I was interviewing a man in Tennessee this year, a well-educated professional in his 60’s and a devoted listener to public radio. I introduced myself by explaining that I’m based at Minnesota Public Radio and make documentaries for National Public Radio (NPR). He cocked his head and eyed me funny. “What the hell is a radio documentary?” he said. I get that question all the time.

Unlike television and film viewers, most radio listeners don’t identify an investigative story or intimate human portrait they just heard on public radio as a documentary. To them it’s just a program, a piece, a story, a write-up, or even an “article.”

Yet an increasing flow of documentaries is pouring out of American radio speakers. They come almost exclusively from public radio stations but also, occasionally, from commercial news stations. Some are an hour long, others 10 to 20 minutes. The best can often be heard within NPR news magazines such as “All Things Considered” and “Weekend Edition”—producer Joe Richman’s chronicle of the lives of prison inmates through their audio diaries—or David Isay’s portrait of a New York City flophouse, or the work of the Kitchen Sisters in their “Lost and Found Sound” series. There are also documentaries heard on our rival network, Public Radio International (PRI), in programs like “Marketplace,” “The World,” and “This American Life.”

American RadioWorks (ARW) makes documentaries that air within the major NPR news magazines, but we’ve also made a priority of producing hour-long special reports distributed directly to public radio stations nationwide. These specials air in virtually all the major American cities.

Neither length nor audience define radio documentaries. Ideally, a documentary possesses a depth of research or proximity to its subject that distinguishes it from a long feature or enterprise story. Length is not the defining quality; a documentary can last hours or five minutes. Documentaries convey a rich sense of character and detail—or a substantial body of original investigative material—that simply aren’t heard in the majority of public radio news reports.

At the heart of the documentary style are moments recorded on tape in which the story unfolds in front of the listener. These scenes function like a photo essay or a film documentary, where events play out in real time. For example, there is a scene in an American RadioWorks documentary on child poverty, “The Forgotten 14 Million,” in which the mother of a family in Kentucky, Janet, lectures her son Jim about the perils of getting married too young.

Jim: “You’re allowed to get married when you’re 21.”

Janet: “Yeah, you’re allowed to get married when you’re 21, but where you gonna take her to?”

Jim: “I don’t know.”

Janet: “Without the money and without a home, you gotta have the money and you gotta have a home to take her to!”

Jim: “Yeah, but I’m gonna get me a home first.”

Janet: “There ain’t no way you can get married at the age of 18 and think that you can go through college, get a job, and support a family, and get your own home and everything else. You can’t do that. That’s what Mommy and Daddy’s been a-trying to tell youn’s. You get your education and everything, then you can get you a woman. Other than that, if you don’t go through all of that, then you ain’t gonna have nothin. And you know it.”

In a stunning piece of historical documentary, producers Christina Egloff and Jay Allison of the “Lost and Found Sound” project used audiotapes made by a soldier named Mike, who died in Vietnam, to tell his story: “I have the recorder here, and I’m going to try to keep it elevated off the ground and away from everything here. I’m going to try to keep it up in the air because everything I touch here eats through my skin or bites me, or rots, something. This is, this is something else. The grass will cut you. The mud will rot your skin. This is something else.”

Time spent in the field is often what distinguishes a radio documentary from a feature or enterprise report. The piece feels lush, more active. At American RadioWorks, we encourage producers to revisit their subjects time and again, to document the story over months, if not years. These kind of character-driven stories are a powerful way of exploring larger social themes. Some producers pride themselves on never quoting experts in their documentaries because conventional news reports tend to rely heavily on academics and government officials as on-mike sources. At American RadioWorks, we try to weave the larger social context into a compelling, character-rich story. When we get it right, the flow of an engaging narrative helps carry the weight of figures and facts. The trick is choosing the right subject. ARW covers a mix of domestic and international subjects, from global public health to war crimes, from the American prison industry to the history of segregation.

Narrative documentaries are far more common in public radio than investigative projects, in part because investigative reporting devours time and money. Most radio news organizations simply can’t afford it. But in February, American RadioWorks broke thestory of how Serbian security forces serving the regime of Slobodan Milosevic burned hundreds of bodies of slaughtered Kosovo Albanians in an industrial furnace to cover up potential war crimes evidence. This story was the result of nearly two years’ work researching war crimes in Kosovo.

Do listeners want these documentaries? If you ask many program directors—the gatekeepers to local airtime on more than 600 stations nationwide—the response is mixed. Some insist that long-form work is at the heart of public radio’s mission and distinguish it from all the brainless chatter elsewhere on the dial. Others say documentaries are a ratings killer. They point out that the average commercial radio listener tunes in for only 15 minutes or so and that longer stories won’t help lure these listeners to our side. On the other hand, time spent listening to public radio is more like an hour per occasion, and documentaries recently aired within NPR’s “All Things Considered” have been among the most popular pieces that program has aired.

Although documentaries are alive in public radio, it’s hard to argue that the genre is healthy, at least in terms of employment opportunities. Only a handful of radio producers in the United States actually make a living from documentary work, and they don’t earn much money. Most producers also work as journalists for local stations, or hold down editorial posts at NPR or PRI, or toil at an unrelated day job. American RadioWorks, the largest documentary production unit in public radio, has nine people on staff.

Still, the near future seems promising for documentary radio. An excellent radio program can be made for a fraction of what a quality independent film costs: As a rough estimate, radio documentaries can cost anywhere from $20-80,000 or more per hour, compared to a documentary film, in which the budget might start at $100,000 and soar past one million dollars. Foundation and government funding for radio documentaries, while not simple to obtain, does exist. And when a piece airs on an NPR newsmagazine it reaches a large, influential audience. For example, more than 10 million people listen to “All Things Considered.” That’s a far bigger crowd than watch most film documentaries and a healthy figure when compared to the four million people a week tuning in to the prestigious PBS TV documentary program “Frontline.”

I like to think that the future is promising for audio (not just radio) documentaries. The Internet has already created new venues for audio work, though the audience is uncertain and work suffers from the squishy sound of Web audio. There might be other ways to distribute audio documentaries in the multi-media future. Some day, we might get our radio signals from satellites instead of towers and be able to chose the “all documentary” channel while driving to work. We might even be able to chose programs on demand, á la cable television. This could mean a bigger market for audio docs.

In the meantime, keep an ear open for the radio documentaries already beaming through the atmosphere.

Stephen Smith is managing editor and a correspondent with American RadioWorks, the documentary project of Minnesota Public Radio and NPR news.

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