Things I've Learned:
Eleanor McDowall

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

I’m a senior producer at Falling Tree Productions where I make documentaries about things like roller derby, wrestling and ballet dancers' last dances; I’m the series producer of BBC Radio 4’s Short Cuts and in my spare time I subtitle audio documentaries made in languages other than English for my podcast Radio Atlas.

But who are you, really?​

A clumsy but joyful dancer.

What are your top tips for making audio pieces?

1. Be generous. Listen to everything you can get your ears on. When someone makes something you love sing loudly about it through a megaphone. Elevate what you want to hear in the culture. Your work and the environment you’re making it in will be better for listening to and learning from others.


2. Find someone who will be brutally honest with you and play them everything you make at the point when you feel worst about it. I have to relearn this with every documentary - to the point where I think I should get it tattooed on my arm - but there’s not one thing I’ve produced that hasn’t been made better by someone else’s ears. Don’t hide what you’re making away until you’re convinced it’s perfect - bring your rough-as-guts, confusing mess of a half-arsed, poorly-executed idea eagerly to their door like a cat presenting a partially-chewed bird as a gift. 


3. Remember that criticism doesn’t always come in a way that’s easy to take. Learn to listen for the helpful truths without losing yourself. What’s drawing them closer? What’s pushing them away? Have you given them what they need to love a character the way you do? Defend your silly ideas, the things that make it truly yours, to the death.


4. Build depth into your sound worlds. For some reason, the image of an old Disney information film about their multiplane camera has lodged in my brain as the perfect visual illustration of this idea. Collect close ups and medium shots and wide shots when you’re recording. Use them to build spaces - either real or imagined - that stretch out to a distant audio horizon.


5. Don’t be disembodied - radio can have a tendency to lean towards the cerebral. Don’t just tell a listener about a subject, let them understand an idea by feeling it in their body. Make radio that starts a listener’s heart beating faster; that whispers lovingly in their ears; that takes them out dancing, spins them around, gets drunk and throws up on their shoes.


6. Be a noble failure. Try something you don’t know how to do yet. Allow for the possibility that your ridiculous idea won’t work and do it anyway. Skip unthinkingly towards the yawning abyss of your potential humiliation. Noble failures are often the places where good, new ideas are found.


7. Beware of thinking you know how a narrative should work or what a documentary should sound like. If you can predict where it’s going before you’ve made it, your listener probably can too.


8. Learn to treasure moments of silence - both in the recording and in the edit. Learn to hold a moment for longer than you feel you should. Sometimes an interviewee tells you more with a pause than they can with a sentence.


9. Remember and value the things that spark ideas in your head. Remember that making space for those sparks is also part of your job and that good ideas for radio documentaries don’t necessarily fall from the sky or visit you in dreams. Make time to read books, to be outside, to listen to music, to have proper conversations with people (that aren’t about radio), to see art that makes your heart soar and to watch terrible TV shows about serial killers on Netflix.


10. Don’t be disembodied (really, don’t). When I feel stuck in an edit, I like short swims in cold bodies of water that whip the air out of my body and take me out of my own head. Where all I can think about is the green gloom beneath my toes and the light rippling across the surface of the water.

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

I don’t love anything I’ve made in its entirety - just fleeting moments where I can briefly forget about all the things that I think I could have done better. The dance sequence five minutes into this is one of those.


What's your (current) favourite piece of audio by someone else?

It’s not a documentary but I think I could listen to this beautiful, melancholic recording of Phil Smith singing in the rain on a loop for all eternity.

Documentary-wise this tender, confrontational Susanne Björkman feature is the most recent thing to knock me sideways. 

Who are your influences (in any medium)?

The lopsided, visceral, instinctive sound worlds of David Lynch, the haunted worlds of Shirley Jackson stories, Kate Briggs’s loving and political book on translation ‘This Little Art’, the generous, talented radio-makers who make space for others.

Please supply a visual representation of your life in audio

This is the view from the window by my desk. This cat is called Keith. It’s written on his collar in diamante studs. Keith is not my cat. When I work he likes to sit on the other side of the glass and eyeball me. Sometimes when I look up he likes to slowly, steadily meow until I open the door and he turns away - horrified by my eagerness to be friends. I spend a lot of my working day thinking about Keith.