Radio documentary is a spoken word radio format
devoted to non-fiction narrative. It is broadcast on radio
as well as distributed through media such as tape, CD, and podcast
. A radio documentary, or feature, covers a topic in depth from one or more perspectives, often featuring interviews, commentary, and sound pictures. A radio feature may include original music compositions and creative sound design or can resemble traditional journalistic radio reporting, but covering an issue in greater depth.
The early stages of fiction audio storytelling did not entirely resemble what would later be called radio documentary. In the 1930s, with radio stations like WNYC
entering the airspace, reporters documented real people and real life scenarios through short on-the-ground interviews rather than dramatization.
Other notable documentary broadcasts include the unrefined one-shot audio recordings of events, such as the Hindenburg disaster
By 1939, CBS responded to growing anxieties about immigration in the U.S. with a six-month series, titled "Americans All…Immigrants All," that highlighted the stories of immigrant communities.
The lack of documentary style reporting in this era can be attributed, in part, to technological limitations; recording equipment was not easily portable.
An important moment in the establishment of radio documentary as a widely used and discussed format is the expansion of portable audio recording devices. In 1945, sound archivist and radio producer, Tony Schwartz
began to use portable audio recording equipment to collect the sounds of his neighborhood in New York City to share on his WNYC radio show; his features ran for 30 years and grew to include the sounds of daily life recorded by and mailed to him from people around the world. This style of sharing true-life sound bytes would remain in public radio documentary.
In 1946, one of the most pivotal developments in the spread and stylization of radio documentary was the creation of the CBS Documentary Unit. It was the first sector of a major media network dedicated to this format of radio. The unit was "'devoted exclusively to the production of programs dealing with major domestic and international issues and involving extraordinary research and preparation'".
Not only did the content deviate from programming that favors advertisers, the style deviated from the standard, creating a well known format. The style of reporting for the CBS features was adopted and melded by ABC and NBC networks. The format included extensive interviews to gain multiple perspectives of an issue, an adherence to journalistic ethics, and often a call to action; the programming was usually released as multiple segments and at peak times.
Examples of these first documentary projects include CBS' 1946 war feature, ''The Empty Noose'',
and ABC's 1949 program, ''V.D., A Conspiracy of Silence'',
addressing the lack of public attention to venereal disease.
With the founding of National Public Radio
in 1971, radio documentary began shifting again due to non-commercial educational media. For a short time, programs such as ''All Things Considered
'' explored creative styles of presenting non-fiction by deviating from now traditional styles of radio documentary by hiring reporters outside of the radio sphere.
Important shifts in technology have allowed radio documentary to travel beyond the analog. In the advent of podcasting and internet radio, the FCC provides no guidelines for these media.
Programs are allowed to skirt FCC regulation, marking yet another shift in content and style of documentary programming. Current features that exemplify the new possibilities opened by podcasting include the often gritty subject matter of Love + Radio
and the critical success of the podcast Serial
due to the ability of listeners across the globe to access the content for free.
Radio documentary in developing nations
There has been tremendous interest in the field of Radio Documentaries particularly in the developing nations such as India, Iran, South Korea and Malaysia. In India for example, Radio Documentary is gaining in popularity due to the flexibility, efficiency and accessibility to the masses. Producers such as Chitra Narain and Danish Iqbal have been accredited with its revival and popularity in the region. Danish Iqbal who is primarily a Drama Producer combined the elements of Dramatic narrative to produce some memorable Radio Documentaries. His Documentary "Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai'
is considered a Classic for the use of effective narrative and ambient sounds. This Documentary presents a heartfelt account of unseen bridges between a Kashmiri Shikarah Wala and his Auto Rickshaw Driver friend in Delhi. Although they never met each other but their unseen bond is the subject of this rare Documentary which transcends the barriers of political, religious and regional prejudices.
Because both Chitra and Danish had a long tenure at Delhi and had creative collaboration with many Media Institutes, their influence is seminal in shaping the thinking of many of their students and co-workers. Danish won twice the prestigious Public Service Broadcasting Award for his documentaries.
Notable feature makers
Association of Independents in RadioAmerican RadioWorksArchive.org AudioAudioDocumentary.orgHearing VoicesPublic Radio eXchangeRadio DiariesRadiotopiaRTE Documentary On OneThis American LifeTransom.orgThird Coast International Audio FestivalTune In - Radio Documentaries
Notable programs by region
Documentary On Newstalk
RTE - Documentary on One
Irish Radio Documentaries.
NPO radio documentaries
Dutch radio documentaries.
Swedish Radio, The Documentary Department
BBC - Newshour ExtraBBC Radio Documentaries available to listen to onlineBBC Radio 2 - World War One
Radio documentary about World War One
BBC Radio 3 - The Radio 3 DocumentaryBBC Radio 4 - Punt PI
Humorous radio documentary series.
BBC - The Radio BalladsBBC World Service documentaries
CBC - As It HappenedCBC - Back StoryCBC - By DesignCBC - RewindCBC - Stripped
Documentary series about the human body.
CBC - The Doc ProjectCBC - The Sunday Edition
Radio programme featuring interviews, music, and radio documentaries.
Alabama LifeAmerica AbroadAmerican Radio Works - documentariesAPM ReportsAudiodocBabe Ruth's Major League Debut: 100th. Anniversary
Radio documentary series about baseball star Babe Ruth featuring interviews, documentaries, and tributes.
Radio documentary series about Asian migration to the United States of America.
El Nuevo Sol documentaries
Radio documentary series produced by ''Slate'' magazine about applying for college.
Radio documentary production group.
Happy Presidents Day!
Conversations, speeches, and documentaries about American presidents.
International Day of PeaceLichtenstein Creative MediaKCRW - Sonic TraceKCRW - StrangersKCUR documentaries and specialsKQED documentariesMaking ContactMichele Freeman
Michigan Radio series & documentariesNature StoriesNew York Academy99% Invisible
Radio documentary programme about architecture and design.
NYC Media - Secrets of New YorkOutside/In
Documentary series about nature and how humankind uses it.
Pacifica Radio Network's AudioportPBS - Frontline AudiocastPBS - Point Of ViewPost-Apartheid South Africa: 20 Years On
Radio documentary series.
PRI - Whose Century Is It?PRX RemixRadio Diaries of Sciences - Science & The CityRadiolab Presents: More PerfectRe:soundRowan radio documentariesRT radio documentariesSiobhan McHugh
Record label that produces recordings of music and radio documentaries.
Sound PortraitsSoundFeatures.Com - Updated listing of downloadable documentariesState Of The Re:UnionStuff They Don't Want You To Know
Radio documentary series examining conspiracy theories.
Talking HistoryTANISThe Changing WorldThe HeartThe Kitchen Sisters
The Listening LoungeThe New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In The Age Of Colorblindness
Radio documentary series
The Outside PodcastThe Stanley Foundation radio documentariesThe 7th. Avenue Project
Radio programme featuring documentaries and interviews.
The TrailThe Uncertain HourThe UntoldUs & ThemVinny HurrellThe World In Words
Radio documentary series about linguistics.
This Thing Called LoveUnFictionalVoices of the First World War
Radio documentary series by the Imperial War Museum about the First World War.
Documentary series about issues related to the Washington D.C. railways.
WBUR - Inside OutWFIU - ProfilesWNYC - Documentary of the WeekWNYC - Documentary Specials
WNYC - Radio Rookies
WNYC - There Goes The Neighborhood
Documentary series about the gentrification of Brooklyn.
South Pacific / Australia
ABC Radio National - Background BriefingABC Radio National - Current Affairs SpecialsABC Radio National - EarshotABC Radio National - HindsightABC Radio National - Mongrel Nation
Six-part radio documentary series about immigration and multiculturalism in Australia.
ABC Radio National - PocketdocsABC Radio National - Radio EyeABC Radio National - ShowcaseABC Radio National - The Night AirABC Radio National - 360 DocumentariesSBS - The Story Untold - Part 1
Part 1 of the radio documentary ''The Story Untold'', which is about the possibility of contact between people from the Indian subcontinent with the Indigenous people of Australia during the Stone Age.
SBS - The Story Untold - Part 2
Part 2 of the radio documentary ''The Story Untold'', which is about the possibility of contact between people from the Indian subcontinent with the Indigenous people of Australia during the Stone Age.
Radio New Zealand - A Wrinkle In Time
Radio documentary series about ageing.
Radio New Zealand - SpectrumRadio New Zealand - Sunday Morning With Wallace Chapman