Tony Barrell elevated the craft of feature and documentary making to an art. That’s not just one man’s opinion, but that of many, including those in other media, such as this homage from Sydney's newspaper. An Englishman by birth and Australian by choice, Tony’s life in radio spanned four decades. He made an unexpected exit earlier this year, but left a body of work that will endure.
Here's a tribute to Tony and his work, "Listening for Pleasure," from Australian Radio National's 360 (may load slowly on some browers).
He also said some memorable things about his medium of choice.
"Audio images can be arranged, heard, felt and understood in a non-literal, non-linear way. The mind engages in active listening, storing, ordering and even re-ordering audio material almost subconsciously, using the patterns left by fragments, a well as solid expositions to create three dimensional images that takes involvement far beyond the common linear listening most radio demands
Some called Tony a "collagist" as a way of explaining his audio alchemy. Many of the finest examples of which were on ABC's "The Night Air," a program he helped create and that still holds true to his style of telling stories with a kaleidoscope of sound. Here's his last production for the program, part one and part two.
"On location, I use the microphone as a camera with added ears, by which I mean when I make recordings I am not always aware of what’s in “the frame”. With sound it is the context and juxtaposition of foreground and background sounds that create new, or reflect existing meanings and understanding, not always apparent when I am “there”. I act as an almost passive conduit for those messages. What happens is not altogether predictable so when I am “listening” with the microphone I am involving potential listeners in a research experiment."-2005
Much of Tony's work made for easy and enjoyable listening. One that wasn't easy to hear was "Tokyo's Burning," a powerful piece on the 50th anniversary of the Dresden-like bombing of Japan's capital city (again, the sound file may load slowly depending on your browser).
"A feature can be noise and excitement. It can use the techniques of drama. It can tap memory and emotions. It can be poetic. The feature goes beyond the simple literal presentation of facts, opinions and explanatory narration. It is an experience that can be heard and enjoyed more than once."
Naturally, others had something to say about his work. An ABC colleague, Eurydice Aroney, wrote in an academic paper before his passing:
"Barrell's 'hybrid' forms insist on a modern reading of the functions of 'documentary' material in the invisible world of the aural imagination. In this acoustic space the radio producer can build up layers of sound and meaning, superimpose 'real' or documentary material and fictional elements on top of each other, weave them together in ways that are just not possible with visual images."