Making documentaries for radio

Journalists Bakhita Aluel (seated) and Vivian Nandege at Radio Easter in Yei in South Sudan - image by Jaldeep Katwala
Journalists at Radio Easter in South Sudan – image by Jaldeep Katwala

Documentaries are in-depth stories told in a more interesting way. They can range in length from 10 minutes to an hour for one episode although sometimes they can stretch to a series or podcast. A great documentary engages listeners and puts them at the heart of the storytelling.

So, what elements make for a superior documentary?

First of all, the story you tell must be compelling enough to sustain telling at length. That means there must be a number of connected strands in it which must be examined and then tied up at the end.

There must be a significant increase in understanding on the part of listeners. The documentary will have shed light on an issue and offered a signpost to the way ahead.

A great documentary is based on sound research in order to construct the central thesis or argument. Good research involves exploring not just who might speak but also what they might say. It will explore all the aspects of a story even though some might lead to dead ends or blind alleys.

Every line of script in the documentary will need to be based on evidence. Every assertion made in the script must be based in reality and accuracy. Even when interviewees are making a point of view, their opinion must be backed by facts you can independently verify.

If your documentary is based on a theory which requires an answer from a relevant organisation or authority make sure that interview is the last in the sequence. That way you can make sure every relevant question can be put.

When you are recording natural sound or a reporter piece into the microphone make sure you record from the heart of the action, so listeners feel they are embedded in the item. So if you are recording a market scene, stand right next to the customer and the trader, not 15 metres away.

Unlike a radio feature, the documentary medium allows listeners to breathe and take in the atmosphere. You should aim for a roughly one third split between script, interviews, and sound effects (including music and natural sound).

Separate out your recordings into one folder for interviews, one for natural sound effects, and one for music. Listen through to all the interviews and select strong clips of your interviewees. Factual information can go into your script. The interview clip is where you can let your subjects speak powerfully and with emotion.

Arrange the clips in the order you would like them to appear in the programme. When you’ve identified the clips, start writing the script.

Use natural sound and music to create the mood and atmosphere.

The programme should flow along at a reasonable pace, but remember to give time for the listener to breathe in the atmosphere.

When you’ve assembled the script, clips, music and natural sound in the order you would like, try reading out the script in relation to everything else.

When you’re happy it works well together, record your voice pieces.

Enjoy making documentaries!