening parties are fun! At the end of that school year, Stuart invited all of his students to a potluck dinner at his home in Toronto's Annex neighbourhood. We all sat around cross-legged in the living room and listened intently to our final radio doc assignments.

But that night Stuart also learned why it's unwise to add a piñata into the mix. One of my classmates whacked it so hard that it flew across the room and broke a lamp.

I don't think Stuart minded, though. After all, it made for a good story.

Thanks for everything, Stuart!

About the author

Kaj Hasselriis is an associate producer at Now or Never and he is also a mentor with The Doc Project.


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