BEHIND THE SCENES at the 2005 International Features Conference in Sinaia, Romania

Reported by Julie Shapir

I'm always in a bit of a daze when I get back from the International Features Conference, where I've just spent almost a week listening, discussing, debating, even arguing about the finer (and broader) points of radio with producers from all over Europe, and beyond. What do I mean by "all over Europe and beyond?" Well . . . this year's meeting attracted folks from Norway (an invasion, practically -- there were something like ten Norwegians in the house!), Germany, the Netherlands, France, Russia, Austria, Belgium, Ireland, Sweden, Switzerland, UK, Finland, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, China, Poland, Croatia, and of course, Romania. Hope I didn't leave anyone out

The IFC's an intense experience, to say the least. We listen, we discuss, we listen, we learn, we listen, we teach, and we listen some more. (And then we drink and smoke, and drink and smoke, and drink and smoke. There's a little bit of sleep in there, too, somewhere.) The point of the week, the object of our focus is the celebration, dissection, and nurturing of the Radio Feature -- a term that has a different meaning on the other side of the ocean. Here in America, we think of features as extended news stories, or sort of mini-docs, usually ranging from five to eight minutes, but the European Feature is a different creature in itself. Usually running closer to 45 or 50 minutes, these radio programs are part documentary, part sonic films for the mind and part meditations on the striking ability of sound to tell stories

The Feature's an enigmatic entity, a form about as easy to pin down as the notion of "documentary" (which we're still working out ourselves, here at the TCF). Features employ narration -- or don't. They might include dramatized re-enactments -- or not. Drama? Archival recordings? Field recordings? Interview? Reportage? All of it. Some of it. None of it. I repeat -- it's an enigma, and in some ways, that line of reasoning so popular these days holds true -- you just know a Feature when you hear one

Over the years at these conferences I've laughed, I've cried, I've fumed, and I've dozed through Features, but regardless of how rigorous (and it can be rigorous) all of this listening is, I never fail to leave the IFC without a huge assemblage of sounds ringing in my ears, burned into my memory, and still dancing around my brain. At this moment, I'm still hearing bouncy Japanese pop music, which you'll find in one of the Features we've posted on this site.


Like documentaries, features are made about everything and anything. Have a look at a handful from the batch we listened to in Sinaia

  • Repossession of homes, told from the points of view of both a repossessor and a couple whose house is taken away - A family about to expand (new baby) and shrink (chronically ill husband) in the space of a few months - Blood revenge in Albania—through both a historical and contemporary lens - Seven sailors who have been camping on an abandoned, docked ship for seven years - A portrait of a drugs and prostitution scene in Berlin (including the sound of a blowjob) - How the Americans taught the Austrians about democracy through the radio (including records of yodeling cowboys and directions on how to shop in a supermarket) - A famous scientist/doctor attempts to move into a small Polish town to set up shop doing research on corpses -- and is not exactly welcomed by the villagers - A young, self-ascribed "asshole viennese reporter" attempts to uncover deep dark secrets behind a famous country doctor -- but fails miserably, because there are non

Something for everyone, no


Programs are listened to all week in blocks of two or three, twice a day. Up to 25 minutes of each program is played, and producers are required to provide English transcripts for others to read along to while their programs are on. (Remember all of those countries represented at the IFC? Well, the radio we hear is in all of those languages. But English is the official language of the conference -- the lowest common denominator, you might say -- and so all the transcripts follow suit.

Then we break into smaller groups of about 15 to 18 people, to discuss what we've just listened to. The key to these discussions is honesty, and to think beyond simple decisions like "yes I liked it" or "no, I didn't," and everyone is encouraged to offer their observations and opinions freely. It's true that once in awhile these conversations can turn, well . . . a bit ruthless, but for the most part, a pervading respect is maintained for all pieces presented throughout the week, and toward the producers who made them. The following criteria are considered in the discussions, based on judging guidelines from the Prix Europa, a prestigious radio competition held in Berlin each year: - Quality of story idea - Development of story idea - Technical production - Use of radio as a medium - Overall impression Sometimes people get quite worked up about their opinions, which I think is appropriate enough --I mean, we're all there because we've pretty much devoted ourselves to making radio programs. We're entitled to feeling passionate about what we think. The discussions I've attended over the past years at the IFC have taught me more about radio than any other single learning opportunity. Critiquing radio constructively is a real skill, a talent even, and hearing what other people have to say about pieces I've just heard myself has offered so many new perspectives to think about, and has helped me understand myself what and why I like or don't in work that I hear. It's been priceless!!


Besides the listening and critiquing that takes place all week, a few workshops are offered (ranging from practical to theoretical in nature) and each year one producer who is well known and respected in the IFC community is asked to pick programs to play at the end of each day. One of the workshops this year, meticulously researched and presented by Romanian Radio's Mihaela Helmis (our hostess extraordinaire throughout the weekend), explored how journalists dealt with censorship and restrictions during Ceausescu's rule, and managed to subvert the airwaves in different ways, despite the risks they took in doing so

Kaye Mortley was this year's tour guide of "classics" played at the end of each day. She presented examples from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's archives and other found sounds, and a piece of her own called "Exile," which featured the voices of many different featuremakers from different countries (some of who were sitting in the room). One day she played an old NPR piece made by Deborah Amos and Noah Adams, about the Jonestown Massacre, which left many listeners squirming in their seats, and then very much in need of an Ursus (popular local beer) afterward, to shake off the creepiness of Jim Jones's unforgettable giggle, heard in the archival tape in the program


Besides all the radio, the IFC is very much about the connections and friendships made between producers from so many different hometowns, and this is accomplished of course between sessions during the many many smoke and coffee breaks, during meals and into the early hours of each morning, at local watering holes around the city

Every year one bar is chosen as "home base" where everyone is welcome and you're sure to find an IFC crew hanging out. In Sinaia the "Casa Noastra" served this purpose well -- much to the dismay of the verging-on-elderly, grimacing women who were serving our tables. They were obviously not amused by the radio-inspired enthusiasm flooding through their establishment each night, nor by the occasional standing on the tables, nor by our breaking loudly into song in so many different languages (and keys). Still, 50,000 lei is 50,000 lei (about the cost of one drink), and so as the week progressed the Casa Noastra earned literally millions from our exuberant, late-night crowd

And I wonder what the wild dogs of Sinaia thought of the influx of radioheads into their beautiful mountain city. The dogs were everywhere -- hanging around outside the castles we toured, lounging in the sun in the hotel courtyard, chasing each other down the sidewalks without giving a thought to passing cars and pedestrians. I woke every morning to a chorus of crowing roosters (they really sound like they're saying "cock-a-doodle-dooooo!") and barking dogs, and I'd bet anyone that more than a couple of the 80 radio producers in town for the IFC captured these sounds on tape. Perhaps we'll hear a Feature about them next year.