Well the internet is a funny place. You think it's there forever, and then you find it's not. Some audience focused projects dear to my heart took place on the very imaginative, inventive, and collaborative website, ABC Pool, some years ago. When the ABC decided not to continue with the experiment, it took the website down and I thought all those precious playful projects were lost. Well, I've just discovered they were carefully preserved on Pandora, the National Library of Australia website. And there they still exist. For the record, these were Birdland, The Trees Project, and City Nights.
The last students have left the classroom, the last assignments marked - and my first semester of teaching has come to an end. From what appeared to be a sea of blank faces who couldn’t care less about podcasting, to a set of new producers of sophisticated works which revealed the personalities I've come to know and enjoy, teaching has taught me a great deal.
I worked closely with Lea Redfern and Tina Matalov to bring about a transformation from 180 newcomers to a batch of committed and bravely experimental makers. Not one stayed bored for long and our attendance sheets were remarkably full.
One of the things we discussed a lot with our students was the impact of location recording. A few weeks ago I recorded a conversation with Professor Jaky Troy about linguistics of place, of names, about the Indigenous traditional Barangaroo. About the starscape, seascape and landscape of a rebuilt and recently reopened headland on Sydney Harbour.
To do this I could have walked across the campus from the lecture room to Professor Troy's office. But instead we decided speaking in place at Barangaroo as the water lapped round the shoreline, was essential to a sense of the story for our listeners. We wanted to speak of things we could see in front of us, rather than of abstractions. We could look out across the water to Goat Island and speak of Barangaroo fishing with her partner, Bennelong and imagine her walking beside us so much more easily than from inside the bricks and mortar of the University of Sydney. We had chosen a chilly autumn night in order to see the ghosts of the stars she too had seen and we sat on rough sandstone and drank tea and chatted easily. And of course, the sounds of the water, the scratch of stone as we shifted in our seats, the hum of ferries going past - the place was perceptible in the rhythm of our speech, the tense and subjectivity of which we spoke, and in being there I hope we will bring our listeners with us. This pilot for The Celestial Picnic Podcast was made all the more magic for the presence of the spirit of Barangaroo. As the interview came to a close and we were able to imagine her strolling past on her traditional country Jaky was very moved, which came through in the quaver of her voice.
Another more quick and dirty project was a series of short interviews about organic farming at Highfield Farm and Woodland, near Tumut. Again, the we were in place - we came face to face with a mother sheep and her newborn lambs and heard them cry as she struggled to bond - her story developed over a few days and every day the lambs cries grew stronger and our conversation less urgent and we journeyed in place and diegetic sound towards a happy ending. In the evening the hills grew echo-y about the vital role of woodland reserves and regeneration, and we spoke about herding animals on foot and never with vehicles or dogs, as around us the sheep and lambs settled for the night. In the morning we chatted in the kitchen where the clatter of jars and the pouring of liquids punctuated a conversation about making kombucha. All this brings the listener with you and invites them in just as the interviewee feels more grounded and 'at home', and their communication reflects this.
But don’t feel you ‘have’ to provide an evocative space for your interview. A third project launched this week - a five-part series called Prevention Works, which I produced and hosted. Prevention Works is a niche podcast on public health and chronic disease, looking at the broader issues that have an impact but which we rarely think about - from law to nutrition to food affordability. These were one-on-one interviews about abstract ideas - there was no need to situate the listener in space. Certainly the fascination of the material to me as a layperson in a role of 'translator' of complex and longstanding research projects into accessible language was enough, I think, to carry the stories forward. But to deepen the content I asked about the personal history of the researcher, and more than once emotions came to the surface that were unexpected, but revealed the passion behind the intellect.
It’s been a big week, and there’ll be more of both Barangaroo and public health to come... and let’s not start on what I figured out from my PhD reading this month - I just love every aspect of this work, which brings the world to my doorstep!
Have you heard the term ‘lean in’? It conjures an image of a person listening intently, leaning forward to get closer to the source. A podcast is a ‘lean in’ listening experience. It means the audience member has actively sought out and chosen the audio - they’ve made a particular kind of commitment to listen. And that audio is right in their ears via their headphones, so it needs to sound good, and keep their close attention. It stands in direct contrast to switching on your favourite radio station and having it burble away in the background of your daily life.
Stylistically, daily radio and chit chat is light of touch, quick and cheap to prepare and ebbs and flows through the day. But there was one Australian network which was perfectly placed for the podcast revolution. The work, particularly coming from the documentary features unit, was self-contained - it had a beginning, middle and end, was focused in its content, carefully planned, highly edited and deliberately structured to draw the listener along - even when it appeared to also be conversational. That network was ABC RN, where I worked as a documentary and podcast maker for 20 years. Staff producers at ABC RN are multi-skilled and independent operators - an individual maker will cover every aspect of a production right up to the final mix - from conception, research, interview coordination, writing question briefs, conducting interviews, enticing the interviewee to present at their best and make sense. Then there'd be presentation, editing and sound design - all these together being the hallmarks of quality listening.
So, this kind of radio evolved to become podcasting, and it makes sense that RN and its staff producers, were early adopters. Now, a podcast (or radio) of this kind may attract a smaller audience than daily radio tots up, but each listener has come on purpose to hear content that is relevant to them. They are an interest-group audience and they may well be ‘influencers’.
As podcasts become ubiquitous, to keep that audience it's vital the ideas are rich, the guests engaging, and the audio object be well-crafted and tightly edited. A good podcast series needs the development of a dynamic narrative flow, not just within each episode but across the series. While there are many blog-style chatty podcasts around made by newcomer makers hopeful of hitting the big-time, the quality is often dodgy to to average.
If, as a brand, you want to make an impact, you’ll need serious production skills. Consider this:
A 30 minute conversation between host and talent could have 200-400 editing decisions made out of 75 minutes raw recording, to cut out excessive ums, ahs, and waffling interjections. Add sound design, theme music and scripting and there are even more decisions to make. An hour’s interview takes the time it takes to play and consider and cannot be skimmed and cut like a word document. If you don’t remove the waffle and construct the direction of the unfolding conversation, your podcast becomes unfocused, and your audience drifts away. In other words - you need a high ‘hook’ count.
Finally, essential to impactful, intelligent podcasting is an ear for a great voice and/or strong story; empathy in the listening and a careful approach to delicate content; an ability to translate complex ideas into accessible but captivating content; excellent organisational skills to coordinate talent, editing and sound engineering; a big picture overview with creative problem solving on the hop; an understanding of great mic technique; the experience to work under pressure and deliver to deadline; and a charming and engaging manner to entice the best from the interviewee, and the listener to stick around.
There's been a lot of talk on podcasting forums about duration of the podcast. Should it be 20 minutes? an hour? 90 minutes? I used to make hour-long documentaries for a program which in its turn, in the 1990s ran for an hour and a half. Such a thing is unthinkable now - apparently no one has the interest or time to spend, but while times have changed - both literally and metaphorically, the art and craft of interview has not. Does your audience really want to listen to 90 minutes of rambling conversation? Frankly - no. Do your audience the courtesy of good, tight editing, but also tight and structured interviewing in the first place.
Having been a print journalist, I know it's easy to ask questions in any order and it's easy to can get away with a rambling discussion, from which to cherry pick what goes in between the " ". Writers can then create the story as they wish, from the pivot points to the reveal, removing along the way their own (my own!) bumbling enquiries by masterfully writing linking sentences and paragraphs.
But for an audio interview the skill lies in two main areas. One is great research. Research can be into material found publicly, but also a pre-interview can be very handy. To gather background and stories not available in written form,and also assess speaking style of your guest, let them get to know you, and work out what you have to do to encourage them to speak confidently.
The other essential is your brief - your road map to the way you want the interview to unfold. And it is a journey, through introduction, detail, and emotional impact. You want to decide at which point the complexities, the pivot points, the 'yes, but' moments will occur before you start the conversation. You are the listener's proxy - so start with the simple questions you'd ask if you didn't already know the answers, and from there guide the interviewee towards the trickier territory. By 'tricky' I mean anything from technical details to emotional content. The interview opening is really crucial to enticing your listener to join you on this trip and to keep them curious, so structure your brief as if you are all beginning together - interviewee, interviewer, and listener. And, this is key: if you start with the complex material, believe me, in a conversation it's very difficult to go back to the moment where you didn't know something. The tone of voice changes, and assumed knowledge happens. Always start with the basics. Who, what, where, when, then why.
Of course, there will always be a surprise, even with all this backgrounding. Surprises are listening gold and often happen through the performance pressure of the recorded interview. They perk everyone up and keep you hooked. To continue the journey metaphor - what's around the corner on the actual street is always very different to what's on the map - even with google streetview! Smells, sounds, tastes ... the weather. All remain unpredictable. But a well-prepared road map will keep you and your listener heading in the right direction, as well as make the interviewee feel that they are in confident hands. As an aside, on the brief I usually put key points I want covered in light font or in brackets to remind me to prompt further, if the interviewer doesn't cover everything I need.
Finally, as a voice interviewer, remember your questions will be heard. They must be tight, so keep them short. The tone of your voice has to be engaging. Don't ramble or speculate or go on at length about your own experience. And if you do, be prepared to edit well - ask in such a way that you can edit - with lots of pauses for easy cutting. Speak in whole sentences. Often your questions will be the propelling material for a change of direction, a shift in pace or tone. So you need to plan for this. Interviewer questions sound more natural than a scripted link, and are useful for changing up the tone of your own voice in your podcast, so bear this in mind also - you might want to include some summary information to move the topic along in that question and avoid another link.
In summary - keep it tight, plan it well - and neither of you will come off the road (sorry couldn't resist).
And as usual - feel free to ask me any questions you have, on the art and craft of interviewing.
There’s more than one mirror to the soul. The eyes have it, sure. But there’s something else that can take you right down, deep into the psyche: the spoken voice. When there’s no distracting visual cues, and you’re just listening, through earbuds or the radio you’ll find you get right in, to connect with the speaker. We know this from the honeyed and beloved tones of presenters like ABC RN’s Philip Adams or Geraldine Doogue - I’ve read the fan mail - their voices make people weak at the knees.
But it’s not just the classic radio sound that make a voice a powerful tool. The way air flows over vocal chords - the quavers, tremors, breaths and hesitations, the rush and tumble, the smokiness and growl, the lightness and melody - the very cracks and crevices - this tells us about the inner world like nothing else. The voice, whether jubilant or howling, gives it all away.
As podcasts become ubiquitous and as online, essentially ‘print’ news services embrace the new form, there are some things to look out for. I’ve worked extensively in print, radio, podcast and online, and have some thoughts to offer.
So, you’ve chosen well and your talent has a lot to offer. Research, life experience, commentary - they’re exemplary and you’ve picked them for what they know.
But print or pod, not all interviews are the same.
Print has it relatively easy and before you object, here’s why: your talent is awkward? Reluctant? Speaks in broken sentences? Leaves long gaps? Runs the ends of sentences together and pauses in the middle? Says ‘um’ or ‘like’ every few words, or has a verbal tic? No problem. Quotes can be elided to make sense, 'um's never happened, no one sees the ellipses implied by the hesitations. No one knows the guest's voice is flat, tired, irritable, disinterested or ‘hiding something’. When they make no sense the writer can summarise, and really only needs a few quotes. A fabulous picture of an awkward or unwilling guest can be painted in words, creatively describing the scenario but not making the listener live every dragged-out word.
But the spoken word? The voice is a powerful instrument. So first, second and third is 'good talent', in one sense or another. You're going to need to hear mostly from them. As interviewer you don't get to encapsulate who they are and what they think, the way a writer can. Now, your talent doesn’t have to sound like a silken-toned radio host. But their voice must reveal something of their story. Passion, connection, engagement, intellect, grief: in some way, they need to be articulate. And your job, as interviewer, is to draw that out.
And then there’s the unspoken word. When it comes to silence the only time a reluctant speaker is useful is when they have something to hide which you want to reveal. Those pauses, hesitations, have their own syntax which the audience will pick up. The dance between you as you dig further, becomes fascinating to hear. Other kinds of hesitations can be because the guest has lived something extraordinary they’re struggling to put into words - and their pauses are pregnant with reflection. But if the guest is just plain inarticulate or abrupt, impatient, or uninspired, if they hate being interviewed, they’re rendered shy, don’t know how to talk about their research, their novel, their poem, work or sport - your listener will turn away, no matter how important the information. There’s only so many 'um's you can cut out, and gaps you can close. Each one is perceptible, each cut makes the guest sound awkward. Their sum is greater than their parts. A skilled engineer and editor can fix this to a degree. But no one is a miracle worker.
As an audio interviewer therefore, your craft is partly in seduction. Assuming here you have fair intentions, your job is to help your interviewee know you understand them, you care about what they have to say - even if you don’t agree with it - and vitally - they can trust you to do the right thing, whether or not that means asking hard questions. Difficult talent can be brought around to share something and I’ve done it many a time. It’s hard work. It’s emotionally taxing. But it’s rewarding. In essence you must develop some kind of mutual respect. And care must be taken, more so than in print, to to invite the audience in to your conversation and to do this it must be a conversation, a mutual give and take from the start. Without rapport your feature interview becomes a news brief. The interview dies on the vine.
How to get to this fabulous state for your ideal podcast? The pre-interview is one way. Here you can make clear you value your guest and are interested in their perspective, that you’ve done some research and you have a plan. They’re in your hands, so they must trust you. Surprises in the interview proper are always good, of course, especially profound ones. But conversely, dead ends can get boring for a listener. It’s a good idea to eliminate the chances of these via a pre-interview.
So, readers, radio makers and print journalists, what do you think? What have I forgotten here, and do you have any questions? I love to chat about the craft of journalism - do get in touch.
The other day a friend asked me to have a look at some writing for her. A candidate in the local council election, she had a Q and A in the local paper to hand in. She had 50 words per question and 10 minutes before deadline, and she showed me a series of dot point answers.
Fair enough, right? Dot points are an efficient way to get through plenty of information in limited space.
But the trouble is, they’re not very friendly.
If you’re trying to reach out to an audience, be it in community politics, stakeholders, potential financiers or a broad public, you need to invite them into your world, using language which compels them to keep reading. The best way to do that is to reveal a little of yourself and speak to the heart. This isn’t something you can manufacture, of course, but don’t be afraid to let some of your love for what you’re doing peek through.
To save space, try using active rather than passive tense - ‘the man bit the dog’ instead of - ‘the dog was bitten by the man’ . It's more eye catching and energetic, but also efficient with the word count, allowing you a more space - to make that connection and issue that invitation.
Sometimes the story is too big. Climate change is known as a 'hyper-object' - it's literally too big for our minds to comprehend. So we turn away. But that's a problem.
My profession drives me to tell stories. My passion is environment and science communication. So how do we tell meaningful stories about climate change? Well, I think we start by shrinking things a bit. From interplanetary in scale, let's get right down to local, and what people are doing in and for their own environments.
And which medium works best for these stories? The alienation we feel at the thought of global warming can be countered with the intimacy of the voice. The podcast, something 'everyone' can do, brings the spoken words of real people and lived experience into the earbud. It's intensely close - the voice in the ear. With intimacy comes empathy and with empathy we can no longer look away. But also, the abstract, enormity of it all becomes an accessible solution. If we empathise, we understand the other, and we start to see what we can do - like for like. And with action, comes hope.
The podcast is a powerful tool. With projects like my Hot Summer Land, Birdland and the Trees project, I asked people to talk about a tree they had loved, a bird they felt a connection to, a moment observing their own landscape. The stories were unique and thoughtful, and thought-provoking. The writers and audience read each others' work, and felt they were not alone. They could face the task in company. I love this medium, for its flexibility of style and content - from storytelling of matters of the heart and soul, to exploring practical solutions. For the way it brings the experts together with the people.
And that - all of that - is powerful.
I made a program about a remarkable person recently. A story about a dear and longstanding friend of mine. Someone extraordinary. I am so very very proud of her, and how honest, insightful and generous she's remained, through the incredible trauma and difficulty and struggle of her life. She gave it to me freely, we collaborated and I regularly checked in with her as I made editorial decisions, and we both had the same desire - to share in order to help others who had been through what she has, and lost what she has. To comfort them, to let them know they're not alone, and maybe even to influence the decision makers.
But it wasn't easy. Reducing her her life story into 26.5 little minutes made me feel sick at times. That I'd commodified my friend somehow in shaping her story for consumption. There are times when I think being a reporter, a producer, is a disease you don't realise you have. And eventually you understand that actually all those good intentions are just a delusion, a kind of arrogant ignorance, the worst kind of hubris. Will there be any improvement in policy as a result of my program? Unlikely. Yet perhaps there will be comfort for those who most need
Anyway, Tansy's story on ABC RN has gone to air. With a small animation and an article by my friend. It's had a big impact, with all sorts of people getting in touch to say how much it meant to them, and this, in a way, is a mollification for me. I'm glad the work is done, it wasn't easy. And I remain uneasy about the result, but concur that its benefits far outweigh my anxieties.
Last night, 9.5 hours and still not quite able to get up. Body telling me something - that a month of non-stop work, regardless of how wonderful, requires rest. Hoping to power up for another month to make 4 programs out of a gathering of many extraordinary interviews, done with my BBC colleague Neil Trevithick. It is daunting in a way, but I'm so looking forward to diving back in to the audio, to hear what jewels we've gathered from SE Asian communities who are fighting back against the environmental assaults on their landscapes, flora and fauna. We visited Planet Indonesia in West Kalimantan to talk about the way songbirds are vanishing from the forests, and saw the reason why - the industrial scale of songbird competitions in every village and town. We went to Vietnam to see a pangolin rescue centre - just as these scaled mammals are being captured in their millions for a domestic and Chinese market which is all about prestige and status, so are the local people rehabilitating and returning confiscated animals to the wild. We went to eastern Thailand to look at how rangers are being militarily trained to combat poachers of again, highly desirable and status-indicating rosewood, and visited a monk and his village, offering sustainable farming as an alternative to greed. And we crossed the border to Myanmar where the Karen people are proposing to the deaf Myanmar government, a complex 'peace park' arrangement, where they can protect and live within their rich, and as yet, unexploited forests. What remarkable people we have met. Bold and brave.
Radio maker and passionate environmental communicator, Gretchen Miller is available to make you a podcast or teach you how to tell your story.