Doing Radio Documentary - revised!

What is Radio Documentary?

Radio documentary is a factual, informative audio program that is broadcast over the air by radio stations or streamed on the internet. Radio documentaries can include recorded interviews, debates, and statistics to be shared with listeners. Both historical events and current issues can be discussed. As with radio dramas, radio documentaries rely on audio techniques to engage the audience, allowing listeners to visualize what is being described. Tone of voice, use of background music, and choice of sound effects are all very important in developing a quality radio documentary.

Why Use Radio Documentary to Talk About Sexual Health and HIV?

Radio shows are a very popular means of communication and are accessible to many communities—both rural and urban. It has been estimated that on average there are more than two radio sets per person in the United States, one radio set per person in France, and one radio set per five people in Nigeria.

Radio documentaries on HIV/AIDS have the potential to bring important behaviour change since they can influence the millions of people who might hear them. It is essential, therefore, to make sure that the information that is broadcast in a radio documentary is up-to-date, reliable, and true.


    Radio documentaries can be accessed by diverse populations.
    Radio documentaries offer a voice to both people and matters that might otherwise go unnoticed.
    Radio documentaries can be recorded as podcasts and posted on personal or group blogs for further discussion.


    x The cost of creating a radio documentary can be high, depending on how it is broadcast.
    x It can take a lot of time to put together a well-informed and well-balanced documentary.
    x There may be regulations at radio stations that prevent sensitive topics from being discussed.

Creating a Radio Documentary in 9 Easy Steps

The procedure for developing a documentary to be broadcast through a radio station can vary depending on the station, the project budget, and the cultural sensitivities of the region. The following nine steps will give a basic overview of how to create a radio documentary for the purpose of HIV/AIDS education:

1. Develop an idea: You'll need to come up with a unique and flexible idea for a documentary and create a basic outline. The topics covered must be appropriate for the desired audience.

2. Decide on equipment and set team roles: You'll need to make a list of materials and equipment necessary for recording (portable microphones for capturing sound effects, stationary microphones for long interviews, pens and notebooks for planning, etc.) and then choose your team and set out responsibilities. Friends and family are a great place to start when recruiting volunteers for a social awareness documentary, as are community centers, health clinics, and schools.

3. Decide who to approach with your concept: Executive producers are the people in charge of the programming for radio stations. Radio stations are usually designed to appeal to a specific audience, so it is important to do some research and find the right station for your show. Local stations, as well as university/college stations, are a good place to begin when searching for the right match for the airing of your documentary. Radio stations may be willing to let you borrow their equipment or record in their studios if they are impressed by the proposal you'll be writing in the next step.

4. Write a proposal: You will need to write a detailed proposal that discusses the documentary’s subject matter, its length, the people who will be involved, and the overall purpose of the project. This proposal will give the producer all the necessary information he or she will need in order to accept the show. It will also put your team on an organized path to make the documentary.

5. Research the content: When developing a social awareness project, especially one promoting HIV/AIDS awareness, doing the proper research is mandatory! The information you choose to use must be accurate and as current as possible. You can start by visiting a local library, school, or health clinic, as well as doing research online if you have internet access. You may also want to look for people you can interview or who want to share a story. This will keep your show from being too focused on statistics and therefore boring for the audience. Here's a helpful interview guide.

6. Write a script: Although the storyline of your documentary is important, do not forget how essential it is to use music, background noises, and other types of audio techniques to illustrate the stories and information that you share. It is also important to ensure that ideas are communicated clearly, with language carefully chosen so as not to marginalize or stigmatize anyone.

7. Record the show: It can take a full day in the studio to record a half-hour radio program, so when it comes time to recording, patience is important! Be sure to ask questions, and have the station’s producer send someone in who can help with the equipment and give recording advice. During the recording process, you will find out if your show flows well or if changes need to be made in order to maximize the audience's entertainment and understanding. If you will be broadcasting your documentary on a university or college station, you may be asked to record the show yourself using a mobile device or headset microphone and to bring a .wav or .mp3 recording of your show on the day it will be aired. Find out how to record professional-quality vocals in your own home!

8. Edit the show: You should now listen to your recorded documentary in full and answer the following questions: Is the language appropriate for the audience? Will the audience be engaged? Are there any parts of the show that are unclear and need to be re-recorded? If you do not have access to a recording studio and are responsible for doing your own editing, you can find tips for editing audio and working with sound effects in YAHAnet's how-to guide on podcasting.

9. Broadcast the show: It's now show time! Try to select a time to air your show based on your audience. For example, if you have a created a documentary targeted at youth, try to get it played in the evening or on a weekend—sometime not during school hours. If you have internet access and can upload a copy of your documentary to a blog or website as a podcast, you do not need to worry as much about what time the show is played on the radio. Find out more about podcasting in YAHAnet's how-to guide on podcasting.

After the Show: Keeping the HIV/AIDS Message Alive!

Listener feedback is a wonderful way of getting the audience more involved. Having the radio station make time for listener phone calls or reading letters sent by the public will add to the messages in your documentary. You can also give listeners advice for getting actively involved in HIV/AIDS efforts in your community or online.

Radio documentaries can be saved on cassettes/CDs/DVDs and given to local community centers, schools, libraries, or health clinics. Documentary scripts can also be printed and given to all these places to hand out. Don't forget to check if any of these institutions have websites and would be willing to post radio documentaries in .mp3 format. Of course, we hope that you will also upload your documentary to the YAHAnet audio gallery!

Combining Art Forms

Mixing different art forms can make your project even better! Some art forms that can be used in a radio documentary include:

  • storytelling
  • music
  • books and novels
  • poetry

Radio Documentary Projects for HIV/AIDS Awareness

1. ADRA Denmark's Breaking the Silence children's radio program (Burundi, 2012)

2. Radio Youthology (UK and international, 2011–present)

3. Children's Radio Foundation (South Africa, 2011)

4. Love4Gambia Radio Documentary (Canada/Gambia, 2011)

5. Saathi Sanga Man Ka Kura youth radio show (Nepal, 2001–present)

6. Thembi's AIDS Diary (South Africa, 2004–2005)

Radio Documentary and Social Change Bibliography

AIDS Action. (1987–2006).

Chambers, C. (2001). Radio: Behind media. Chicago, IL: Heinemann Library.

Girard, B. (1992). A passion for radio: Radio waves and community. Montreal, QC: Black Rose Books. Full book available at

Hesse, J. (1988). The radio documentary handbook: Creating, producing, and selling for broadcast. Vancouver, BC: International Self-Counsel Press.

The YAHAnet team thanks Rafael Gracia-Machuca, PhD, at the University of Puerto Rico for making this how-to guide required reading in his seminar course on radio documentary production!

© February 2013