We can chart a rich history of the development of documentary in purely audio form within radio broadcasting, acknowledging that this evolution runs parallel to that of film (and later television).
In 1930, the documentary film had become an acknowledged category. Radio documentary was largely still in its infancy, however. The most notable of the pioneering experiments in ‘actuality’ and new ‘feature’ broadcasting came from the fledgling BBC and its Radio Research Unit. It was here that the earliest ‘feature’ documentary and reportage forms in radio were trialled, although in Berlin radio we find the first expressive usage of recorded actuality edited together to create a ‘hear picture’ (Weekend, 1931).
In Australia, very little programming could be regarded as documentary in form in this sense until at least the end of World War II, although we find the beginnings of documentary expression in radio emerging in some early special ‘features’, or radio dramas based on real events and ‘actualities’, and in ‘radio pictures’, ‘reports’ and ‘panoramas’ made possible with the introduction, in 1938, of the first mobile recording studios and vans.
Early Australian radio documentary can be traced to various ‘descriptive broadcasts’ made by the ABC and commercial radio stations, and in dramatised ‘feature’ programs that continued to evolve throughout the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.
The term ‘features’ was adopted in Australian radio to refer to documentaries. At the ABC, features and documentary productions were heavily influenced before 1970 by BBC models and approaches. In 1948, senior BBC features producer D.G. Bridson visited Australia, assisting and advising in the establishment of the ABC’s first Features Department. In Australia, he made several dramatic documentaries, working with actor Peter Finch and composer John Antill.
Commercial stations and production houses also produced features before the war: examples of US-influenced documentary series included The March of Time and Here are the Facts. During the war, the role of talks and features became more important: many of the earliest examples served to boost morale and were mildly propagandistic. Other forms of feature emerged in protean forms: they offered the first ‘radio movies’ to be composed of large ‘scenes’ of recorded actuality. In early 1941, Lawrence H. Cecil, a distinguished radio drama producer, and the pioneering war correspondent Chester Wilmot were present when the Australians attacked Bardia. They recorded the battle for the ABC’s ‘Field Broadcasting Unit’, possibly a world first.
In the immediate post-war period, war correspondent Frank Legg, assisted by James J. Donnelly, and Bill MacFarlane of the ABC Mobile Unit delivered a notable series, Theirs Be The Glory (December 1945), obtaining first-hand witness of battles in the New Guinea campaign. From the inauguration of the ABC’s Feature Department, increasing numbers of feature programs were made over the next decade, written by an expanding group of talented authors nurtured by the ABC, including Ruth Park, D’Arcy Niland, Dymphna Cusack, Diana and Mungo MacCallum, Charmian Clift, George Johnston, Ralph Petersen and Colin Free. In one year (1948-49), the number of hours devoted to features made by the ABC increased tenfold.
Colin Simpson was one of the voices heard in a new series, Australian Walkabout, which commenced in 1947. It was notable for its early usage of wire recorders capturing selections of actuality. Simpson recorded these expressly ‘authoritative’ documentaries all over Australia before he left the ABC. In Arnhem Land and the Tiwi Islands, Aboriginal rituals and songs never before heard on Australian radio were captured, along with Australian birdlife. Ivan Smith’s ‘documentary’ voice and music composition Death of a Wombat won the ABC its first Prix Italia (1959).
The ABC was not unique in producing documentaries in the ‘golden age’ of radio. In Sydney in 1946, Tom Jacobs joined 2SM as its first news editor, but experimented with sound pictures about Alcoholics Anonymous, life in prison, an emergency ward operation and life inside a mental institution. In 1949, he travelled to 28 countries over six months, recording features, and interviews with George Bernard Shaw, Eleanor Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, Pandit Nehru and General Franco.
The real opportunity for documentary on radio came with the invention of high-quality manipulable tape and the portable tape recorder. But by this time, television was stealing audiences from radio. John Thompson was recognised in the 1950s and 1960s for editing together hundreds of hours of taped interviews into detailed audio portraits of mostly literary figures and politicians for the ABC. These montages continue to speak vividly and intimately to us in the present.
While the 1970s saw huge leaps forward in the documentary form, aligned with new recording developments and a zeitgeist change that saw broadcasters intent on breaking free of the studio and the more literary ‘written features’, only the public broadcasters continued to nurture the craft of documentaries and features into the 1980s and beyond. The growth of news and tape had opened the way for a few commercial stations to experiment with current affairs documentaries in the 1970s (such as Steve Liebmann at 2SM and the Walkley Award-winning Stephen Sailah at 2WS), but this was short lived.
A ‘new wave’, echoing developments in cinema-verité techniques and styles, finally allowed radio documentarians to become more like the auteurs of documentary film. The first feature-length radio documentaries to showcase ‘wild sound’ were made in Australia in the 1970s and into the 1980s. Influenced by developments in Europe, they discovered that sound could now speak for itself. The artifice of this new art form lay in making ‘real’ events into crafted, intelligible works of art.
Key figures in this period included a number of ABC producers. Former ABC AM presenter Robert Peach’s The World of JK (the first Australian radio documentary to be broadcast in stereo, recreating the world of an 11-year-old Deaf boy) won the 1974 Prix Italia. Andrew McLennan introduced stereo features to ABC Classic FM. Tim (with the historian Hank Nelson) and Ros Bowden created a new Social History Unit at the ABC, almost single-handedly pioneering the oral history format for large documentary series. Richard Connolly modelled the 1970s Sunday Night Radio Two program on a French experimental radio show. Kaye Mortley’s deeply considered and beautifully rendered documentary ‘reality-fictions’ have made her one of the leading practitioners in Europe today, earning her numerous awards. Jane Ulman, working with Philip Ulman and Russell Stapleton, has produced a huge body of outstanding documentaries and dramas. Tony Barrell was a highly skilled communicator of ideas, making features of all kinds. All have a popular although never patronising approach. Barrell famously railed against what he called ‘hospital radio’ and ‘featureless radio’. His Tokyo’s Burning won a Prix Italia (Radio Documentary) for the ABC in 1995.
Today, the only substantial centre for supported documentary radio production is the ABC, although the reach of these documentaries is being expanded through an international revitalisation of the field, enabled by internet distribution. Key programs where radio documentaries can be experienced, and accessed as podcasts on the ABC, include ABC Radio National’s 360documentaries; Hindsight; Encounter; Background Briefing; Sound. Music. Word; Radio Eye; Street Stories; Long Story Short; and The Listening Room. From 2014, Radio National’s Creative Audio Unit offers Soundproof and Radiotonic.
Many current or retired ABC producer-authors, such as Sherre DeLys, Natalie Kestecher, Sharon Davis, Eurydice Aroney, Michelle Rayner, Bill Bunbury, Jane Connors, Tony MacGregor, Virginia Madsen, Andrew McLennan, Robyn Ravlich, Roz Cheney, Nick Franklin, Lyn Gallacher and Cathy Peters, have played either leadership roles or produced critically acclaimed or influential exemplars of the genre. Independent producers (and some internationals like Jean-Claude Kuner and Gregory Whitehead) have always figured in this field, and recent notable independent work has come from Kyla Brettle, Siobhán McHugh, Martin Thomas, Tom Morton, John Rose, Hamish Sewell and Alana Valentine.
Community radio has always made radio documentaries, but generally the high points of the art form have not been reached consistently on any one program, although good documentary craft has been in evidence across the sector since the 1980s. The program All the Best on Sydney’s FBi offers many innovative and creative examples of reality-based audio storytelling. Like most of these programs in Australia, the work is now open to a new accessibility because of podcasting, and on-demand streaming.
A second new wave or renaissance has been in evidence since the 2000s around the world because of the expanded digital environment for radio and high-content programs through streaming and download, although those who allocate the funding may still not yet appreciate the ‘long tail’ rewards of this genre, or the potential future value of the ‘documentary imagination’ as derived from a rich sound culture developed over 80 years within Australian radio.
REFs: T. Barrell, ‘Torque Radio: The Radio Feature’, in S. Ahern (ed.), Making Radio (2011); V. Madsen, ‘A Call to Listen: The “New” Documentary in Radio-Encountering “Wild Sound” and the Film Sonore’, Historical Jnl of Film, Radio and Television, 30(3) (2010) and ‘Written in Air: Experiments in Radio’, in G. Priest (ed.), Experimental Music (2009).