Ten things we learnt from ‘How to Win The ARIAS’

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On lunchtime of Monday 17 January, the Radio Academy held a webinar entitled 'How to Win The ARIAS', in which Chair of ARIAS Judges Phil Riley led a discussion with four of the awards' Head Judges, to hear their top tips and pet peeves when it comes to judging the Audio and Radio Industry Awards.

Over the best part of an hour, the discussion covered a range of areas, including how to select the clips for your 15min audio entry, how to make the written entry work hard for you, what the judges are looking for, and how the scoring works.

The video of that session is available online now for all Radio Academy Members to watch, but because we know you're all busy folk, we thought it would be useful to boil it down into a list of Ten Things.

1. Read the Rubrics

There are 25 award categories, and each one has a detailed rubric in the awards entry guidelines. Phil Riley pointed out that the ARIAS Committee spend a lot of time on these - they should be your bible when it comes to what the judges are looking for. Make sure your entry fits the rubric, otherwise it’s not going to get very far. (It also really helps out the admin team if you read it before writing to ask them a question!).

Phil said, “After 5 or 6 years, I think the rubrics are pretty good now.  Really think: how am I going to make my entry fit the rubric? There’s nothing more frustrating than, as a judge, getting an entry and thinking This is Great… but it just doesn’t fit the criteria”. Aradhna Tayal (Director, Radio TechCon) captured the essence of the task, by saying “Know what you’re applying for, and tell us why you think your entry is relevant. Read the criteria and then respond.”

2. Tell us a story – take us on a journey

All of the Head Judges in the panel said something about how they wanted the audio entries to make them feel when they heard them.  There was a strong emphasis on the art of carefully producing the entry – rather than just knocking together 10 favourite clips, they explained it was important to think about the order and the emotional journey they took the judge on.  As Aradhna put it, “Surprise me!  I’m looking for something that makes me stop whatever I’m doing.”

Jimmy Buckland (Director of Strategy, NewsUK Broadcasting) questioned “What is unique about your entry? What is it that only you could have done? What is it that’s really original about the story that you’re telling?”. And, Dixi Stewart (BBC) urged people to “Think about how you want me to feel when I first hear the entry, and also the feeling you want to leave me with at the end. Tell me a story and give me something remarkable.”

3. Put your best stuff at the start

The judges have got a lot of audio to listen to, and with the best will in the world, first impressions are lasting impressions.  All our Head Judges were clear that entries should start with the best clip you’ve got – something to grab the attention, elicit an emotional response.  They suggested that this could even be at the expense (when it comes to factual and fictional storytelling) of linear narrative order, if it has the effect of drawing the listener in.

Dixi said, “Always put your best stuff at the top. You can sort out (linear order) in the contextualisation. Think about your entry like you’re making a programme. We play with time all the time – it’s a fluid concept.”

4. Context is Key

The radio and audio industry puts out millions of hours of content each year, and so it’s very likely that the judges will not have heard of your programme, station, or project. It’s therefore vital that you do everything you can to contextualise your entry.  It’s unlikely you’ll be able to do this fully in audio format, so the written entry is vital.

5. Make the tracklist work for you

An often-overlooked outlet for entrants is the tracklist field. This is where you describe and contextualise each clip in your audio entry.  Unlike the written entry, there’s no word limit on the tracklist, so don’t feel you have to give perfunctory descriptions of each of the tracks.  Use the tracklist to really explain the background and purpose of the audio.

Nick Pitts (Content Director, Jazz FM) gave an example, saying: “If you are running a phone call from a Breakfast Show, but you haven’t got the time to give us the set up – use the tracklist. There’s a reason why that call has happened – tell me about it in the tracklist, so that when I’m listening I can read up about it.”

6. Think: Impact, Creativity and Production

Phil Riley outlined how the judging process works, explaining that the judges score each entry out of ten in three areas: Impact, Creativity and Production. This gives each entry a score out of 30, with only six high-scoring entries making it through to the discussion about Bronze, Silver and Gold.

Our head judges discussed how these three scoring criteria interplay – and spent some time talking about whether there was a level playing field when it came to Production (since there are large and small radio stations, well-funded and grassroots, professional and voluntary).

They concluded that, at the end of the day, there was likely to be more understanding and leeway when it comes to scoring Production, if they felt the Impact and Creativity were high.  As Phil put it, “In the end, the Production one might be the one where you’re prepared to live with a little less if the Impact and Creativity are strong”

Impact covers how the entry makes the judge feel, but also the impact the project had on its original audience – which can sometimes be demonstrated with an increase in audience figures, but just as often through qualitative feedback.  So, the judges will want to read about this in the written entry.

Sometimes Creativity and Production may not be obvious, but with the right context in the written entry, the judges can be helped to understand the effort that’s been put into a piece. As Nick Pitts put it, “sometimes a great piece of audio might be (basic production like) a phone call – and here Production means the silence, not interjecting, letting the person have their moment. The Creativity is in how that caller may have been coached off-air to give their story across, how they’ve been interviewed, how the question’s been asked.”

Dixi described Creativity as “that pure and beautiful thing, which has nothing whatsoever to do with production resources – a creative idea is something that can always shine through. You know it when you hear it.”

7. There are two entry pools – BBC and Other

Once the judge’s scoring phase is complete, each category is split into two pools – Pool A is for content commissioned or broadcast by the BBC, and Pool B is for commercial radio, community radio and indie podcasts.  The Top 3 of Pool A and the Top 3 of Pool B form the nominees of that category, and the judges are asked to select the Bronze, Silver and Gold from within those six.

As Phil describes it, this means that “the initial judging is you against your direct peers, before it gets to that end judgment of you against the best of the whole industry”.

8. You’re never too small to win an ARIA

We all know the radio and audio industry includes some massive players.  It can be pretty daunting for someone in a small radio station or an independent podcast maker to enter the ARIAS up against the likes of the BBC or the big Commercial Radio groups.  But, our panel were unanimous in their view that it is absolutely worth entering, no matter your size or level of resources.  As the panel reflected when talking about Impact and Creativity vs Production, if you’ve got some fantastic audio, and an amazing success story to report, you should absolutely go for it!

In fact, Nick Pitts goes a step further saying: “Sometimes knowing that this amazing piece of audio is made by two people, against another amazing piece of audio that might have been made by ten people, has a really impact on you as a judge”. And Aradhna Tayal pointed out, “You have a voice, whether it’s big or small.  Be really authentic.  Tell us what that voice is and what you’re trying to achieve.  If you’re a smaller or niche station, your ability to speak to a particular audience is really strong.”

9. Get someone external to listen to your entry and read your write-up

You love your project and you know everything about it.  The judges are most likely completely neutral about it!  So, why not get someone else neutral to test your entry?  The panel spoke a lot about the importance of contextualising your entry, and there’s no better test that asking someone who knows nothing about the project to hear and read your entry.

As Nick put it, “Get someone independent to just give it a listen – cause, they will give you a true reaction to it.  Don’t ask a friend, don’t ask someone involved in the project, because sometimes they are already bought into it.  You want someone to be critical”.

10. The standard of the ARIAS is really really high

Well, perhaps we already knew this.  But in the context of the ‘How to Win The ARIAS’ discussion, the panel wanted to reiterate quite how much of an achievement it was to be nominated for an ARIA.  From roughly 1,000 entries each year, only 150 are shortlisted as nominees, and only 25 win Gold.  Those are some long odds.  So, you have to put your all into it, and really make the maximum effort with your entry.

And if you don’t get nominated – try to consider the entry process as a positive, developmental one.  As Jimmy said, “I know a lot of people who have got a huge amount out of the process (even if they haven’t won) – they’ve taken that into a renewed ambition to strike gold another year”.  Dixi said “there’s an awful lot to be gained about just being able to put in an entry, being taken seriously, being listened and being judged along the big beasts of the radio and audio jungle”

11. Read the Rubrics

We said ten things but… well, Phil wanted to reiterate his opening point.  Read the rubrics!  And the entire panel closed by wishing everybody the best of luck.

But, the closing quote of this article goes to Dixi Stewart, who said: “Give me your joy, give me your passion, give me your love of radio and audio because I share it with you”.  Well said Dixi!