You Don’t Have to be Magic

Here is my secret formula for finding documentary ideas.
Steps 4-9 (which are the most important) should be accomplished in a single day to stop FEAR getting in the way.

1. Don’t panic if you don’t have any.

2. Read new things, watch new things, talk to new people. Continually ask yourself if that was an idea you just walked past. This phase can go on for an extremely long time.

3. If the only reason you are considering a story is because it ‘sounds like the kind of thing you hear on the radio’ – PUT IT DOWN RIGHT AWAY.

4. Be alert to the tiny moment one day when you are waiting for the kettle to boil and you find yourself thinking… hmm… magic carpets (for example) are evocative, resonant and curiously intriguing to my subconscious. What if…

5. Stop doing everything else and spend the next couple of hours investigating your topic. Let your powers of googling be mighty and your choice of search words be varied. If you can’t do some research right away, let your idea mulch in the compost. If it really is YOUR subject it won’t go anywhere and you’ll be able to dig it up at a later date. If it’s not YOUR subject you’ll have forgotten it by tea-time.

6. Use your research time to find a story, argument, angle, or viewpoint on your theme that’s genuinely new. If you can’t find one it doesn’t mean the idea isn’t a goer… but it probably means it’s not a goer now. YOU WILL NEED TO THINK EXTREMELY HARD DURING THIS PROCESS AND ALSO DAY-DREAM A LITTLE.

7. Don’t let all the standard BBC formats and slots etc get in the way. If you worry about them now they’ll fill up your head like expanding foam and you will be unable to leap like a gazelle through your mental forest, delighting with naive abandonment at your own genius.

8. Do a quick search on BBC radio sites to see if anyone has already had your idea and made it. If they have – and they’ve done a bad job of it – CURSE THEM BY SENNHEISER, for nothing is as irritating as someone getting there first and making something lazy and without love.

9. If you still think your idea has potential, write a 200 word pitch. This will clarify your thoughts. Don’t wait till you have the whole thing down pat… that might never happen. Just make it the best you can at the moment. Be disciplined with yourself: can you sum up your story in a couple of short sentences? If you can’t, do some more thinking. Write engagingly and be yourself. Don’t be pretentious (unless you actually are pretentious). Put us inside the story and let us see and hear and feel it going on around us as we read. This is the point to be honest with yourself about whether your idea will fit a given broadcast slot or tempt a particular commissioning editor. If it won’t, don’t squeeze it out of shape till it fits. Maybe it is meant to be something else?

Give yourself a time limit of an hour or maybe two for this process.

10. Send your 200-words to an experienced producer who you trust. Hopefully you know one, but if not, trawl the websites of indie production companies until you find someone who makes the kind of programmes you want to make. This may involve spelunking in the darkest depths of the web because many radio producers are shy light-starved critters, who like to live in caves.

Send them your idea. If you are lucky they will tell you what they really think. They may well be brutal. This is not a bad thing. It will harden you and their tweaks, suggestions or downright rejection will make this idea or perhaps the next one much better. You will be battle hardened and people will look into your eyes and know that you have been into the darkness and come back and lo, a BBC commissioning editor will say… after a lot of research… several pitching rounds… considerable wasted time… and epic heartbreak… OH GO ON THEN, HAVE A COMMISSION.

And then – if you are a true radio producer with Pro Tools in your head, and compassion in your heart, and a great and extraordinary nosiness that makes your nostrils flare when you’re within ten miles of a story – you will spend the rest of your life looking out for those tiny fizzing moments.

Those microseconds when you are busy doing other things – painting your toenails or crossing the street or wondering how many ginger nuts are really too many after all – and you find yourself thinking apropos of nothing… hmm… what if….

You have to be good. You don’t have to be magic.

Cathy FitzGerald, 16.01.13