Things I've Learned:
Sara Jane Hall
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
Currently features producer in BBC Radio Documentaries in London. Started in BBC as a studio manager; did some announcing, researching, TV directing, but always came back for more documentaries punishment - it's addictive. Other jobs included working at the Almeida Theatre, Dalston Community Centre, solicitors outdoor clerk, and running a community transport scheme in Camden, which gave me a ton of experiences which have helped me come up with ideas over the years, more than I could have imagined!
But who are you, really?
Frustrated musician, wine drinker, dancer, cheese maker.
Who are your influences (in any medium)?
My parents - big radio listeners and music makers - dad had a reel-to-reel tape recorder, and one of my earliest memories was trying to make dolls hair ribbons out of a spool of tape - BASF I think.
Writers who read like musicians, and musicians who mix sounds and actuality and life and pace into their music, making it all somehow deeper… from The The and Underworld to Glenn Gould.
About 20 years ago I heard a programme which was a mix tape of the recordings a man had made in his family house - mics in every room in the house, aunts eating mouldy bagels, totally without regard for privacy - but it set me off thinking about the fun and pleasure to be had in the sounds of the everyday, and the audacity of such up close recordings.
Piers Plowright's Featurisation course at the BBC, and many other radio makers indeed, but I'd forget one so won't say who.
What's your favourite of all the things you've made and why?
I haven't listened for a while, but The Haunted Moustache was an experiment that went right, rather than wrong for once, and I had absolutely no idea at the beginning how it would turn out at the end.
What are your top tips for making audio pieces?
1. If you know it already why are you repeating it
This was the advice from a senior producer during my first job, when I'd just played him back a short feature. I'd spent a lot of time on it - getting the edits right, the flow, the music, etc… I sat there expectantly at the end, listening to my beautiful feature play out, until he said, "It sounds lovely but I knew all of that already. What's the point of it?" Of course, I realised, I knew it all too - I had just put the bits together that flowed easily, that made sense, but to no actual purpose. I hadn't learnt anything, he hadn't learnt anything - neither would anyone listening. So don't grab the easy and tart it up. Try instead to find the genuinely interesting, unexpected things you've learnt during the making of the programme - probably the most awkward bits of your material, and then try and find a way to make them make sense, and flow together - not the other way round.
2. Don't try and please all the audience all of the time
I mean you can't so why try? There will always be people who don't like music under speech; can't stand slang; hate dirty laughs; don't want to hear a new word; get annoyed by American accents; wish things weren't so chopped up; want Facts! Facts! Facts! rather than Noises, etc. Let them go somewhere else, and try to make something you actually like the sound of.
3. Honesty upfront
Ideally the opening of a feature should be raising a flag to the listener saying… Yes, its going to be that sort of programme, and yes, if this sounds intriguing, tempting, puzzling, curious, calming, challenging or even mind-bending to you, then you are very likely to keep listening, and we'll try to live up to expectations. If it's getting on your nerves, or sounds irritating, then you've probably left the room already, or flicked to the next podcast, and that's fine with me. If the opening lies about the content… i.e. it begins with a dazzlingly multi-layered three minutes, but then the next 25 minutes are voice, script, voice, script … it will have to be very, very erudite to compensate, to keep me from feeling cheated.
4. The story you keep telling other people - keep it in
Sometimes you come across a great story when you are doing an interview, and its not strictly relevant to the subject. Later you cut it out, obviously, because it doesn't fit with your vague plan, but you keep telling people that story - you know, the one about the time he wrestled the crocodile. In fact it's the only story you keep telling your friends, yet by now it is not even in the programme. Tell me, why not? If it's the best story then it must be important somehow to represent the experience you had, and the person you met. Put it back in - somehow! (See point 1 above)
5. Don't cut out good jokes
The world is frequently pants, and it is amazing we're not all crawling around on our hands and knees weeping at times, so if there is a good joke in there DON'T CUT IT OUT! Even the cheesy ones if they are well framed - and even if there is a slightly more meaningful phrase of the same length that you could keep in. People open up when they laugh and connect more with the speakers, I reckon.
6. Less Is More
This is the rule I have utterly failed to learn over the years but if I keep reminding myself I might remember and act on it one day. I usually like or even love so much of the material - the stories, the people, the possibilities, that weird beeping bird in the background…. that if there was an option to run the whole programme a bit faster and get more in (OK I did it once..) I would do it every time. You think everything is fantastic, or necessary, and there is nothing else that can be cut - but listen back in three months time and you'll find whole acres of dry stuff that could have gone. Cut it out now. Be kind to the listener. You can get help by listening with someone else there (agony! but revelatory as everything comes into sharp focus), or my favourite, sit down at the end of the day with a huge glass of wine and some cheese, and play the nearly finished version to yourself from across the room, as if you were a real listener, hearing it for the first time… and wait till something clangs wrong.
7. If you get stuck go for a walk
8. The story is usually behind the story
Unless you are making TV or news, chances are that when you go and ask someone a lot of questions you discover the real story behind the story - trying to convince the commissioning editor to accept this as the real story, not the one you were commissioned to make, is the tricky bit.
Please supply a visual representation of your life in audio
This is my big brother, having a go twiddling the knobs. I’ve still got that radio, and about twenty more, and I love how they glow (like my brother's hand-tinted legs) and how warm their sound is.
What's your (current) favourite piece of audio by someone else?
Restorative Justice - Russell Finch's programme blew my mind with its powerful story. Caught me on a day when I could lose myself in the programme, (which was devastating), and then when a friend came round half an hour later, I tried to tell her about it and just burst out sobbing at the thought of it. Could never listen again though.
Don't Hang Up - so good I heard it twice, straightaway. It was Mark Burman and Alan Dein's high point in the series - the one with the Margate hard-girl, the trans Maori, and the policeman in the Everglades. I heard it in the middle of the night when I was awake with jet lag, and then thought that maybe I'd dreamt it, it was so riveting, and so I listened again straight away.