“Life is what happens while you’re making other plans,” as John Lennon quipped.
Each year, our radio team—Senior Producer Neil Harvey, Managing Producer Stephanie Welch and me (Executive Producer-Writer)—enters into the process of creating the annual Bioneers series. (Previously we also worked with the gifted co-writer Catherine Stifter, but she got an offer she couldn’t refuse late last year.)
Radio is a perfect medium for Bioneers because so much of what we feature at the conference is the art of the spoken word. We’re always surfing the zeitgeist, angling to capture the spirit of the times and some lightning in a bottle.
Here’s a glimpse into how the creative production process works.
We start with some conference calls in late summer to go over the upcoming conference program to scan for what we think are the most important, timely and under-represented topics, and who are likely to be the most dynamic speakers.
After we engage several other key staff, including Nina Simons, for their input and suggestions, we draw up a provisional show list. This leads to choosing 18 people for additional on-site interviews, which offer an hour to connect personally with the speakers and assure we get extra material with reliably excellent sound quality.
Then, like Life, the annual Bioneers conference happens. Neil and Steph begin a comprehensive process of reviewing the vast majority of the recorded plenaries, workshops and interviews for thematic power, personal delivery, and sound quality. Our rule of thumb is simple: Go for the gold wherever it shows up.
Sometimes our initial outline of topics and speakers holds true, and in many cases we find exceptional content that shifts the working list of 13 shows. Sometimes it can mean shifting the topic by making the frame bigger, or sometimes an entirely new topic rises to the fore.
While understandably many people imagine a conference hierarchy between keynotes and afternoon panels and workshops, for the radio team it’s irrelevant except as it relates to sound quality. In fact, a huge amount of the series is constructed from afternoon panels and/or related interviews. Although there may have been 50 people at a panel, parts of that session may reach millions through the airwaves. We love that!
Sifting for Gold
Neil, Steph and I confer repeatedly as they sift for gold. We solicit input from other Bioneers staff for what they know was great. We revise the show list accordingly.
Then they start selecting and assembling actual cuts that form the backbone of the show, often in consultation with me as important choices need to be made about a basic direction. Content rules, and we see ourselves as jewel setters placing these gems within a framing and script.
I review what they’ve done, go back over often extensive transcripts to see what got left out, and also review “B cuts” they’ve identified of great material that didn’t make it into their first assembly.
Sometimes I request different cuts, and sometimes I go with what they’ve done. You never know until you get into it, and there are many impossible choices and/or choices that are purely subjective.
I construct a script, and we go back and forth a few times. Sometimes they contribute additional writing or a placeholder script to help tee me up. The show is tightly timed, and often a fair amount of trimming and cutting is required, down to seconds. At times, what ends up on the cutting room floor is heartbreaking. We try to save these outtakes for podcasts.
Putting It All Together
Neil and Steph begin the process soon after the October conference, and generally start sending me proposed cuts for shows by December.
Most of the creative teamwork happens in an intense burst between early January and early April, at the relentless clip of a show a week brought to completion. Having started out as a journalist, I actually like deadlines. You know you have to git ‘er done.
Finally, they start sending me rough mixes. It’s a rush—a shock and delight to actually hear them for the first time. For most of the process we’ve been working silently from paper and transcripts.
It’s also the first time we hear Neil’s impeccable music choices, which radically enhance the shows. Because we move at a rapid pace of production covering an expansive galaxy of worlds, by the spring I’ve virtually forgotten what we did at the beginning. Wow, who did this?!
We try to make relatively modest revisions on the rough mixes. By now, we had better have it right or we’re in trouble.
A Team Effort
Neil, Steph and I have been working together now for many years as a creative team. I love working with them, and the whole is always greater than the sum of the parts.
Neil is the reason the series exists. He came to the conference in the late ‘90s, and as a producer for New Dimensions Radio, he broached the idea of a Bioneers series partnership between Bioneers and New Dimensions’ Michael and Justine Toms.
With Bioneers funding, New Dimensions produced the series in-house for the first three years beginning in 2000. Then Bioneers took it in-house in 2003, with Neil remaining as Senior Producer. Steph joined us in 2003. Sadly Michael Toms died in 2013, and Justine continues to sustain New Dimensions.
Connecting Millions with Visionary Ideas and Activists
The Bioneers: Revolution From the Heart of Nature series is now carried on about 487 US stations and 67 international ones. Our U.S. Total Market Coverage is well over 125 million, with millions more in 13 other countries.
When Nina and I started Bioneers, the impulse was to bring together amazing visionary activists and leaders to provide a platform to communicate their work much more widely. Today the radio series is our single biggest outreach tool.
They’re evergreen and have a very long shelf life. We’re now repurposing them in our new Media Collections along with conference keynotes. We’re also distributing them in many new digital channels now, from iTunes to SoundCloud and others.
It’s incredibly gratifying to get the voices of the Bioneers out there. We offer a deep bow of gratitude to all of you who support the series and our growing media outreach!