A few of my favourite things in the second part of 2016….
- Making a narrative/investigative podcast, Phoebe’s Fall, with a crack team from the newsroom at The Age in Melbourne
- Interviewing Julie Snyder, EP of Serial, and seeing her and Jad Abumrad at the Sydney Opera House
- Teaching folk, from novelists to museum curators, how to work in an audio format
- Attending Australia’s first podcasting conference, #OzPod2016
- Interviewing Aboriginal artists in remote Australia
- Protesting against proposed cuts to ABC Radio National and finding huge support out there
The podcasting boom continues, with a plethora of new content, ranging from the good (Heavyweight and Homecoming, both from Gimlet Media) to the predictable (endless panels and chum-casts on everything from pop culture to ‘behind the news’, often presented by people whose confidence inversely matches their competence. I surveyed a bunch of audio producers earlier this year, to see if they felt that podcasting was evolving as a new genre, and was not just a mode of consumption, or time-shifted radio. One memorable response: podcasting has produced a ton of ‘narcissistic audio selfies’. I think he’s right – iTunes is swarming with ‘personal stories’, both first person and narrated, which endlessly loop stories of identity, relationships and trauma, but with no prism on the social issues and political or historical environment that govern the individual experience. It’s like being thrust into a kaleidoscope of fragmented lives. You emerge shaken or unmoved, but not enlightened.
Podcasting has produced a ton of ‘narcissistic audio selfies’
The difference between these screeds of talkiness and a well structured audio feature is like the gulf between a provincial TV news item and an immersive documentary film. My survey respondents were skewed towards experienced and award-winning; that is to say that unlike folk who think that consuming podcasts makes them qualified to be podcasters, they know how to make audio – and how incredibly time-consuming and complex it is to make a layered, well composed mix, that flows well and sounds so right, it seems like it just happened spontaneously.Thing is, it didn’t. That’s the difference between a beautifully paced, evocative piece that engages the imagination and develops character and plot much as a good novel does, and a pap of pundits talking over each other about stuff that they seemingly have no expertise in, but are nonetheless happy to opine about. When I mentioned how much TIME it takes to make good crafted audio, Julie Snyder laughed loudly, relieved that someone got it. ‘That’s all I want to do – talk about how hard our job is!’
Audio’s dirty little secret: crafting it well takes massive amounts of TIME
The latest trend is for podcast listeners to set themselves up as podcast critics, offering endless listicles of the ten or fifty or a hundred best podcasts around. I’m happy to take the recommendations of a media writer at The Atlantic or Vulture or such – but what are the credentials of all these other folk ? And why would you listen to a piece of audio at up to twice the natural speed, if you are presuming to evaluate it (that goes for you too, Nick Quah of Nieman Lab’s Hot Pod, in an unusual lapse of judgement)? If the work is crafted audio, or even a well structured interview/profile format such as Conversations with Richard Fidler, to fast-forward through the audio is heresy! It may, just may, be ok if it’s four football types talking about the match – what they say is more important than how they say it – but for anyone with the slightest pretension to making well produced crafted audio storytelling, it’s a slap in the face to have someone whizz through it, completely ruining one of audio’s most powerful characteristics – that it unfolds in real time. You can’t freeze-frame audio. And the pauses are there for a reason.
To fast-forward through audio is heresy!
Speaking of Richard Fidler, it was a real thrill to meet him at OzPod2016, Australia’s first podcasting conference, held at the ABC in Sydney. He interviews such diverse people, with empathy and wit. His tip: the two best questions are, ‘why…?’ and ‘really?’ Conversations… regularly tops the Australian iTunes charts – though I’m chuffed to say we knocked it off its perch with Phoebe’s Fall – as we did with Serial! I will post separately about the making of Phoebe’s Fall: it was wonderful to work with top investigative journalists and technical folk at The Age in Melbourne, alongside my old colleague Julie Posetti, now heading Digital Transformation at Fairfax Media. The year ended, thrillingly, with an encounter with Julie Snyder, followed by excellent and revealing presentations by her and Jad Abumrad at the Sydney Opera House. I like Radiolab’s ethos, as captured on a napkin: gap in knowledge (gap) followed by epiphany (oh!) in ever-amplifying waves. More of that, please, in 2017!