Things I've Learned:
Cathy FitzGerald

An occasional series of hard-won-wisdoms from the mischief-making, pixie-dust-sprinkling, original-thinking auteurs of the audio world

Please supply a short 'official' biography

Cathy FitzGerald is a radio producer and presenter. She made her first documentary – The Magic Carpet Flight Manual – in 2010 and has since won Third Coast Festival, Whicker’s World Foundation, Audio Production, and Prix Marulic awards for documentaries on topics including angry Vietnamese ghosts, reindeer-racing in Finland, and a museum of broken hearts. She’s the founder and caretaker of Strange & Charmed, a school for audio storytellers and has a DPhil in the work of Charles Dickens. The Radio Times calls her ”one of radio’s most original voices.” 

But who are you, really?​

Awkward romantic. Happiest in imaginary worlds (my own and other people's). Always seeking tiny moments of perfect communion with other critters. Selfish, ambitious, envious. Inclined to boredom and delight.

What are your top tips for making audio pieces?

1. If it gets too easy, make it more difficult. Keep learning, always.


2. Once you get good at something, the money-making world will want you to keep doing it, exactly like that, more of the same. And worse, over time, your habit-loving brain will want you to keep doing it, exactly like that, more of the same. To do different: read and watch things made by people whose imaginations aren't crusted over by familiarity. Even a little dip in Italo Calvino can wake up my mind again.


3. A warm, inviting, genuinely non-judgemental silence will often get you a much more interesting answer than a follow-up question.


4. Strive to leave the people you interview a little taller.

5. It's only a little bit about the microphone you use or the editing software you prefer or whether you know the difference between reverse and convolution reverb. It's only a little bit about the manifestos you read and the tips you absorb and the conferences you go to. What really matters is your commitment, your heart, your creativity idiosyncrasies and the extent to which you’re prepared to think about the process. The difference between me and you (if you're a beginner) is that I started... and I didn't stop. So - start. (Or as a very good friend once said to me - with patience and huge exasperation - just bloody do it.


6. Collaborate with people who'll push you out of mediocrity, not into it.

7. The difference between good work and inspired work is that the latter has an uncanny animism. It’s alive. This is because it contains (in a very secret way) a piece of the maker’s soul.


8. It doesn't matter whether you think of yourself as a producer, an artist, a sound-poet, a podcaster, a creative, a craftsperson, an artisan, or a hack. First and foremost, you're an entertainer. If the listener isn't entertained they will stop listening. Does an audio piece still make a sound if no one presses play? (That's not a philosophical question. It doesn't).


9. Any act of creation is a balance between order and chaos. You have to let the mind slip its lease sometimes and go romping around. (This may occasionally look like procrastination or laziness or an afternoon kip). Romping is where both the very best and the very worst ideas come from and is essential if you want to make something distinctive that's truly yours (as opposed to copying others or slipping into standard forms). But you will also need the ordering, disciplined side of your brain to sift and structure. When I’m at my best and happiest I flit between these two ways of thinking constantly - it’s like a lovely dance with myself, where each part of my brain takes it in turn to lead.


10. Don't edit bored, kids. You’ll cut the good bits because you’ve heard them too often to remember they’re good.


11. A mild arrogance is extremely helpful.


12. Use music to find the deep heart of a piece. When I'm writing, I'll often find a track that contains the mood I'm trying to create in words... whether that's hopeful, or light-filled, or swaggering braggadoccio - and then I play it before I write or when I get stuck. It works the same for audio. It's a short-cut to what Studs Terkel called the 'feeling tone' of a piece.


13. Picasso said every creative act is a series of 'no's' followed by a 'yes'. Don't say yes too soon. Don't choose the obvious piece of music or the first sfx that comes to mind. Don't take the first interviewee. Don't accept the first draft (or perhaps even the tenth). Be thoughtful and finickety, but ultimately decisive. Know when it and you are done.


​What's your favourite of all the things you've made and why? 

Little Volcanoes - because every tender scrap of my heart is in it.

Please supply a visual representation of your life in audio

While googling myself a long while ago, I found a brutal comment about one of my documentaries on a chat-board. I asked my lovely friend Richard to turn it into a screen print and now it lives in the Strange & Charmed workshop. I’m very happy making ‘metaphysical nonsense’ that challenges tidy certainties.

Who are your influences (in any medium)?

I think the imagination might be a little like Arial’s Song in 'The Tempest':


Full fathom five thy father lies;

Of his bones are coral made;

Those are pearls that were his eyes:

Nothing of him that doth fade,

But doth suffer a sea-change

Into something rich and strange.

Things fall through the blue-dark depths of our minds and come to rest in the silence. Then over time they simultaneously decay and grow more alive until they are (almost) something new… and if we get very lucky, become ‘rich and strange’.


Things which are doing that right now:

'Cannery Row' by John Steinbeck, because it’s so quiet and humble and humane. I’d like to make more work like that.

This portrait of a young woman by Domenico Ghirlandaio, because she looks as if she’s putting so much energy into not looking at the artist.

This painted statue of St Michael, who was a bruiser among angels and yet somehow always the most beautiful.

'The Pillow Book' by Sei Shonagon (for the lists. OH THE LISTS! Here's the title of one: Things that look ordinary but become extraordinary when written.)

The bluebell woods near my home

Cathy FitzGerald