A freelancer’s report from CBC’s The Doc Project

by Willow Yamauchi

Deaf Jam

A screenshot from the ASL version of Willow Yamauchi’s documentary Deaf Jam.

For the last four years, I’ve been a CBC freelancer. Being a self-taught journalist worked up to a point, because storytelling is innate. But there’s more to the work than that. 

I had been pitching and producing for a while, but was mostly limited to short and simple stories.  Long-form docs, with multiple tracks, layers of sound effects, and music, were beyond me. 

I also struggled with voicing. Turns out, I didn’t know how to read a script. Improvising into a mic came out sounding natural enough, but with words in front of my eyes: Robocop.

I needed to up my game.

Last September, the CBC posted a new initiative on Facebook. The Doc Project would support radio development by pairing emerging freelancers with established producers in a mentor/mentee relationship – exactly what I needed.

I had been kicking around an idea about deaf musicians. I’m half deaf myself, or profoundly unilaterally deaf, if you want to get technical. 

Years ago, I was in a band. After a terrible gaffe on stage where I wound up out of sync with the other musicians, I quit, suspecting that my hearing was to blame. 

But I also kept hearing (unilaterally) these stories about deaf musicians. Actual, fully-deaf-not-hard-of-hearing-like-me deaf people, playing music. Professionally.

I decided to pitch a doc about deaf musicians. It was a curious idea with a personal angle, suggesting great opportunities for sound mixing. This pitch just wrote itself, and I could hardly believe it hadn’t been done before. I think I applied for the project by the end of the first day.

When I found out I was selected, I was shocked. And scared, because now I had to actually do the work! 

I was paired up withThe Current’s doc producer, Joan Webber, also based in Vancouver. We got along famously. Joan supported me where I needed support, and pushed me where I needed to be challenged.  Plus, she’s a savant with One Cut; I call her Scissor Hands

After some philosophical and technical wrangling – interviewing deaf people for the radio comes with certain challenges – the doc started to come together.

In the middle of production, while out for a run, I was struck with an epiphany: neither of my main interview subjects would be able to hear the documentary, because, well, they are deaf. I had this sudden idea: could I have my doc translated into American Sign Language (ASL)? 

I have never heard of radio being given this treatment, but in the Doc Project we were encouraged to step outside the box. Joan was totally supportive. She arranged to have the most fantastic ASL interpreter do a version of the doc that was truly accessible for everyone. The first time I saw it, I cried. 

Here are the three most important things I learned from my Doc Project experience:

• Think about gathering wild sound wherever possible — from feet walking to knocking on doors to flags flapping. It’s all good.

• Make sure you are interviewing in the very quietest space possible. It’s hard to mix around ambient sound that wasn’t supposed to be there in the first place.

• When recording narration, put down the script and just talk. Don’t read, talk it out. Talk until it’s natural… it might take a bit more time, but it’s worth it.

Deaf Jam was aired last week. Hearing it on the air, with my idol Anna Maria Tremonti introducing my story, was amazing. 

The feedback from listeners was immensely gratifying, while the feedback from the deaf and hard of hearing community has left me almost speechless. Deaf Jam has already been shared all over the world.  The ASL video version has thousands of views, and has picked up a life of its own. One mother tweeted that she was picking up her deaf child from his music lesson, and she was going to sit him down to watch this doc together. She said “thank you, #inspiration.” And really, what could be better than that?

Thank you to Joan Webber, The Current, and The Doc Project. If you are considering applying for the next term (the deadline is this Thursday, January 15th) tweet me @willowyam and I’m happy to give any advice.


Willow Yamauchi is a Vancouver based freelance writer and broadcaster. 

Posted on January 13, 2015 at 9:00 am by editor · · Tagged with: ,

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