A Man Obsessed With Producing Memorable Radio Features

Radio Luck

When Julien Clancy smiles it’s huge, boyish, genuine and infectious. Life is good for him right now but it’s taken many little chinks of luck along the way for the sun to shine through. You are forgiven if that previous mawkish image made you groan, basically he’s a very happy man. When asked where the positivity comes from he simply states, ‘I got married back in August to the most wonderful woman in the world so yeah I’m pretty happy!’

Clancy creates audio features and documentaries for Irish radio, he runs Sounds Alive whose mission is to bring bold, innovative radio to stage. And if that wasn’t enough he also produces shows in Dublin for the American storytelling organisation The Moth. We’re not finished with this paragraph just yet! Clancy teaches radio part-time in Cork and Dublin, he’s a busy man with his fingers in lots of pies.

It’s all too common in Ireland for people to drop out of university. Their prior education poorly equipped and informed them about what third level entails, of course there’s several other mitigating factors. Clancy came from a family that excelled in the traditional career areas of pharmacy and business, ‘I’ve always being creative but parents worry about whether creativity will get you a job. You can be creative and be in a job but it’s when you want to turn that creativity into a job that it gets more dangerous.’ He started off studying science but soon dropped out of that and decided to study marketing as he reasoned it was the most creative option that would guarantee a job by the end of it.

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Square Peg In A Round Hole

His first job out of college was working in the marketing department for a pharmaceutical software company. One of his tasks involved licking stamps for a mail-out of twelve hundred letters, he likens it to the Seinfeld episode when Susan dies from licking envelopes. ‘My boss said if you want to be where I am in ten years time you’re going to have to knuckle down and where that was was horrible red eye flights to do presentations and stalls at conferences, I thought there has to be some way to get a job that’s more creative.’

He decided to quit however his hobby of DJing stood to him. A friend suggested to him about doing a music show on Dublin City FM and he jumped at it. ‘It was a volunteer gig but that was fine by me. I had a 3 PM slot on a Friday and on my first day I was 10 minutes late on air, I also had the music turned up really loud so you could not hear me speaking, my brother was ringing me telling me turn the music down, it was an absolute disaster,’ he laughs. But he kept at it, a philosophy that he believes will eventually lead you to succeed but more about that later.

The station was experiencing a resurgence when Clancy joined, it had a new station manager and some funding. It also led to an internship stint on a 24 hour baseball radio station in Boston, not that he had any interest in baseball but it was another opportunity to help him in his radio career.

Working At Your Luck

‘Sometimes you have to take that blind leap you don’t really know where it will take you to. People will say to me, oh my God you’re so lucky to be working as an independent radio producer! But you make your own luck, you have to be in the position whereby you can see that lucky opportunity when it does arise but before that will come months possibly years, of what the hell am I doing?,’ he mimics a Howard Beale style shout.

Clancy began producing music documentaries and a series for Dublin City FM but after three years he found the stories too formulaic. It was then that he started exploring telling other people’s stories and hasn’t looked back since. ‘I’ve produced nearly 40 different radio documentaries, radio series and features recorded everywhere from SXSW in Texas to inside the exclusion zone of the Fukushima Reactor in Japan so working in radio has brought me places I would never of even dreamed of if I’d stuck to my job in marketing.’ Today Clancy works on the Poetry Programme on RTE and has also just gotten funding for a new series of features on The History Programme.

Back in 2010 he took up another volunteer role as the training officer for the Association of Independent Radio Producers which meant that he could organise events for radio producers and invite over to Ireland bigger names in international radio. ‘It was during these workshops and listening sessions with some of the most talented radio makers in the industry that I first got the idea of opening up these sessions to the general public too.’ This is how Sounds Alive first came about, he wanted to create a platform where people could come together in interesting spaces so that they could listen to and experience awe-inspiring radio. It was important to him that the radio pushed the boundary of what could be done with both story and sound.

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On North Great George’s street you will find Mahaffy House, Clancy used to rent a basement apartment there was his then girlfriend and now wife, Aoife. It’s a time capsule to Georgian era Dublin, it’s ivy laden facade hides an interior that is frozen in that time. It’s owned by Desiree Short but it used to be the house of John Pentland Mahaffy, a man that once taught Oscar Wilde in Trinity College Dublin and someone that Wilde referred to as a great teacher. It was here that Clancy hosted one of the very first Sounds Alive events in the drawing room and it was the catalyst of another piece of wonderful luck. The scene was set for thirty people to listen to a piece of radio by a new American producer that Clancy was a big fan of, in attendance would be broadcaster John Kelly, musicians Julie Feeney, Caoimhin O’Raghallaigh and producers from RTE’s Documentary on One. ‘One of the attendees for the event called me earlier that day and said hey I have this American that’s a friend of a friend his name is Nick van der Kolk, will I bring him a long tonight?’ It turns out that the piece of radio that Clancy had planned to play was by van der Kolk and if that is not serendipitous enough for you, it turns out that he was staying in the building next door with his friends. Clancy adds, ‘Nick was one of the first radio producers whose programmes genuinely got me excited about listening to stories through sound because they kind of broke a lot of rules. The piece that we played that day, The Wisdom of Jay Thunderbolt, is still one of my favorite pieces of radio because it uses both sound and story to transform a character who I initially thought was an utter asshole into somebody I’d like to sit down & talk with’.

Van der Kolk is the founder of Love + Radio, ‘Love + Radio features in-depth, otherworldly-produced interviews with an eclectic range of subjects,’ as described on it’s website. It has had glowing endorsements from the Guardian, NPR’s Ira Glass and Radiolab. Van der Kolk and Clancy became good friends and at one point shared an office for six months. Some what off topic, van der Kolk’s wife is from Donegal.

As well as Love + Radio, Sounds Alive also allowed Clancy to interview members of RTE Radio’s Doc on One team. He also got to interview a man who he cites as a big influence musically while growing up, Donal Dineen. To paraphrase Ignatius J. Reilly, Fortuna was spinning Clancy’s way and these early events were to give Clancy his moment of clarity.

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Stories Behind The Stories

All these events helped him readjust his direction with the radio he was making. ‘When I started to do these interviews it was then that I realised that the people that make these radio programmes have such amazing stories themselves, stories that have never been told. Radio by its nature is a very introverted thing you just spend hours and hours locked away in a studio editing and listening back. The flip side is these people put themselves in extraordinary situations to get these stories told but you never hear about the making of it. With Sounds Alive I wanted to explore the stories behind the stories as well as creating an interesting space to hear them. If you’re interested in the radio programme then you will be interested in the making of it.’

Sounds Alive is not a stand alone company, Clancy still remains a sole-trader but it’s the title of his evolving radio journey When he was DJing in 2007 in the pubs, clubs and parties of Dublin he got hooked on people’s reactions to the music and it is that aural reaction that is the common thread through everything that he does with Sounds Alive. ‘We’ve remixed radio with David Kitt and Margie Lewis, hosted listening parties with Love + Radio for the last three years and even created the first Sounds Alive Radio Festival last year. Radio is a medium that can offer so much, Sounds Alive started off as a small thing initially and now it’s bigger.’

The shows for The Moth & 99% Invisible were sell outs so as a result of that Moth show, the directors decided to set up their regular StorySLAM in Dublin which has introduced Clancy to a whole new world of storytelling. ‘Telling a story into a mic is one thing, but getting up in front of 150 people and telling a personal true story is a different experience altogether. What’s funny is that the kind of radio I love to share is sound rich, innovative,’ he searches for a word, ‘experimental even and then The Moth comes along and presents a story that’s all one take! But it stays with you for weeks or months afterwards.’ 

From creating content for the stage to also teaching people how to produce their own radio documentaries in Block T. Teaching is something that he has fallen in love with and he is humbled by the popularity of his courses, the current course is booked out. ‘I’m very passionate about what I teach and sometimes I think if you’re not excited by what you’re teaching, how the hell do you expect your students to be?!’ The Stories Through Sound course teaches the student how to create their own story through sound, from recording to editing to producing it.

He pushes back his hair from his forehead and grins, ‘every time I interviewed successful people about how they made it, nine times out of ten they would answer, it’s about sticking with it. If you have an idea that is good enough it will stick eventually, the challenge is to stay with it till your time comes.’

Keep up with Julien’s courses & events such as The Moth here…

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