Things I've Learned:
Jonathan Zenti

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 an independent radio producer based in Rome, Italy. I have been a finalist at the Prix Europa twice and I won the GanBéarla Award at the Hearsay Audio Festival in Ireland. I am the co-founder and a proud board member of MIRP – Meeting of Independent Radio Producers. My podcast Meat got to the final stage of Radiotopia’s Podquest in 2016.

But who are you, really?

I’m a lazy stubborn complicated dickhead that makes everyone mad because I’m always late. I see myself as a decent archer that takes so long to prepare his shot that he hits the bullseye when the war is already over.

Who are your influences (in any medium)?

It’s very hard to pick just some names from the basket, because I steal from everyone. An old time Italian radio producer called Sergio Zavoli, Jerzy Grotowski for the way he combined science and art, an Italian graphic-novelist called Gipi, a couple of records by The Get Up Kids and The Anniversary, Katy Perry, Frank Gehry’s architecture, Doug Stanhope’s comedy, and after the third season of Twin Peaks I must admit that David Lynch definitively won my personal battle against his poetics. Then I admire a lot of colleagues, like Kaitlin Prest and Mitra Kaboli (I still think that The Heart is the most revolutionary radio craft of the new millennium), Julie Shapiro and all my MIRP mates, they are incredible. And at last dozens of ordinary people who live around me: like my sister who is very clever, my long time friends or my girlfriend, who knocks my socks off every time I see the brilliant ways she discovers to deal with the everyday shit.

Please supply a visual representation of your life in audio 

This a picture of some crisis supplies on my terrace. When I’m lost and I don’t know where to go with my writing I usually play some guitar. I’m so bad at playing guitar, that after awhile I think “it’s better if I go back to radio” and I find a brand new motivation. The other thing that I do is to grow replicable plants: here you can see avocado plants on the left, basil in the centre and agave on the right. These are plants that give birth to other plants. So I like to grow them and to gift the people I love with the newborn ones. It helps me to keep in mind that nature is so magic and self-sufficient that what bothers me so much and makes me suffer doesn’t matter at all.

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

The thing I’m closest to is a super-long self-produced audio documentary live “opera” called “Ognuno di noi” (Any of us) that I made in 2009. It’s 2 hours and 20 minutes long and I made it as a radio live show. It’s about a murder that happened in my hometown, and making it really changed me. But it’s in Italian. Another thing that I still like is the beginning of a documentary called “A questo punto”, the first 15 minutes. It was the first time that what I had in my mind came out exactly the same in sound.

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

So many… I still like this “Radio Rookies” called “Mental Illness”. It’s short, super-punk, and when it starts you immediately find yourself at the core of the story. And it’s honest, that is quite rare in radio and art in general.

What are your top tips for making audio pieces?

1. If you reach for perfection, you will find yourself with a decent shit in your hands at the end of the day

An art work is made to interact with a public audience, so your creation is a path full of compromises, deals, deadlines, mistakes, decisions made under tiredness and stress. So when you start to outline a project, don’t settle from the beginning, don’t just struggle for something “nice”. Do your best to go beyond what you have already done and reach for your idea of perfection: you will lose pieces in the process, but you will find yourself with something that in the end is not so bad.


2. Balance the compliments of your audience with the thanks of your subject 

When you collect your feedback after your idea was aired, you should find yourself with both compliments from the listeners and thanks from the people who put their story in your hands. If you don't get many compliments from the audience, it could mean that you focused too much on your idea and you forgot about your public, or that you got so fascinated by your story that you forgot to make it entertaining. At the same time, if the subject you have worked with is upset by the final output or feels that you have stolen something from them, it could mean that you focused too much on your vanity, and you have wasted one of your resources for good. It’s almost impossible to make everyone happy, but as producer you can find a way to make everyone interested in your piece and not angry at you.

3. Give the audience what they want to have, and hide inside something you want them to have

At the beginning of 20th century, one of the first director of the German Public Radio, Ernst Schoen, said that at first they tried to use the radio to educate the masses. But nobody was listening to that radio. So he came to realise that (for him) the goal of public radio is to give the audience what they want to have, delivering at the same time something you want them to have. I find it true still today. The audience want to be entertained, to sneak inside other people’s privacies, to be shocked and surprised. At the same time you can enrich their experience with the content you want them to reflect on.


4. Set your “ground floor” and start building from that

Don’t take any information for granted. You don’t know anything about your listeners, what they read, what level of education they have or how they like to discuss the things they care about. So set a starting point, a “ground floor”, and assume that you and your listeners know the same thing that you are saying you know: nothing. Then give them the information they need. At the same time, do not oppose your audience. Even the worst racist/fascist/chauvinist on the planet earth has his reason and story to think what he thinks. Your story will be a different possibility that he has never seen before, and it will be up to him then to follow a better path for himself, once he has discovered it exists.


5. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy

I wouldn’t say “stop reading” but essentially that’s what I did. I don’t read anymore. Just professional essays, no more than one hour a day. No newspaper, no novels, no Elena Ferrante, no blogs. I don’t even read tweets. And when I read something, I do it in order to study the technique, like I do with poetry or with some writers like Martin Amis, because he usually goes deep down with writing techniques. I used to read a lot, but when I started writing I felt that I needed a break. It was like quitting smoke. I had to abandon a habit I liked because I felt it wasn’t good for my “creative” health. So every time that I felt a need for a new book, I forced myself to go outside and talk to someone. When I finally got clean, I realized that as a quiet shy person, reading got me connected with the writer’s world rather than the real world outside my door. That the 20th century told by a book is less vivid than the one told by an old relative of mine. And in my craft I wasn't trying to reach the writers and the nice fancy people in general, I was trying to reach the people who wanted to listen to radio or to play a podcast at home after work. I wanted to get their world. And when I started writing again, I felt that I was empty enough from other people’s styles and ideas that I had finally space for my own. Now I usual entertain myself with tv series or stand up comedians shows, but when I have to write something I care about, I stop for awhile.


6. Words are doors to other dimensions: set your foundations on concepts, and make your listeners fly with constructs

When you build your narration, you find yourself with two different type of content: concepts and constructs. Concepts are words and sounds that you can share with others through the senses or documents: an object everyone can see, a sound everyone can hear, a law everyone can find in the judicial system. Other then concepts, there are constructs, words that depend on your definition of them, like “responsibility”, “diversity” or “identity”. Concepts are the solid stones that are the essential foundation of your story: check the facts, double check the facts, don’t ever lie and always provide correct numbers and descriptions and dates. That’s what make listeners believe in you. And in these days of angry-Facebook, they can destroy in one second if they find out that you lied on a fact. But when you have won them over, make them fly through the composition of a construct, and drive them to understand what you mean when you push your idea about something. Some words are pretty yummy for a producer because they have both functions, like “gender”, that is at the same time a body issue (concept), but also an identity issue (construct). That’s when the real magic might happen.


7. You are editing on a music software: you can use it!

When we edit our piece we often forget that the 80% of voluntary sounds that we put in our ears consist in music. People like to listen to music, so let them dance with your radio piece! Every editing software is made for music (where there is the real money), and you can use the tools you have to create your radio craft: bars and beats, tempo, measures. Our narration is made by syllables, that in our ears sounds as hits of a drum beat. Create a rhythm with your narration (go study poetry to learn how to do that – not the haiku-crap and post-60s free poetry: real 18th century poetry, Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter and any poetry gods you have in your country). In some way music connects human species to the Universe, and you want to see the heads banging while they listen to you.


8. Observe your instinct

It can happens sometimes that is a shiny day, you are in love or the planets are set in the right position, and a super-bright idea pops up just by chance. Don’t settle! Go back to that idea and try to understand what about it sounds so cool. Why does it work? Is there a technique and a dynamic behind that, that could be replicated in a different context? Try to repeat it slightly different next time. It’s the best way to create you own style, to make listeners recognize you through time


9. Observe your feedbacks

Don’t succumb to the temptation of vanity or the pressure of sadness. The comments you receive after one of your pieces is aired are the stars that can illuminate your path in the darkness of creativity. Copy them in a document, read them, check if there are cross critics. The audience is responding to your stirring, and it’s in their words that you can find the direction for your next step.

10. Honour the God of Creativity

Every time that you draw a line, even if you are doing it in sound, remember that you are taking a baton that was first consigned hundreds of thousand of years ago, when our ancestors were singing together in caves to keep away the wild beasts, and leaving traces of their existences painting on the walls. Don’t EVER think that the secret of creativity is hiding inside you: in your inside there is just a mess of gloomy tissues and organs that keep you breathing for a few decades. Creativity is outside, in people's stories and words, in all the books that have been written, in all the communities you can get to know, in all the cities you can visit, in all the food you can eat and in all the art you can consume. If you want to create, be in the world and live deeply everything that human beings have created. Study all disciplines that you feel close to (in my case epistemology, psychology, physics). That’s the right way to honour the God of Creativity and not incite his anger.