Cathy FitzGerald: The best radio has a piece of the maker’s soul
Updated: Aug 26
Cathy FitzGerald is one of the most celebrated and respected names in audio - as a writer, producer, and presenter.
Her first radio documentary The Magic Carpet Flight Manual was broadcast on the BBC World Service in 2010, and won the Radio Academy Production Award for Best Newcomer. Since then, she has set up production company White Stiletto, and won a host of prestigious awards on both sides of the Atlantic.
Her programmes are always witty, charming, original and innovative. But don’t take our word for it: there’s a brilliant Cathy FitzGerald primer here.
We were lucky enough to welcome Cathy as a recent guest at one of Bespoken’s Scotland Audio Network monthly Q&A sessions (held since the start of 2020 over Zoom because… well, you know…)
Bespoken run the Scotland Audio Network as a free collaborative space for professional and aspiring producers to meet, share, and get support in navigating the industry.
Cathy’s advice was so great, we thought we’d share some of it:
To find a great story, be curious
Pay attention to the interesting half-line you find hidden in a tiny paragraph on page 16 of a newspaper.
Take that seed of something that makes you curious and ‘twist the lens’, to show it a different way.
When figuring out the format of your show, keep asking yourself “what if I tried this?” Then keep asking “what if?" over and over again until you find something interesting and original.
To tell a great story, cast great contributors
‘Casting’. It’s a bit of a brutal word when you’re talking about real people and their lives, but finding the right contributors to help tell your story is essential.
The best participants are often natural storytellers, not self-conscious, and capable of being spontaneously funny or emotional.
For Cathy’s brilliant How To Dig a Grave, she phoned around several grave-diggers before finding the people she knew would be great for her programme.
Reassure contributors to get the best out of them
When interviewing, be friendly, unrushed, and unintimidating. If an interviewee feels at ease and comfortable in your presence, they are more likely to want to show you their world.
Have a few magic playful questions among a list of more sensible and expected questions to provoke a thoughtful and spontaneous response.
Particularly when interviewing academics, spell out that you are not there to be adversarial, but to get the best out of them and their research. Explain that they don’t have to answer questions that aren’t in their expertise, and that they can bring up topics they want to talk about even if you don’t ask about them.
It doesn’t matter what microphone you use
There are any number of websites and blogs discussing what microphones are best for recording interviews. (We love Colin Gray at thepodcasthost.com).
However, Cathy is clear: what matters is not the quality of your mic, but what – or who – you point it at.
In general, she uses the in-built stereo top-mic on a Zoom H4N for location recordings.
The best radio always has a piece of the maker’s soul
For Cathy, one of the best things about radio production is that budgets and teams are usually small enough for you to feel proper ownership over what you’re creating.
You can be an auteur on an adventure.
Make stuff you care about, and that will shine through to the listener. Cathy’s Life on Lockdown, about living through the pandemic, contained elements of her own experiences; it was raw and honest, which felt wholly appropriate for documenting the pandemic.
The best pitches have a killer core idea
When pitching to a commissioner or production company, you want the person reading your proposal to be stopped in their tracks.
Have an exciting or intriguing core idea, that can be summed up in one or two sentences.
If you’re looking for a production company to take your ideas to, look for people making stuff you like, as they’ll be more likely to be interested in your work.
Build up key relationships over time, and be aware of workflows and deadlines.
Where there are regular commissioning rounds (for example for BBC Radio 4, which has two rounds every year, in the spring and the autumn), pitch to the production company early, so your idea can be shaped and developed.
Have a clear idea of what slot you’re vying for - what time is it on? How long is the slot? Who is the audience?
Have a plan - but be prepared not to stick to it
When recording for a programme, Cathy usually arrives at a location or interview with a ‘shopping list’ of sounds she would like to include.
However, you can – and should – get overtaken by events at a location recording, so you should always leave some time for spontaneous unplanned things.
Pitch up and let the world happen to you. In Yellow Cab Blues, Cathy met, completely by chance, a brand new driver who had lost their taxi. An unplanned search mission ensued.
Have your eyes on a prize
Sometimes it can be hard to motivate yourself to work on passion projects (audio ideas that you want to make but aren’t likely to get paid for).
Cathy’s advice is to look at the criteria for specific awards and prizes – and tailor your editorial to try to win the award. Know the kind of work awarded (and the deadlines for) the prize you aim for. The Hearsay International Festival is an example of a great opportunity.
Huge thanks to Cathy FitzGerald for sharing her time and expertise with the Scotland Audio Network.
You can read Cathy's Transom Manifesto here.
Cathy is also the founder and caretaker of Strange & Charmed, a school for people who tell stories in sound. Audio-makers can get together to talk, share notions, eat cake, climb hills, record dawn choruses and drink whisky - all in the beautiful Chilterns just outside London.
To find out more about Bespoken's Scotland Audio Network, and to take part in future producer Q&As, find us here.