Dispatches is a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Radio News weekly show of documentaries, essays, interviews and reports from around the world. Most are by traveling freelancers. Many are from CBC reporters on the trail of breaking news for our newscasts. So we’re mostly at the mercy of where other people choose to be and for how long.
After 10 seasons, we’re getting more pitches than we have time or money for, so we wanted to formalize some of the standards we use to decide what to do and how to do it. We also wanted to share with our contributors some of the thoughts about craft we’ve had over the years.
We wanted a document that aimed for high standards, yet offered help for people risking their lives in places they’re just learning to spell the names of — to grind out $100-a-minute pieces for overworked editors with short deadlines and dwindling budgets.
We’ve included some pieces to listen to at the end of this post. They don’t correspond one-to-one with the points we make, and they aren’t all spectacular. But they’re the kind of stories most professionals are capable of doing, and they serve as good examples of how to get more out of a piece by using a few simple strategies.
What is a dispatch?
A dispatch is a report from a specific place — by a narrator telling us things only someone who is there could tell.
Good dispatches include vivid images, tension, change, conflict, contradiction, or irony. Humor is always welcome. A surprise isn’t bad. The most memorable dispatches contain a strong “Who knew?” factor. The best ones shine a light into the lives of people.
A radio dispatch gets its veracity from the authentic sound of the reporter being in the scene — even interacting with others in the scene. That means, in a dispatch the sound doesn’t stop. We don’t broadcast “script & clip” items (where the reporter reads a script in a studio and plays clips).
Except for host interviews and on-scene conversations, our contributors talk directly to the audience. We don’t use generic sound effects or music beds under the clips (unless the music is from a scene, or part of the story). And we don’t put reporters or characters into scenes they really aren’t in.
Be crafty and creative
We’re telling people about the state of the world by taking them to the rarest of places, inside a stranger’s life. How can you do that?
Flesh out your characters. Ask subjects about the things that define them. Hopes. Fears. Food. Heroes. Music. Weapons. Family. Childhood.
That’s how you find out that your Congolese driver hasn’t had three meals a day in 30 years. And the 11-year-old guerilla doesn’t like the AK because it pulls high and to the right. These things might work into a clip. More often they work into your narrative, alongside the other things we like. For example, physical descriptions: hands, faces, gestures, habits, tics.
Sticking with stuff you actually see shouldn’t be restrictive. If the subject is audibly spitting tobacco juice during the interview, don’t stop him. If a subject tells you how best to anesthetize a pygmy elephant, it’s probably worth a mention. For God’s sake, tell us something we don’t know.
Your presence is organic to the piece. Insert yourself in it. Leave some questions in your clips, so we hear you learning and thinking out loud. Leave in the ragged, unplanned moments that add to the intimacy.
If the nervous woman in a Sarajevo church suddenly tells you to shut up because a stranger has walked in, then she grabs your mic and causes some nasty hand noise — it’s a telling moment.
Structure is your friend
We use elements of good narrative to pull these pieces together, starting from the simple fact that a story has a beginning, a middle and an end.
The beginning tells us what’s at stake in the story and gives us reasons to care about what happens. It introduces characters and sets up a conflict or a challenge. It might be the start of a journey, the middle of a standoff or the result of a troubled history. But, as a beginning, it engages us, makes us want to know what comes next, and how it got that way. It also lets us know what kind of a piece we’re in for, and sets a mood.
The middle is about people working through this situation. In a good story, this leads to moments of suspense — turning points, at which the story could go one of two (or more) ways. Those turning points, as short story masters have learned, are the opportunity for digression — back stories, facts, history. There’s usually a dramatic “what it’s all about” scene in this middle part.
The end does double duty. It’s the conclusion of the story and the last thing you leave the listener thinking about. Conventional news reports just trail off or embrace some rhetorical form of “Time will tell…” closing. We want to boost the effectiveness of Dispatches endings. Don’t be surprised if we ask you what the closing scene is before asking for the opener.
Your dispatch might not be a full-blown narrative piece. It might be a simple report of an event, or a profile of a person, or a complex account of a developing situation. To succeed, though, it most likely will employ some of the things that make good narrative journalism work — things that you can easily incorporate into your story.
Here are some sample clips (some may take a minute to load):
Be in the scene — Connie Buys A Burka (Oct 15, 2003). For Connie Watson, things were pretty cool in Kabul in October 2003; but she learned if you’re going to Kandahar , you best pack a burka. So she went shopping. It’s good example of being with people doing what they do for a living — even though most of it was scripted and voiced later.
Let people tell the story — Mender of Lost Hearts (Part One — January 2009). Samite Mulondo is a Ugandan refugee and now a professional musician based in Ithaca, New York. He worked with former child soldiers in a recording project in Congo. We let him tell his own story — and the stories of these kids, in two parts.
Use personal experience — Anthony Eats Penis (April 4, 2006). Anthony Germain stretched his assignment as CBC’s correspondent in Shanghai to sample some of the organs on the menu. It might have shades of cultural snobbishness, but it’s good storytelling, which reveals a lot about himself.
Narrate your story — Jody’s War. In early 2007 Dispatches host Rick MacInnes-Rae interviewed a Canadian Afghanistan amputee in a Toronto hospital. Jody told his own story. Rick broke it up using the simple technique that comes straight from the narrative journalism bible: Stop the story (in this case a simple monologue) at key points of suspense to digress into scripted background. Then continue.
Part 2 of this series ran December 2, 2009.
Alan Guettel has been senior producer of CBC Radio News’s Dispatches since 2001. He compiled this guide for contributors with the assistance of Dispatches host Rick MacInnes-Rae and producers Steve McNally and Donna Cressman.