Plunging into radio

Kim Pittaway

Kim PittawayMy sister Tina and I had been talking about possibly collaborating on a radio documentary for some time. Radio is Tina’s turf. For much of the last decade, she’s worked as a radio chase producer and more recently as a documentary producer, while my work has been mainly in magazines.

In summer 2007, Tina coordinated a small weekend radio workshop I attended for journalists interested in developing radio doc skills. Dick Miller, The Current’s doc producer, led us through the basics. Since then, I’d been on the look-out for a documentary topic, and in spring 2008, when The Current announced that water would be their theme for the 2008/2009 season, Tina and I did some brainstorming about the issue.

“I wonder if there’s something like the carbon footprint, only for water?” I asked as we talked. We were both struck by the idea of trying to figure out how much water we personally use, not just in direct, from-the-tap consumption, but also in terms of water used to produce the goods we consume. After some research, we discovered that the term “water footprint” was indeed gaining scientific credibility. Tina crafted a pitch for the idea and Dick gave us the go-ahead to start working on the piece.

As first-time collaborators with a radio-newbie on the team, we did face some challenges. Figuring out who should do what—and trying not to waste time by duplicating efforts—took some effort. In the end, I did a fair bit of the background research and pre-interviews of subjects. Tina took the lead on our in-studio interviews and interviewRadio transcriptions. We worked together on writing the piece (with help from Dick Miller, who suggested the “voice of God” device to help move us along through the piece). Tina was patient in dealing with my “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing here” moments, since I was out of my comfort and knowledge zone. As well, taking a secondary role is not something that comes naturally to me. (Those who know me should try not to smirk at this.)

As with any longer piece, focus was a challenge. We ended up with interviews we couldn’t use and intriguing facts and figures we couldn’t work into the piece (although we hope to use them in other work). Tone was something else we struggled with: Tina has tackled some tough subjects in her past documentaries—a military interrogator, a man who came back from the dead—and much of my magazine work has also had a more serious tone. Tackling this subject in a more playful, sometimes goofy way was a challenge for both of us. We hoped it would engage the listener, but we did worry we might sound like idiots.

There were rewards too. As someone who is used to working solo on journalistic pieces, I enjoyed the collaborative process of talking the piece through with Tina. And I learned a ton from her in the process.

Experimenting with a new medium was enjoyable too. I loved learning about painting scenes using sound, and fiddling around with microphones and a digital recorder to capture those sounds was quite simply fun.

So how did listeners react? They loved it—and hated it. Our piece led The Current’s mailbag the week it aired. Some listeners liked the layers of sound, the chatting back and forth, the way we explained the concept. Others found it too noisy, thought we were irritating and just plain disagreed with our take on the topic.

Inside the CBC, the response was positive. “I smell a franchise,” emailed a colleague of Tina’s. While I’m not entirely sure of that, I do know we worked well together and are likely to collaborate on air again–and possibly in print. We’ve been approached by a publisher interested in having us expand the documentary into a book and are in discussions to see how that might proceed.

Listen to “Virtual Water” on The Current (scroll down to December 16)

Kim Pittaway is a Toronto-based magazine writer and editor. Tina Pittaway is an independent writer and broadcaster whose documentary For God & Country has won both a Gabriel Award and Amnesty International Media Award.

(Photo by seychelles88. Used under Cretive Commons License.)