On the crest of a radio wave
IN AUGUST RTÉ RADIO 1 will broadcast its 1,000th documentary. The first, The O’Dea Story, about the actor Jimmy O’Dea, aired in 1954, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that the station decided to brand the strand Documentary on One.
Last week the Documentary on One unit won 15 awards at the New York Festivals, including two for The Curious Ear. RTÉ Radio was named broadcaster of the year. Lorelei Harris, editor of arts, features, drama and independent productions, who is also on the documentary team, describes the New York Festivals as the Olympics of broadcasting. In the past five years the documentary department at RTÉ Radio has won more than 70 national and international awards, an achievement that, the station’s website bullishly declares, makes them the most successful radio department in the world.
Cork-born Liam O’Brien is now the Doc on One series producer; he took up the job the year the department started to bring in awards in such big numbers. He shrugs off any suggestion that his appointment had a role in the subsequent surge in the number of gongs the department’s programmes have won. It’s down to teamwork, he says.
There are now six people in the Doc on One team: O’Brien, Harris, Ciaran Cassidy, Nicoline Greer, Sarah Blake and Ronan Kelly. Together they broadcast 50 documentaries a year, 15-20 of which they make themselves, with the others coming from independent producers, freelancers and members of the public. They frequently work alongside external documentary-makers, mentoring them through the process.
O’Brien admits that when he was appointed he decided to raise the department’s profile within the organisation. There was also a change in timing: the documentaries currently air at 2pm every Saturday, with repeats on Sundays at 7pm.
So what makes a good documentary? “The closer you can get to the story, the closer you can get to the listener,” says O’Brien. “An eye for a story and the ability to tell it. And you have to be able to touch people,” Harris says. “Which is about that closeness to the listener again,” says O’Brien.
What don’t work, it appears, are documentaries set outside Ireland, particularly anywhere in the developing world. “We don’t care about the rest of the world. It’s that simple and that terrible,” says Harris regretfully. “Every time we put out on a documentary about Africa, for instance, people switch off.” “Everything is local in Ireland,” says O’Brien. “Once you move out of the country people are not inclined to stay with you.”
His own most recent documentary was The Secret Chicken Society, a tongue-in-cheek look at Ireland’s champion chicken-breeders.