Things I've Learned:
Steven Rajam

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 documentary features and music producer with the network radio team at BBC Wales in Cardiff. I spend about half my time making factual and arts programmes and the other half producing classical music and concerts. I’m probably best known for a feature with the comedian, poet and actor Tim Key called Tim Key and Gogol’s Overcoat, which plays with form and narrative and hopefully delivers something profound in a surprising and faintly silly way. That’s the kind of radio I really love.

But who are you, really?​

Dad. Part-Sri Lankan. Part-French. Embarrassingly English. Naturalised Welsh. Music spod. Quitegoodcookhonest. Predictable craft beer drinker. Wanderlustig. Ex-Southampton. Terms and Conditions Apply.

What are your top tips for making audio pieces?

1. Care as little as possible about your story. Ok, maybe not "as little as possible". But try not to get too close. Every producer has a dream personal project - the idea they've always wanted to make a feature about, the subject, or hero, or inspiration that they've always loved. And you know what? They're horrible to make, because you can't bear to let anything go, and you lose the correct wood/trees ratio. To wit: for years I've been faintly obsessed by the composer Sibelius, who spent the last quarter-century of his life trying to write a symphony that he completed then probably burned. I've made three (three!) completely different programmes that touch on that story. And they've all been BOBBINS.


2. That pause isn’t long enough. That loud thing isn’t loud enough. That quiet thing isn’t quiet enough. The silly thing isn't silly enough. Be BOLD. When you're cutting your material down, there's a terrible and natural urge to plane off all the knobbly bits. But no-one ever said of a feature: "ooh, all those edits were lovely and smooth: and I felt entirely unthreatened throughout". If you're going to go down (you won't go down), go down in glorious flames (really, you won't go down).


3. Serious things can be told in non-serious ways and be even better. Expertise and authority can be the enemy of creative imagination. In a recent doc I made, the presenter was getting a bit po-faced, so in the edit I messed around with his link so it sounded like he was sploshing around in the bath as he delivered it. Did it work? Well: it was memorable. Which is half the battle.


4. What we're doing is ultimately quite pointless. Revel in it. Bergen, 2013, about 4am and I was with a gaggle of radio types sipping whisky in the bedroom of a Producer We All Looked Up To. The discussion turned to why-we-do-all-of-this-oh-it's-for-art-and-the-people's-sake-isn't-it. We were all very important, we decided. But look: we're not social workers or doctors or politicians or even proper journalists (well, I'm not: I wouldn't know where to start). But that's OK. There's something wonderful about having a living that just shunts the world a teeny-tiny nudge.


5. Work with someone who complements you. (Compliments you is also nice). One of my colleagues has a background in magazine shows and is one of the most brilliant sub-editors I have ever met: he can listen to something once, something you've been agonising and salami-slicing and weeping over, and bish-bash-bosh slash it to time in the blink of an eye without losing its impact or meaning. I'm rubbish at that. Conversely, he has a weird blind spot for programme elements that are charming or sweet or just randomly and tangentially pleasurable. Usually when he's written "I don't get it - what's the point of this?" I know it's GOT to stay in.


6. You can never have enough headphone minijack adaptors. Seriously dude, not having one will RUIN your day.


7. Ideally music should have MEANING, not just affect. I'm a music Nazi, and I hate using music that doesn't have some kind of a relationship with the text or content - music that (if you like) is there simply to underscore or lightly emote. Music gives you this incredibly powerful, yet almost subconscious extra-textual plane to play with meaning - to complement and pull against your narrative. 

8. Your instinct is good and you should follow it. Even if it isn’t good, following it and getting it wrong sometimes, even lots of the time, IS A GOOD THING and don’t anyone tell you otherwise. Secret: everyone’s done that – yes, even THEM – and the old fail-better is the sure path to becoming a wiser and more brilliant creator.


9. Psst: there really aren’t any hard and fast rules or truths to all this. So whilst there’s wisdom in these hills (web pages), don’t go reading some learned old sage (radio producer) like me (hi) giving it all “don’t use music with lyrics” or “always think in scenes” or “never close-mic a whippet” or whatever and think it’s advice to be followed slavishly, ‘cos it ain’t.


Viz: still one of my favourite features is the second one I ever made, when I basically didn’t have a clue and was just kind of making it up as I went along. I know lots of producers who have similar stories: the features we made before we’d gone all mouldy with unspoken rules. By all means interrogate your decisions and listen to others. But follow your gut.


10. Thinking in tens is arbitrary. (But arbitrary decisions can be GOLD).

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

I’m thrilled and genuinely touched by how many people still enjoy Tim Key and Gogol’s Overcoat. BUT my honest-to-god favourite – and the one I’m most proud of – is its spiritual successor, Tim Key Delves Into Daniil Kharms…And That’s All.


(I’m not just being a tedious contrarian, honest) 


Back story: back in 2013 Tim and I made “…Gogol’s Overcoat” – a kind of surreal, melty dessert of a documentary in which his exploration of a Russian short story turned into something rather strange, funny and (I think) a bit lovely. But following it was HARD. We didn’t want to just rehash the same tricks with a different subject (distracted unreliable narrator; surreal and tangential flights of fancy; startling fourth-wall breaks): I really wanted the form and narrative arc of our new programme to mirror its subject in a way that was specifically true to Kharms.


A crucial difference between Kharms and Gogol – on the surface laugh-out-loud funny Russian absurdist short story writers – is that there’s a brutal, hollow, nastiness to the former. Kharms’ world is nihilistic, pointless and violent as well as being extremely funny. And without letting the cat out of the bag, his funny stories accompanied a horrible life and death. So whilst Gogol I hope left people feeling like they’d enjoyed a lovely, wonky filigree pleasure, I wanted the audience to Kharms to be drawn into an ostensibly ha-ha experience but then slowly and gradually be left feeling slightly uncomfortable and prosaic and unsure of themselves and a bit dirty at the end. (I personally was going through a pretty crappy time in my own life at the time, which aided this process toastily). Tim and I pulled a few odd narrative tricks too which were tightrope-walks in terms of getting away with them but which I think ultimately really work. See what you think. I’m super proud of it and think it’s better than Gogol. And I don’t care if you don’t agree with me :-)


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

The dance scene in A Dancer Dies Twice by Ellie McDowall is simply jaw-droppingly bravura audio. Aside from the fact that every single artefact in that mix has been so beautifully, carefully and arrestingly placed – spectacular, highwire ART that conceals itself in the art of its subject – it’s the way the sequence as a whole pulses and flexes, ebbs and flows so organically. Audio that uses fragments of speech and actuality to complement or heighten the experience of a musical scena is really REALLY hard. I have a bit of a low tolerance for pieces that do this sort of thing because – and this is just me and my sad cold dead heart – I can’t help the feeling that they become a bit four-square and predictable, even a bit twee, very quickly.


But Ellie’s set-piece just blows me away: it never palls or feels like it’s fallen into too obvious a rhythm or unfolding. It is – in itself – fabulous music.


I’m also very VERY taken with Dylan Gauche’s Signature Research currently: a brilliant, disturbing, hallucinogenic fever dream of a narrative in which those uninterrogated, safe production choices I mentioned before (balance and mix your audio all nicey nicey; beware of distortion; make sure you can hear speech; fade things elegantly ) are thrown brilliantly out of the window.


I often think radio features aren’t visceral enough: they’re not ugly enough, they don’t punch you in the stomach, make you feel nauseous: fuck you up. And yet our medium has got such potential for that.


Dylan’s piece is a jaw-droppingly original debut: full of brave, clever, iconoclastic yet perfect production choices, and just OWNING its own horrific, scuzzy, gut-wrenching unpleasantness. I can’t wait to hear what he does next.

Please supply a visual representation of your life in audio

This is me recording a horse being milked on the Mongolian steppe recently. For all its manifold, tedious, gripes sometimes, this is an amazing profession to work in.

Who are your influences (in any medium)?

In radio: Alan Hall. His feature Knoxville: Summer of 1995 is, I think, the Citizen Kane of radio features: utterly spellbinding, moving and profound in a way that still knocks me for six every time I hear it. And unlike Orson Welles, Alan’s work is still as brilliant, challenging and arresting two decades after his first big success (check out The Voices Of Robert Wyatt, for example). Plus, unlike Orson he hasn’t done any toe-curling adverts for whisky. As far as I know.

In wider culture: I’m borderline-obsessed with a BBC TV documentary from 1992 called Masters Of The Canvas about (“about”) the artist Peter Blake attempting to paint a portrait of the enigmatic (“enigmatic”) professional wrestler Kendo Nagasaki (“Kendo Nagasaki”). But it’s not really about that: it’s about reality and image, documentary and fiction, our suspension of disbelief…oh just watch it, eh? You won’t regret it for one second.


I have a thing for artists that make a beautiful and satisfying thing then can’t help but immediately bash it up and stick the rubble back together to make something MORE interesting. The composer Carl Nielsen, the band Dirty Projectors and the comedian Stewart Lee all do this and I like them lots.


If I talk about football in the context of cultural influence, it’s a bit of a yawn, isn’t it? As in – the trope of middle-class creative types waxing high-falutingly and tediously about the aesthetics of a false-nine system is all really BORING. But look: the young Welsh comedian and writer Elis James talks vividly about football as being effectively group improvisation: a unique, populist piece of art in a constant and fascinating state of evolution. I rather like that.