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Formats Unpacked: Where Are You Going?
How a four word question can reveal so much about strangers around the world
Hope all your weeks are going well.
When we talk to clients about format development I often find myself using phrases like ‘light formats’ and ‘heavy formats’. In my mind heavy formats have a fixed structure to ensure the right beats are hit at the right time/place. Game shows and talent shows, for example, need that amount of structure to guarantee the payoff at the end. Light formats, however, are great for creating just the right space for serendipity or the unexpected. They’re about putting trust in the contributors to deliver whilst asking the audience to trust you that this journey is worth going on. Today’s unpacking from Ian Sanders is a wonderful example of how light formats work.
Ian is a creative consultant and storyteller who has published 4 books. He sometimes writes for the FT, and frequently trains BBC journalists about storytelling.
Over to Ian…
What's it called?
‘Where Are You Going?’ (radio show)
What’s the format?
‘Where Are You Going?’ is a 27-minute radio programme - and a BBC Sounds podcast - made by Loftus Media for BBC World Service. In each episode presenter Catherine Carr interrupts people as they walk on their way somewhere and asks: “where are you going?” Locations have included Belfast, Seoul, Hanoi, Tokyo, Reykjavik, Hong Kong, Tijuana, Amsterdam, and New York. Who would have thought that this simple question would be such an effective storytelling device? The answers are always fascinating and completely revealing.
What’s the magic that made it special?
The magic is in that one question: where are you going? There are follow up questions but the story’s great reveal starts, every time, with those four words. What it shows us is that within busy streets all over the world, we are surrounded by a rich seam of human stories. This question is the axe that chips into that seam, allowing it to be mined for the jewels hidden within. It’s a format that can work in any town or city.
And the question itself, it’s both mundane and wildly original. Because we might ask strangers or people we meet, ‘what brings you here?’ or ‘what do you do?’ But rarely ‘where are you going?’ - and that sense of transition, of stopping someone mid-journey lends itself well to the format of a story. There’s clearly a before - where the person has come from; a middle - the conversation that’s happening now; and the end - the destination. And it’s a destination that may or may not be reached because we never travel with the person, so there’s an element of mystery and wonder too - did they meet so-and-so; did they find what they were looking for? What’s more, being out on the street enables Catherine to gather a healthy mix of human stories from every corner of society. The street does not discriminate. Her interviewees could as likely be a surgeon in Hong Kong as a crack addict in New York City.
What’s also surprising is that it follows a tried and tested method of journalism. After all, Where Are You Going is essentially a thirty-minute vox pop. That’s it! Stopping people on the street and asking them a question has long been a journalistic device. I started out in BBC local radio as a teenager. I remember my first day and being taught to use a Uher tape recorder before being sent off to Chelmsford town centre to grab some voxpops. It tended to be simultaneously both dull and intimidating, probably because I wasn’t asking the right questions.
The programme feels like an audio version of Humans Of New York. Whereas the latter stops people out of the streets to record their stories in written and photographic form, WAYG’s audio format allows people to be more candid than they might otherwise. After all, it’s just Catherine on her own, standing, or walking alongside them, with a microphone. There’s no crew, no TV camera in their face, no equipment to get up to speed. She’s ready to go. The conversation is one-to-one, she’s recording it, which they know about, and it stays intimate. Wherever she is people tend to speak English and most have heard of the BBC, so she gets a good hit rate when approaching people.
Like the best formats, it sustains multiple episodes. It has legs, as a commissioning editor may have felt when they were first pitched it. It doesn’t bend or change. It’s always “where are you going?” One question, multiple stories.
In the presentation she gave at the 2018 Next Radio conference, Catherine reaffirms the secret of the show. She asks, “How do you get these stories out of people you’ve never met before? And whilst holding a microphone? You need a clever little device - something that works every time.”
The answer? That one simple question.
If you’re interested in human stories, there’s something in every episode. In Hong Kong she finds a man waiting for a taxi - he’s a surgeon on his way to perform breast reconstruction surgery. In Amsterdam she meets a woman going to visit her penpal in Rotterdam. The woman became a penpal 17 years earlier when she was a member of a feminist punk writing collective and agoraphobic. She didn’t leave her house for two years, apart from walking to the mailbox. When she got over the agoraphobia, she went traveling to visit the penpals. In New York Catherine meets a lady taking her cat for radiation treatment. But there’s more to it than that. The lady says the cat is also her spouse. Next there’s a rough sleeper who catches pigeons in the morning, and sells them to Chinese restaurants to fund his crack habit. And then she meets a stock market trader on the Staten Island ferry who’s on his way to work on Wall Street. He talks about growing up poor with an alcoholic, absent father and how that’s given him his drive today.
So there’s no one favourite episode. Wherever she is, it feels like I’m on a journey with her.
I’ve spent many an hour chewing over creative ideas with Ian whilst enjoying a coffee or a walk around London. If you ever need to unpick work challenges you should consider going for a walk with him. His Fuel Safari is a great coaching format.
As someone who worked in Radio for 20 years, it’s great to finally see a radio format getting unpacked. If anyone wants to unpack more audio formats get in touch.
Thanks for reading and subscribing. All your kind comments about this little project are hugely appreciated. We started it because we’re obsessed with deconstructing story structures and wanted to read more about formats, but couldn’t find that much out there. As James Murphy once said ‘the best to complain is to make things’ so we did. But this wouldn’t exist without the generosity of all the contributors, so thank you all.
More unpacking next week.