BEHIND THE SCENES with Eurydice Aroney

Since it's you, and you fooled nearly an entire continent with your expose on child-care robots, I must ask: Is the Personal Board real

Yes. The Personal Board was an established group that had been meeting on the phone for a couple of years before I became involved

How did you learn about the Personal Board

As you might recall, Stephan (one of the Board members) is an Australian and I was told about the Board by a friend of Stephan's who's also a radio producer. I was immediately intrigued, and it wasn't very much of a stretch for me to consider its potential as a radio program. I'd recently produced a series about the men's movement (remember this was 1992) and was interested in the whole "personal development" scene that was still evolving in Australia at the time. I am the kind of person who likes to take risks and hopefully entertain an audience . . . the PB all took place on the phone so it was easy to record, it had a interesting bunch of people who could talk the legs off a piano, and I was looking for a challenging project that included built-in drama as well as elements of current popular culture

When were the conversations recorded

Was it before the current reality programming craze? The PB members weren't yet online so it all happened at a very particular "pre-online" moment in time. There was also no reality TV that I knew of. Each PB meeting went for an hour exactly, and the whole call was recorded in the studio here in Australia. I only became a "casual" member for the recording of each of the three series which happened within a six-year period. I'd join for, say, eight weeks at a time, record the lot and then edit it all down into the 15-minute episodes. It was heavily constructed so that each episode rode the conventions of a soap opera drama. The first series was recorded and edited on quarter-inch tape! You might not notice, but in the first series the PB members were almost unaware of being recorded . . . but by the last series they are editing themselves and their stories. They knew by then what they might not want to have made public and although I think the third series is still good stuff it was harder for me to find the drama

Have you used the phone so heavily in your other pieces? I wonder if you could've gotten these people to talk to each other and about themselves like they did if you'd invited them into a studio and set microphone in their faces

I've never thought about it before, but now you mention it, no, I haven't used the phone in other documentary work. Maybe the PB experience has cured me of it! There was no way this project would've worked without it, though. The members were so "at home" and intimate. There's one scene where I think you can hear someone flushing the toilet whilst they're still talking . . . it's that level of unselfconsciousness. Because they'd been meeting for so long before I started recording, their "performances" are completely relaxed and natural and I was lucky that they were such extraordinary people with wonderful story telling skills. Last year I was in Vancouver and three of the Board drove up from Seattle to have lunch with me. It was the first time we'd met face to face. It was really weird but great too

The members' conversation is often highly intimate. What were some of the issues that came up about using those personal moments in a radio piece? Were you concerned about what the listening audience thought of the "characters"? Did you feel protective of the members

I do feel protective of them, but to tell you the truth they don't need my protection. A lot of Australians were horrified at the Board's self obsession . . . it's not part of the Australian character to talk about yourself like that. You can hear me struggling with it at times. But these people could laugh at themselves and that made all the difference. It wasn't like they couldn't take it. Remember, I was on the line as well. The first meeting they put me "on probation." They hadn't decided whether to go ahead with the recordings and wanted to find out more about me and whether I'd take a risk alongside of them. I had to ask myself what I'd be prepared to expose and who else it might affect in Australia. They would not have agreed to do it if I hadn't joined in so completely. In a way I was more vulnerable as the series was broadcast on my turf where I was already a (minor) public figure through my radio work which included the occasional hosting of a national daily current affairs program! Of course, I had to make difficult decisions like, is this a fair representation of them? What would they think when they heard this? There are times when it sounds like they are totally mad and I'm playing it for all its worth, but you know what . . . they thought that it was funny too! They were all smart enough to know that the PB series is not REALLY them. It's a version of them . . . it's a heavily mediated, totally dramatized version that in the end is something entirely of its own

The communication on the board is fascinating. It's this peculiar combination of free-form emotional confession inside a very structured language of self-help jargon. Were you struck by the way the members talked to one another

Oh yes. They were so good at talking I was almost mute at times with awe. But we Australians see that as an American thing. There's no way the PB would've worked with a bunch of Australians. It would've sounded like "How you doin?" "I'm OK," end of conversation

How was it presented when it was originally broadcast? Were listeners following along like a soap opera? What was the reaction in Australia

It was presented weekly first, on Radio Eye (with a repeat) and then on Life Matters which is a daily show with a broad listenership over the summer season. I think it must've gone to air daily over summer. Listeners lapped it up. It was heard very much as a soapie. People still want to know how they're all getting along. Actually, I'm presently on an e-mailing list which is Bonita's diary of her continuing struggle with cancer.