A few months ago I wrote a story for a glossy magazine. I couldn’t find my potential interviewees online or on the phone. I had to get out amongst them, and query each one until I had the stories I was looking for. I gleefully went out and popped my digital recorder in front of the mouth of anyone who would speak. I took a minute or two of their time, jotted down their telephone number and went on to the next. Of every twenty people I spoke to, I found one or two that I might interview. As I wrote the story, that number went down. Writing is so much about cutting. Paring it down makes it a better piece. But I always feel a little twinge of guilt as I cut characters and stories from my work. These aren’t imaginary characters I’m cutting. They’re real people.
‘We interviewed a lot more people than we ended up using,’ Jon Tjhia tells me. He’s one of two Executive Producers behind Paper Radio, an audio journal that produces spoken podcasts of both fiction and non-fiction. This Sunday he’ll be putting together a radio documentary at the Melbourne Writers Festival. Tjhia is one part of ‘The Radio Hour’ which promises to be ‘documentary radio like you’ve never seen it before.’ Tjhia and a huge cast including Pico Iyer, Chloe Hooper and Natalie Kestecher will together take on the daunting task of producing radio in front of an audience. And it’s all on the theme ‘Do you read me?’
Tjhia’s preparation for this topic began earlier this year – as did my involvement with the project. Back in April I saw a call-out from Paper Radio. They were looking for ‘interesting or funny stories about translation or a gap in language.’ I’m not one to get in front of the microphone or the camera, but after a year in Japan (which included the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown) I thought I might have some stories to tell. And I saw the call-out as an opportunity for something else: it was a chance to put myself in the shoes of those I interviewed.
I was surprised how quickly I became a nervous interviewee. On the bus heading into town to meet Tjhia my heartbeat quickened. Once there I worried that my mouth would sound pasty and that I’d spit on the expensive-looking equipment before me. Worse still I feared I’d say something stupid. I could hear the tension in my own voice. And I like to think of myself as someone who doesn’t get nervous about these things. After all I know how it works. Imagine what it’s like for those we interview?
When Tjhia interviewed me, his focus was on language and translation, but like all stories the idea evolved. ‘We had this emergent theme of sign language – which wasn’t really what we had thought of initially but it kept coming up. And it came up not just speaking to people about deafness, but also people being in different cultures and that being a way to bridge (to some extent) [the language] divide,’ Tjhia says.
Tjhia and his co Executive Producer, Jessie Borrelle, did about eight hours of interviews. ‘It’s really important to gain the trust of the person,’ he tells me. ‘You don’t really get to what’s important in a story in talking to someone for ten minutes,’ Tjhia transcribed all of the interviews. ‘Even on the [final] topic … we had some other interviews that - whilst they didn’t make it to the final cut for this thing - we’ll hopefully use later on,’ he says – noting that every single interview, ‘informed much more richly the background of our research.’ (I’m pretty sure I’ve been cut – but I don’t ask, because a) I want to mimic the experience of those I interview as closely as reasonably possible and b) I don't mind if I'm cut).
Some of the other contributors will use live music. Tjhia has prepared samples for his final piece, and will be mixing it all on stage. ‘It will be sort of like live radio… fading up and down, going to tracks,’ he says. But it will be ‘highly premeditated, tightly timed… I’ll try not to lose my way in the script in the process,’ he quips.
Tjhia is keen for those who attend the session to come away with, ‘an excitement about the way audio stories can be told and… [the] freedom of that space.’ He wants the audience to have a better recognition of the strength and creativity already present in Australian radio. ‘This American Life has been tossed around a whole lot in describing this event… I don’t think that we should have to rely on the old powers for our cultural touch points,’ he says.
Sunday’s event will be the conclusion of my experiment as the interviewee. I expect it will inform (if only in a small way) my approach to contacting those whose voices won’t appear in my articles. But I have a feeling that there will be a pleasure (indeed, pride) of having informed and helped to shape somebody else’s creative endeavour. And I’m certain that ‘The Radio Hour’ will do its part to celebrate the great audio storytelling talent we have in Australia.