Tag Archives: radio

BBC radio work-outs – tips for music, texture and discussions

16 Sep

This week I attended three radio training courses with Ian Peacock at the BBC Scotland HQ in Glasgow. Ian could not have a more appropriate surname – the kind of radio he makes is colourful, creative, and bursts out of nowhere, demanding your attention.

The three sessions focused on different areas; how to create dynamic discussions, how to use music in radio to create mood or emotion, and how to add texture. I can’t share everything we covered in the sessions here, but I thought I should some of the key points from each. Feedback, links and more ideas would be very welcome!


1.Good discussions should have a shape and a plan, but there should be space for synthesis and dynamic exchanges between the participants. All too often discussions end up with the presenter talking to one contributer, then the next, then the next. Only when the different guests start to dialogue and connect with each other can something really exciting and unexpected take place.

2.Guests, and indeed the presenter, should play a role within a drama – goody, baddy, explainer, catalyst, fan, sceptic. Cast your guests as if you are casting a play – to illuminate and entertain.

3.Avoid the usual subjects when selecting guests. Think about gender, age, and ethnicity. Pick them as much for their passion, enthusiasm and clarity as their authority. Avoid guests who sound the same – it can be confusing for everyone.

4.Take some risks. Make sure you ask a killer question.

5.Be well prepared, but not inflexible. Make sure you get the presenter to follow up on new subjects, and not just stick to a list of questions. Often, you can do this with one word prompts on talk-back at the right moment.

6.Talk back – keep it to just a couple of words. Don’t speak over the presenter, and only at the start of a guests reply – if you speak near the end, they may not be able to pick up the thread of the conversation.

7.A good discussion should produce both HEAT and LIGHT. In other words, it should both illuminate a subject, but also (if it is to hold an audience) it should have some passion and human emotion in it.

8.Give your guests permission to interact, to become passionate, to engage with each other. Without explicit permission, without real encouragement, they will defer to the presenter as the ring-master and not interject (unless they are already the kind of person who does that.)

9.Once one-air, listen hard.


1.Choose a sound-world for your program, and let this inform your choice of songs. Don’t mix and match between different genres just because the lyrics are some how relevant to the subject of the program.

2.When listening back to a mix, listen on both large and small speakers to check whether the levels are right for most people listening on a radio (N.B. An old editor of mine always used to recommend listening back to their pieces in a car, or whilst doing the washing up, to give a realistic idea of the clarity.)

3.Voice-overs – try to let the presenter hear the music whilst they are doing a voice over, so that they can try to match the energy and rythmn of the music.

4.Experiment with different fades and beds. Try a sharp sudden fade (an edge.) Try a fade to black with a beat pause! Try keeping a very low bed under speech, almost at the subliminal level. If you have felt a song under though, ask yourself why it is still there – what purpose is it serving?

5.Think dramatically.

6.Say no to knee-jerk music which tries to ellicit a clumsy emotional response from your audience. They won’t thank you for it.

7.Cut the cliches.

8.Be curious about other musical genres.

N.B. Ian seems to have made it a mission to listen to all kinds of obscure musical forms, and played us recordings of Japanese gagahu folk music, German Schlagger music, Boogie-Woogie, over-tone singers, and even a music box cover of George Michael’s Careless Whisper. The point is not necesarily to like them all, but to be interested in the effect and mood that they create – it may well be that you want to make your audience feel tense, uncomfortable, or disorientated!

Useful Links:

Project Moonbase
Late Junction, Radio 3
Sound and Music.)
Radio Lab


1.Ian got us closing our eyes and playing with different objects in the class – playdo, bubble wrap, feathers, and even a moist slice of tomatoe! He says that you can make a program with these textures – wet, slimy, gloopy, sticky, poppy, scratchy… don’t be afraid to use adjectives to describe you you want your show to sound.

2.Think visually – this will give you a clue as to what sounds you might use. He often thinks of films with a certain look and feel, and that then leads on to a sound treatment.

3.Try multi-miccing a single recording to get sounds from different persectives simultaneously.

4.Never record less than 3 mins of ambient – you don’t want to have to loop it.

5.Experiment with bin-aural sound. Check out omni-sound.

6.Silence is very powerful – the radio equivalent of darkness.

7.Try experimenting with lo-fi sounds and technology – recording onto tape or through a phone to create texture or an effect.

8.Try a live fade, where you/and or guests move away from the microphone or sound source.

9.Don’t go for an experimental sound for it’s own sake – there must be an authentic reason for it.

“The sound must seem an echo to the senses” Alexander Pope


Inspiring environmental radio from San Francisco – RISE

12 Apr

Claire Schoen from San Francisco is a radio maker whose work I’ve been aware of for some time. Claire is not only an amazing radio producer and storyteller, but also an educator who teaches long-form radio production in her regular “Soup-to-Nuts” and “Make  Scene” radio making courses, and who in the past has taught at U.C. Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism and Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies.

I’ve been meaning to make it over to San Francisco for years to do one of her courses, but so far I’ve had to make do with listening to some of her great advice on audio verité on the Third Coast International Audio Festival website, and listening to the archive of her inspiring programs.

Earlier this year Claire published a series called RISE, about how sea level rise caused by climate change might affect communities around the San Francisco Bay Area. What I love about these program is the richness of the style. They manage to marry a focus on an important scientific subject with an interest in community and grassroots voices. They blend specially composed music with rich ambient sounds that transport you to a particular place.

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Joining the Radio Independents Group

12 Apr

It’s been a few weeks since my last blogpost – we’ve been moving house and without broadband for a few weeks – but I haven’t been idle on the radio doc front. Creatively I’ve been recording material for this year’s Third Coast Short Docs Challenge, which this year is all about interacting with our neighbours. And what better time to get to know your neighbours than when moving house? It so happened that one of my neighbours saw us loading and unloading the van, and asked us to help him out – moving his beehives. More about that story later.

On the practical front, I’m continuing to develop my knowledge of the BBC radio commissioning process, and getting as much advice and input as possible into how it works, what the different stations are, and the best ways to start pitching and producing as an independent. You may recall that a few weeks ago I met with Nick Lowe from Demus, a Glasgow based production company. Well, one of Nick’s pieces of advice was to join the Radio Independents Group, or RIG.

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Demus – my visit to an established production company

21 Mar

Last week I was lucky enough to meet Nick Lowe, the founder and director of Glasgow based Demus Media, a well established production company in Glasgow with 18 years of independent radio production. Nick was kind enough to give me some advice and help about pitching radio feature ideas to the BBC, and about some of the challenges involved.

Nick’s advice probably came down to six main points.

1. It’s all about the idea. If you have a great idea, and are passionate about it, it won’t matter if you’re not a big established production company, because there is such a demand for good original ideas.

2. Try to find something – a story, a character, or a presenter – that they want, and that only you can deliver.

3. It’s intensely competitive. And Radio 4 is the toughest nut to crack.

4. Personal relationships matter. You need to be known, or become known, to the commissioning editors. (Although refer back to point 1.)

5. Persistence pays off. Nick has sometimes spent years pitching a story before he has got it commissioned.

6. Collaboration is important.

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New friends, new links

28 Feb

It’s sometimes amazing what happens when you create a new blog. Before you know it, you are making connections with people who share your interests, irrespective of geographical distance or time. I only started this blog last Friday, and already I’ve had a guest post appear on the Scottish Documentary Institute’s blog, and been contacted by the author of a very interesting blog about audio, called EarRelevant. And from that I’ve gleaned at least half a dozen new sources of inspiration and ideas.

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Sound design masterclass with Michel Wenzer

25 Feb

Yesterday I attended a sound design masterclass with Swedish film maker and composer Michel Wenzer. Earlier in the week I’d seen Wenzer’s film “At Night I Fly” at the GFT in Glasgow, as part of the Glasgow Film Festival. Ten years in the making, it depicted life in New Fulsom jail, a super-max prison in California. The film had a particular focus upon a group of prisoners participating in an Arts in Correction program.

Michel’s route into filmmaking was unconventional – he has been a truck driver in Bosnia where he began to develop an interest in still photography, taking images of soldiers. Returning to Sweden, he wanted to get more involved in the arts, and he would have gone to art college in New York, but he wasn’t able to afford it. Ultimately he trained as a composer, and sound and music are still central to how he constructs his films, particularly his early shorts about the prisoners, and for this reason I’m going to focus on these in this blog post.

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