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How we made Close Encounters

A new podcast series has begun at theguardian.com, where journalist Alix Fox talks to members of the public about the sex they’ve had and how it’s shaped their lives. It’s called Close Encounters, and it’s produced by Rethink Audio for the Guardian.

The first two episodes were released on Saturday (subscribe here), and there’s even a little video to whet your appetite.

I met Alix in 2010, at a Spark event I was producing at the Blue Elephant Theatre in Camberwell. She told a story about how she once dressed in a latex mermaid outfit and weighted to the bottom of a swimming pool, relying on others for oxygen. All in the name of journalism.

This was for Bizarre magazine, and is just one of the many amazing things that Alix has reported on as one of Britain’s premier sex journalists.

Of course convincing, say, Radio 4 of her talents was going to be tricky – sex is something rarely talked about in radio – and so, after a few Spark stories, the first time we worked together properly was on The Modern Mann, in 2015. As Olly Mann’s resident sex guru, Alix answered listener’s questions, offering advice where able.

It was during the first series that the Guardian got in touch and invited us to pitch for a series. The original brief was a British version of The Savage Lovecast… but the idea moved on quickly to what is now Close Encounters.

The idea is pretty simple: a conversation with one person about the sex and relationships they’ve had. Crucially, the format addresses two issues I’ve found uncomfortable in sex advice shows:

  1. anonymity
  2. boxes

When you have someone write in, not only do people give a false name, but often their voice is changed (whether that be emails read by a host, or recorded over a distant phone line). The person isn’t really a person, they’re a vehicle for an idea. In Close Encounters, we hear a real person’s voice, for over thirty minutes. Their name may be changed – but their voice is what matters.

As for boxes: if we’re not doing an advice show, the temptation is to get political: ‘this week we’re talking about sex education’, or ‘today we discuss polyamory’. This is what I mean about boxes; trying to pinpoint and pigeon-hole people’s desires on a very wide sexual spectrum.

Instead, by focusing on one person, I believe we sidestep the trap of talking for people. Everyone is different, and we will celebrate those differences, episode by episode.

If you’ve read this far, I’m assuming you’re interested in how the show is put together; so here are some other production decisions:

Location

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I wanted to get out of the Guardian’s studios, out into the country, so all the conversations are recorded in people’s homes, usually their bedrooms.

This adds to the intimacy (I think it helps when conversations are not recorded in ‘professional’ surroundings) and makes us more likely to travel around the country.

Introductions

This is a challenging programme. Not everything on it will sit comfortably, regardless of how confident you feel about your own sexuality. And when I look at my podcast app and consider what to listen to next, I want to be hit with something spectacular, something that will delight me whatever my mood.

With that in mind, I didn’t want a cold start to the conversation, and wanted to build on the work I’d done with Alix at Spark, so we created this device where Alix could share a story of an experience she’d had or a person she’d met that would open the eyes of the listeners. The stories are gently told, but hint at some of the explicit content that will follow. If you stumbled upon Close Encounters and stuck it on the office radio, you’d slip your headphone on sharpish… but you wouldn’t get fired for what you heard.

Those first few minutes are blockbuster radio: within seconds you’re taken somewhere and live someone else’s life. I’m a huge fan of Glynn Washington’s stories on Snap Judgment – I suppose this is a little homage to that.

The Guardian Family

This is the first independent audio production the Guardian have commissioned. Despite being recorded away from London, myself and Jason Phipps – their Head of Audio – have worked hard to bring as many of the staff along for the ride. From the graphics and social teams that have created a beautiful visual tone for the show, to the support of the producers and presenters of other shows (who provide the content warning for the start of each episode) we feel part of the wider Guardian network. Even if we’re a little ruder.


We’ve released the first two episodes at the same time – after that we’ll be here every seven days for eight weeks. If you’re interested in reviewing the show and would like more background from myself or Alix, please contact us.

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