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Radio: The Big Picture

Public Group active 1 year, 8 months ago ago

Radio: The Big Picture

Define ”documentary”, people. (2 posts)

  • Profile picture of Brit McGinnis Brit McGinnis said 3 years, 8 months ago:

    I’m sure all of us have heard pieces defined as radio. Clearly we have, or else we probably wouldn’t be on this network. They’re all over the place, featured on so many different programs. But I desperately feel the need to ask: what constitutes the title of “documentary”?

    Does a documentary need to be about current, ongoing events? If so, it doesn’t seem too different than a typical news story. Especially if it concerns politics or foreign affairs. If this is what constitutes a documentary, then “Morning Edition” is basically one documentary after another.

    It seems like documentaries aren’t fully history stories. Rather, they are “human interest pieces”. But what are we to make of pieces that tell the stories of places or phenomena that are ongoing? What are we to make of stories of things both past and present?

    I’m composing a piece about the history of New York City, a place where I will hopefully end up working some day. But it is a mix of history files, modern music, and hopefully sound bites from speeches, etc. I feel it is best to refer to this piece as a documentary, though it is unlike any documentary format acknowledged by NPR. That’s how this intrigue on classification came about, just so context is known.

  • Profile picture of Emily Emily said 3 years, 8 months ago:

    I love this question! What the heck is a documentary anyway?

    I think you are right in that one thing that distinguishes a documentary most is that it isn’t news. Traditionally, I believe, a documentary is an in-depth exploration of a subject (person, place, issue, event), whereas a news story is much more limited in scope. Also, while both documentaries and news stories are based on fact, a documentary usually follows a narrative arc, while a news story usually starts with a headline and works down to the nitty gritty (aka Inverted Pyramid).

    But! Pubradio innovators have been getting creative with this stuff. The Third Coast Festival hosts a competition each year which includes a Best Documentary category. Their parameters are super liberal. Length can be as short as 2 minutes, and their guidelines recommend only “innovation and creativity in storytelling, sound design, and/or overall production style.”

    The Third Coast Festival also hosts another competition called the Shortdocs Challenge. This competition asks producers to produce a short audio work which follows a different set of parameters each year. In 2007 the Shortdocs challenge asked for a 2:30 – 3:00 audio piece inspired by one of the following items:

    - mug with feisty feminist banter printed on it
    - 4-pack of wooden mousetraps
    - old-school bicycle bell

    You can hear the winners and all of the submissions here. My Life As a Cup is one of my favorites — you certainly couldn’t even call that one nonfiction. But listen to them all!

    Wikipedia has a pretty comprehensive list of Public Radio’s mainstay documentary producers.

    Some of my favorite docs and documentary producers on PRX include:

    Music:
    Paul Ingles on The Beatles
    Joyride Media

    Issues and Ideas:
    American Dreamer
    The Nerve
    American Radioworks

    The Kitchen Sisters, like the ubiquitous This American Life, take a creative approach that’s heavy on storytelling. They consider their work to be documentary, nevertheless.