The June 24th New York Festivals Radio Awards ceremony awarded exceptional radio content in all lengths and formats across all platforms. Trophy-winning, producers, directors, presenters and content creators from around the globe took to the stage to accept their glittering trophies and celebrate their success while toasting their peers with a glass of champagne. Truly a night to remember!
For the next few weeks NYF’s Open Mic will feature interviews with the brilliant women and men behind some of the world’s most compelling programs and provide insights and observations from these leaders within the industry.
Gold trophy-winning “Beyond Kate” (Radio New Zealand) commemorates 125 years of women’s suffrage in New Zealand. It was the first country in the world to introduce the right to vote to women. Through eight in-depth, themed episodes producer Sonia Sly looks at the lives of women from past to present exploring myths and attitudes towards the female body to politics, work, education, diversity and more.
Open Mic spent a few minutes with Sonia, Radio New Zealand Producer/Presenter, to find out more about the award-winning docummenatry series “Beyond Kate” including her inspiration for the series, her creative process, tips for those just starting out in the industry and what project is next on the horizon.
New York Festivals: What was the inspiration for your award-winning program “Beyond Kate” and what did you ultimately hope to accomplish?
Last year was the 125th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote in New Zealand. So I was incredibly humbled when my executive producer pitched me the idea of doing something as part of the commemoration. It was an exciting prospect, but also a very daunting one – to tell the stories of women (and men) who fought for women’s right to vote back in 1893.
In New Zealand, Kate Sheppard is our most celebrated suffragist, but I wanted to broaden the scope beyond Kate to look at the lives of ordinary women and to see how history has been a framework that has shaped the lives of women today. In doing that, I was faced with the challenge of not only looking back at history, but also putting contemporary views and experiences under the spotlight. That alone, would enable us to look closely at how things have progressed for women, but also to see areas where change is still needed.
It definitely feels to me like the goal posts are always shifting and the battle still continues because women are still struggling to be truly heard. The workplace, in particular, is often
an environment where this is magnified. Pay equity is an issue in many instances, and women aren’t taken seriously. So we find ourselves really pushing (almost aggressively) for someone to listen to us. But then women are criticized for that too.There are so many double standards that exist, whether spoken or unspoken, so that was important to unwrap. I also wanted to make a series that would stand the test of time, but one that would challenge people’s perspectives about how they see the world, and what they really value.
New York Festivals: Tell us about your creative process and how you over came obstacles.
I always let the story unravel and reveal itself to me, and that tends to dictate the style in which I end up telling the story. I trained as an actor (but studied media before that), and I’ve always loved film, and I’m inspired by art. So for me, producing audio has always been about bringing ‘visual’ elements into my work and giving it a kind of cinematic feel. It’s about bringing those stories to life, especially the historical aspects that can be a bit distancing for listeners.
I’m constantly thinking about the listener when I’m producing audio. There has to be that ‘exchange’ and thinking around ‘what will they get out of it?’
In the series, I use a few dramatic vignettes (not in a cheesy way) to push the story forward and kind of ‘reimagine’ some of the characters and people from our history. I looked to archival newspapers, which fed directly into these more stylised moment or scenes. I also had access to a treasure trove of great archival audio from Nga Taonga Sound and Vision. And I always approach my work thinking about the different textures, and the light and shade.
There are some very quirky elements in the series too. Admittedly, I have a bit of a bizarre sense of humour and I don’t mind playing that up and making myself look a bit foolish for entertainment’s sake. There’s a funny moment in the first episode where I head out to a rural farm (you’ll know it when you hear it), and even now it makes me laugh. While the subject matter is serious, we are all human and it’s those purely human moments that make a story intimate and engaging.
Ultimately, the biggest obstacle was the vast amount of rich content that I had to deal with – a blessing and a curse! I also didn’t want the series to be burdened by the weight of history, so the content required a balanced approach. I had to break things up and get a feel for where it needed to pick up the pace and drive forward, but also listening for where space was needed in some of the heavier, raw moments – to let them breathe and allow the listener’s thoughts to linger.
It’s a really complex series. There are 8 episodes that have been split up into themes: the petition, the female body, education, politics, the arts, work, cultural diversity, and education. So it was really about staying within the themes and developing the threads through each episode.
One of the most hard hitting and raw episodes was looking at the female body. Throughout history, women’s bodies have been criticized and used against them to limit their opportunities. Women’s lives are confounded by the weight of societal expectations and invisible rules and contradictions around what they are permitted to do with our bodies, how they should relate to their body, but also, there’s a value that society imposes upon us.
Before I started making the series I wouldn’t have necessarily called myself a feminist,purely because I dislike labels.
As a Chinese New Zealand female, I already feel like that there are external pressures that I have to contend with and I don’t want to put myself into another box. But I have to say, making this series has even challenged my own perspective and it changed my life in so many ways.
New York Festivals: Who has been the biggest influence on you creatively?
Sonia Sly: There’s not necessarily a person that has influenced this side of me. As a kid I had an incredibly active imagination. I grew up with three siblings, but I always found myself escaping outside by myself, and really letting my imagination go.
I also love poetry, because there’s something about the beauty and simplicity of poetry that can say so much, and I love hearing it read aloud. Other than this, when I trained as an actor at Toi Whakaari: New Zealand Drama School I had a very special mentor, Tom McCrory, who helped me to truly unleash my creativity and see ‘myself’. I began to understand the fullness of my creative potential, and what I could do with my imagination.
New York Festivals: What are the top 3 pointers you’d give someone just starting out in the world of audio?
Sonia Sly: Do your research, find great talent, and pursue what interests you.
Because if you’re not interested then it will become apparent in the final product. Being engaged through the process means that the listener will be engaged too. And always be guided by your instincts and don’t be afraid to take some creative risks.
New York Festivals: What project is next on the horizon for you and your team?
Sonia Sly: I love working on human interest stories, and right now I’m waiting to get my teeth stuck into a big project that’s going to challenge me… because that’s how I find my joy!
For a complete list of all the 2019 New York Festivals Radio Award winners, please visit: HERE