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With In Cold Blood, Truman Capote invented the non-fiction novel and turbocharged the genre of literary journalism. S-Town, a podcast by the team at Serial and This American Life that dropped online March 28th as seven bingeable “chapters”, has unleashed aural literary journalism that is as masterly in its evocation of place and character as exemplars by Didion, Wolfe and Capote himself.
S-Town had 10 million downloads in the first four days, far surpassing even Serial, and has caused waves in media circles as a new form of ‘novelistic’ audio storytelling; it was a Critics’ Pick of the New Yorker and has been rapturously reviewed by The Atlantic, The New York Times and respected podcasting critic Nicholas Quah in Vulture. It has also been described as “morally indefensible” (The Guardian) for its intrusion into the life of a mentally ill man and panned for breaching privacy, glossing over racism and misrepresenting aspects of gay sexuality.
In order to engage with the debate, it is vital to consider not just the ‘what’ of S-Town, the journalistic content, but also the ‘how’: the art form that is choreographed audio storytelling, which S-Town exemplifies.
Front and centre of S-Town is the mordant, self-destructive genius that is John B. McLemore, a forty-something fixer of antiquarian clocks who is both shaped and shackled by his small Shit Town (S-Town), actually Woodstock, Alabama. Literary journalists can only write about delicious details they unearth; Capote gave us artfully reconstructed scenes and boasted of faithfully recalled dialogue, but S-Town gives us the real deal: we hear first-hand the magnificent rants about climate change, chicanery and ignorance that McElmore delivers with rococo Southern musicality and a stand-up’s timing.
Listen here to how producers Brian Reed and Julie Snyder craft one rant around an operatic aria, delivering a kind of acoustic alchemy that both counterpoints and elevates McElmore’s vitriol.
We ain’t nothin’ but a nation of goddamn, chicken-shit, horse-shit, tattle-tale, pissy-assed, whiney, fat, flabby, out-of-shape, Facebook-lookin’, damn twerk-fest, peekin’ out the windows and snoopin’ around, listenin’ on the cellphones and spyin’ in the peephole and peepin’ in the crack of the goddamn door, listenin’ in the fuckin’ Sheetrock: Mr Putin puh-lease, show some fuckin’ mercy, I mean drop the fuckin’ bomb, won’t you?”
Opera swells in the background to climactic end, then he emits a heavy sigh.
I gotta have me some tea.
To add opera to a landscape of trailer trash, tattoos and “titty-rings” might seem incongruous, but in true literary journalism tradition, it is grounded in interview; Miss Irene Hicks tells Reed in a Blanche DuBois voice when he inquires after her grandson, Tyler, John B.’s hired hand: “I have my medicine and I have my [Andrea] Bocelli.”
In S-Town, journalism meets art. The episodes unfold via evocative scenes, intensive interviewing (perhaps a hundred hours Reed thinks) carefully placed encounters, metaphorical musings by Reed on the “witness marks” left by clock-repairers and the notion of time itself; but all is driven by sound and voice and the unalloyed intimacy of listening, in real time.
Bypassing our bigotry
We meet Tyler via the click, click, click of a chainsaw he’s sharpening, tooth by tooth. Tyler doubles as a tattoo artist whose pop up parlour has a secret Whites Only bar out back. Its misfit denizens are unfazed by a reporter with no camera, only a microphone; Reed records their casual racism and bravado. “Tell ‘em,” one implores.
I’m so fuckin’ fat I don’t care no more. I’m a six-foot, 350 lbs bearded man in a John Deere hat with FEED ME on my belly.
We listen in appalled fascination; audio can bypass our bigotry and suck us in to places where we normally wouldn’t go. As S-Town producer, Julie Snyder, recently told me:
In audio, it’s much easier to connect with the people in the story. You’re hearing their natural way of talking. You hear emotion, it’s not a polished thing. In film… you judge, the way they look, the way they’re dressed, the setting they’re in.
Julie Snyder and Brian Reed of Serial Productions, S-Town. Photo: Elise Bergerson
In this medium, language achieves added force, the poetry of the South laced with the affective power of sound. Tyler’s Uncle Jimmy, speech-damaged after a bullet lodged in his brain, echoes Tyler with strangely beautiful ejaculations reminiscent of Gospel affirmations. “Beacoups and beacoups of stuff,” he sings out, after the murder Reed is investigating at John B.’s request gives way to another, more tragic, death and an unseemly feud about the estate of the deceased.
One thing we don’t hear in S-Town is John B. pissing in the sink, his personal contribution to mitigating global warming by reducing toilet flushing. Right after he tells us about that, we get the mother of all jaw-droppers. Tyler’s sister-in-law rings Reed: John B. has killed himself. While on the phone to the town clerk. By drinking potassium cyanide.
Reed’s shock and grief are real. Like many literary journalists, he has become part of the story. He knows John B. is his subject, not his friend, but he cared about him. Reed’s immersion grows after John B.’s suicide, taking him to S-Town “nine or ten” more times.
John B. asked Reed to come to S-Town to investigate a murder, critics say, not to have his own suicide and life become the focus of the story. But it’s clear even before Reed meets John B. that the “murder” is less important to him than having the ear of a national radio reporter. “We’d end up on the phone for hours, Reed says, “with him going on and on, not just about the murder, but about his life, and his town.”
Socially, intellectually and sexually isolated, John B. yearns for meaningful, non-judgmental contact. He is candid about his depression: he keeps a suicide note on his computer and has emailed the town clerk a list of people to be contacted in the event of his death. His mental illness, it will be suggested by Reed, probably derives from mercury poisoning; he has been ingesting mercury vapour for decades due to “firegilding” and other alchemical operations he practises when mending clocks.
Listening is bearing witness
In my experience as an oral historian, people greatly value being attentively listened to. When mortality looms, the impulse to place something on the record for posterity, to avoid being erased, can deepen. John B. talked openly about his suicide ideation and probably knew he did not have long to live. He reeled Reed into his life because Reed was the ideal person to bear witness: intelligent enough to engage with a swirling canvas from the epic (John B.’s Critical Issues for the Future Manifesto) to the everyday (dogs, takeaway pizza), undeterred by his “virtuosic negativity”, an outsider with no prior relationship with S-Town and a relatively unobtrusive means of recording all he encountered.
It felt as if by sheer force of will, John was opening this portal between us.
Once he stepped through that portal, into the “proleptic decay and decrepitude” John B. described, Reed felt compelled to carry on: not to needlessly invade a life, but to honour the splendid, scabrous, sprawling complexity of the man who chose him as his chronicler.
Brian Reed, host of S-Town, in the Alabama woods. Photo: Andrea Morales
S-Town pioneers a form of aural literary non-fiction in service of what that great Southern writer William Faulkner, from whose pages John B. could have stepped, declared to be the only subject “worth the agony and sweat” of the artist: “the human heart in conflict with itself”. In so doing, it validates, rather than violates, the fierce, flawed life of John B. McElmore.
The other characters also deepen as we explore John B.’s life: is Tyler (who at 25 has four kids by four women) John B.’s surrogate son or the object of thwarted desire? Tyler’s would-be eulogy for John B. is touching and frank:
Whenever I left him there, he’d say, “I love you man.” Every time. And I’d say, “I love you, too, John B.” And sometimes he’d say, “Just because I say I love you, don’t mean I’m trying to get up your butt or anything.” And I said, “I know John B. God damn.” Because he knew, I mean, he mighta had a little sugar in his tank.
S-Town validates, rather than violates, the fierce, flawed life of John B. McElmore
In its treatment of John B.’s sexuality, S-Town treads on dangerous ground. A self-described “semi-homosexual”, he has had few and mostly unfulfilling relationships. Chapter Six, devoted to this, opens with John B. uncharacteristically reticent. Off the record, he tells Reed about a relationship with a married man. Reed later interviews the man, though does not play the tape; he justifies including these and other details because two others had confirmed them on the record and because John B. is by now, in his own view, “wormdirt”. However, by mentioning that the man once worked for John B, Reed does risk making listeners participate “in the unwitting outing of one queer man over the dead body of another”, as an insightful Vox article suggested.
The final chapter provides disturbing detail on what John B. called his “church” ritual with Tyler, where “Wild Turkey is the Holy Water… the tattoo needles are the reliquaries”. John B. describes church as getting “drunk as hell in the back room”, talking about everything from life and death to black holes and quarks. Tyler reveals, somewhat uncomfortably, that it involved increasingly painful tattooing that gave John B. “an endorphin high”. John B. got “addicted”, says Tyler, “like a damn dope fiend”. Some critics – ironically – go into graphic detail to argue that including this element crosses an ethical line. It is shocking, certainly. But the way it unfolds in the inflected voices of Tyler, Reed and John B., the listener can only empathise with John B. and appreciate how truly anguished he must have been to crave this momentary expunging of mental pain. It is a vital part of seeking to understand the man. And that was Reed’s simple, profound purpose.
I think it’s worthwhile trying to understand another person.
The series ends up as a vivid, engrossing portrayal of a community. It dodges the sociology of its rampant racism, but provides insights into the “fuck it” philosophy of the disenfranchised, self-identifying white trash who would shock the world by helping Trump get elected.
Things that make them human, you relate to that … There is nuance, there isn’t a monolithic way that certain people think, the Republicans think this way and Democrats think that way.
As Uncle Jimmy would say, Amen to that.
An abridged version of this article was published in The Conversation, 27 April 2017, as ‘S-Town Invites Empathy Not Voyeurism”.
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! Read the rest of this entry »
Podcasting just keeps on growing, gaining new fans, cultivating audio creativity and maybe even redressing legal wrongs.
Let’s start in Barcelona last year, where I was invited to speak on how audio’s qualities as an intimate, portable medium that can evoke emotion and imagination drive the podcasting boom. I was on a panel at the formidable Global Editors Network (GEN) media summit with a producer of the @Serial podcast phenomenon – the excellent Dana Chivvis – who regaled us with insider thoughts on the astonishing success of the series: 100 million downloads last time I looked. Dana said they innocently enough set out to make audio that hooked folk as much as the best HBO/Netflix series – think House of Cards – and out of that came the signature trailer to start each episode, and the cliffhanger ending. The rest was partly luck (they started out without a fixed ending, which hugely increased fan engagement, and Apple launched their native purple app for podcasts on iPhone at just the same time, greatly increasing ease of download) and partly dogged shoe leather journalism brilliantly transformed for the audio medium, as host Sarah Koenig candidly deconstructs here.
Then Marc Maron took podcasting to another level in a wonderfully revealing interview with Barack Obama, recorded in his garage for his WTF series. Yet again podcasting was shown to be the medium of authenticity and intimacy – qualities it derives largely from being audio, but also because of how podcasts are delivered – to our ears, without gatekeepers, at a time and in a place we choose. Minority and interest groups are mining this ease of access and distribution, and panel-fests and chumcasts (friends riffing on a theme) are proliferating. See my article here for The Conversation with good links to examples. Diversity loomed large too in in Radiotopia’s Podquest competition, which attracted over 1500 entries from 53 countries! Nice to see that one winner was The Hustler – stories from inside US prisons. This will be hugely empowering for those locked up, and a vital counter-balance to a US system which, disgracefully, has the highest rate of incarceration in the world.
Podcasting as a tool of social engagement
Not that Australians can be blasé. The Northern Territory region actually outstrips the US for rates of incarceration, and most of them are Aboriginal people. Aboriginal voices are shockingly absent from Australian public conversations, so it was a pleasant surprise to see none other than a Murdoch publication, The Australian newspaper, have a very good go at doing a Serial, with its podcast The Bowraville Murders. This examined the unsolved murders of three Aboriginal children from the same small town 25 years ago, bringing the raw pain of victims’ families and the kneejerk racism of the community direct to listeners. It also, like Serial, was probably instrumental in achieving a retrial – the power of podcasting as a tool for social engagement writ large.
Because of its persuasive power, advertisers as well as activists are now taking notice of podcasting. I was back at GEN in June 2016 on a panel in Vienna, this time, with CEO of Commercial Content at ACAST, the incisive and insightful Sarah van Mosel, and with Vanessa Quirk, who authored a comprehensive Guide to Podcasting in late 2015 which is rich on metrics, trends and case studies of some of the most exciting shows. Even among the glitz of the latest corporate innovations and the lure of 360 degree TV and Virtual Reality, we three ‘podcast queens’ (fact of interest: female listeners to podcasts in the US have DOUBLED since 2013) showed yet again that audio storytelling can captivate an audience through the simple yet unassailable power of our common humanity and desire for connection.
Meanwhile, podcasters have become celebrities – Ira Glass is appearing at the Sydney Opera House to present audio accompanied, thrillingly, by dance; while the whimsical Starlee Kine of Mystery Show and the relentlessly enthusiastic PJ Vogt of Reply All had sell-out shows at the Sydney Writers Festival in May.
What fans perhaps don’t realise is that the simpler and more casual a podcast sounds, as if it’s something anyone can do, the more craft and slog lie behind it! It’s all about understanding the medium of audio and the structure of narrative.
Maybe that’s why the latest trends show collaborations between older-style print journalists with specialist audio experts: the Marshall Project partnered with This American Life for their examination of a miscarriage of justice around a rape victim who was not believed, Anatomy of Doubt; The Economist is pairing with Mic media whiz Cory Haik for a forthcoming podcast; and I am teaming up with a media outlet in Australia for a special series. Watch this space!
I am thrilled to report that my article The Affective Power of Voice: Oral History on Radio, has been included in the forthcoming edition of The Oral History Reader (Routledge 2015). This comprehensive anthology (722pp) is undoubtedly the most important collection of articles by the international community of oral history scholars and practitioners. I am humbled to be in the company of such giants of the genre as Sandro Portelli, Michael Frisch, Studs Terkel, Paul Thompson, Sherna Berger Gluck, Valerie Yow, Doug Boyd, Paula Hamilton, Steven High, Linda Shopes and of course the editors, Australia’s Alistair Thomson of Monash University and the UK’s Rob Perks of the British Library.
2015 has been a good year for publication of my oral histories. The City of Sydney has done a fine job of placing online the archive of interviews with residents at Millers Point Sydney, done by me and coordinating oral historian Frank Heimans back around 2006. These interviews capture the rich harbourside community life of one of Sydney’s oldest suburbs, where men worked on the wharves (stevedoring) under tough conditions, and women raised families in cramped public housing. One of my favourite quotes was a woman who laughed that yes they did have running water back then – you ran in to the laundry, filled a bucket, ran back out and threw it into the bath! There are also great interviews with sports journalist legend Frank Hyde, a gentle man with a lovely sense of humour who sings Danny Boy on the tape; Jack Mundey, trade union leader extraordinaire, whose Green Bans movement stopped the proposed demolition of these inner Sydney ‘slums’ and kept the community intact; and Bill Ford, who grew up swimming off the steps at the ‘Met’ wharf and went on to be part of the famous US Freedom Ride that was mimicked in New South Wales in 1965 in a push to end discrimination against Aboriginal Australians.
My other big project this year brought me full circle: recording the oral histories of prominent Sydney Irish and Irish-Australian members of the Irish National Association (INA), which has its centenary in 2015. As an accidental Irish migrant who has now spent just over half her life in Australia, it was fascinating to hear stories of similar migrants, and what they felt they’d gained and lost in the process. The project explores how the INA upholds Irish culture and heritage, through activities around music, dancing, teaching the Irish language and maintaining an awareness of Irish history and politics, through events like the annual Easter oration at the wonderful Waverly cemetery monument, the St Patrick’s Day parade (revived in 1979) and the Famine Memorial event at Hyde Park Barracks each August. The interviews were commissioned by the National Library of Australia, which has placed some of them online in full. You can browse the timed summary, where a keyword or phrase will take you direct to the audio, and even provide a citation. Try Bishop David Cremin recalling how he held a controversial Requiem Mass for Bobby Sands, the first of the IRA hunger strikers to die in 1981. Or Maurie O’Sullivan, passionate Irish cultural advocate, describing how he talks Irish to his dogs and his horse to keep up his language skills! There is also Tomás De Bháldraithe, whose father wrote the first Irish-English dictionary, reflecting on the prominent role his family played in the public intellectual life of the nascent Irish state.
My next oral history project promises to be exciting and very different. It’s an investigation into the relational aspects of how contemporary Aboriginal art is produced, funded by the Australian Research Council. I’m part of a team with noted art historian Ian McLean and Indigenous Curator at the National Museum of Australia, the indefatigable Margo Neale. We’re seeking to understand how Indigenous artists work with non-Indigenous art centre staff and dealers, and in conversation with other artists, both Indigenous and non, and how these relationships affect the art that emerges. We’ve already visited two remote communities and it’s been a revelation. No wonder I love oral history – you get to hear the life stories of the most extraordinary people. And I agree with Studs – there are no ordinary people; just the uncelebrated. Let’s get celebrating!
Lots of Famine-related events lately. My radio documentary, The Famine Girls, features descendants of the 4000 orphan girls sent out from Ireland to escape the famine in the 1840s, and a fascinating interview with noted economics historian Cormac O’Grada, about the nature of collective memory around the famine. It was broadcast on ABC RN Hindsight, 11 Aug 2013. Audio and info HERE
Publication of the amazing Atlas of the Great Irish Famine by Cork University Press, with maps that give unparallelled insight into what happened, at micro-level.
Great speech by Tom Keneally at the launch at the State Library in Sydney, and fascinating yarns with cartographer Mike Murphy afterwards.
Irish writer Evelyn Conlon’s new novel, Not The Same Sky (Wakefield Press), explores the journey of some of the orphan girls, within a contemporary context.
And a new series on TG4, Irish-language television in Ireland, Mná Díbeartha (Banished Women), starts 25 September.
I’m one of many historians and commentators interviewed (Episode 4), in a beautifully filmed work that questions why Irish women sent to Australia in difficult circumstances were so maligned.
“It rescues them from obscurity and restores their historical importance in building the Australian nation, the young orphan girls viewed as “the moral dregs of the workhouses – the most stupid, the most ignorant, the most unmanageable set of beings that ever cursed a country by their presence”, and the transported women, who, because of contemporary attitudes towards them and the shame of the convict ‘stain’ have not gained any place as pioneers in the legends and histories of their home and adopted countries.
The series is a testament to the lives, struggles and legacy of these 18th and 19th century women and girls but it leaves us with a question – what have we learned from the experience? What is it in our own culture that has allowed us through the 20th and 21st century to continuously banish from our midst, those who make us feel uncomfortable, or are considered undesirable in our communities?”
And a final Famine link – a lovely evening of Irish-Australian song, poetry and story at the State Library of NSW on 24 October with actor Maeliosa Stafford, co-founder of Galway’s Druid Theatre and frequent actor with the Abbey Theatre Dublin, but living in Sydney since late ’80s, and singer Freddie White, whose gravelly voice I used to play on Breakfast Radio on RTE in the ’80s, and who has moved here with his wife Trish Hickey, a wonderful singer herself. Maeliosa paid tribute to my Famine Girls doco, noting how these stories of ordinary unsung heroes such as Eliza Fraser had moved and inspired him. Maeliosa has often played Irish parts in historical re-enactments in my documentaries, and we actually know each other since Galway in 1978, so it seems fitting that our lives should intersect artistically at the other end of the world some 35 years on. A tricolour plate of macaroons provided a fitting end to a stirring night.
Here’s our say: WATCH OUR SEMINAR on the making of Eat Pray Mourn
And here’s yours – so far, you like it!
Check out these unadulterated comments from the 360 Documentaries website on Radio National (http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/360/eat-pray-mourn/4598026):
db : 05 Apr 2013 10:41:46pm
Powerful documentary, brilliantly executed. Cuts right through to the core of the matter, and gives a voice to a few of the zillion people who call Jakarta home. As this documentary shows, life is hard going and unfair for 99% of Jakarta’s residents. If you visit, or work as an expat there, you tend to live in a bubble of sorts. This documentary well and truly pops that bubble. Good show.
Mark Gregory : 07 Apr 2013 3:24:58pm
Very moving and informative exploration of Indonesian politics and life, this shows the power of radio documentary making use of all the possibilities of interviews, narration, street soundscapes and music, when painstakingly and lovingly combined. And I loved the finale where in court the sister of the victim of police brutality raised her fist and shouted “Victims we will never be silent”. Encore!
IW : 07 Apr 2013 4:01:52pm
Excellent journalism. Intimate stories that reflect the views of the little people, in their words. A good reflection of the improvements in Indonesian civil society. Small people are now prepared to stand up. The story had an excellent historical and development context.
r manning : 07 Apr 2013 4:48:23pm
Absolutely brilliant! It is the story of something so very wrong which cries out to be redressed. When you believe you have right on your side, it brings out the courage, tenacity and confidence to stand your ground. One woman’s story was beautifully told to show an insight into an all pervasive practice condone by people in power. Well done to the production team who told the story. This should be a fine example of bravery to all the voiceless people around the world who have suffered and/or suffering injustice.
Christine Croyden : 08 Apr 2013 2:36:52pm
I loved this documentary. The sophisticated and vivid story telling is engrossing, and the Indonesian voices and sounds cutting through the narrative give it such a strong sense of place. Begs the question of how things will go for Afghanistan, considering its 15 years since Indonesia became a democracy and the road ahead is still so precarious … with feral police, superstition and its bloody history. Yet, it seems the people are hopeful and beginning to claim their human rights… great to see/hear/learn.
Allan Gardiner : 28 Apr 2013 5:15:10pm
Only a paucity of Indonesia’s fragmented folk ever get to hear of the atrocities fomenting the home-grown strategic stranglehold there, and not until this sordid stricture’s sufficiently throttled back will this strangely strung-out archokedipelago ever have hope of becoming a decidedly decongested democracy, and even then it’d still be perceived for quite some time thereafter as being but a struggling phlegmocracy at b_est’ranged.
RADIO YOU CAN”T SWITCH OFF
More casual but no less heartfelt comments came in via the ABC’s general feedback site. One listener, Fiona, wrote:
Hi, I have listened to the above radio program and wish to compilment the producers and all those involved in this program. I was riveretted to the program and put off going out so I could listen. A great story, i really enjoyed to background history of Djkarta which helped put the story into context. I often the background sounds and music to these radio documentries annoying, but in this case they really enhanced the time and place and reality of the family and their struggles. Excellent work. I love 360 documentaries! And please excuse my very poor spelling!
I’m heartened by Fiona’s response. As she says, her spelling may not be 100%, but she engaged with the program with alert ears and an open mind – and the best compliment any radio maker can get is that someone is held spellbound by the program, and cannot leave. The power of radio to reach so many diverse listeners was echoed by another comment on the website, from an academic, Professor Craig Reynolds, a historian of South-East Asia, at the Australian National University. While it was great to hear a specialist of his standing praise our content, what was also interesting was that at one level his response was similar to that of Fiona – getting sucked in to listen: ‘I thought this was compelling radio that showed a side of Indonesia invisible to most outsiders… I came upon the program quite by accident and found I couldn’t leave it!’
RADIO FOLK LIKE IT TOO
Most listeners, understandably, don’t know how a radio documentary is constructed – who is responsible for what, and how it’s put together. E.g. Jacqui did the field recordings, drawing on her in-depth knowledge of the culture to get close to our informants, but it was my task to distil a 50-minute coherent narrative out of over 30 hours of tape, and to do so in a way that allowed the personal stories to unfold as intimately as if they were speaking directly to the listener. So it was gratifying to get feedback from radio practitioners, alive to the complexities of sounding simple!
Talk about sure-handedness! It’s a pleasure to listen to a piece so skillfully made — the deft blending of evocative ambient sounds, voice and voiceover, narration and music…. And the content is riveting. This was all news to me… Fascinated by the rhythms and surfaces of life in Jakarta (such nice writing there), then gradually absorbing the enormity of the dark underbelly. The story of the neighborhood lynching is grippingly told. And Yeni is a wonderful find. Love her bravery, and her optimism (“Indonesia is changing”), which can seem poignant at first but struck me as justified precisely because of what she herself was doing.
Colm McNaughton, who has made acclaimed, edgy documentaries about fraught political/security situations in Mexico, Guatemala and Northern Ireland, called it ‘a powerful and compelling piece of radio. Many of the ‘episodes’ weave narration, wild sounds and interviews with real mastery.’
But one listener at least was immune to the charm of the elaborate soundscape of EPM. James Hay, who runs a beauty/tanning business, wrote to the ABC complaining that it was ‘a terrible documentary. I could hardly hear what was being said because of all the background noise.’
At an academic level, reaction has been very positive. On the adaptation of scholarly research for audio, a post-graduate ‘auto-anthropologist’ and artist was enthusiastic: ‘It’s incredibly complex, but does not at all seem laboured. It must have been a LOT of work! …I love how you connect a somewhat brutal ‘Magical Realism’ with ‘True Crime‘ and ‘Social Justice’, without preaching.’
Two lecturers, one at Charles Sturt University and one at Australian National University, have advised that they intend to use EPM as a set ‘text’, for Justice Studies and Asia Pacific Internal Security respectively. An Emeritus Professor of Islamic Studies told Jacqui she wept throughout the program, whose evocations of Indonesia she called ‘beyond brilliant’. She took issue with the translations of the voiceover in the first section, at Matraman – and she is correct that we did not literally translate every word spoken by Irfan, our first speaker. We had to let his voice establish itself in Bahasa, which meant the English translation was curtailed. The whole voice-over issue was trickier than I anticipated in fact – a steep learning curve.
INDONESIAN LISTENER GIVES THUMBS UP
And what of Indonesians’ response? We are still working on a Bahasa version to air in Indonesia. Meanwhile, this Indonesian listener’s response to the ABC program was touching and heartening.
The backsounds and music are great, I enjoy it thoroughly. You brought me back to Indonesia. It feels so kampung and so rakyat! I love it! (I dance on some parts 🙂 )…. Listening this doco, you convinced me that you really-really-really concern to this issue, due to your heart and for the sake of your concern to humanities. The way you narrate this story is wholeheartedly beautiful, it compensate the odd feelings that I got when hearing my country’s ulcer wounds revealed.’
Even the preliminary feedback above shows how a radio documentary takes on a life of its own once it hits the airwaves. Just as a book or film can have diverse, often opposed meanings for individual readers or viewers, every listener brings his or her individual imagination and attitude to a program. As the creators of the broadcast, we cannot control the reaction of the audience. A huge part of the satisfaction of making radio documentary derives from the multiple interpretations a creative work elicits.
Likewise, a listener rarely encounters more than the artefact, the finished work. But here, we get to say how we did what we did, and why, and how. In this one-hour seminar one-hour seminar at University of Wollongong, Jacqui and I discuss the long emergence of Eat Pray Mourn, from our chance meeting in 2011 to the broadcast two years later. Love to hear your thoughts.
While on a study tour of the US last year, I interviewed key figures among US radio innovators including Jay Allison, founder of the sell-out live storytelling show, The Moth, and a seminal figure in US public broadcasting for over 35 years, John Biewen, of Duke University Centre for Documentary Studies, and Julie Shapiro, curator, Third Coast Audio, a lively Chicago indie audio forum. All viewed Radio National’s arts/features mandate and output with a mixture of admiration, delight and envy. Allison, despite his standing, spends the equivalent of one day a week fundraising, so parlous is the support for public radio in the US, where some 28% of the population nominate Fox as their primary source of ‘trusted news and information’. Underfunded as it is, RN is precious, as are its best producers, whose sophisticated programs consistently punch above their weight, as their many prestigious awards testify. Yet under proposed new changes, some of RN’s most distinguished programs and program-makers face cutbacks and even extinction.
The 2013 schedule will establish a Creative Audio Unit to showcase a ‘Storytelling Movement’ modelled on US initiatives such as Allison’s The Moth and Jonathan Mitchell’s fictional/improvisational The Truth. Both formats could translate easily to an Australian context. They are relatively cheap to produce and could attract a new youth demographic to RN. But they should complement rather than replace or downgrade what RN already does so well: documentary, features and drama. As Allison told me, ‘one story form doesn’t rise up and destroy the other.’
RN programs such as Hindsight and 360 Documentaries (where I am an occasional producer) tell mostly non-fiction stories that greatly enrich the intellectual capital of Australia. Far from being elitist, this highly textured/researched format can reach people who might otherwise not know about important issues – you don’t even have to be literate to ‘get’ radio. But while storytelling on radio can be simple, it should not be simplistic; RN’s documentary output remains enduring because, besides its insight, gravitas, inventive sound design and general elan, it does what any well grounded research should do: it fills a clear gap in knowledge.
I was commissioned for instance to record the first substantial numbers of ‘ethnic’ voices on the ABC (migrant workers from the Snowy Mountains Scheme), the untold stories of Australian women in the Vietnam war and the neglected history of sectarianism in pre-multicultural Australia. The collective RN output in arts and features over many years represents a vital social, cultural and historical archive of Australian life. Yet this culture of excellence is now under threat, with ‘built’ programs set to be effaced by panels peddling vacuous chat and opinion under the new Radio Lite.
There will be a net loss of eight positions, including two from Features shows Hindsight, 360Documentaries and Into the Music. Surviving producers will have increased output, which will, I am told, result in ‘a more superficial treatment of the ideas’. The pleasing aural aesthetic will be diminished, as two sound engineer positions go. The richness of immersion or observational documentary will be unattainable. I am currently making a 360 which will present a colleague’s Bahasa-language anthropological research as very human stories of crime, punishment and magical thinking in Indonesia, thereby extending the ordinary Australian’s understanding of this complex culture – surely an important issue, as we mark the tenth anniversary of the Bali bombings. But with no further ability to fund work in translation (because it takes so much extra time), either freelancers will have to take on that burden at their own expense, or future documentaries will be Anglophone – a grotesque limitation given our region and demographics. In Drama, three producers will lose their jobs, Airplay and other programs will be axed, and the fate of 39 slated productions and associated artists is unknown.
In a podcasting age, RN’s specialist programs exert influence around the world, and can play a key role in helping the ABC to fulfil its mandate to educate and inform, and even extend democratic principles by disseminating rigorously researched documentaries and imaginatively produced arts content to listeners in constrained societies. In 2010 I witnessed a budding drama producer in Shiraz, Iran, revel in listening to Airplay when occasional internet access permitted (the BBC and American outlets were barred). To cut him and his ilk off from this artistic oxygen is to abrogate the democratic calling of the national broadcaster.
To make redundant the likes of Sharon Davis (four Walkleys) and Jane Ulman (winner of several Prix Italias – the ‘Nobel prize’ of radio), currently on the cards, would be like sacking David Simon (The Wire) and Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad) for taking television writing to unprecedented heights. A Creative Audio Unit is not in itself a bad idea, and I like RadioLab, The Truth and This American Life as much as anyone – but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater in rushing to ape US vogues.
This article was originally published 16 October by New Matilda, at
Varuna pulled off its usual magic. Five women gathered there for a week, to work on wildly different projects, united by a love of radio and storytelling. There was Jane Messer, with Dear Mr Chekov, a fictional story that moves between the penal colony of Sakhalin Island, off the east coast of Russia, and the Great Barrier Reef. Christine Croyden was seeking to adapt stage work, such as her acclaimed A Fallen Tree, for radio – her first venture in the medium. Catherine Gough-Brady was working on a highly textured sound work for ABC RN’s The Night Air, about Suleiman the Magnificent’s trip from Istanbul to Vienna in 1529. And anthropologist Jacqui Baker and I were taking the first daunting steps on a Bahasa-language feature, Rough Justice in Jakarta, a blend of magic realism, documentary and soundscape that shows the complexities of a post-authoritarian society still deeply enmeshed in corruption, magical thinking and communitarianism.
And there was the dive-bombing magpie! Its nest must have been near the beautifully blossoming plum trees we passed on our way to the studio. A spring ritual, it swooped on anyone who got too close. Hence my adoption of a basin from the laundry as headgear! Others opted to wear sunglasses on the back of their head, to trick it into thinking they had two sets of eyes.
But despite the dangers of negotiating the path, the Indonesian story slowly, painfully started to emerge. I’ve never set foot in Indonesia, nor had I really heard the language spoken before, but at the end of a week’s immersion, I’m starting to pick up on its rhythms, and warm to the characters we depict. More of that anon.
That’s one of the topics up for no doubt heated discussion at a session I’ll be chairing next week (6 Sept) at University of Wollongong. The two-day Expanded Documentary public seminar questions where the boundaries of documentary sit these days, on a spectrum from art to journalism to performance to God knows where. Great range of speakers, including keynote Ross Gibson. Info here.
My session goes back to an old but hard chestnut: where do power, truth and creativity meet in engagement with the disenfranchised. Stories will range from the Mexican Borderlands (Colm McNaughton) to new SBS Online interactive documentary The Block in Redfern, to the broader Indigenous landscape (Susan Moylan-Coombs, NITV).
To get things going, I’ve put together this ‘provocation’. Love your feedback!
To ignore and exorcise subjectivity as if it were only a noxious interference in the pure data is ultimately to distort and falsify the nature of the data themselves. (Portelli 1997:80)
An award-winning 1974 analysis of African-American slavery, Time on the Cross, written by Nobel prizewinner Robert Fogel and his colleague Stanley D. Engerman, focuses on the economics of slavery: the conditions under which slaves worked and the efficiency and organisation of Southern American slave plantations. Among their painstaking data, they note that slaves tended to be whipped an average of 0.7 times a year. That’s a fact. But it bears little relation to reality. Because NO slave could ever have been whipped 0.7 times. You were either whipped or not whipped.
Former slave Frederick Douglass was less in thrall to facts. When he set out to write his autobiography, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1892), he was advised by well-meaning abolitionists to stick to the facts, so as to gain credibility. Instead, he included observations and opinion, discussing for instance, not just how often he was beaten but the degree of sadism with which the beatings were executed. Far from being irrelevant, his judgements are both liberating and illuminating, contends the Italian oral history theorist, Alessandro Portelli. ‘The discovery of difference, especially inner difference, is the first step toward recognising the humanity of one’s oppressors and thus affirming their own, which their oppressors deny: ‘I therefore began to think that they [white people] were not all of the same disposition…’ (Portelli 1997:80)
So is difference a positive or a negative force when it comes to one person documenting another’s lived experience? And how do different differences play out in the recorded exchange: gender, class, age, culture, power?
Studs Terkel, the Pulitzer prize-winning American broadcaster and author, recorded some 9,000 interviews with people from all demographics. He did not see the everyday lives he revealed – clerks, hookers, conveyor belt workers – as ‘ordinary’, but as ‘uncelebrated’. He did not see the exchanges as interviews, but as opening ‘the sluice gates of dammed hurts and dreams’. (Terkel 1972: xx) A white, leftist, secular Jew, his work documents quintessential themes of American society, from race and class to war and capitalism, from a multiplicity of perspectives.
One of his biggest discoveries was that listening matters. Not so much WHO listens, but the act of being heard. He often talked about a poor black American woman he impulsively recorded one day. Seeing her, with two or three children, staring into an empty shop window, Terkel politely asked what she was looking at.
‘Oh, dreams, I’m just looking at dreams.’ So I’ve got my tape recorder and I switch it on and I say ‘Good dreams, bad dreams?” And she starts to talk… and when she stops talking after eight, maybe ten minutes or so, one of them [her children] says, ‘Hey mom, can we listen to what you said?’… so I play it back and she listens to it too. And when it’s over, she gives a little shake of her head and she looks at me and she says, ‘Well until I heard that, I never knew I felt that way.’
(Terkel in Perks & Thomson 2006:126-7)
So, a sense of validation can be a positive outcome for a subject of the documentarian impulse. But what if her story had been found in the archives and used as proof of, say, the fecklessness of an unemployed welfare recipient? Does the documenter elevate, mediate or misrepresent the raw data he/she gathers? And how do we know, if we only see the end product?
What of the documentarian’s duty to interpret? As Italian scholar Luisa Passerini observes: ‘All autobiographical memory is true; it is up to the interpreter to discover in which sense, where, [and] for which purpose’ (Passerini 1989:197). Does this dictum bridge the gaps across power, class, race, culture?
Portelli recently published a forty-year study of Kentucky coal miners (They Say in Harlan County, 2011). He is white, Italian, middle-class, male. His interviews with poor American miners,both black and white, male and female, in his second language, are an exercise in Otherness. Even his transcriptionist was so far removed from the territory she misheard the drawled word ‘serpent’ as ‘servant’. Yet perhaps because of this striking difference, rather than in spite of it, the book is an exemplary portrayal of an isolated community.
Fieldwork is by necessity an experiment in equality based on difference. There must always be a line of difference across which the exchange becomes meaningful, but there must also be at least a line along which we can communicate the desire for a common ground and language that makes the exchange possible – our deep-rooted common human nature.
(Portelli 1997: 60)
So how does this axis of Otherness apply when telling Indigenous stories in Australia? In 2000, Aboriginal filmmaker Darlene Johnson advised SBS that ‘issues of appropriation, of respectful cultural representation, of equity and creative control are particularly pertinent to collaborative processes in relation to Aboriginal stories.’ (Peters Little 2002). But not all Aboriginal filmmakers believe that only Indigenous people should tell Indigenous stories. Frances Peters Little, Indigenous filmmaker (The Tent Embassy) and historian, argues thus:
The notion that Aboriginal filmmakers possess a certain connection to truth and instant rapport with any Aboriginal community or individual is naive. To think that Aboriginal filmmakers can shoot any Aboriginal community and capture the core of their history, politics, culture, personal relationships and social interactions without offending or misrepresenting anyone is presumptuous to say the least. Conversely there are many examples of white filmmakers (who) have made strong connections with Aboriginal individuals asking them to expose the internal disputations within Aboriginal communities. Aboriginal filmmakers while they share in something that is essentially Aboriginal by necessity or nature does not guarantee that they make stronger, more accurate or beneficial films for the Aboriginal community or individual than non-Aboriginal filmmakers. Questions of filmmaking ability (are) involved.
Some argue that ‘prosumer’ film-making will redress power imbalance: anyone with a smartphone can theoretically make a film these days, distribute it online and even have it financed by crowdfunding. SBS is actively developing democratising initiatives in the user-generated field of documentary, as online producer John MacFarlane can testify. Other practitioners, such as Hegelian Marxist and radio documentary-maker Colm McNaughton, eschew film in favour of sound, in order to mitigate issues of trauma and power. Liz Jessen, a Danish radio feature maker, also believes radio to be a far subtler form of storytelling:
In the close-up of a talking woman we see her big mouth, strong nose, narrow eyes, strange hair-do, unfashionable clothing, or whatever else we might decide to comment on as viewers, either to ourselves or to the other people watching. Every tiny impurity in her face is magnified and may distract us. Television can turn into (social) pornography when it moves in on the favourite genre of the radio feature: close-up recordings in which people speak from the heart or body. The beauty can disappear when projected from the screen. (Jessen 2004: 5)
But how do art and aesthetics marry with politics and ideologies? These are key questions this session will raise. A final thought from filmmaker Ken Burns:
You know it’s often said that the digital revolution that puts a TV camera in everyone’s hands makes everyone a filmmaker. It’s bullshit… What makes someone a filmmaker is somebody who knows how to tell a story … I’ve been doing this for a long time, almost 40 years that I’ve been trying to tell stories with film and I still feel like a student…. and that means that it requires a kind of lifetime of devotion. It isn’t enough just to be there when something happens. It isn’t enough just to record whatever happens. We have to be storytellers and it’s just logical that only a few of us are going to be able to do that … I’m learning. I’m learning. I’m learning.
(Ken Burns 2010)
Burns, K. (2010). “Why Everyone Is Not a Filmmaker “. Retrieved 3 September 2010 from Big Think website at http://bigthink.com/kenburns
Jessen, L. (2004). “All you need is Love, God, Power or Money — an essay on radio narrative”. Retrieved 3 December 2009 from International Features Conference website on http://ifc.blog-city.com/essay_on_documentaries__lisbeth_jessen.htm.
Passerini, L. (1979). “Work ideology and consensus under Italian fascism”. History Workshop. No. 8: 82-108.
Peters Little, F. (2002), “The Impossibility Of Pleasing Everybody: A Legitimate Role For White Filmmakers Making Black Films”, Art Monthly
Portelli, A. (1997). The battle of Valle Giulia: oral history and the art of dialogue. Madison, Wis., University of Wisconsin Press,
Terkel, S. (1972). Working: people talk about what they do all day and how they feel about what they do. London, Wildwood House.
Terkel, S. (2006). “Interviewing an Interviewer”, in R. Perks and A. Thomson (eds.), The Oral History Reader, 2nd edn, London, New York, Routledge, pp123-128.
Australian Generations is an epic oral history project – the most multi-faceted undertaken in Australia – and I’m proud to be part of it!
A team of interviewers – some of the most experienced oral historians in the country, with thousands of interviews behind them – will gather 300 Life Story interviews from Australians born between the 1920s and 1930s to 1990.
The aim is to document people’s life pathways over the last 90 years or so, and see how attitudes and experiences have changed over that time (or not). A key aspect is to explore what makes a generation actually identify AS a generation – it’s not just about having a common birth era, it’s about being shaped by seminal shared public events.
If you want to be involved and have YOUR story recorded for posterity, click here.
We’ve been swamped with applications from well educated middle-class women in their 40s and 50s (good on you) but now, to redress the balance, we’d REALLY like to hear from:
Young Blokes (20s and up)
The Induction Day at ABC Radio National in Sydney yesterday was instructive and fun. Kevin Bradley, sound preservation guru at the National Library of Australia, waxed lyrical on the project’s state-of-the-art recording equipment (called, not very imaginatively, Sound Device!).
He talked us through its use – always strange for me, as a radio person, to move from one hand-held mic to a stationary mic per person. But oral history interviews being so long (2-2.5 hours in this case), in situ microphones prevent interviewer fatigue. The separate mics also record on two distinct channels.
Besides audio engineering (don’t get him started on anechoic chambers or fluorescent lights!), Kevin specialises in making oral history AUDIO easily available online. We provide a timed summary of the interview, with keywords, and browsers can retrieve the relevant audio with a click. SO MUCH better than using those tired and misleading transcripts. As Kevin said, a transcript is just a map, whereas the audio recording is a whole landscape.
The oral history will be mined for a radio series by Hindsight EP and Project PI Michelle Rayner at ABC Radio National, and also drawn on for two books. It’s a great project, runs till end of 2013, so there’s plenty of time to put your hand up.
Imagine someone listening to the story of YOUR life in 2099!