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Until you’ve been through the radio commissioning process from start to finish it can be difficult to understand exactly what’s involved. Having now emerged from the latest round clutching a small handful of precious commissions, I promised I would write up what I’ve learned from the experience.
So here, for those who’ve asked (and anyone else who might be interested) is a sort of 10 Step Guide to the Commissioning Process from having an idea, right through to being commissioned.
I’m specifically talking about Radio 4 because it’s the process I’ve been through, however I imagine it’s much the same for other BBC radio stations.
Radio 4 produce an enormous amount of scripted drama and comedy and so there are lots of opportunities available. They also have a remit to work with a certain percentage of new writers (which I think counts as any writer with 0-2 broadcast credits), and writers who are new to radio (this could be Jimmy McGovern if he’s never written for radio before). If you’re a new writer with no broadcast credits, by default you’ve also never written for radio before, and therefore you tick both boxes. This is why radio is hailed as such a good place for new writers to get their foot in the door.
Step 1: The idea
Don’t try and think of an idea-for-radio. Just think of a story you want to tell. A radio producer recently said to me the reason she likes TV writers is precisely because they don’t come to her with what they think are “radio ideas”. Just think of a good story. Preferably think of a fistful. The more ideas you end up with in the final part of the commissioning process, the more likely it is you will get something through.
Step 2: Look at the available slots and decide where your story best fits
Is it a Woman’s Hour series, an Afternoon Play, a Friday Play, a Saturday Play, a series that fits in one of those slots (e.g. 5x45m in the Afternoon Play slot), a sitcom, etc. You can find loads of information about each slot and what kind of stories Radio 4 is looking to put in each of them by going here.
Step 3: Write up a brief outline
No more than a page, and if you can do it in half a page that’s even better. Radio producers are extremely extremely busy dealing with many many submissions and tend to have many many projects on the go at any one time. The fewer words you use to tell your story the better. In the outline you need to make sure you have a complete beginning, middle and end, and some sense of who the characters are.
Step 4: Find a producer who will read it
This can be an independent producer or an in-house BBC producer. Independent production companies are only authorised to tender bids for specific slots so before you approach them you need to know what those slots are. Luckily all that information is provided for you in this handy PDF which is also available on the Radio 4 website.
Once you’ve worked out which production companies are involved in which type of programming look up their website, check out what they’ve made before and whether your project might be up their street and find out what their submissions policy is. They might only deal with represented writers, but there are several who will take unsolicited scripts from writers without agents, you just have to look for them.
You can also look in the Writers & Artists Yearbook, which is now searchable online, all you have to do is register for free on their website.
Alternatively you can approach the appropriate radio department directly and submit your ideas straight to them. Anyone can do this, you don’t need an agent, but you should bear in mind that they are completely swamped with submissions. All the appropriate contact details for producers in the various departments of Radio 4 can be found here or by visiting the Writing for Radio 4 page of their website – which you should absolutely read anyway if you’re planning on sending them an idea.
Step 5: Once you’ve found a suitable producer, send them an email
Keep it short and to the point. You’ve got an idea for a radio sitcom about a blind dog who keeps bees, would they be willing to read a short outline? Probably best not to send them that one, but you get the idea. You will likely be asked for a calling card script so make sure you’ve got one that really shows what you can do, and preferably one that shows top-notch dialogue skills. If you haven’t written a radio script before you might be asked for sample pages to prove you can write for the medium, but it probably depends on how well your first calling card goes down as to whether they think it’s necessary to see more proof of your ability.
Step 6: Understanding the scale of the commissioning process
Across the board, Radio 4 estimate they normally receive over 3,000 proposals at the “pre-offers” stage (see below). This is for all programming, not just drama and comedy, but that’s still an enormous operation.
This is how a much cleverer and more talented writer explained the commissioning process to me: Every commissioning round is like a market. All the producers lay out their fruits and vegetables and the commissioners come and choose what they want to eat for the next six months. Because it’s very difficult to know what you’re going to want to eat in six months’ time, this makes the decision very hard for the commissioner. So you should make your fruits and vegetables look more appealing and longer-lasting than the market next door’s.
Recently, the commissioning process has undergone some changes that mean, for some slots, instead of six monthly rounds the gap has been increased to two years. It’s called batch commissioning and there are good points and bad points being made about it. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure I’ve got to grips with it myself yet, but the way I understand it as it relates to independent producers, is as follows:
Because the commissioning process is a period of negotiation that can last several months, by the the time you’ve gotten the details pinned down, it’s time to start preparing for the next round. This puts an enormous strain on both producers and commissioning departments. The new system commissions batches of programming from different producers to cover a period of the next two years, without necessarily deciding the content in advance. For example, an independent production company might be given a batch of 5 Afternoon Plays and they can decide what they want to do with them as they go along.
This gives everyone more breathing room in between rounds and more time to focus on developing their programmes. But indies who don’t win any commissions have to wait two years before they can try again. This is obviously not good for them or the writers they’re working with.
This is, I’ll grant you, a very simplified version of the situation and there are still decision making processes taking place within those two years, but it might be something to be aware of and worth looking into in more detail.
Step 7: “Pre-Offers” – 100 word pitches
That was all a bit of a sidetrack because what you really need to know is your part in it. And that is this:
If the producer you’ve submitted your idea to likes it and is willing to take it to market, it will be submitted onto a large database called RAP. (UPDATE: This has now been upgraded to a new system called PROTEUS, but it essentially works the same way). For the first stage when there are literally thousands of ideas being submitted, you have a maximum of 100 words to sell your story and the producer has 200 words to sell the project as a whole and you as a writer.
This is very very difficult. But if you think of it as a logline then it’s less alarming. You need to give a sense of the story and a sense of the characters. Here’s the example they give in the commissioning guidelines for Hamlet:
Brilliant 17th century Danish Prince seeks to revenge the mysterious death of his father and in so doing loses his mind, destroys his family and overturns the state of Denmark. Renaissance tragedy. Period verse drama. (35 words)
You also need a good title. Given how little room you’ve got to get your idea across you can use your title as an extra way to explain your story. Think of how many film titles sum up what the film is about and indicate the genre all at once: Gladiator, Alien, Pirates of the Caribbean, the list goes on. If you can do that, you’ve given yourself a good head start. Always bear in mind that your ideas are being chosen from a database of thousands of other entries and that you need to stand out.
You might think that 100 words is an unfair limitation, but consider the audience trying to decide whether to tune in for your programme – they only get one sentence in the Radio Times.
If you really can’t do it, it’s probably because you don’t know your story well enough. Do some more work on it, flesh it out for your own benefit, and then try again.
Step 8: “Final Offers” – Two page outlines
If your project is chosen on the basis of your 100 words, the next step will be to write it up in no more than two pages. This is where you can go into more detail, really tell the story and give a sense of the characters. Explain how it will be structured, i.e. if it’s a series, break it down into episodes and say what happens in each one.
For steps 7 and 8 you will be working with your producer who wants to succeed as much as you do so although this is quite hard to get right, you will have help and feedback before it gets put in.
Step 9: Wait
The long, agonising wait to hear whether your project is being commissioned. Start working on something else otherwise you’ll go mad.
Step 10: The Decision
Hooray! Your project (or if you’re very lucky, projects) have been commissioned! There may be some negotiation about the slot, the transmission date, the budget, the cast and so on, but the decision has been made and you’re on your way.
Now all you have to do is write the scripts.
Very informative. Thanks.
OH and Gratz too. :)
Brilliant, thanks Michelle!
That was really thorough and informative, thanks.
Couple of questions. What about completed spec scripts, how do they fit in? And any info on standard pay scales, for a one-off play, for example?
Bloody well done and thankyou.
Hi Nigel, a completed spec is great if you’ve got one but I should think a producer would still rather see a one page outline first so they can decide if the idea is generally one they’d be interested in. If you send a query email you should mention that you’ve got a completed script.
Payment is on a per minute basis in line with the Writers Guild Radio Drama Minimum Rates Agreement, details of which are available online.
RE: Jimmy McGovern: In the same way I am now classified as an experienced writer having nothing else produced other than two radio plays… it’s all so weird….
Congratulations and thank you for this very clear guide.
Thanks very much for the detailed info. Well done!
YAY!!!!!! Congrats Michelle!!!
Congratulations and jubilations on your small handful.
This is great Michelle. I’ve just started working with a radio producer so this is very timely and very useful! Hope I get as far as you did! One question. What’s the timescale. If you put something in for September, when do they let you know if it’s through the first round, and then whether it’s been commissioned?
Hi John, the official published timetable for the most recent round went as follows:
Deadline to enter pre-offers in RAP, 24 March. Pre-offer results published in RAP, 9 April. Deadline for final offers, 7 May. Results, 2 July.
It’s quite a fast process once you’re in it. Good luck with yours! Make sure you let me know how you get on :0)
Thanks Michelle. Wonderful post!
Awesome post, my delicious friend: it is archived thus in THE LIST OF WONDER over at my place.
I’ve always toyed with writing for radio and have read lots of radio scripts either online or for people, but that would mean listening to actual radio plays and I don’t think I ever have if I’m honest. It’s not that I dislike them, but I rarely find time in my schedule to simply sit down and LISTEN given that both my kids are extreme foghorns*. I gave The Royal Tapes Writersroom initiative a few years’ back but got nowhere. No surprise really, hahahaha.
* So how do I watch TV and movies??? With subtitles on, else I have no clue WTF is going on. I KID YE NOT.
Also: I’ve just read this really excellent article by Izzy Mant about radio writing over at Twelve Point. You’ll need to log in to see it but if you’re a Twelve Point member and you’re interested in writing for radio you should definitely check it out.
Essential info! Thanks. I am perhaps about to dip my toe into Radio land – we shall see!
Fab, Michelle. I’m working on something with a Radio Four producer at the moment and I knew vaguely about something called ‘the commissioning round’ but nothing about RAP. Another 100 word pitch huh. Great….
Thanks Michelle – The first source I’ve found that clearly explains the process.
This is hugely informative and answers a lot of questions I have not been able find ready answers to from Radio 4′s website!
Thank you, thank you… and good luck!
What if you’re an independent producer (as I am) who has produced a radio program (or programme, if we’re spelling it the British way) and wants to pitch it for a BBC Radio 4 show that’s on the air — or maybe as a radio series pilot? How are the procedures similar or different? Can you find them on any of the BBC Web sites? If so, where? Please let me know.
Sorry Shawn, I wouldn’t even know where to start! I’d have thought your best bet would be to ask a fellow producer, one who deals in the same sort of programme making (i.e factual/drama/light entertainment etc) Or contact the appropriate commissioning editor at Radio 4 and try and get some guidance directly from them. All their details are on the commissioning pages of the Radio 4 website. If you want to pitch your programme as part of a current series I’d have thought your first port of call would be the producer of that series.
That all seems fairly obvious though so I’m sure you’ve already done all those things! I don’t really know what else to suggest… Good luck.
If a script is accepted do you have to have meetings with producers etc.?
Usually, yes. They’ll almost certainly want to meet you at least once before they formally put your idea to the commissioner in case it gets accepted and then you turn out to be a weirdo. You’ll be working closely for a year or more. You have to get along.
Hi Michelle, really useful, thank you. Just one question re copyright and the BBC. If you write a radio play that you intend to turn into a novel/film/TV drama etc, do you retain the rights or does the beeb?
Hi Mim, I think that kind of depends on lots of things that would be negotiated in your own specific contract. My own experience has always been through a third party independent production company so my contract has been with them rather than with the BBC – but there are lots of clauses about who owns what and for how long.
Obviously I’ve only ever seen my own contracts so that’s all I can tell you about, but they’ve always been worded in such a way that gives the production company rights to the SCRIPT, whilst I keep the rights to the story – which means I’d be entirely within my rights to write a brand new script (or novel) based on the same underlying material. But how you start differentiating between the story and the script is a whole other matter! For example, you may have to change characters or settings or certain plot points. How long the company keeps the rights to the script is a matter for negotiation.
Another way it becomes complicated is if you’ve created a series rather than a single drama. For a series, there’s also a “format” and how it tends to work is that the company sort of licenses the format from the creator and pays a fee each time they use it. So the company could keep making new series of your show without you, and just pay you a 10% format fee for each episode (or whatever you’ve negotiated). You wouldn’t then be able to take that same project elsewhere without making very significant changes.
Likewise though, they wouldn’t be able to just go off and make a TV series or a film based on your project without negotiating it with you first – and paying you for it.
Things move from radio to telly all the time, so it does happen. But all the examples I can think of have stayed within the same company (e.g. a BBC radio sitcom moves to a BBC TV channel, or a drama produced by a independent production company has been produced for TV by the same production company). The question is whether you’d be able to take the same project to a completely different company/broadcaster without buying back the rights. I wouldn’t think so – but I’m not entirely sure. Of course, you could always wait for the license to expire and then do something else with it, but that could be a long time.
Having RAMBLED ON about all that, my only definitive advice would be not to listen to a word I’ve said! This is a legal matter and I’m just a writer – so if it’s of concern to you and you don’t have an agent to handle your contract negotiations, I’d say it’s worth getting an entertainment or copyright lawyer to look over any paperwork before you sign it so you know exactly where you stand. The Writers Guild also has a contract vetting service for its members.
Sorry not to be more help!
Thanks very much for taking the time to write such a considered response. Your website is excellent!
Thank you :)
Thanks for the information Michelle! Really helpful and informative. I’m so glad I’ve found it when I did!
I’m currently writing the script for a pilot episode of a radio sitcom that I hope to approach a producer with in the near future. I was going to go through the BBC Writersroom and I’m wondering if that would be a similar process as to sending it straight to the relevant radio department in the BBC? (Or are they one and the same anyway?)
Also, I’m a little bit concerned about being a novice writer whether my pitch will be taken seriously. I don’t have any sort of experience or even qualifications to back me up when contacting a producer for the first time and I’m wondering whether that will really hinder me. I know you mentioned that the BBC has a remit to broadcast new writer’s work, but I hardly consider myself a “writer” as anything I’ve ever written has been for my eyes only and not really been published anywhere.
Any other tips for someone whose completely new and oblivious to this whole writing, submitting and commissioning process would be really appreciated! :)
Hi Seamus, it’s not the same thing to send a script to the Writersroom as they don’t produce anything, but they might be able to put you in touch with an in-house radio producer. Going through the Writersroom can be a lengthy process (you’d have to send them several very good scripts before they passed you on). But the Writersroom is the best possible place for you to get free feedback on your work from professionals so if you’re only just starting out you should definitely send it to them – you’ve got nothing to lose!
As soon as you’ve sent it you should start writing a new script. Not an episode of the same sitcom, but something else entirely. It takes about four months for the Writersroom to get back to you. If they send you notes you know you’ve done well because they only send notes on the very best scripts they read.
Four months should be enough time to write a new script, so once you hear back from them hopefully you’ll have something else to send!
Then start again!
Writing lots of scripts and sending them out for feedback really is the best way to start.
You could send your sitcom to radio producers anyway (though it’s getting a little late for this round because it’s in one month so producers are already starting to make decisions about which projects they’re going to submit so you’d have to be very quick about it). But if you don’t have any experience at all or if this is the first script you’ve written, it might be worth waiting until next year and using the time in between to build a portfolio of scripts and ideas, get some feedback and improve your skills. If you get a professional commission you’re going to need to be in the habit of writing fast, taking notes and dealing with problems as they arise!
If you can try and get a bit of experience elsewhere it will stand you in good stead – but that doesn’t mean you have to have broadcast credits. I wrote this blog post about things you can do to get experience that you might find useful:
Above all just keep going! Keep writing and keep sending stuff out. It’s a long road so have patience, roll up your sleeves and don’t give up! It’s all worth it in the end.
Best of luck!
Thanks again! I’ll definitely take your advice on board! :)
This is a great article.
Just out of interest, what is the best way for a new writer to approach? Is it via Writers Room, via an independent Radio Production Company or via another means?
Gail : )
All of the above I’d say! The Writers Room is a great resource but I wouldn’t think it’s the best way to get through to a specific department (i.e. radio drama) as they take such a broad approach to finding new writers. Send them your script but then consider making contact directly with radio producers – whether in-house at the BBC or via independent production companies. Increase your chances!
Good luck : )
Really excellent breakdown of The Process Michelle.
I’ve been informed that R4 have an obligation to commission 25% of Afternoon Play from writers new to radio so that seems to be the best way in. The other thing I’ve learned is that it’s not a case of once you’ve got a commission you’re somehow ‘in’ with this exclusive club and all your ideas will be forever accepted. (An angry student told me once that he wrote to the BBC accusing them all of being ‘linen trousered Oxford poofs who only commissioned other linen trousered Oxford poofs.’ Curiously this didn’t help his writing career).
Hi Michelle, At last someone who makes the commissioning process clear. I’ve been sending scripts off into a great black abyss for years. I least I know now where I’ve been going so very wrong. Thankyou Jane.
This is really useful as I was looking through the BBC website focusing on Radio 4 submissions and feeling quite swamped. You have logically outlined the process of submitting work or ideas very clearly and have extracted some useful contact and information sources. There is some excellent advice based in here to based on your own hard-won experience. Much appreciated. Sharon Henry.
Roughly ten years ago I sent three radio scripts, (one at a time, not all in one go), to the BBC. After a while they sent my work back. They were extremely complimentary, but declined to produce any of them. I am now of the opinion that getting any work commissioned by the BBC is an almost impossible task. I think it’s a case of getting your foot in the door and knowing the right people.
For anyone considering writing radio drama, I think it’s important to bear in mind that hardly anyone except the BBC produces it, and it is thus very difficult to get your work produced if they decline to do so.
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