In 2015, my radio-band-mate, Timothy Nicastri, and I came 2nd in KCRW’s 24-Hour Radio Race.
Here are some tips on our strategy for making a compelling radio story in just 24 hours.
Hopefully, it helps you in this year’s race. Register now.
1. Prepare what you can
The spirit of the event is to turn something around from scratch in a day. This means you can’t use old tape. Your story has to respond to the theme, which is announced at the start. BUT there are four ridiculously basic things you can prepare to ensure you hit the ground running:
- Charge your batteries
- Format your memory card
- Have your computer/edit set up figured out
- Know your time zones
2. Your time zone is critical to your time management
Your time zone will impact when and what you’re able to do. Unless you’re jumping on a plane, there’s no point stressing about it. The important this is:
a/ triple check the start time, and
b/ plan a strategy
In Australia, 10 am Pacific Time Saturday is actually 4 am on a Sunday (I think). That suited me, but it had drawbacks: we couldn’t start cold calling talent at 5 am on a Sunday, could we?
This is so important. For my international friends, here are more examples of how we thought about our 4am-4am time:
- The realistic sweet spot time to interview will be between 10 am and 5 pm. Once night hits, the talent pool shrinks.
- Because we started earlier in the day, we knew we’d have more daylight hours available to find a story, if needed. And we did. We were probably one of the last teams to find our story.
- But the pressure can build quickly when you don’t have a story and other teams start posting photos of their edit. Knowing we had extra daylight hours meant we didn’t need to panic.
- Of course, the flip side of a longer day is a shorter night. It was going to be impossible to nap. Better off pushing through the night to make the 4 am deadline than trying to nap for a couple of hours. Knowing this, I actually slept a few more hours at the beginning of the race.
Have a strategy for your time management. This is a race against time more than anything.
3. One killer interview
OK, this is the biggest tip. This was our biggest tactic and it worked.
Think about it like this; all you need is one killer interview.
You are not going to have a chance of coming 2nd unless you record some killer tape. You do not need hours of killer tape or multiple killer characters; all you need is one interesting person.
The other point about this is a practical one. The more audio you gather, the more you have to cut. Let’s say you come up with the perfect concept idea that involves five people. Are you going to have time to record and cut five interviews? Probably not.
In the words of my Year 10 Science teacher, Mr. McFarlane, more is not better, more is more cleaning up.
4. Know the style
This is obvious, but I’m guessing you haven’t got around to it yet.
Go and listen to every minute of every winning program from the past four years (2013, 2014, 2015, 2016). Make the time to do it, it’s only two hours of listening and it will get you familiar with the quality standard.
Four minutes is not a lot of time to execute a feature style story.
Remember, the people running this are the people behind KCRW’s Unfictional. It must be a red hot, true story.
They want a snappy intro that will grab their attention, character development, and a satisfying ending. All the usual storytelling techniques apply; some sort of conflict or change will help it go from ‘floating monologue’, to engaging story. Ask yourself; what’s at stake?
In a traditional factual report, four minutes can be a long time. When you’re exploring a story that incorporates some of the above elements, it’s not a lot of time. Trust me.
5. The theme is flexible
There is a high chance the theme will be conducive to the style elements I’ve mentioned above. That is, it will encourage you to find an inherently engaging story because it will involve surprise, conflict or change.
Take a look at the past four themes:
- 2013: The last thing you’d expect
- 2014: You should know
- 2015: Time change
- 2016: Out of range
Expect a theme in this style, something like; ‘I don’t believe you’, ‘never saw it coming’, ‘the final time’ or ‘hinge’.
Anyway, here’s the punch line: the theme is flexible. Don’t let it bog you down. A killer interview or idea with a tenuous link to the theme will always do better than a really solid theme with a boring interview.
That’s why I suggest you bend your questions to suit the theme.
Within the story, if it’s engaging, and you’ve found good talent, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to steer it in the direction required to tick the theme box.
And the 12-hour bonus extra theme? Make sure you get it in there somehow. Somewhere in the script is OK, but if you haven’t done your interview yet (like we hadn’t), again, just ask questions that tie back to it.
Our bonus theme was a quote from a movie, ‘I have always depended on the kindness of strangers’. If you listen to our entry you will note the talent says this line almost exactly — that wasn’t by accident, she was led there with a question.
Looking at our story from 2015, I can see how we could have twisted it to work for any year’s theme.
This does not mean you can cheat by lining something up beforehand. All I’m saying is, you have a license to think laterally about how you bounce off the theme to incorporate it into your story.
6. Your story will be closer than you think
This is the hard part. Finding the story that will set you apart.
When you’re told the theme it will be tempting to start googling like mad or making random calls. Before you start throwing darts at the wall, why not start with yourself, then work your way out.
- Do you have a personal story that fits?
- OK, does someone in your family?
- No? Alright, what about your friends? Neighbours? Family friends?
- Somebody has mentioned something to you at a party that has stuck in your head?
- Still nothing? Can you do a call out on social media?
- Hmmm don’t stress. What’s near you? Is there a local event you can comb? A shop or place you’ve always thought was interesting?
- What about Facebook events happening today? Or you can search a suburb near you on Instagram and look who’s posting something interesting?
- I strongly advocate going for a drive. You will eventually need to meet someone face to face anyway right.
Let’s say your team’s done all these things and you’ve still got nothing. Don’t worry; you are in exactly the same position as us, 12 hours into the race.
That’s right, after all these things we had nothing. Well, we had a few things. I’d done two interviews, but the tape just wasn’t good enough. They weren’t worth loading onto the computer.
Please note: this method is not really how I recommend finding stories generally, just 24-hour projects.
The sun was setting. I was around the corner from my house, in the car, just near the train station. I was talking on the phone to Timothy. It wasn’t looking good. I remember exactly what we were talking about. There were two realities to accept: the first, we were in a jam — big time, the second, we weren’t going to give up, no matter how late it got.
At that moment, a woman on crutches walked in front of me. She had one leg and was wearing a numbered bib that showed she’d just completed a fun run.
My mouth dropped.
“I gotta go, I’ll call you back soon,” I said, and hung up.
The story was literally walking past me.
The secret for the KCRW Radio Race, and all stories really, is… do not give up. When the pressure is huge, lean on the sum of your experience. You know how to make great radio; you’ve done it every other time! You might want to give up during the race. Refuse.
The Race will test you, but heck, that’s why you entered.
7. Your gear doesn’t matter, seriously
Guys, come in close for this. The gear that will win you second place is… whatever gear you own!
Be confident in your setup. Don’t apologise for it.
Your interview and editing skills will be the difference, not a $2000 microphone.
We came second and I didn’t even use headphones, although, often I don’t use headphones anyway. Look, the rules are there to be broken. Make the story your way, with your gut, with what you’ve got. You know your strengths, now is the time to use them.
Focus your energy on the story, not driving to Maroubra to borrow your mate’s mic.
8. Find a friend to collaborate with
What’s better than one radio brain? Two radio brains. You don’t have to do this alone, find someone you like and collaborate with them.
Your options for how you work with someone can take many shapes and sizes. You can keep it relaxed. You could find someone specific to complement your skills. You don’t even need to be in the same place, Timothy and I worked over the phone.
I guarantee building a team will not only make it easier, and better but a lot more enjoyable.
Timothy and I have been working together since 2010 but it was only after our KCRW Radio Race experience that we really amped up our projects. The following year we pitched a storytelling podcast called, The Real Thing, and it got commissioned.
So who knows what doors or relationships the Radio Race could open for you?
9. Have fun
My last tip is simple but just as important. Have fun. Your energy will come through.
This is a chance to get your name out there or win a prize. But more importantly, it’s a chance to challenge yourself and meet a bunch of cool producers.
And that’s what makes the KCRW Radio Race such a special event.
For the exact same time, radio makers from around the world are striving together to do what they do best — find and share insightful stories that will make us, and our listeners, richer humans.
So make sure you connect using #radiorace.
You’ll learn from other competitors, track your progress, and one day, look back and remember what a great time you had.
The KCRW Radio Race is on this weekend, Aug 19, 2017. Register now.
Good luck, I can’t wait to hear your entry.