Radio Documentary: Slice Of Life Through Sound And Silence

By Dr. Mrinal Chatterjee

(The writer is Professor, Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC), Sanchar Marg, Dhenkanal 759 001, Orissa.)

What are Radio Documentary/Feature/Magazine?

A radio documentary is a documentary programme devoted to covering a particular topic in some depth, usually with a mixture of commentary and sound pictures. Some radio features, especially those including specially composed music or other pieces of audio art, resemble radio drama in many ways, though non-fictional in subject matter, while others consist principally of more straightforward, journalistic-type reporting – but at much greater length than found in an ordinary news report. [1] Radio Feature often is used as a synonym of radio documentary. However, there is a slight difference. Though radio feature resembles a documentary in the way it is made, but differs in its larger scope and subject/time variability. Radio magazine is an umbrella programme on a particular subject, which can have several programmes in it- documentary, features, interviews, music etc. There has to be a synergy in the content of the programmes.

Why Documentary?

Here is what Helmut Kopetzky, a German author answered to this question: "Staring red-eyed at the mirror in front of me, having spent another day and half of the night with my computer, I ask myself fundamental questions: Why radio? Why documentary? Answer: No other medium can provide me with more freedom of creation and investigation. It meets my urgent interest in reality and the desire for a 'musical' expression. The material (der Werkstoff) is sound. And sound always surrounds us. And: I'm not so much interested in the description of stable situations, but in processes. Our medium is not space, but time; our stories are not glued to the ground, but have motion, life ... That's why!"

Radio Documentary / feature provides the listeners an impression of reality- that is midway between the experience of print, where the reader has to paint the picture all by himself; and television, where reality is visually recreated for his eyes- making him/her passive recipient of the reality. Radio documentary provides the audience the slice of reality through real sound-bites, dialogue, ambient sound and stops short of making the audience a passive one. The audience has to make an effort to recreate the scene in his mind. He has to paint the full picture with templates provided by radio.

A question that is often asked: is there a demand for radio documentary? In an age where entertainment especially music dominates the radio world over, is there any space for documentaries? Answer: Yes. There is a demand, and the demand is growing. When most of the entertainment-obsessed radio stations, mostly in private domain belch the same kind of music, in the same format- people look for something else. Something that provides them some food for thought, fodder for mind. There is a space for good documentaries and features.

Radio in India

Sound broadcasting started in India in 1927 with the proliferation of private radio clubs. The operations of All India Radio (AIR) began formally in 1936, as a government organisation, with clear objectives to inform, educate and entertain the masses.

When India attained Independence in 1947, AIR had a network of six stations and a complement of 18 transmitters. The coverage was 2.5% of the area and just 11% of the population. Rapid expansion of the network took place post Independence.

AIR today has a network of 232 broadcasting centres with 149 medium frequency (MW), 54 high frequency (SW) and 171 FM transmitters. The coverage is 91.79% of the area, serving 99.14% of the people in the largest democracy of the world. AIR covers 24 Languages and 146 dialects in home services. In External services, it covers 27 languages; 17 national and 10 foreign languages.[2] On an average AIR airs about 242 hours of programming every day. Documentaries and Features comprise of major portion of the content of AIR.

First private commercial FM station (Radio City) went on air in Bangalore on July 3, 2001[3]. In less than a decade later, India now has over 100 commercial FM stations. There are FM radio stations in almost all Tier 1 and 2 cities. There are scores of Community and Campus Radio Stations.[4] The number is growing with easing of norms and restrictions.

Till date news is not allowed to be broadcast in private commercial radio. But there has been consistent demand from industry and civil society for that, and there are indications that the government will allow this in near future. If that happens, then there will be more opportunity to air news-based or news-centric documentaries and features.

New Technological Advances in Radio

There have been spectacular technological advances in Radio, both in production and delivery platform. Digital technology has almost replaced analogue, leading to ease of production and to convergence on a wider scale and platform. Radio programme now could be aired across several media. It could be made interactive. There could be multimedia content- with bits of audio, print and visuals strung together. One has to be aware of the advances in order to take advantages of the features for better reach, access and listening pleasure of the audience.

Internet Radio

Radio could be broadcast through internet. One can listen to radio on PC and net-enabled Mobile. The advantage of internet radio is the ease of use and multi-functionality.

Visual Radio [5]

India happens to be the third country in the world to have introduced ‘Visual Radio’. In 2006 it was first introduced by Radio Mirchi in Delhi.

In a normal radio station you can tune in to listen to the music. Whereas, when you tune into the visual enabled radio station you can also interact with the radio station while listening to the broadcasting songs. You will see a visual, interactive channel with more information and opportunities to participate and give feedback. You can see the information about the currently playing song, such as the artist name, title of the song, biographies and pictures of the artist. You can even download the ringtone of the currently playing song instantly.

While listening to a Visual Radio enabled FM channel, you can switch the interactive Visual Radio service on or off whenever you want to. You can get updates about upcoming albums and new artist etc and you can submit your feedback and take part in Polls. To connect to the visual radio you need: a. A Compatible mobile phone, b. A proper access point to Visual Radio data; and c. A Visual Radio enabled station where you are located.

How to produce good Radio Documentary?

Like in print and television, radio documentary/feature can be made on practically any subject. From current events to history, from scientific inventions to philosophy- you can make documentaries on practically any subject. AIR, Cuttack once made a radio feature on ‘Silence’. Creativity is the key. However, before taking up a subject take the ‘so what’ test. Think about the relevance of the subject for the intended audience: how interested the audience will be in this subject. Is it important? Is it interesting? Will it have some impact on the audience or/and policy makers/ government/ administration? Will it make the audience sit up and notice something that they have not cared to notice till date? Will it amuse the audience? Will it entertain the audience? Make documentary on something you care about - If you don’t care, why should anyone else?

There can be different approaches to make a radio documentary/feature: ramrod straight- journalistic type or like a meandering drama with the build up, climax and resolution. It could be made with a dash of humour or with all seriousness. It could be made with lot of sound effects or with minimal effects. The trick is to see, if it helps in achieving the objective of the documentary. The approach should depend on the objective, mood and tenor of the documentary.

Think about the execution. Think about the resources (financial, human resource, logistical) you have or could get. Make a realistic and pragmatic plan of action.

Before you embark on any documentary, conduct considerable research about the subject. You should have ample materials on the subject.

Write a working script before you start recording. You should be clear about what you want to do. A written script gives a control over the subject.

Here are some tips to make good radio documentary.

• Be creative. Think out of the box. Think of stories, which have not been told so far. Think of a different angle to tell a story told hundreds of times. Think. Is there a new way to approach an ‘old’ idea?

• Tell engaging Stories. People like to hear good stories, well told.

• Research. When developing a documentary, especially on social awareness project, doing the proper research is mandatory. The information dispersed by such a show must be accurate, reliable, and current. Research can be accessed via the Internet, library, educational/research institute. Doing research for the radio documentary may also involve finding people who have something to contribute to the documentary, either by providing an interview, a story, or any other bits of material that can give the show some added substance.

• Provide need-based information

• Make your documentary intimate. Try to have direct access to the people/events/storytellers- Real people, real accents. Second hand information can dilute the subject matter, person or event.

• Create near real scenes through audio pictures. Places, scenes and imagery bring stories to life. A scene can as simple as a kitchen, a field or a car. One of the greatest gifts of radio is its ability to provide audio pictures of scenes, thus allowing the listener into that space. Record out and about. What’s happening in the background can sometimes be as important as what’s being said - i.e. chirping of birds, laughter in a room, a tractor/machine, water/wind/fire etc

• Involve the audience. Take feedback. Act on the feedback.

• Listen to good documentaries made allover the world. A list of websites has been given at the end of this article to help you in this regard.

Some Good Documentaries from around the world:

1. Ghetto Life 101 (Recorded in Chicago, Illionis, Premiered May 18, 1993 on WBEZ Chicago)
In March, 1993, LeAlan Jones, thirteen, and Lloyd Newman, fourteen, collaborated with public radio producer David Isay to create the radio documentary Ghetto Life 101, their audio diaries of life on Chicago's South Side. The boys taped for ten days, walking listeners through their daily lives: to school, to an overpass to throw rocks at cars, to a bus ride that takes them out of the ghetto, and to friends and family members in the community.

The candor in Jones and Newman's diaries brought listeners face to face with a portrait of poverty and danger and their effects on childhood in one of Chicago's worst housing projects. Like Vietnam War veterans in the bodies of young boys, Jones and Newman described the bitter truth about the sounds of machine guns at night and the effects of a thriving drug world on a community.

Ghetto Life 101 became one of the most acclaimed programs in public radio history, winning almost all of the major awards in American broadcasting, including: the Sigma Delta Chi Award, the Ohio State Award, the Livingston Award, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting Awards for Excellence in Documentary Radio and Special Achievement in Radio Programming, and others. Ghetto Life 101 was also awarded the Prix Italia, Europe's oldest and most prestigious broadcasting award. It has been translated into a dozen languages and has been broadcast worldwide.[6]

2. Journey to the Ice Edge
A ‘contemporary classic’, it is a beautiful and provocative documentary by the reclusive Danish producer Niels Peter Juel Larsen. This program won the 1985 Prix Futura in Berlin, and stirred considerable controversy when it was first broadcast. Ice Edge is an unblinking account of a hunting expedition by dog-sledge from a trading station, Niaqornat, to the ice edge at the mouth of the Ummannaq fiord in Greenland.[7]

3. BBC Radio 4 documentary: City Messengers
Documentary following the lives of two of London’s 400 cycle couriers, whose working day is spent delivering packages across the city. The job is badly paid and the risk of serious injury is relatively high, yet there is a thriving sub-culture of people who have chosen the freedom of the road above the security of the office. It was aired on September 2, 2008

4. Ideas
It is a long running scholarly radio documentary show on CBC Radio One. Premiering in 1965 under the title The Best Ideas You’ll Hear Tonight, it is currently hosted by Paul Kennedy and is on between 9:05 and 10:00 each weekday evening.

The show describes itself as a radio program on contemporary thought. The subject matter of the shows varies, but music, philosophy, science, religion, and especially history are common topics. The show has won many plaudits for its quality and depth.

The series is notable for soliciting programming proposals from people who are not professional broadcasters, and having the successful applicants write and host their own documentaries (aided in production by CBC staff producers). Many Ideas programs are multi-part, with two, three, four, or more fifty-five minute programs devoted to a single topic. Transcripts and audio recordings of many programs are made available, and sold directly by the CBC.[8]


[2] Source:
[4] For a list see
[8] Notable CBC staff producers who have been associated with the program include Bernie Lucht, Geraldine Sherman, and David Cayley. Individual programs are produced at CBC Radio One facilities across Canada. Documentarian William Whitehead also wrote or cowrote a number of shows for Ideas.

A television version for CBC Newsworld, Ideas on TV, was short-lived. The book Ideas: Brilliant Thinkers Speak Their Minds, edited by Bernie Lucht, commemorated the series’ 40th anniversary.

The show broadcasts Canada’s annual Massey Lectures and Lafontaine-Baldwin Lecture. Audio downloads of many episodes are available from the CBC website, as well as via the CBC Ideas podcast, which was, by popular demand, one of the first to be included in the network’s large podcasting initiative begun in 2005. Many episodes are also available for sale on audio CD.

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