The Sundance Institute, the non-profit founded by Robert Redford in the early 1980s to discover and develop the talent of independent artists in the American film industry, has made its first foray into podcasting, courtesy of a nifty collaboration with the BBC World Service. The five-part audio series, called Neighbourhood, was commissioned by the BBC, and it features five different short audio documentaries themed and inspired by the concept of, well, neighborhoods. Those audio documentaries were the product of a process in which Sundance recruited documentary filmmakers through an open call and provided them with training from BBC podcast and radio journalists. The series was originally aired on the World Service radio network back in August, and is now receiving a wider release as a podcast. The first episode dropped yesterday, and you can find the feed here. And for what it’s worth: Redford voices the intro to every episode.
A collaboration likes this makes sense to me, even if the principal creators involved haven’t actually had much radio or podcast production training before. After all, this is an equation in which the Sundance Institute’s curatorial prowess is combined the BBC World Service’s infrastructural legacy with audio production to generate something that might possibly be aesthetically noteworthy. Plus, the BBC’s huge global audience — covering a population of over 54 million people, according to the latest data) — along with solid, listener-informed budgets doesn’t hurt.
Simon Pitts, the BBC’s commissioning editor on the project, told me that he’d been to the Sundance Film Festival a few times and felt inspired by the talent he saw at those events. He has worked in television himself, and feels that audio presents “a really good untapped opportunity” for filmmakers because of classic comparative costs reasons. “It’s so easy to tell your story if you don’t have to raise tons of money,” he said. Pitts made contact with Tabitha Jackson, Director of the Institute’s Documentary Film Program, and suggested working together to introduce independent film makers in Sundance’s network to audio storytelling. She was keen on the idea, partly because Pitts pitched that the BBC was “promising that we would fund the production of up to six docs,” and partly because of the opportunity it offered for film makers to reach a wider audience.
The choice of “Neighbourhood” as the project’s theme and title was largely a response to the current global political context. “It’s the thing you see in Brexit, it’s the thing you see in the Trump vote, it’s the thing you see in the rise of the far right — who do we live amongst, who are we, where do we fit?” said Pitts. The five projects commissioned for the series were made all over the world: two in the US, one in Nigeria, one in Finland and one in India. “The point was to bring in new voices and new approaches to storytelling,” he explained.
The BBC provided practical assistance to the chosen teams, both on a technical level since many hadn’t worked in audio before, and in a larger practical sense with matters of risk and security for producers when they were recording in the field. Sundance also had its own “care stuff” happening during the process, Pitts said. The overall aim was to be “helpful but not produce for them.”
Although the series has already been broadcast on the World Service radio network, I was told that the project had always been intended to primarily function as a podcast. “That’s why we asked Redford to introduce it,” Pitts said. “Everything’s got this ‘episode one’, podcast-y feel, rather than something more traditional.” In selecting pitches for the series, he tried to pick things that would suit the medium. “The storytellers are all young, I think it’s exciting and good that we’ve got young storytellers telling youthful stories.” As an example of this tone and point of view, he cites the first episode, titled “Fake Marriages for Real Homes,” which focuses on a young unmarried couple trying to rent an apartment in Mumbai, where the housing system is designed only to serve families and married people.
The overall average age of the audience for the BBC World Service, Pitts said, is somewhere between 28 and 31, although it varies from country to country. This series is aimed at that late twenties, early thirties listener, but he feels that there’s no reason that “it shouldn’t be of interest to everybody because it’s about what’s happening now.”
Even though the podcast has only just started publishing, both the Sundance Institute and the BBC World Service has been deemed the collaboration a success and there are already plans in place to repeat it next year. The next series will be titled “Detours,” and the call for pitches will be published shortly — so watch out for that. “I hope that we’ll get some lateral, intelligent, thoughtful, creative responses to [the theme],” Pitts said. “So often storytelling is on the nose, providing an immediate response to to something. I hope ‘detours’ offers the opportunity to think around a topic, or take a side approach, or to look off the main drag and see what’s there.”
Pitts was keen to stress that although the project has been aimed at filmmakers with no background in audio, he would have no problem including those with a track record in podcasting, if the pitch was right. “We’re looking for journalists, and we’re primarily interested in the story,” he said. “It’s a good collaboration with an interesting institution and their people, but it’s all about the story and how we treat it.”