Chris Brookes on life as an independent radio producer

Chris Brookes on life as an independent radio producer

 

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Radio producer Chris Brookes

Chris Brookes’ radio documentaries have been broadcast all over the world. From the U.S. to Europe to Australia, the work of this Newfoundland-based producer has caught the ear of international audiences and won multiple awards.

In September, Brookes gave a presentation at the Canadian Media Guild’s Freelance Survival Seminar in Toronto. He described the ability to sell his work outside of Canada is his “bread and butter” – the only thing that allows him to survive as an independent radio producer. Story Board followed up with him by phone last month to ask a few more questions about how he makes his living and what changes he’d like to see to radio production in Canada.

Independence

Although he’s entirely independent now, Brookes worked as a producer at CBC for several years, usually on 12-month contracts. When he moved back to Newfoundland in 1996, his job as features producer was made redundant and he became a full time independent. Although the stability of a staff job does seem to hold some appeal for Brookes, he says that independence has its advantages.

“Put it this way, I don’t at all regret being completely independent for the past 18 years,” he said via phone from St. John’s.

“If I had been staff, I couldn’t have produced a lot of the things that I have made that I’m quite pleased with and proud of.”

Brookes values the freedom that his independence grants him.

I get to do what I want, by and large. Obviously I have to do what the broadcasters want. But I’m much freer. And I’m lucky enough to be able to deal with several broadcasters that let me do that,” he says.

With his long background in radio production, Brookes has no problem finding outlets for his work. He acknowledges, though, that for radio freelancers just starting out, it’s more difficult.

“I’m lucky in that I have a body of work. And I’m known quite a lot on the international stage in terms of documentary work.”

Networking

Brookes says that much of the success he’s had can be attributed to networking.

“I make a point of, whenever I can, going to radio festivals and conferences, which is where I meet other people like me, and I meet broadcasters. I’ll meet someone from Australian Broadcasting or somewhere and maybe one of my pieces is played in the festival. Or maybe we just get to chatting. Or I give them a CD. And sometimes that results in a re-broadcast. And that’s how I survive.”

Brookes says there are plenty of Canadian stories that are of interest in other parts of the world.

“There are lots of issues that sort of transcend national politics, I think. Environmental issues and things,” he says.

“I haven’t found it’s all that difficult to do stuff internationally, actually. Hook up with other independent producers in other countries. That’s really essential. Because they’re just like us. They’re trying to make a living and they’re often happy to work with somebody from another country.”

He recommends that freelancers with creative audio ideas look into provincial and federal arts travel funds to attend these types of events.

“Very likely there’s some kind of provincial or even federal travel fund that might get you to a festival or radio conference. That’s how I’ve often been able to swing it,” he says.

“Canada Council, I think, in the past they’ve been a bit allergic to anything that was broadcast. They tend to think of sound art or creative audio as something that has to be broadcast through a loudspeaker in an art gallery. And if it’s actually broadcast, they seem to think it must be a newscast or something. So it has been difficult, but I think that’s changing. I think they’re beginning to recognize that there is creative audio out there that is broadcast,” he says.

Brookes suggests that with the end of radio drama and the dramatic reduction in feature documentary production at CBC, perhaps it’s time for the Canada Council to take over support for creative radio.

“In terms of documentary features, I think a creative use of radio is art, so we should be able to qualify for arts grants,” he says. “And I shouldn’t say arts grants, either, we should say arts investment.”

Community

Brookes believes the sonic landscape at CBC would benefit from a stronger independent radio production community in Canada. Although there’s been government support for independent television in Canada since the 1970s, radio hasn’t had the same support.

“They set up Telefilm and stuff like that so that an independent television production community was assisted to get on its feet. But they’ve never done that for radio,” he says.

Other countries, however, have made the effort to support independent radio production.

“I spent last spring in Ireland and they have a thing called The Sound and Vision Fund and it’s just like Telefilm but it applies not just to television but also to radio. So you’ve had the growth of independent production,” he says.

While cutbacks to public broadcasting in Canada have resulted in the dwindling of creative radio programming, other countries have turned to independents to fill programming gaps.

“In Britain when the BBC was cut back in the 90s, the government mandated that they had to take a certain percentage of their programming from independents. So there’s a big independent radio production community in England,” he says.

“Instead of cutting back all of the radio drama in England or much of the radio documentary feature work, for example, there’s still a lot of that being done because it’s being done by independents more cost efficiently than if it had all stayed in-house at BBC,” he says.

“I think that’s what happened in quite a few countries. Because there’s a healthy independent community, the programming can still get on the air in a more cost efficient way. Whereas in Canada, there were cutbacks to CBC and that was it. Everything pretty well stayed in-house and so you don’t have any radio drama anymore. You don’t have many documentary features anymore.”

Sponsorship

Brookes thinks there might be new ways for independent producers to take advantage of the current state of affairs at CBC.

“I hate listening to the commercials on Radio Two, but on the other hand, it seems to me if there were some bright independent producers out there, why couldn’t somebody go out there and find sponsors for a program series and then go to CBC and say ‘this isn’t going to cost you any more than fifty bucks, or whatever it is, because we’ve got [a] sponsor,’” he says.

“It seems to me that that’s actually a window of opportunity that maybe independents should really explore.”

Since the sponsorship barrier has now been broken at CBC, Brookes thinks independents should use this to their advantage.

“It does take, I’m sure, an entrepreneurial spirit, but go to a couple of conferences in the States. The Americans do this and they do some remarkably creative program series.”

Creativity

And although there are many challenges, increased creativity is one of the positive aspects of the contemporary radio scene. The old style of radio production required more planning, says Brookes. The digital era is more conducive to experimentation.

“I wind up just throwing things on the screen and seeing what sounds good. It’s more like composing, I think, than documentary making per se,” he says.

“I think that takes more time, but it’s really lovely when you find something that you never imagined. Suddenly, almost by accident, something starts to work and you hear this sound that you hadn’t imagined. It takes longer, but it explores more interesting possibilities.”

 

Chris Brookes’ most recent project is a location-based documentary called Inside Outside Battery, in which all of the clips and sounds are triggered by GPS. You can hear more of Brookes’ work on his website at batteryradio.com.

 

 

Posted on December 4, 2013 at 9:05 am by editor · · Tagged with: , , , , ,

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