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!
NYF’s Open Mic features 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.
Open Mic spent a few minutes with NYF Gold trophy winners Becky Milligan, Presenter and China Collins, Producer for BBC Radio 4’s “The Home Babies.” The winning documentary podcast tells the story of a town in the west of Ireland, where a secret lay hidden beneath the ground for years, until one woman began to dig into the past. In 2012, Catherine Corless, an amateur historian, decided to write about the mother and baby home.
In the interview below Becky and China share their inspiration for their award-winning documentary, their creative process, tips for someone just staring out in the industry and much more.
New York Festivals: What was the inspiration for your award-winning documentary “The Home Babies” and what did you ultimately hope to accomplish?
Becky Milligan: A while back I was presenting a programme called Profile for BBC Radio 4, which examines someone in the news. I’d read a short article about an Irish woman called Catherine Corless, who’d uncovered the horrifying story of a mass grave at a Catholic institution in the west of Ireland. She sounded like an amazing woman and we decided to focus on her. Afterwards I was unable to forget about it, it kept nagging at me, the voices we’d heard and their stories. I knew we had only scratched the surface, and there was so much more to tell. So a year or so later China Collins, who’d been the producer on profile and was equally affected by the story, commissioned the podcast.
China Collins: In 2017, Becky Milligan and I were working together on a BBC radio show called Profile, which was a 14 minute segment profiling a person in the news each week. We came across the story of Catherine Corless and decided to focus on her. It quickly became clear that this story was far too big, complex and important for 14 minutes! I remember one evening we stayed late to interview PJ, who had survived the mother and baby home in Tuam as a child, but went on to experience discrimination and stigma throughout most of his life. He was finally able to achieve a sense of peace and acceptance after meeting Catherine Corless and exposing the horrors of the home to the world. We recorded over an hour with him and were hanging on every word he said. Afterwards we agreed that we would do something bigger with this story when we could. A year later I became the commissioning editor at the PM programme on BBC Radio 4 where Becky was a reporter, and one of the first things I did was commission The Home Babies.
New York Festivals: Tell us about your creative process and how you overcame any obstacles?
Becky Milligan: At the start I didn’t know where it would take me, what the story would achieve. I simply wanted to tell the story and shine a light on what had been a dark history in this small Irish town. But as I went on, the more it unravelled, the more shocking it was. I realised that the whole story, the history of the home and what happened there, was not only something that had happened in the past and was over, but had enormous impact and repercussions on people now. I hope that I was able to show that.
I think I had an idea in my head how it would be produced. I am not a fan of formal interviews, but prefer conversations with people. For the Home Babies I wanted people to hear the voices of survivors and families unvarnished, not over edited. I wrote out a synopsis of each episode as I went along, and developed a narrative arc which I hoped would hook in the listener. I wanted the listener to come to Ireland with me, sit in their homes and chat, to bring the whole story to life with the sounds and voices.
What did make it challenging is the shame people still feel about these mother and baby homes. People didn’t always want to talk about, they thought they might get into trouble or felt guilty or were told not to mention it. I had to gain people’s trust, to talk to as many people as possible, from the town right up to government ministers. There were many people who decided not to speak to me, including the Bonne Secours sisters who ran the home. But I did find other members of the church who did. It was only very near the end of the podcast that someone inside the government contacted me and agreed to talk to me albeit anonymously.
China Collins: Becky and I worked closely together on the structure, story-telling, editing and tone of the podcast, but Becky was absolutely the main creative force and genius behind The Home Babies. She completely immersed herself in the story of Tuam, speaking to everyone from government ministers to local residents and ex-nuns. The first thing we did was develop a story arc for the podcast as a whole. We initially wanted to start with Catherine Corless and her discovery of 800 babies buried on the site of the home. However, we later decided to let the story unravel more slowly than that, and instead started by trying to evoke a sense of Ireland’s past and its culture of secrecy around unmarried mothers before examining how the story of the home was revealed to the world. We also wanted to get as close as possible to depicting what life was like inside the mother and baby home. We drew up a wish list of interviewees and began to create the episode structure after we’d gathered material. Becky went to Tuam twice, and I went once and spent time with local residents and with Catherine Corless. Both of us felt it was vital to do justice to this amazing woman, and to all the people who either lost loved ones or their lives at the Tuam home. A significant period of both our visits to Tuam was spent knocking on doors in the housing estate that now surrounds the site of the home. Sometimes it was fruitless, but one woman Becky spoke to – Josephine – who had lived next door to the home as a child, described in an incredibly understated and calm way how women who got pregnant outside marriage were treated. I remember sitting in my hotel room in Tuam listening to the raw interview on my headphones and feeling we had found something extraordinary. She provided us with the bulk of the first episode as well as the podcast’s name ‘The Home Babies’.
New York Festivals: Who has been the biggest influence on you creatively?
Becky Milligan: I am influenced and learn from all sorts of people all the time, from Martha Gellhorn to more recently Ceri Jackson who has just done a great podcast called Shreds. The presenter Eddie Mair is brilliant and BBC editor Richard Knight. Both of them have taught me a great deal.
China Collins: Becky Milligan has been hands down the biggest influence on me creatively. Working with her was a total privilege. She is hugely empathetic and she uses that in her journalism to get people to open up to her and to cut to the heart of a story quickly. She also has a great sense of perspective – although our week in Tuam involved long days, busy schedules and very questionable food choices (there was one day we survived on a shared giant bag of potato-chips!), we were able to switch off and even have fun together. That’s really important when you’re working on a big projec
Becky Milligan: Advice to someone starting out in audio. First it is a fantastic medium. I have done TV and newspapers, but audio is the most exciting by a long shot, especially now.
- Just like a book, you are telling a story with sound.
- Keep in your mistakes and the pauses.
- Really? Is always a good question. It opens up far more than you could imagine.
China Collins: My top tips would be:
- Consume as much content as possible. Try things you wouldn’t normally be attracted to. Becky and I were both inspired by other podcasts we’d listened to like Dirty John/West Cork and listening to a wide range of material will teach you new ways to structure a story or just open your eyes to different ways of doing things. Also don’t limit yourself to audio – a great TV documentary or film can also provide inspiration.
- Don’t be afraid of spending a crazy amount of time on finding the right music. It’s really important, and it’s normal for it to take a long time. Even if you’re feeling frustrated and are tempted to settle for something less than perfect, don’t.
- Give things time to breathe. Don’t try to pack too much in to a single episode/segment – remember the audience isn’t listening with a pen and paper in hand
New York Festivals: What project is next on the horizon for you and your team?
Becky Milligan: I am a news reporter so have to get on with the day to day stuff going on. But several projects up my sleeve which I am hoping to develop into longer form audio.
China Collins: In terms of what we’re up to next – I’ve actually left the PM team and now work on a TV news programme at the BBC, but I’m sure Becky can give you some insight on upcoming work.
For a complete list of all the 2019 New York Festivals Radio Award winners, please visit: HERE