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.

Even a cursory look at Documentary on One’s online archive reveals an astonishing range of subjects – and the social history recorded over decades in the process. There’s everything from the 1968 programme The Men of Inishark, recorded eight years after the island had been abandoned forever, and the 1993 documentary Question of Faith, the story of a family’s reaction to the news that their daughter was joining a convent, to The Book Club, which aired this month, looking at a group of 12 women in Cork who have been members of the same book club for almost 40 years.

Perhaps surprisingly, tough and difficult subjects often do exceptionally well. Documentaries focusing on the challenges of life-threatening illnesses or of living with conditions such as Prader-Willi syndrome, a symptom of which is never feeling full, no matter how much you eat, have been very popular. A recent much- listened-to documentary was Conor McGinnity’s My Dad’s Depression, which looked at how Peter McGinnity’s depression had affected his family.

One of last year’s most popular documentaries was Don’t Go Far . . . , by Paul Russell and Ronan Kelly. It revisited the marvellous 1985 story of two Dublin boys who mitched off school with no money or passports in their pockets and, amazingly, ended up in New York.

HARRIS AND O’BRIENsay a documentary that continues to transfix the listening public is Jim Fahy’s classic Nobody Ever Went to America to Learn How to Kill a Pig, from 1978, which features an unforgettable recording of a pig being slaughtered.

Harris, who was born in South Africa, initially studied anthropology, which she says has had a bigger influence on her work than her outsider’s eye on Irish culture. “It gave me a way of thinking about the world. It gave me a structure of thinking about people. The act of going out and reporting with headphones on is very solitary.”

One of Harris’s own documentaries was the powerful Letter to Ann. In 1996 she visited Granard, in Co Longford, and was verbally abused by people she tried to get to talk about the infamous death there 12 years earlier of Ann Lovett and her baby, after Lovett gave birth beside a grotto. There is possibly more foul language in this documentary than in any other in the RTÉ archive. Letter to Ann remains a deeply disturbing reminder of a shameful time in Irish society.

O’Brien’s appointment as series producer, in 2008, coincided with a rise in the sophistication of digital platforms; Documentary on One began creating its online archive in 2009; smartphone apps have followed. Both the website and the apps have profoundly changed the way people listen to documentaries. Each has brought in more listeners, and new documentaries regularly get thousands of downloads.

A 40-minute documentary – an average-length one for RTÉ – requires a commitment of focused listening time. In the past, if you missed a programme when it was broadcast, you just missed it. Now you can visit the archive. You no longer have to wait to hear a repeat (and with hundreds in the archive, you could be waiting a long time for it to come around again).

O’Brien’s background is in music, and this has influenced the way he now works in radio. He studied music, and did an MA in music technology at the University of Limerick, before coming to work at RTÉ in 2000, initially as a production co-ordinator.

“There’s a massive overlap between music and making docs,” he says. “Making docs is exactly the same process as composing a piece of music. You have to have flow, drama, rhythm, structure. It’s about opening up your ears and tuning your ears. In normal life you view it through eyes and ears, but for both music and radio you only have ears.”

In April this year the team held their first fee-paying weekend Doc on One intensive training course. More than 200 people, spanning seven decades in age, applied for 140 places. “We did not expect that response,” says Harris. It clearly indicated the interest people of all ages have in making radio documentaries.

The training weekend was deemed a successful experiment, and the station is getting calls from people who’d like to know when the next one will be held. There are no definite plans to hold another, but Harris and O’Brien say it is being considered. Apart from anything else, workshops could prove lucrative for a station that has seen significant cuts at every level.

So far three documentaries have been commissioned from people who attended the workshop, and there are commitments to seven other ideas. “Everything we do is about ideas,” O’Brien says. “We’re ideas motivated, not people motivated. It doesn’t matter who you are, if you’ve never made a documentary or if you’ve made dozens; the only things that matter are if the idea is good and if you can get close access to your subject. Anyone can make a doc for us. It’s a very democratic process in that way.”

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