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Radio Documentaries and Features: Invisible Achievements

Eurydice Aroney

This paper aims to contribute towards the development of a radio feature language a crucial
link in the development of a radio feature critical culture. Using the work of radio producer
Tony Barrell as a focus the author suggests that an almost complete lack of critical literature
addressing the radio feature form has allowed radio makers a freedom of sorts from the
arguments surrounding the area of film documentary, where demands for authenticity have
dominated. But does the ephemeral rather than visual nature of radio allow for wider
interpretation of documentary? It is proposed that Barrells radio feature hybrid form
be examined in the light of a new postdocumentary culture.

This paper looks at the radio work of Tony Barrell, one of Australias most notable and
successful radio feature producers, as a way of addressing what has been described as radios
lack of cultural status1 in particular in the area of radio features and documentaries.
Focussing on a particular producers work presents an opportunity to discuss and analyse the
particular qualities of the radio medium. What does it mean to create something that only
exists in time? What do we look to when we want listen to radio more closely? Asking these
types of questions might lead to a strategy that would develop a description of practice and
approach that could inform radio scholars in establishing a critical theory for radio features
and documentaries.
Tony Barrell has been producing radio features and documentaries for over thirty years
for a variety of programs broadcast as part of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. He
began in the 1970s at the ABCs youth station Double J and then with ABC Radio National
programs like Surface Tension, The Listening Room and, more recently, Radio Eye and the
Night Air. Barrell has also written and produced ABC TV documentaries. He has
collaborated with radio and TV producers from the BBC and Europe and is one of a few
Australian radio producers who have published texts specifically addressing the radio
feature.2 Included in his many awards is the worlds most prestigious award for radio features,
the Prix Italia3. However like many radio feature producers, his work mainly occurs in its real
time broadcasts and is invisible in terms of any critical theory or appraisal. The context of his
radio feature work is that of extreme vulnerability. For proof of that vulnerability we have the
Australian Broadcast Corporations recent axing of its acoustic arts program the Listening
Room.4 The producers of the Listening Room program, including Barrell, were seen as
worlds best practice in the area of radio features and acoustic arts. But a raft of prestigious
international awards was not enough to prevent the ABC cutting the program after many
years of acclaim. The equivalent in visual art terms would be closing down the Australian

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National Gallery. With respect to the Listening Room, its former producers are still working
at the ABC but without a proper gallery, their work only gets hung in the little room that
is left.
Scholars such as Peter Lewis have argued that this lack of recognition for radio
producers and their work, and a lack of critical theory for radio in general, contributes to
radios lack of cultural status: radio producers, writers and performers lack the status that
critical acclaim brings to artists in other fields. In their understanding of programs, listeners
cannot link their own experience to the historical and critical context that other arts can
assume.5 And Barrell himself concurs:
Its a problem because no one knows were here except for the people who listen, and
they forget it very quickly as one does the way one listens to radio. Its ephemeral, and
thats one of its greatest attributes as well as its greatest drawbacks. It is invisible and
once its gone, its inaudible. You cant hold up a radio program and look at a bit of it.
You cant freeze a bit of a radio program and just listen to a bit of it. You cant stop it in
time. It has to be experienced. Even listening to excerpts, were listening to a fragment of
something. Whereas if we look at a photograph or see a clip of a film were immediately
brought into that world of cinematography. People write whole essays, books, articles
about three stills from Casablanca and everyone knows what theyre talking about but if
6
you try to do the equivalent in radio you couldnt do it.

At this point it is useful to define the term radio feature which has different meanings
across and even within different continents. In this article we use one Australian definition,
proposed by Virginia Madsen: documentary-like pieces which may or may not use a variety
of means to explore their subject matter.7 Broadly speaking, in other words, we are
considering radio that is not strictly news, current affairs, talkback or music. As Barrell says,
A good feature is a piece of radio that can stand alone, create its own world, be worth
hearing more than once.8 In Australia the terms radio feature and radio documentary are
sometimes used interchangeably. Usually when a radio work is described only as a
documentary it implies a more investigative, journalistic approach to the material, or that it
simply records actual events with little dramatic or creative interpretation.
The absence of what Peter Lewis describes as a historical and critical context with
which to assess radio, and in particular radio feature programs, is partly a result of the dearth
of academic resources on the radio feature form. In Australia, Virginia Madsens Dark Room
Project9 explores the space of listening and audition in the contemporary setting and is a
welcome addition to the radio studies area. But in the main, researching the radio feature10
outside of the European context leads away from broadcasting into areas like the burgeoning
sound culture studies area, which Michele Hilmes describes as the fascinating always
emerging, never emerged fields of sound culture practices from music to spoken word to

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conceptions of noise and silence, from institutions of production to conventions of


listening.11
In documenting a producers work we embark on a path similar to that of the academic
legitimation of film studies, drawing attention to individual artists as auteurs, providing a
context for testing out theoretical claims12. Following a particular producers work over time
provides a developing narrative that situates the work in a particular cultural landscape. It
allows us to make connections between the work and the political, technical and sociological
framework in which it exists.13 Tony Barrell himself has ideas about how critical study could
apply to radio features and makes the point that even feature producers could benefit from a
language with which to describe their work:
Youd have to sit down and listen to works and analyse them and find out what it is,
where the meanings come from and what goes in and what goes where and even the
people that you work with dont do that! Nobody does it. It amazes me that they dont.
Its not because they work solely on intuition, well I think a lot of it is that, but its
because they dont seem to think that its required. I often think to myself I would really
like to know if anybody noticed the way I put something together, and whether they
thought it was a silly thing to do or brilliant. You know theres no critical language,
theres no radio reviewing. You know its listen to this program, its quite good or
thats not much cop, dont bother; thats the level were talking about The idea of
talking about a body of work is over-generalising. If you could get into a discourse on a
particular couple of programs that somebody made and why they did them that way and
what the hell are you trying to do with this? you might get somewhere.14

This paper, then, aims to contribute towards the development of a radio


feature/documentary language or description of creative practice, a crucial link in the
development of a radio feature/documentary critical culture by examining a particular
hybrid style of radio feature produced by a successful radio feature producer Tony
Barrell. It also suggests that Barrells particular work be seen in the light of a new
postdocumentary culture, and that this be seen as a starting point for further analysis of the
radio feature form.
Like most radio producers Barrell is self-taught and is not conscious of following any
method or approach to his work:
I think it was more to do with instinct and what went with what and how to create a
rhythm. I like a radio programme to have a rhythm like a piece of music, like a symphony
so it goes through various different movements and lots of different rhythms, paces.15

It is significant that in talking about his work Barrell uses the language of music rather
than the language of conventional journalism. He does not talk in the form of the story, the
more linear form in which most journalists, including radio documentary producers think of

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their work. He speaks of repeating and interweaving themes and rhythms rather than of the
developing narrative. This particular style of work he describes as hybrid feature.
T.B: My version of hybrid has little to do with current use of the term in academia and
was not theory-based although I did develop my own rationale. What I meant by
hybrid was that my work was a mix of what I thought to be a piece of artistic
freewheeling self expression-based acoustic art pieces AND the kind of information or
analysis feature one might expect from a public broadcaster. So in a sense I was
investigating the limits of experimentation within a conventional framework for a feature
or documentary that would sit alongside pieces on a network where most of the material
was not concerned with formal experimentation beyond the use of background music
or sounds. My hybrid form attempted to bring the world of creative sound design from
drama, or the feature film, and the kind of experimental pop music that was around in the
early 1980s into the world of social and current affairs radio features. I suppose I was
trying to make material more like a movie or a play if you like than a stream or strip of
information.
E.A: What was it that led you to this approach?
T.B: It was a result of having to move from a freedom-of-expression experimental
environment at 2JJJ (an environment which was destroyed abruptly in 1981) to a more
conventional serious-minded talks network environment. At 2JJJ I had created features
and series using interviews inter-cut with material from other sources usually found
in the stations sound vinyl library of movies, comedy shows, language and teaching aids.
I developed a different kind of narrative without a narrator. I tried to import this
technique of unexplained sampling, the use of movie soundtracks, or excerpts from
fictional works, to illustrate interviews made for the national talks network Radio 2
(predecessor to Australian Broadcasting Corporations Radio National) in the program
Doubletake. It was limited but I did use extraneous audio to create a sense of irony for
example using unmediated grabs from the Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy radio series
in a program about computer technology called Terminal Access (1982). These were part
of the narrative, used without explanation and inter-cut with speakers the characters
in the fictional work were, as it were, integrated into the meaning of what was being said.
I did something different for programs made for Background Briefing which is a
conventional current affairs documentary program. In this particular program I produced
about the English city of Liverpool (Welcome to the Post-Industrial Museum, 1987)
sound engineer John Jacobs and I manipulated vox pops by using layering and
repetition to create a choir of voices talking about the difficulties of find work and
staying in a depressed city. A young girls voice is heard several times in the distance,
and with added reverb, saying its the same everywhere a phrase sampled from an
interview heard in its unmodified form, but edited of course, early in the piece.

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This was within the context of otherwise quite straight reportage. A similar
approach was used in my Choice of America series (also for Background Briefing) the
following year, in the program about Los Angeles From the Glitz to the Pits on the
Streets of LA (1988). In this John Jacobs and I manipulated two montages of radio
advertisements to create a sense of panic and strangeness one about traffic and the auto
culture of the city, the other about drugs that used a phrase from an advertisement for
Alka Selzter tablets speed is what you need. The same radio feature also included a
sequence in which a movie producer and an architect are inter-cut as if they are sitting in
a car talking to one another about traffic and driving in LA and the sequence is cut in an
unnatural but attractive manner to embellish the impact of what they have to say. These
were analog programs made using tape. Of course these experiments could be timeconsuming, and resources were not allocated to do this kind of work on a regular basis,
but these days digital workstations mean that we can manipulate with less stress and more
effect.
E.A: How did people at Radio National respond to this type of documentary work?
T.B: I was conscious that there would be resistance to these techniques so I presented
them within the pieces as if they were a natural and proper means to engage listeners
attention for ideas and information, to create and amplify moods, create a sense of irony
as well as stating the facts in terms of narration or interview. I thought I would avoid
creating challenging work which stood on its own as a piece of experimental art. Some
people might say that this was a subversive technique, whereby I was implanting and
distorting neutral material with added meaning and that such an approach was
inappropriate for current affairs journalism. I left Background Briefing in 1992 but have
since then developed other techniques to create similar moods and moments for features
made for Radio Eye.16

Using cinematic soundtrack recordings, excerpts from literature, music, and sound
effects, the hybrid rejects the idea of a single narrator using instead literary quotes and a mix
of experts and ordinary people. Barrells signature hybrid form also employs repetition as
a structural and thematic technique and is exemplified by his work The Kyng Thynge:17
T.B: Ill give you the short version otherwise well be here a long time. The narration is
from Thomas Mallorys account of the life and death of King Arthur. Intervening in there
is the soundtrack of Laurence Oliviers film Richard III and I think there are a couple of
other little things in there as well. We investigate royalty in Swaziland and Zululand, in
Japan and in England. Theres even an interview with Tony Abbott before he was a
minister in the government about why he believes the monarchy is such a sound thing.
And the whole idea of using the movie excerpts and the music is to create a momentum
and the narrative that you then interrupt. It reflects back on itself so sometimes Richard
III is King Arthur and sometimes hes Henry the V or Richard the II. Using the film in

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different contexts changes the way youre listening, what other meanings are being made,
and they reflect back on one another. Its like a sort of game. Its not meant to be difficult
to understand but its meant to be a sort of puzzle. Not the cryptic crossword, not the
quick crossword but somewhere in between. Youre not meant to not understand it but
youre meant to enjoy its complexity.
E.A: How would you describe the structure: circular, rather than anything else?
T.B: Spiral really. It always picks up something someone said before and takes it to a
new place. Thats the way I make them.

Barrell says that the meaning of the work is created by the editing and mixing of the
material rather than with narration and he relies on sound cues and repetition of phrases or
sounds to create multiple levels of meaning:
TB: The cues that sound gives to the brain are quite elusive, but usually instantaneous. I
think people listen to radio, and this is my theory, they dont necessarily listen in a linear
way. We always try and make things that give a clue thats stored, and then later on
something else triggers the meaning of that clue in a way which is quite literal in film
terms, but in radio its much more playing with peoples subjectivity. I dont mean playing
with it in a manipulative way, I mean offering people the opportunity to play with it
themselves so that meanings can be constructed instantaneously by listening to a variety
of signals.
E.A: Like when you play a music track and it brings back a whole era for someone?
T.B: Yes and I believe you can do that internally too within the structure of the program.
When you trigger memories that youve created at the beginning of a sequence or the
program or somewhere up the front theyre repeated not necessarily in the same way but
in a totally different way so that they suddenly mean something else or are amplified like
in the Kyng Thynge. In one of his soliloquies Buckingham says to Richard III Why are
you worried about these princes in the tower? Why do you need to murder them, youre
the King? and he says, just as a half aside Am I king? Meaning well you know youre
never safe as King whilst anybodys alive are you? Kill them all. And that line Am I
king? I was able to use through the programme not as a jokey [sic] repetition but it just
pops up every time somebody makes an assertion about the monarchy. Thats the sort of
thing I love to do and I do it in Smokers Corner and Eat Fat and all sorts of programmes.
It becomes its own thing, a new thing. You dont think, oh thats Laurence Olivier
saying, Am I king? It becomes part of the world you made out of it.
E.A: So is that art?
T.B: Yes thats what it is. Its art.

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E.A: Why doesnt anybody ever call it that?


T.B: Cause theyre afraid of the word. Yeah youve made something youve created
something you can call it creativity if you like if you want to be less Ooh, you cant have
art on the radio. Its an art doing it, and the product of it is art in a way. Its not
journalism, its something else. Its hybrid. Ive said this before: I make hybrid
programmes. There are serious interviews interspersed with all this stuff, but the point is
that youre playing with the meanings of things. In a respectful way if you like.18

Barrells thoughts about his work provide us with many clues to developing a critical
theory for the radio feature. He points to several areas for further study including the assorted
ways that people experience and create meaning through listening and sound as opposed to
the visual. Barrell himself notes that it was only when he began producing television
documentaries that he seriously began to research ideas about documentary and had to look to
writing about film and film soundtrack in particular for inspiration and a conceptual
framework. As Barrells example suggests it may be useful for us to range across analogous
material from other media in the hope of making connections that may apply to the radio
feature.
One obvious place to look for resonances is the history of film documentary. Much of
the critical debate in this area has been a tussle between various film documentary schools
over ownership of the authentic.19 But in looking at the past debates within documentary
film schools and their claims to the authentic, a radio feature producer might be struck by the
fact that the argument, about what makes a real documentary, sounds almost irrelevant to
many radio feature producers.20 Producers like Tony Barrell regularly combine
documentary materials and devices with dramatic elements and blend them with separately
recorded atmosphere and sound effects. The invisible nature of the medium encourages
experimentation of this sort: as opposed to film where the edits are visible, in radio there is
no obvious separation between fiction and fact in a technical sense. As Tony Barrell says you
cant see where the edits are on the radio.
In recent years, John Corner has argued that debates within film documentary around
authenticity have been overtaken by the emergence of another hybrid form, reality TV,
which uses the classic techniques of documentary and cinema verit within a highly stylised,
tightly controlled TV format.21 Through looking at reality TV and other shifts in the use of
documentary material Corner proposes that we are moving into what hes described as a
postdocumentary culture that is a culture in which many conventional elements of
documentary will continue to develop but in a radically changed setting-economic and
cultural.22 It should come as no surprise that radio features/documentaries are not mentioned
in Corners work. In fact he specifically describes postdocumentary as applying to
audiovisual work rather than simply audio. But nevertheless, without wishing to take his
ideas out of context, I want to propose that radio features have something to gain by seeing

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themselves in the light of this new interpretation, and that a postdocumentary setting could be
used as a way of describing the existing work and techniques of many radio features and
documentaries.
Barrells programs aim to function on another level that leads us to place his work in a
postdocumentary culture namely, its commitment to pleasure and entertainment as much
as to information. Theres a whole element to what Im talking about thats connected to the
entertainment value and the experiential value of listening for pleasure.23
His work resists formal definition and reminds us again that there are no neat or
readymade categories in which to place the work of radio features producers. While we can
draw on screen sound and other theory we need to develop a language for thinking about
radio production work in its own terms. Barrells hybrid forms insist on a modern reading
of the functions of documentary material in the invisible world of the aural imagination. In
this acoustic space the radio producer can build up layers of sound and meaning, superimpose
real or documentary material and fictional elements on top of each other, weave them
together in ways that are just not possible with visual images.
An example from Tony Barrells work can help to illustrate this. Tokyos Burning is a
feature about the firebombing of Tokyo and Dresden where Barrell weaves together
documentary accounts of survivors, the aircrew that dropped the bombs, experts on military
history with quotations from the Bible, and a highly stylised sound design. The overall effect
is one that could never be achieved by a film or TV documentary, a heightening of the drama
of these two terrible human extinctions, an entirely invisible inferno that takes place in the
minds ear and is all the more shocking for it.
While the development of a radio feature language may draw and learn from a variety
of theories, it needs to be based on an exploration of the way in which radio makers think
about their work. This article is just a beginning in this process. Future work would include a
more detailed documentation of the myriad of decisions that result in each individual work.24
University of Technology, Sydney

Peter M Lewis, Private Passion, Public Neglect: the Cultural Status of Radio, International Journal of

Cultural Studies 3, no. 2 (2000), 160-7.


2

Tony Barrell, Torque Radio: the Radio Feature, in Steve Ahern (ed.), Making Radio: a Practical Guide to

Working in Radio (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2000), 11-19.


3

Tony Barrells radio feature Tokyos Burning was the winner of the Prix Italia Documentary Award in 1995.

For a more detailed report on arts programming at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation see Liz Jackas

review on ABC: http://www.currencyhouse.org.au/documents/ch_d_abc_lizjackasummary.pdf

Aroney: Radio Documentaries and Features: Invisible Achievements

405

Peter M Lewis, 162.

Tony Barrell interview with author, public event held as part of The Radio Conference 200: Transnational

Conference and Forum, 11-14 July 2005, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia.
7

Virginia Madsen, Dark Room Project (Sydney: DCA, University of Technology, 2001), 127.

Tony Barrell, Notes and Ideas for and About Making Features, Documentaries, Stories for Radio

[unpublished] (hereafter Barrell Papers), December 1997, Sydney. Authors copy.


9

Virginia Madsen, 95.

10

The authors research on the radio feature extends only to that published in English. Virginia Madsens yet to

be published text on the history and development of the radio feature uses non-English text and oral sources and
covers the period of the radio feature 1960-2000 focusing mainly on Australia and Europe.
11

Michelle, Hilmes, Is There a Field Called Sound Culture Studies? And Does it Matter?, American Quarterly

57, no. 1 (2005), 249-59.


12

Michelle Hilmes and Jason Loviglio (eds), Radio Reader: Essays in the Cultural History of Radio (New York:

Routledge , 2002), 6.
13

On an international level these types of questions are addressed in professional forums such as the

International Features Conference and more recently the Third Coast Audio Festival in the United States. Also
Radio Futura chat room, an international online forum for radio feature makers. radiofutura@mlists.in-berlin.de
14

Tony Barrell, interview with author, April 2005.

15

Ibid.

16

Tony Barrell, interview with author, October 2005.

17

Tony Barrell, radio program The Kyng Thynge (Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 1998).

18

Tony Barrell, interview with author, April 2005

19

Bill Nichols, Introduction to Documentary (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001).

20

Mike Ladd from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation has written an unpublished paper on faction in the

Australian

radio

feature.

Its

found

on

the

International

Features

Conference

website:

http://www.ifc.blogcity.com
21

John Corner, Performing the Real: Documentary Diversions, Television and New Media l3, no.3 (August

2002), 226-69.
22

Ibid, 255.

23

Tony Barrell, interview with author, April 2005

24

It was suggested by Virginia Madsen that producers are still the missing link in any serious examination of

radio feature field. I am grateful to Madsen and David McKnight for encouraging this approach to studying the
radio feature.