Things I've Learned:
An occasional series of hard-won-wisdoms from the mischief-making, pixie-dust-sprinkling, original-thinking auteurs of the audio world
What are your top tips for making audio pieces?
1. Make it more than fit for purpose but know that radio isn’t really art: there comes a time (a delivery deadline or, in my case, a transmission tomorrow) by which the work has to be done. John Cage and Beethoven were sound artists – the rest of us working with voices are more or less journalists. This applies to drama producers as much as news reporters. The truth for now is our common ambition. All work made like this, all radio I’d say, will therefore be a compromise and it should always disappoint you, its maker. Everything to be made is perfect until you start working on it; thereafter it’s a series of compromises leading to a broadcastable failure. That’s fine because the next day you’ve probably got to start the next thing – your next perfect thing that will become your next failure.
2. Only work on subjects or with material you love. Anything else is prurience or sensationalism or a pornographic tabloid mind that has moved in on your soul. Better still, work only with people you love or can imagine loving. Know that you want to do the best for these people and their subjects. Leave exposure and revelations for the bloodsuckers of the newsroom. My first job was to find the daily victim for You and Yours. I still feel I should have been sent to prison for doing this.
3. Feel bad when you cut at things that should run longer. Wear at least metaphorical scarves of tape around your neck, as I did for real once, inches of voices that you cannot bring yourself to throw away. Throw them away but hate yourself for it. Know the material is always bigger than you are. You are a stenographer, a taker-down of the real, a reporter. You are not the story.
4. Never allow yourself into your own programmes. I have a couple of times and still feel sick about it. Avoid all broadcasting of your struggle, the we’re-going-in-pursuit-of-this-story, the we’re-in-pursuit-of-this-story, the we-went-in-pursuit-of-this-story. If you have to tell us what you’re doing every five minutes the story has died already. Pick another story.
5. Love music and listen to it widely. Never be literal with it, rarely be timely. Resist fashions for underscoring simple narration with meaningful music. Write better links and the need for music falls away. Don't be gratuitous. Avoid pop music.
6. Always write exceptionally well. Want to be a writer and try to become one by doing radio. The best radio is always spoken writing. It doesn’t need to have been written down before but it should sound as if it could be.
7. Record outdoors where possible; learn to love passing traffic and gusting wind. We all live our lives to this sonic substrate and we should try to make our radio sound like life too.
8. Even if you've only recorded one interview, you'll recognise the feeling that the most interesting stuff is said before you switch on and after you switch off. Know that you'll never conquer this feeling, but do your best to start recording ten minutes before you actually do and to stop ten minutes after you switch off.
What's your (current) favourite piece of audio by someone else?
I like the shipping forecast and the detailed weather reports best of all. Poems to sleep with.
Please supply a biography
Tim Dee has been a staff producer for BBC Radio for about 28 years. His first job was as a producer on Kaleidoscope, the daily arts magazine that evolved later into Front Row. His first feature was about the nightingale as a natural artist. He worked on arts programmes on Radio 4 and 3 and 5 for ten years. He was the first producer of Night Waves on Radio 3 and produced several evenings and weekends for the network including on China, the Baltic States, in Prague, on the Russian Revolution live from the Hermitage, on the English Civil War, on the culture of animals, on midsummer and on the sea. His most recent large-scale event for Radio 3 was Ways of Listening, an evening remembering John Berger.
He moved to Bristol twenty years ago and began working on poetry programmes and radio dramas as well as assorted arts and history features. More recently he has started making some natural history features. He produces the poetry programme The Echo Chamber on Radio 4. He was part of the team that produced six and a half hours of Dawn Chorus sounds for Radio 4 live from a Somerset reed-bed in May 2017. He was a Senior Producer, then a Chief Producer. The BBC took those titles from him. He was once an Editor but he didn't much care for that and elected to return to programme making. He remains a producer. He’s never won any prizes.
He is also a writer. A lifelong love of birds led to a memoir called The Running Sky and that was followed by a book, about grass and versions of pastoral, called Four Fields. With Simon Armitage he edited an anthology, The Poetry of Birds. He is at work on a book about men watching gulls on rubbish dumps and another about the spring. He’s also editing a new anthology of place writing. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
Please supply a visual representation of your life in audio
A view of my flat and writing and whatever else there is. Soundcards in the foreground, a raven’s feather from arctic Norway, books, notebooks, cables.
Who are your influences (in any medium)?
David Perry, the first producer whose name I consciously listened out for long before I joined the BBC. It came at the end of a Radio 3 documentary feature about Pasolini presented by Paul Bailey. I heard it on a transistor radio in the back yard of a tiny town house in Cambridge. For the first time I thought radio might be a place to go. All the others would be artists: people who made work about the world. D.H.Lawrence, John Berger, Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Long.
What's your favourite of all the things you've made and why?
Perhaps What I Heard About Iraq which I hardly made at all: it is a prose poem written by Eliot Weinberger gathering comments from mostly American government officials about the Gulf Wars; Simon Levy adapted it for the stage in Los Angeles; I recorded a radio take of his stage version and Jon Nicholls back in the UK scored the piece for sound. It ran as a Radio 4 Friday Play. All I did was simply notice the poem and ask its writer about other lives it might have. The simplest of jobs and the strongest piece of my career.