How to make a radio documentary

How to make a radio documentary

By Becky Brewis 21/12/11

Once upon a time, the word “radio” conjured up romantic visions of Hush Puppied BBC presenters crooning down funny shaped tubes. These days, everyone’s tuning into podcasts such as This American Life and Radiolab. So if you’re thinking of turning your hand to documentary podcasting yourself, we’ve put together some tips from two top US producers, Julie Shapiro and Soren Wheeler…

Julie Shapiro is Artistic Director of the Third Coast International Audio Festival. The festival showcases documentary work and includes a weekly radio show Re:sound.

Tell a good story

What makes a story good? Surprise. Unusual elements. Topics you have proximity to, familiarity with, or at least a genuine interest in yourself. Interesting people doing singular things. It's hard (though not impossible) to tell a brand new story, but you can always tell an old story in a new way. Good stories bear repeated listens and get stuck in listeners' heads like favorite pop songs.

Listen critically – and to a lot

Listen to a lot of different documentaries before you begin producing your own work. There are so many ways to tell stories – it's best to expose yourself to the variety lest you fall into thinking there's just one way to do it. The internet is full of radio documentaries, you shouldn't have any trouble finding some. Listen with a friend and then discuss it afterwards. Think critically about radio, and bring that critical ear to your own efforts.

Use detail to make radio visual

The best audio stories include details – in the narration or subtle or overt sounds – that give listeners the tools they need to imagine the pictures in their own heads. Radio is the most visual medium, we like to claim. But you need to help your audience "see" the story you're telling and you can do this by acknowledging details as you craft your narrative. Add colour and emotion to your story via details. Let the sounds help you tell the story but remember music should always suggest, rather than dictate the mood you're attempting to create.

Small can be big

In the beginning try your hand and ears at shorter pieces. You can accomplish an awful lot in just a few minutes, and you'll learn more from producing half a dozen shorts than an hour-long feature.

The most important thing to keep in mind at the beginning of your career is that you just need to make stuff. The more time you spend in front of editing software, the better you'll get at the technical aspects. The more people you interview, the more comfortable you'll be approaching strangers. The more stories you tell, the more you'll learn about narrative structures and how to identify stories worth sharing in the first place.


Soren Wheeler is Senior Producer of Radiolab, aired on over 300 radio stations across the US and listened to by 1.8 million listeners worldwide. He talks about letting the listener discover a story for themselves…

A good documentary is, first and foremost, a damn good story – the kind of story you can’t help but tell to every person you run into. But a great documentary has something more. Along the way, in the telling, the story gives birth to an idea, a question, a new thought in the mind of the listener that connects that story to their life, to the world they see around them.

A story will never be great without a reason for the telling, but the reason must emerge in the mind of the listener, out of the story. It can’t be handed down from on high. The listener must discover the meaning themselves. Be authentic. Let the listener watch you question, stumble, and discover something new. If you do that, they will question, stumble, and discover something new along with you.


Read more How to articles.

If you're looking for a reason to produce consider submitting a story to the 2012 Third Coast ShortDocs Challenge.

Listen to the Third Coast Audio Library.

For wonderful online support regarding everything from software to hardware, check out

Image: Can't Live Without My Radio! by get directly down available by CC BY 2.0.

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