SDX 2002 Awards Gallery
Strong stories need passion
By Dave Isay
A documentary is a great way to tell a story. Its perfect for intimate, personal stories; for stories that take listeners into dark corners; for melancholy stories; for stories of the heart. All you need is a tape recorder, a microphone and a willingness to listen carefully and youve got all the tools you need to make magic.
A couple of documentary rules of thumb:
Only do stories you care about.
Creating and airing a single piece that really means something to you is more important than creating a hundred that dont.
Always tell the truth in the stories and to your subjects.
Never take shortcuts.
Infuse every documentary you make with passion, spirit and heart.
OK, its not very glamorous. Its an idiosyncratic medium practiced by a largely idiosyncratic bunch.
The pay? Its about as hard to make a living producing radio documentaries as it is writing poetry.
Its obsessive work cutting down tens (or hundreds) of hours of tape into a precious few minutes. (Ive heard it compared to carving a statue in a walnut).
You have to be a little crazy to be in the business. But in my book, there is nothing NOTHING that compares.
I once read a quote that said something like: Its in the human voice far more than in pictures or writing that the dead continue to live. Its true, and its just one of the profound parts of working in the medium. You can do a story for the cost of a few tapes thats heard by 9 million listeners in one shot. If its done right like the stories honored in this issue you can even make a real difference in peoples lives.
Its a privilege and a pleasure to be creating documentaries. If you havent been bitten by the bug yet, Id suggest you just sit down and listen to or watch a few of the winning entries that follow. I promise you wont regret it.
Dave Isay is a radio producer, MacArthur Fellow and winner of several SDX Awards for radio documentary work.
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Richard Paul, Soundprint, "We Were on Duty"
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We Were On Duty, a first-person oral history of the Sept. 11 attack on the Pentagon, explores untold stories of survival, recovery and hope of some of the most severely injured victims of the tragedy.
Rather than rehashing previously told stories for the first anniversary of the attacks, the documentary broke new ground and gave voice to some untold stories.
Providing a forum for victims and their spouses, DC-based radio producer Richard Paul uses multiple interviews to paint a factual and nuanced picture of the physical and psychological toll one year later.
The hour-long piece used minimal narration to focus on the voices of the survivors. It documents their harrowing escape, excruciating burn treatments and the anguish the misfortune has unleashed on their families.
Listening, I gasped, I cried, and I laughed. I understood the event, and the human costs of the event, in a more profound way than I had before, said a judge.
Paul notes that the enormity of the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center, in many respects, dwarfed news coverage of the terrorist attack on the Pentagon. Yet the Pentagon attack took 184 lives six more than the 1995 bombing of Okalahoma City federal building, which dominated national news for months.
The idea to chronicle the experience of the Pentagon survivors came to Paul when he reviewed the rundown of proposed stories for a project, The Public Radio Collaboration: Understanding America After 9/11.
Paul noticed nothing was planned to commemorate or describe the experience of the 184 people who died at the Pentagon or the hundreds more who crawled through smoke and over burning wreckage to safety on Sept. 11, said Moira Rankin, executive director of Soundprint Media Center, the organization that distributed Pauls work.
When Paul asked the organizers of the Public Radio Collaboration if they wanted a program on the Pentagon attack, they gave him the green light and agreed to distribute it to public radio stations. The documentary aired on 127 public radio stations.
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When three filmmakers began documenting the rite of passage for a rookie New York City firefighter in the spring of 2001, they had no idea they would end up on the frontlines of a new chapter in history. What started out as a relatively routine project suddenly turned horrifying on the morning of Sept. 11.
As the events of the tragedy unfolded, the filmmakers followed firefighters into the World Trade Centers Tower One just minutes after the attack. Their proximity to the towers underscores the uncertainty they faced. The entire world knew more than we did, said Jules Naudet, who was shooting inside Tower One.
The documentary captured the only known image of the first plane hitting the building, and the only known videotaped record of the last moments inside the Center. Broadcast on the eve of the attacks six-month anniversary, the documentary gave about 39 million viewers some of the most up-close and personal access to the rescue effort to date.
They ended up inside hell with the men of Engine 7 Ladder 1, bearing witness to history and to extraordinary courage in the face of terror. ... The faces in the film of New Yorks top firefighters in the lobby of the World Trade Centers Tower 1 told a story America had read about but had not yet seen; one of disbelief, controlled panic and remarkable courage, said a statement from the CBS News program 48 HOURS.
The story [the documentary] told has become an historical record that enabled a country to fully understand the courage of New York firemen with the heartbreaking knowledge that many of the firefighters whose faces are recorded would never leave the building alive.
The final product was gleaned from 180 hours of raw video footage of the plane crashes and the aftermath. A small team of producers and editors with CBS News helped shape the footage, adding fresh images and interviews. The production team from 48 HOURS started working with the filmmakers in December 2001 and wrapped up production three months later.
Initially reluctant to release much of the footage, the filmmakers thought it might be too painful for public consumption. Eventually they came to think it was more important for people to see firsthand the bravery of the firemen who reported to duty that morning in the lobby of the World Trade Center, said the CBS statement.
The result generated a carefully edited account of their efforts that remained tactful without losing its power. Prior to airing, every firefighter whose face was seen in the documentary was identified and the families of those who died were contacted.
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Hagit Limor, Michael Benedic, Bob Morford, Phyllis Parker, WCPO-TV, Cincinnati
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In Cincinnati, most citizens didnt understand why it was so difficult to get in to see a doctor. Or why the wait was so long in an emergency room. Or why it was so hard for them to find quality health care.
An investigative team at WCPO-TV decided to research flaws in the citys health care system. But when they started digging, they found a lot more than they expected. A secret report had been commissioned years earlier by corporate giants known as Cincinnatis Big Four Procter & Gamble, General Electric, Kroger and Cincinnati Bell. The report was commissioned to find ways for these companies to reduce their medical insurance costs; it resulted in deals being made with insurance agencies that were desperate to keep the tens of thousands of customers that came from these companies.
To keep their own costs down, the insurers reduced the amount they were willing to pay physicians. The best doctors soon left the city, finding they could make significantly more money by moving just hours away. Hospitals and emergency rooms shut their doors or implemented cost-cutting measures because of the change in policy, and physician groups found that they could no longer recruit talented doctors to Cincinnati.
After a two-year investigation, WCPO first aired the results in 2001 in a series of nightly news broadcasts. In 2002, they updated the story and retold it in a longer format a 60-minute documentary. This was a new format for those who worked on it, but reporter and producer Hagit Limor said it was a rewarding experience.
The most difficult part lay in crafting and writing a documentary in a setting not used to this format, Limor said. Everyone needs an editor and managing producer. Here we were creating something new on our own.
The results of the documentary were immediate. Nearly 2,000 local doctors signed on to two class-action lawsuits against local insurance companies. An investigation was launched by a new subcommittee in the Ohio legislature. And in November, local companies and health care providers began an independent study to confirm the reports and decide what action to take.
The station received hundreds of faxes, calls and letter about the documentary. Due to public demand, they rebroadcast the piece in full. The local PBS station later aired it a third time.
I believe we opened the eyes of the community to the reasons behind a problem that had been evolving for a decade, said Limor. Until this investigation, the individual hospital closings, practices shutting and long waits in emergency rooms and doctors waiting rooms seemed to be individual events. In fact they were linked. We connected the dots.