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Back: Jane Messer, Christine Croyden, Siobhan McHugh
Front: Jacqui Baker, Catherine Gough-Brady at Varuna

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.

this magpie looks deceptively mild here

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.

Anti-magpie headgear

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.

A geo-spatial approach to documentary. But what about the story?

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

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

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!

Project Leader Al Thomson (standing) with oral historians

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.

Jeannine Baker, Rob Willis and Jo Kijas try out retro Sony mic

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)

Post-War Migrants

Working-Class Folk

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!).

Kevin Bradley, audio guru, explaining a cardiod microphone.

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!

Siobhan trying out Sound Device with interviewer Jill Kitson. I must remember not to hold the mic!

13 states, five weeks, thousands of kilometres, from the swelter of a Louisiana bayou to the glorious fall foliage of Vermont…

Interviews with wonderful radio-makers and visionaries, and with oral history venerables… will write about that soon.

Favourite place N’Awlins, just because of those folks’ big heart and unstoppable music. We stayed in Treme, oldest African-American neighbourhood in the US, and badly hit by Katrina. Sad to see boarded up houses and even worse, vacant blocks, where everything had been wiped out. But the Treme Brass Band still plays wild music every Wednesday night in the old neighbourhood hall – $5 gets you rice and beans and the best live jazz music you’ll ever hear. I’m a hopeless fan of the TV series of course – so it was cool to see the oh-so-elegant elder of the band, in his crisply pressed trousers and white hat, presiding over an increasingly exuberant occasion. I ended up on the dance floor, along with everyone else, including the bartender – a woman who insisted we could not be allowed to walk the two blocks home. Instead, she lined up a ride home for us – with the leader of the Treme Brass Band, Mr Benny Jones. An absolute highlight – thank you ma’am!


Live with the Treme Brass Band


Washington was a surprise; hadn’t realised how impressive that monument mile is.  Wonderful tour of the Capitol with insider Don Ritchie, Senate Historian there since 1976. I met Don back in the ’90s when he chaired a session I did at the Oral History Association of Australia in Alice Springs in central Australia. The red dust of Alice a bit of a change from D.C.!


Donald Ritchie, US Senate Historian, gave me a splendid tour of the awesome Capitol in Washington D.C


Also a memorable hike on the Cranberry Bogs of Massachusetts with Studs Terkel’s old friend and collaborator, the funny, astute and delightful Sydney Lewis and her hospitable friend Sarah, ace broiler of swordfish.

A hike in the Cranberry Bogs with Sydney, Sarah and two joyful mutts

Music all over N’Awlins

On our first morning in the French Quarter, we happened on this curious quartet: a soulful African-American woman singing and playing clarinet, what looked like her daughter, aged about eight, on a pink drum set, a fabulous guy on rhythm tuba behind, and this odd little white kid hanging around with a trumpet. He didn’t play while we were there, but once did a sort of shuffle towards the spectators. She sang and then went into what seemed like effortlessly soaring clarinet – listen to it here. And that was just Day One!

new orleans busker

Later, at DBA, a club on Frenchman’s with free or very cheap entry, we heard Glenn David Andrews. Glenn had a colourful past, we were told, had been in prison and stuff, but was getting back in touch with the community and had appeared in Treme, the HBO series we loved, along with his cousin, the fabulous Trombone Shorty. Wearing a t-shirt and boardshorts, Glenn didn’t look as cool as his backing musicians – but once he started playing that trombone, we were gone. He came down on the floor to sing Happy Birthday to a friend, brandishing and working the instrument and sounding like a young bull elephant about to charge. And funny too – ‘ I want y’all to dance – even you white folks’. For energy, soul and pzazz, he was the best live act we’d ever seen – until the next night, when the Treme Brass Band played the CandleLit Lounge.

Glen David Andrews at DBA club Sept 2011

Beneath all the partying was the ever-present pall of Katrina. Vacant blocks among the colourful housing in the Treme area looked innocuous, but each one had once been a home. Other houses were boarded up, or showed obvious damage. What enrages residents even now is that

a) it could have been avoided: the hurricane was a natural disaster, but the impact was manmade – the levees were not built deep enough and using properly constituted soil, so they could withstand the floods

b) emergency relief was slow and inadequate, because New Orleans folk were largely black and poor. Can’t imagine the same pathetic response happening in Boston or New York, eh.

We stayed with a lovely couple in Treme, Michael, a native New Orleanser, and David, a ‘convert’ from New England. They were lucky – they ‘only’ had about four foot of water in their home, a converted corner pub. David cried when I asked him about the casualties. The numbers didn’t even depict the reality, he said. So many folk died later, due to fractured families and broken hearts. The effects were felt in little ways for so long – like the fact that two years after Katrina, inner city residents like David still did not get mail delivered to their home. I found that astonishing in a country as rich as the US – but here’s David, telling it like it was.

David from Treme 

Homes damaged by Katrina - and vacant lots where homes razed.

Chuffed to be the first writer of the 365 writer-a-day App launched by Varuna, the Writers’ House at Katoomba in the fabulous Blue Mountains west of Sydney. It will ultimately get to Itunes, but meanwhile, link is here. I read a short passage from ‘Minefields and Miniskirts’. Nothing fancy – had to do it in one take when the builder across the road finally put away his power tools for lunch – afraid at any moment he’d start up again!


Delighted to be invited to give a seminar at Concordia Uni’s excellent Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling, 6-8pm 17 October. It will be open to the public, and will showcase diverse stories I’ve researched over the years: a behind-the-scenes intro to Australian life.

UPDATE: Here’s an interview I did at COHDS about ‘treating’ oral history for radio.



Minefields, Miniskirts and Mixed Marriage: Oral Histories from Down Under

Centre d’histoire orale et de récits numérisés
Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling
Université Concordia University
(514) 848-2424 #7920

Adresse postale | Postal address:
1455, boul. de Maisonneuve Ouest
Montréal (Qc) Canada – H3G 1M8

While in the US 18 Sept-22 October (2011), I’m keen to meet fellow practitioners who are passionate about radio as crafted narrative, and oral history. I’m happy to do a masterclass or seminar – or just meet and talk.

Here’s roughly where I’ll be. Please get in touch! Email

New York: 18-24 Sept

New Orleans: 24-29 Sept

North Carolina 1-5 October (doing a class at Duke Uni, Centre for Documentary Studies)

Appalachians and South: 5-10 October

Boston and Cape Cod: 11-16 October (class at Transom Radio Workshop)

Montreal 17-18 October

Chicago 19-24 October (FilmLESS Festival at Third Coast Audio)

The archive of my books, radio and other work can still be found at, but watch this space for updates.

Also my University of Wollongong staff page

And my page

I will get round to maintaining them very soon – and post pix!

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