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Rethink Workflow to Boost Creativity

Radio production award-winner Francesca Panetta discusses program making

Francesca Panetta is senior audio producer for Guardian News and Media Ltd., producing podcasts and other audiovisual productions for In February, she was honored during the Radio Academy’s Radio Production Awards as Best Online Producer and the Creative Award; Panetta was the only honoree to win two awards.

“I’m interested in sound in all its various forms and I’ve approached it from different directions over my career,” she stated.

Before joining GNM in 2006, Panetta worked at BBC Radio as a feature maker and reporter, giving her some unique insights into radio workflow, new media, audio production and how they all intersect. She also produces the “Hackney Podcast,” a local feature about the area of London where she lives.

Panetta was kind enough to discuss with Radio World via e-mail podcasting, radio and creativity in the production process.

Radio World: Can you tell us a little about your background?
Panetta: I’m interested in sound in all its various forms and I’ve approached it from different directions over my career. My degree was in music and after that I joined the BBC as a trainee sound assistant. I quickly moved over though to the radio side of the corporation, to Radio 3, the BBC’s classical music network, where I worked predominately on their speech programs. During this time I specialized as a feature maker, working on the side as a reporter for Radio 4’s “You and Yours.”

In 1996 I moved to The Guardian as an audio producer. The department at the time had just one other producer who was responsible for the daily news show. My first task was to launch “Islamophonic,” a weekly magazine program about British Muslim current affairs (which went on to win a Sony in 2007).

Since then The Guardian’s multimedia team has grown to a team of about 25 (now both audio and video producers) with an audio output of about 7 hours a week and about 2 million listeners a month. Now I mainly produce specials at The Guardian, for example last year I worked on a series of podtour documentaries about the Berlin Wall.

Outside my Guardian job, I run a local podcast called the “Hackney Podcast” (Hackney is the area in London where I live). It’s a space for audio experimentation and innovation as well as a means of engaging with my local area.

RW: How does devising programs for an online site differ from making programs for radio? What can radio and new media learn from each other?
Panetta: Making podcasts is essentially the same as making radio programs.

You come up with the idea, record and edit the program, and deliver it as a WAV file — it just ends up broadcast in a different place. You do need to be multiskilled though: as well as knowing what you need to make a convincing narrative for a piece and have solid interviewing skills you also need top technical skills, so using mics well on location, balancing a five-person discussion panel in the studio (at the same time as directing using talkback), and mixing multi-layered documentaries, but all that’s becoming more common place in radio now.

Podcasting is more flexible though than radio. We don’t need to worry about strands or commissioning rounds. If a story breaks, we can turn around a program to have on the site within a couple of hours, and can choose the format most suitable for the story. It is also more flexible for longer-form creative projects.

I’m currently working on a downloadable audio guide about Kings Cross with the award-winning presenter Alan Dein. It’s the kind of piece that wouldn’t have fit in any of the BBC’s regular strands, and it will also sit on The Guardian’s site as an interactive audio map with new and archive pictures. I think the radio world could learn from us a more open-minded and spontaneous attitude towards program commissioning.

What could podcasting learn from the radio world? Well, one of the beauties of podcasting is the lack of editorial heavy handedness. We don’t use compliance forms, we have no editors to listen to our programs before they go on air, but podcasters do need to maintain a vigilance on quality.

We’re pretty good at that at The Guardian but there are a lot of podcasts out there that aren’t.

RW: How does workflow change differ between radio and online?
Panetta: The workflow for podcasts is really no different from making radio programs. Recording and editing the material is the same process, when I’ve finished a program I load it on to The Guardian’s Web site using our own system, but really it’s not that different from uploading a radio program on to a transmission system.

Podcasts do have the option of embedding pictures and chapters. For these enhanced podcasts you need to think beforehand about how that might affect your program. If you want the chapters to be the same length will this change your program structure? And if you want pictures, do you want them taken at the same time as recording the interview or will the snapper’s clicks be audible in your recording?

Also, working with the interactive department means delivering the audio far earlier. Working with the picture desk, the tech developers and Flash animators at The Guardian can be incredibly exciting, opening up possibilities for audio that you hadn’t dreamt of. It can also turn the often solitary and independent job of the audio producer in to exciting and creative collaborative partnerships.

RW: Can you walk us though how you handle your files and get them ready for air?
Panetta: I specialize in heavily textured features which means a lot of the work comes in post production. To be able to do this I record all my material as clean as possible. I use a beyerdynamic M58 and a Marantz P661 to record my location recordings and keep the mic super close.

I also use a lot of actuality and atmosphere in my pieces, which I record with the inbuilt stereo mic of the newly improved Edirol R09. Once I’ve recorded everything I make a detailed log all my material, and usually as I do this the program’s structure emerges in my head, as well as on scraps of paper.

I then start to edit. At The Guardian we use Cubase as the whole organization uses Macs plus programs can bounce down quickly (many of our programs are simple in format and newsy in content so have to be up fast). However I edit all crafted pieces, whether for The Guardian or the “Hackney Podcast,” on SADiE.

It’s a far more sophisticated editing program, quicker and smoother for speech edits and crucially non-destructive. I am quite a spontaneous editor, but I like the option to go back!

It’s also a great program for layering of sounds and music. For a complicated feature such as the “Hackney Podcast” night edition which I have just finished, I’ll use about 10 tracks. A key part of these programs is in the soundscaping. I make extensive use of wild track, treated sounds and lots of music to help tell the story. Being able to carefully mix these sounds together is crucial.

I monitor on speakers, on headphones and I also have a listen through the computer’s internal speakers. No one knows the exact stats for how people consume podcasts so the programs need to work in all these ways. However, my feeling is that most people use headphones. That’s exciting for an audio producer, as you can provide much more extreme stereo this way.

After mixing and bouncing down the program I convert to MP3. It used to pain me to compress my programs, but I’ve realized that it is less noticeable than I had though plus I’ve learnt what type of sounds from what equipment compress badly.

RW: How has digital editing and production changed the way you approach a project?
Panetta: I’ve only ever edited digitally — when I started at the BBC as a sound trainee the quarter-inch tape machines were on their way out. Digital recording on flash cards, though, has made a huge difference (I started on DAT machines). Cheap flash cards and quick transfer times mean that you can record so much more material easily, although there is an increased temptation to over-record, and you need to be even more scrupulous to label files!

RW: One of your two Radio Production Awards was for creativity. What makes for creative radio/audio?
Panetta: I favor montage as a format for features. It has a much wider scope for creativity, and I find the most powerful way of storytelling. I specialize in telling “real people” stories, and letting them tell these stories through their own voice is much more direct and effective. A narrator, although often useful for signposting, imposes a barrier between them and the audience.

It can be a creative challenge to tell a complicated narrative through montage but it’s almost always possible. I also make extensive use of wild track and music, creating soundscapes. These work as beds to speech but also can form sequences in their own right, helping to tell the story. I’m very conscious of pacing and texture when putting together programs.

For me feature-making is a kind of composition, it’s all sound and the rate at which you present and move through your narrative, the interplay of textures and the flow of voices are crucial as to whether the ear and the mind will stay with the piece. It’s all to do with the right level of ambiguity — the listener will be bored if they know where exactly the piece is going, but confuse them too much and they will switch off. The aim is to play and intrigue through the audio, drawing them in for more and more.

RW: How does working on podcasts compare to working on radio productions?
Panetta: Podcasting is extremely liberating as the possibilities for audio are limitless: allowing any format, duration and with the online space for as many programs as you can manage to produce! In fact, I think it’s the duty of producers working outside mainstream radio to really push the boundaries of audio and program making.