Recently, I've been asked a lot about my opinions on "what makes a good radio documentary?" and in all honesty, I don't believe there is a right or a wrong answer. So instead, I've just listed a few things that I personally like to look for in a radio doc.
Firstly, I strongly believe that any good documentary will have voices of those in the community. For me, radio is the best platform to be able to give 'everyday people' the chance to have their say and for people to listen.
I love to allow a documentary to be carried by the people whose lives you're documenting. Let's face it, people aren't going to have any emotional connection with a narrator, but they will with real people whose stories they're sharing. That's where the real empathy comes in.
Leading on from that, the narrator isn't necessarily a key element to every documentary. Some that I've listened to clearly believe that having one is a must-have and that's not the case.
A narrator should only be used to aid the narrative, not tell the story of those involved and certainly not instead of! Only use them to help guide your listeners and help set the scene - but don't go over board!
Similarly, music is so often haphazardly put in a documentary for barely any reason other than "I like that song" or "It was too quiet... It needed something there". Music aids the documentary just like the narration, and when it's used correctly it can create something even more to the story.
The only time you should use music is if it somehow relates to your documentary. Consider whether it's relevant for your target audience and think about the implications of where it's going to go.
When using music, think about the levels - is it distracting from the interviews? What are the lyrics saying? Do they help the connection to the audience, or inform people in a way that a narrator would possibly do, or guide the listeners on their journey? You get the idea.
Regardless, please don't put music in for the sake of it. Sound effects can help add validity or an extra depth to a documentary just as much.
Lastly, interviews are the key to any documentary; Let's face it, have you heard one without them?
Consider who your interviewees are and whether they're good talkers and if they can speak clearly. People will switch off if they can't understand them.
Above all though, documentaries really need to engage their audience; and by that, I don't necessarily mean involve them via social media, but with radio being a secondary medium a lot of the time nowadays (people are usually doing something else rather than solely listening to the radio) then you need to get people's attention.
A successful documentary to me is one which makes that listener pause what they're doing to listen, and that actually makes them consider what they're listening to and maybe, if it's really good, maybe they feel something for those they're listening to; whether that's shedding a tear or having a chuckle.
Remember who your audience is, consider the themes and messages you're trying to convey and don't worry if it's simplistic. You don't need to dress it up all fancy to be a good radio doc.