Resources and Tutorials
Resources and Tutorials for Radio Producers
INDEX to sections below (scroll down)
How to Produce a Radio Piece
- Create Story Idea
- Start a Folder
- Record and Research
- Log Tape
- Paper Edit
- Dub and Edit Tape
- Sequence Tape
- Write Script
- Mix Narration and Tape
- Recording Tips
- Suggested Equipment
- Release Form
1. Create Story Idea
When the idea first surfaces it should be cataloged immediately. The sequence of events that follows is often an adventure, talking to many people, reading and babbling about the same subject for weeks.
A story idea should make itself easily available to a logical progression of events and ideas. It should be connected to something that is currently happening but has roots in broader concepts and has potential for historical meaning.
Be sure to talk about your story ideas with friends and associates. Never be too sure that your story idea is beyond reproach. You don’t have to be able to talk in detail about your story at this point. After all, that’s what the whole tape and information gathering process is about. It should, however, be more than a theory about something that may happen or could happen. A story idea should be grounded in a place, event, person or institution. A story idea should be worthy of your energy and resources. It should also give you, the teller, a sense of purpose.
Lastly, make sure you identify your audience and venue for your final product and avoid any time-dating complications.
2. Start a Folder
Whatever got you going on the story idea in the first place should go in here. Make a simple but compelling title on the tab. If you have other files that may be useful for work on this project, pull them out and stack them with your new topic.
3. Record and Research
Identify the initial ingredients of the story: people involved, groups or individuals affected, companies involved, geographic locations, court decisions, etc. Acquire the most basic information on these ingredients and in so doing determine recording duties and begin recording as soon as possible. Research can be very infectious. But it is difficult to convert reams of data into decibels. Try to tape as much as possible. Some producers tape endlessly and use their tapes as main compilers of information.
This is the heart and soul of the entire production process. Practice precise recording methods. Pay attention to detail. Always listen to everything carefully. A curious and focused frame of mind is generally helpful.
On a technical level, well-recorded tape and thoughtful interviews translate into pleasurable editing. Choice cuts float to the surface, the pieces start fitting together, and you avoid cumbersome editing chores. Always record with editing in mind. Please review the Recording Tips and Suggested Equipment before recording your audio.
Concerning interviews, be as thorough as possible but respect time constraints. Understand your speaker’s point of view and comments. Also, use this time to test all your assumptions and theories about the story.
Be prepared for your interviews. Know what you need to ask and think of a logical progression of questions that will help structure the discussion.
Your goal during this process is to record interviews and comments central to the story. You should have a collection of tapes and research that will provide plenty of material for producing your documentary. There’s rarely too much material — if it’s well organized. There is such thing as too little.
4. Log Tape
Transcripts should be detailed, verbatim if possible. Deadlines and so forth may predetermine this factor. Make notes of counter numbers or elapsed time every minute or so. Try to log with a consistent pace; this will help with locating desired segments. While logging your tape, you may discover segments likely to survive the paper edit. Mark these sections with asterisks or large X’s for future reference.
You may also want to indicate which sections of the tape have technical problems: p-pops, distortions, low signal, etc.
The most important goal during this process is that you get to know your tape. Although it may be tedious to catalogue every second of sound that you have collected, it will pay off in the long run. These transcripts will become your working documents for the editing process.
5. Paper Edit
This is where you start imagining the final product. Using your tape logs, begin to select cuts by highlighting sections of text or making notations in the margins that indicate where cuts begin and end. You may want to make t-brackets in the margins of the tape logs, annotated with numbers. Those annotations will eventually correspond to your cuts list once you have dubbed and cropped your tape.
Be selective, but leave room for final carving and trimming later in the process. It will be difficult to make a paper edit that meets your time constraint requirements, so at this point choose segments that that best illustrate the points and information you wish to make in your documentary.
Use note cards to organize paper edits, if desired. Once you have selected your cuts on paper, copy the text onto 3×5 note cards. If you haven’t done so already, complete the transcript for these sections so all words said appear on the cards. Writing the script will require knowing the exact content of each segment including references to people, places, institutions, laws or any other detail or concept that may not be swiftly identified by the common listener.
The advantage of using note cards is that you can shuffle and order your cuts quickly. Also, they stack neatly next to while you are writing to help with the script. Reading is almost always faster than listening. Lingering questions about unclear references that may need clarification can be quickly resolved.
6. Dub and Edit Tape
This step can and may be accomplished parallel to writing note cards. Use transcripts to locate desired cuts, actualities and segments. Using your tape logs to locate your cuts, begin dubbing your sound into the computer. Save each cut in its own sound file. Cleanly edit the beginning and end of each cut. Make any internal edits as necessary. Indicate any variations between the actual tape cuts and what you had marked on you transcripts and note cards. Always edit for final at this point. Do not leave what you may consider extraneous editing jobs for later. Be completely satisfied with your edits.
Organize your sound files in a consistent and methodical way. It is strongly suggested that you label each cut with the speaker’s last name followed by a number (for example: Chomsky 1). Write down the file name on your transcript and note cards.
Also, write down the length (time) of each cut on your note cards.
7. Sequence Tape
Using your note cards and listening to your cuts, choose a sequence for your cuts. Determine an overall structure for your documentary. Do you want to present a historical perspective in the beginning and then get to current events, or do you want to backpedal into the historical significance of your piece? Do you want to give a general overview of your subject in the beginning and get to specific examples later on, or the other way around?
These are all considerations that you have to take into account while ordering your cuts. The sequence is the backbone of the show. Listen to the order of the cuts with little interruption to see if the sequence makes sense. Have colleagues or friends listen to the sequence.
Also, make note of the total time of your cuts. There is no set formula for a tape verses script ratio and it takes experience to know exactly how much tape will be required for a given length of the segment or show. We do emphasize the voice cuts and prioritize them over the narration. A half-hour documentary with narration should require between 20-25 minutes of content, taking into account theme music, introduction, final credits and an ID break.
Almost always, you still have too much tape at this point. Begin to eliminate additional tape. Try to remain as objective as possible. Prioritize your decision-making. Does a particular piece of tape have technical problems that you were willing to overlook before? Is a particular cut redundant? Is there a topic and a collection of cuts that doesn’t quite fit with the overall theme and topic of the documentary? Can you say more quickly in the script one of your speaker’s points without sacrificing powerful emotional undertones? You are going to have to be ruthless.
8. Write Script
Script writing is just as much a craft as interviewing, tape editing and mixing. Write for your own voice.
The length of each narration segment is generally determined by how much information and context is necessary to make sense of taped segments. One should also consider the level of artistic or stylistic writing in which the wish to engage. Commentary runs long. News runs short. Read out loud a lot to gauge its listenability and flavor. This is really a question of more or less salt.
Pay close attention to the beginning and end of each actuality. Your script should flow in and out of them in a seamless fashion.
A simple method is to paraphrase your speaker’s comments. The sentence or question just before the edited cut may provide some clues. Go back to your transcripts. But don’t limit yourself. There are many script writing methods.
Use ambient sound to help tell the story. Remember one of the basic rules of storytelling: Show, dont tell.
Whatever you write should provide continuity and smooth transitions between cuts and topic shifts. Also, be sure the script clarifies any references to people, places, institutions, laws or any other detail or concept that may not be swiftly identified by the common listener.
You can solve many dilemmas or time constraints that you may encounter with good script writing.
Make sure your script includes the length of each actuality and section of narration. Script writing should be creative. At the same time, refrain from excessiveness of any kind, or sloppiness.
9. Mix Narration and Tape
There are many details that require careful attention during this last phase: sound levels, narration, fades, pace and time. The technical apparatus behind the mix should not be apparent in the slightest. Be fussy but not irritatingly so.
Mixing takes many hours of practice. And, one is always learning. Try to work with an experienced sound engineer and ask as many questions as you can think of.
- actuality: an edited comment or expression meant to serve as a quote
- cut: usually same as actuality; may be a phrase or sentence that becomes part of an actuality
- log: v. transcribing; n. transcription
- mix: v. melding segments, background sound and music; n. melded segments, background sound and music
- segment: an edited interview or narrated story with actualities; could also refer to cut or actuality
- transcript: a detailed rendition in writing of a recording
- You must wear headphones whenever you record.
- Be sure interviewee is “on mic.” Microphone should be pointing at the speaker’s mouth from about six-inches away.
- Avoid P-pops and sibilance. Listen carefully as you’re recording and adjust mic position if the speaker is popping their P’s or hissing their S’s. Try pointing your microphone slightly off to the side of the speaker’s mouth to avoid catching air blasts from P’s and S’s.
- Avoid “microphone rustling.” The person recording should keep his/her mic hand steady. Any movement of the microphone or the mic cable is likely to be picked up on the recording.
- Watch your levels. Recording levels should be strong, but not hot. Stay away from “the red.” Also, avoid weak levels. Always monitor recording levels during interviews and adjust as necessary.
- Avoid hums and buzzes. Sometimes computers, refrigerators, fluorescent lights or ungrounded electric outlets can introduce hums and/or buzzes in a recording. Try turning out the lights, changing outlets, or finding another room. Hums and buzzes may also be introduced when plugged into other audio equipment, such as a mixing board or a multi-box. Look for loose cables or un-grounded equipment. Sometimes, another recording device plugged into the same system that’s in pause can cause a hum. If unsure of recording conditions, make a test recording one-minute or so in length and listen to the playback carefully.
- Do not record on recycled reel-to-reel tape or on un-erased cassettes, minidiscs, or DATs.
- If recording sound elements, or ambience, be sure to record for at least one minute without interruptions. In general, recording at least 30-seconds of “room tone” before all interviews can be helpful during editing.
There are many brands and models of professional recording equipment. Below is a list of professional field recording equipment we use and recommend at NRP. This is not a comprehensive list, but a list of suggestions if you’re looking to purchase field recording equipment, or if you need a benchmark by which to gauge the equipment you’re currently using.
ElectroVoice 635 A/B or 635N/D
Sony ECM-30 or RE-50
Marantz PMD660/670/671 compact Flash Recorder
Zoom H4 or H2
Olympus LS 10
and check out equipment discussions on transom.org which are more up to date than we can keep this page.