The publication of my book by Columbia University Press in Oct ’22 (now available globally, yay!) spurred me to write this blog post. It’s aimed at academics who are thinking of making a podcast. But the advice applies much more broadly, so feel free to adapt to your own!

Academics and educators are increasingly turning to podcasts to disseminate research and advance teaching and learning. Although it’s relatively easy to make a podcast compared to other media formats, it’s much harder to make a great one! There are over five million podcasts competing for our ears, so here are some tips to help yours attract and retain an audience.

Siobhán McHugh with host and co-creator Patrick Abboud at an early production meeting for The Greatest Menace. The post-it notes are colour-coded for narrative elements. The Greatest Menace has won/been a finalist in eleven awards.

1. Podcasting is an AUDIO medium.

(Yes, some people listen to podcasts on YouTube, and some podcasters post videos of their shows, but audio is core). So understand audio’s strengths and weaknesses. Audio is linear and temporal: it exists only in real time. That makes timing an essential component. If your show is too dense, with no pauses to let things sink in, listeners will zone out. Use music and “stings” as punctuation to highlight a point or switch direction. A pause is like a period/full stop; a music bridge signals a new paragraph.


2. The pillars of audio (and podcasts) are VOICE and sound.

Your voice tells us not just what you think (your words), but how you feel about it (your tone) and who you are (your accent, age, and personality). Be real: either improvise (from notes) or write a script that reflects how you actually speak. Using contractions such as “we’re going,” not “we are going,” will help you sound natural, not stilted. This confers authenticity and builds empathy.

3. Use MUSIC to set mood and regulate pace.

Make sure it’s tonally apt, not chosen by algorithm. It should not compete with the content. And it should begin and end in the right places for the dramatic or emotional impact you want. Wrong or poorly deployed music can make a podcast unlistenable.

4. Use SOUND to add imaginative and affective depth. 

Ambient sound—like birdsong, an airport, or a sporting event—can evoke pictures in the listener’s mind and take them instantly to a place or time. I once heard a podcast in which two academics discussed a guest’s journal article on how to interpret ‘infant vocalizations’. For thirty minutes, the author earnestly described the range of vocalizations in technical language. A five-second recording of a baby gurgling or crying from tiredness or hunger would have gotten the message across a thousand times more effectively and engagingly.


5. Podcasts do PERSONAL really well.

If your topic offers a chance to do in-depth interviews, where subjects can describe and reflect on their lived experience, that’s audio gold. Ask pertinent questions, listen with rapt attention, and know when to keep quiet, and you’ll have the bones of a great podcast right there.

6. INTIMACY is the most sought-after currency of podcasts.

It derives partly from the power of audio to connect with our imagination and our emotions as well as our brain, much more creatively than, say, the prescribed pictures of television. The sense of intimacy can be heightened if you listen alone, as most do, and heightened further if you listen via headphones. Studies show that people listening to the same content via headphones, not speakers, retain it more.

7. Production quality matters.

Audio has its own grammar and logic. Learn the basics of a good quality recording: simply placing the microphone too far away from the speaker can squander that much-vaunted intimacy. Wear headphones when recording so you can troubleshoot. You might, for example, turn levels down to avoid distortion. Learn to edit: most interviews benefit from being filleted, and editing speech is not much harder than cutting and pasting in Word. Listen back critically to your show—in real time—to see where it drags or gets repetitive, and cut accordingly. It’s like doing a final copyedit to a print manuscript. Adding theme music at the start and end, plus a few acoustic “stings” to signal new sections, is like formatting a longform article into an introduction, sections, and a conclusion: it adds pleasing shape.


8. STORY.

Eighty percent of podcasts are “talk,” but even chat can be more engaging when it has a beginning, a middle, and an end—that is, when it has a story, rather than self-indulgent banter that doesn’t know when to stop. In The Rest is History, the historian hosts joust and joke, but they also stick to a cracker of a story, ad-libbed from copious research. Episodic narrative podcasts, whether investigative journalism (Wind of ChangeS-TownThe Greatest Menace*); memoir (Goodbye to All This); or fiction (HomecomingPassenger List) at their best are an art form as skilled as any web series. They rely on a plotty story (what happened); 3D characters (who it happens to, developed through word pictures and scenes); strong script or narration (a relatable host with an overt connection to the story); tight narrative structure; and, the one most newcomers overlook, evocative storytelling-through-sound (those scenes that yank us to that street, the mournful seagull that places us by the Atlantic). Also, it’s a collaborative art, and takes massive amounts of time to do well, so find the funding. (About $250 to $300,000 per series, or c. $50,000 per hour of narrative podcast is a realistic unit cost for premium shows: absurdly cheap compared to TV.)

9. Publication.

Before you make your podcast, think about your potential audience. Who do you want to hear this? What niche are you filling? Now, via social media and your networks, alert those people to your existence. First contact is usually visual: they will see your podcast’s artwork on their phone or other device, so make sure it is striking and apposite. Some people color-code, blue for corporate themes, yellow for pop culture, and red for true crime. Ponder a good title and tagline, and add show notes and a website that amplify your content. Then engage with your listeners: podcasting is two-way communication, even if that communication is asynchronous. Another of its great strengths is the parasocial relationship listeners develop with a host, a bond of trust and companionship much valued in an age of misinformation. Answer listeners’ questions and reply to their comments. If a listener community builds, talking to each other on social media, you’ve hit the jackpot.

10. LISTENING as emancipation.

I provoked laughter at a media conference when I summed up podcasting as “God’s gift to ironing.” It’s true! Most listeners multitask, a boon in a screen-driven world, as we acquire knowledge or immerse ourselves in story while commuting or walking the dog. But—especially if you are setting audio texts for students—it is important to learn how to listen critically. Ask students to note which parts made them get emotional and to think about why. Where did their attention wane? Which “character” did they warm to or dislike? How did they picture the characters?

I once played an award-winning audio feature, Dreaming of Fat Men, to a class. In it, producer Lorelei Harris invited self-described fat women who loved food to come into the studio, have a fabulous feast, and interact. The women describe with rich sensuality, irony, and humor their enjoyment of food, life, and each other’s company. My students listened avidly. At the end, one said: “They don’t sound fat.” It was a simple but profound reminder that audio can liberate us from preconceptions and judgment, conscious or not. Audio doesn’t even need you to be literate. Podcasts can harness these qualities to be a democratising and inclusive force in the world. So go start a podcast—just like books, there can never be too many!

For in-depth advice and analysis on making narrative podcasts, see my book, The Power of Podcasting: Telling Stories Through Sound (Columbia University Press 2022). It has before and after script iterations from award-winning podcasts I’ve worked on. This blog is republished from Columbia University Press Author Blog, 23 Dec 2022, with thanks to editor Maritza Herrera-Diaz.

Siobhán McHugh is honorary associate professor of journalism at the University of Wollongong and of media and communications at the University of Sydney. Narrative podcasts she has coproduced have won seven gold awards at the New York Festivals Radio Awards, among other accolades. They include The Last Voyage of the Pong Su, Wrong Skin, Phoebe’s Fall, The Greatest Menace, Gertie’s Law and Heart of Artness.

The Power of Podcasting: Telling Stories Through Sound

 NewSouth Books, UNSW Press, Feb 2022.

Order HERE with free intro chapter.

Newsflash: US and European edition coming October 2022 with Columbia University Press!

Hard to describe this book: it’s a crazily ambitious attempt at a cultural survey and critical analysis of podcasting as a new medium, that’s also a ‘creative confessional’, replete with insider takes on the artistic and editorial side of crafting podcasts, plus a homage to the global audio storytelling community, old and new. Here’s the sell.

Podcasting is hailed for its intimacy and authenticity in an age of mistrust and disinformation. It is hugely popular, with journalists, entertainers, corporates, celebrities, artists, activists and hobbyists all dipping a toe in the podcast pond.

But while it is relatively easy to make a podcast, it is much harder to make a great one.

In The Power of Podcasting, award-winning podcast producer and audio scholar Siobhán McHugh provides a unique blend of practical insights and critical analysis of the invisible art of audio storytelling. Packed with case studies, history, tips and techniques from the author’s four decades of experience, this original book brings together a wealth of knowledge to introduce you to the seductive world of sound.   

  • A rare blend of academic depth and insider professional knowledge, the book places podcasting in the broader context of radio and international audio storytelling.
  • McHugh draws on her extensive networks to interview key figures in podcasting. She also provides rigorous analysis of landmark podcasts including Serial, S-Town and The Daily.
  • The book includes actual script iterations and detailed description of the production process of the making of hit podcasts the author worked on (e.g. The Last Voyage of the Pong Su).
  • The book surveys current podcasting trends, including the push for inclusion, equality and diversity in the industry. It canvasses podcasts made from China to the Middle East.

AUTHOR:

Siobhán McHugh is an award-winning writer, documentary-maker, academic and podcast producer. She has won six gold awards at New York Festivals for co-produced podcasts including Phoebe’s FallWrong Skin and The Last Voyage of the Pong Su, and has been shortlisted for a Walkley, a Eureka science award, the NSW Premier’s Audio-Visual Award, NSW Premier’s History Awards and the United Nations Media Peace Prize (twice). She is the author of The Snowy, which won the NSW Premier’s Literary Award for non-fiction, and is founding editor of RadioDoc Review, the first journal of audio storytelling criticism. McHugh is Honorary Associate Professor in Media and Communications at the University of Sydney and Honorary Associate Professor of Journalism at University of Wollongong.

“Essential reading for anyone aspiring to make memorable audio. This is the ultimate guide to podcasting from a master of the craft.”– Richard Baker, multi-Walkley-awardwinning host of Phoebe’s Fall, Wrong Skin and The Last Voyage of the Pong Su

‘A love letter to the power of podcasting and audio, from one of the most experienced storytellers with sound.’ – James Cridland, editor of Podnews

‘An invaluable resource for anyone interested in understanding today’s global podcasting phenomenon. I learned so much.’ – Carolina Guerrero, CEO of Radio Ambulante Studios

‘Storytelling is Siobhan’s gift, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that this book is written as an immersive narrative … the ideal book for students, trainers, researchers and anyone who wants to learn about the inner workings of podcasting.’

– Kim Fox, Professor of Practice, American University in Cairo and co-chair Podcast Studies Network

Much more than a how-to guide for aspiring podcasters … A reminder of the power of sound and the huge potential of the podcast medium.’ – Richard Berry, University of Sunderland

‘Absolutely fascinating, and a terrific lesson in how to tell good stories.

Whether you seek instruction, or simply to know why some podcasts are better than others, this book is for you. Considering how rapidly podcasting is developing, McHugh manages to keep it bang up to date, charting the latest trends and the ever-expanding honour roll of podcasts circulating around the world. For those looking for practical guidance in creating or improving their own podcasting, she populates the chapters with real, living, breathing people in all the highs and lows of their humanity, which is, after all, the secret to great radio, journalism and outstanding podcasting.

– Olya Booyar, Head of Radio, Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union

At home with newly arrived book! [Photo Kirk Gilmour]

NEWSFLASH: In June 2022, this article won the John C. Hartsock award for best article published in the journal Literary Journalism Studies in 2021. The award is made annually by the International Association for Literary Journalism Studies. https://s35767.pcdn.co/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/10-Essay-3_S-Town.pdf

When Brian Reed and Julie Snyder set out to make the S-Town podcast, they wanted it to be like a nonfiction novel, for your ears. And they succeeded! Like the great literary journalists that kicked off the genre, Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, Joan Didion and more, they used the tools of fiction to make a true story utterly compelling. The plot is a slow reveal of the remarkable life of a mordant, self-destructive genius called John B.McLemore, and his small ‘Shit-Town’, Woodstock, Alabama. The podcast presents a memorable cast of characters, brought fully to life by rich Southern dialogue and evocative audio scenes. Reed’s deep immersion in the community over months and years shapes his perspective; as with other literary journalists, from Anna Funder (Stasiland) to Katharine Boo (Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity) his subjectivity becomes a strength. But unlike in books, it is Reed’s actual voice, with nuance of tone and tempo, that steers us through the story. Music and other sounds are carefully choreographed to further colour our understanding of McLemore’s baleful brilliance, as he battles his demons and follows his dreams as far as they can go.

I’ve mapped S-Town to classic tropes of literary journalism identified by key figures such as Norman Sims, Mark Kramer, Robert Boynton and Tom Wolfe himself. I did it to make the case that the narrative podcast form, when executed to the highest standard, should be admitted to the canon of literary journalism.

My peer reviewed article was published in the Journal of Literary Journalism Studies in December 2021. Read it here:  https://s35767.pcdn.co/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/10-Essay-3_S-Town.pdf

Listen to S-Town podcast here.

This is a talk I gave in December 2020 for the Oral History Network of Ireland annual lecture. I discuss how to turn interviews into an audio story and how to use music and ambient sound to build a narrative. There’s a live demo (starts 37.01) of converting a ‘raw’ interview to a story, using music and chickens (!) to add mood and pace. For readers of my book, The Power of Podcasting: this is the interview with entertainer Ingrid Hart I describe in the Prologue!

Video of talk (50mins) is HERE. It contains lots of illustrative audio clips from three of my projects: the podcast Heart of Artness, about cross-cultural relationships behind the production of contemporary Australian Aboriginal art; the radio documentary series Marrying Out, about sectarianism and bigotry in Australia; and the radio documentary series Minefields and Miniskirts, about Australian women’s role in the Vietnam war.

I’ve co-authored a detailed academic article about the collaborative process behind making Heart of Artness here.

The six primary emotions:  Fear, Anger, Sadness, Joy, Surprise, Disgust

Audio conveys emotions beautifully – a quaver in the voice, a chuckle, a sigh, all carry as much meaning as any spoken words. People also tend to feel less inhibited in audio compared to video, where they are instantly judged on their appearance. Audio does not care if you are fat or thin, bald or beautiful, black or white.

To harness audio’s capacity for emotion and develop your skills crafting a two-minute audio story, try this exercise I devised. It’s based on tapping into the six primary emotions, described by US psychologist Paul Ekman in the 1960s (and no, love and hate do not figure – they are evidently social constructs). Whether you are a Wall St banker or a hunter gatherer in the Amazon, these six emotions are universally biologically encoded.

The EMOTIONAL HISTORY EXERCISE

Find a person who can tell you a story that reflects one or more of the primary emotions. It’s about capturing a crystalline moment: the joy of seeing a new-born baby, the fear of encountering a dangerous animal in the wild, the sadness of losing a loved one, anger at a miscarriage of justice.

They can be tiny stories: the joy of a kid who kicks his first goal; disgust at eating something that turns out to have maggots; surprise, then fear, at getting lost on a hike, and joy at being found.

The point is, the teller is emotionally invested and this kind of personal storytelling is always engaging and intimate. So much so, you will want to honour and hone it to its best. You might have recorded ten or twenty minutes: the background, the lead up, the peak moment (Goal! When the Rhino Charged! The moment I saw the maggots!) and a reflection on it all.

images

Now you need to cut it back to under two. Think of editing as filleting. You are cutting away the fat and the dross, so that every single bit can be readily consumed.

You probably won’t need your own voice in there, the story can just unfold. But if you prefer, you can set out ‘grabs’ of your interviewee and script links you will voice.

ADDING MUSIC AND SOUND

Either way, you need to add music, to set mood and to punctuate (vary pace, underline a strong statement or a joke, change narrative direction, add a pause to let a point sink in). There are lots of copyright-free music sites to choose from.

But sound itself can tell story, so grab some where you can. It’s called actuality, or ambient sound. It might be the cheers of bystanders at the football game, the ref blowing the whistle, the thwack of a ball being kicked. It could be the cries and gurgles of an infant, or birdsong and the sound of walking in a forest. It’s best to record your own, for added authenticity, but you can also find ambient sounds online.

The real craft starts now, as you work out how to layer and place your three elements: voice, music and sound. Notice how they work in relation to each other, and how timing matters: where do you start the music and when do you fade it out or have it end? If you leave music all the way through, it will start to negate its own impact.

Be sure to end in a satisfying way, both in terms of narrative and of sound. And just for discipline, do not run over two minutes.

An example here from a university student, trying audio for the very first time, as a firefighter expresses his fear during last summer’s terrible bushfires in Australia. And here is another one, on the complex emotions around having a baby. Once you master this emotional history technique, you can apply it to all kinds of audio stories and podcasts. Maybe love and hate will finally make an appearance!

Bushfires

It’s amazing how life loops about. I left Ireland for Australia in 1985 largely because of the censorship I experienced at the national broadcaster (RTE) where I had produced a top-rating breakfast radio show, Morning Call. It was 1983 and we were having a constitutional referendum on abortion. Not on whether to make it legal or not but on whether to make it more illegal than it already was. This was an Ireland where the Catholic Church ruled the roost, controlling health and education institutions, and even, as I was to find, exerting influence over the media. The debate on ‘The Amendment’ split the country like nothing since the Civil War that had followed the founding of the state in 1921.

 

Morning Call ended with a one-hour interview format lifted straight from the BBC’s Desert island Discs: a guest would select favourite pieces of music and weave them into their life story. This particular week, presenter Marian Finucane was to interview Anne Connolly, founder of a progressive women’s health clinic, The WellWoman Centre. The following week, for balance, the guest was to be Mína Bean Uí Chribín, from the Society to Protect the Unborn Child. Both interviews had been approved at a management production meeting. It was understood that neither would canvass The Amendment directly – editorial constraints meant that matters of such public controversy would only be dealt with in news and current affairs contexts – but both women would be of more than passing interest due to the timing.

 

The interview with Anne Connolly went off without incident. I saw my boss at the coffee bar directly afterwards and she had no issues with it. But hours later, she summarily told me I was being suspended as producer of the show, due to a lack of editorial judgement. Complaints had been made about the choice of guest. ‘But you approved her’, I stammered, in shock. She looked at me, almost pityingly. ‘No I didn’t’, she replied. I had no evidence with which to refute this barefaced lie. And thus I was thrown under a bus, exiled to a late night music show. With my career prospects seriously under a cloud, when the chance came to migrate to Australia in 1985, I jumped at it.

 

Then, in 2012, a young Indian woman, Savita Halappanavar, died of septicaemia at Galway Hospital after being denied an abortion. She was 17 weeks pregnant and in early miscarriage, but doctors refused to terminate while there was a foetal heartbeat. I fulminated against this awful tragedy on Facebook.

 

I was then a journalism academic, teaching feature writing and broadcasting. One promising student, Brianna Parkins, submitted an unusual profile feature, about a Vietnamese gangland ‘moll’ in Western Sydney. I told her I’d like to submit it for an award, but that she needed to clean up the grammar and punctuation as I had detailed. She sent it back to me, but with the corrections incomplete. I returned it, with a request to finish the job. Brianna’s next email had a self-pitying tone. She said she had to work late in a hospitality job and had no spare time. I must have been a bit overworked myself because I shot back, tersely: ‘I worked forty hours a week in a restaurant to put myself though a science degree. It’s a matter of professional self-respect, to have correct copy. Up to you.’ Brianna duly made the corrections. The piece did not in the end win an award (due more to mis-matched criteria than any lack of merit), but it fomented a bond between us. When she graduated, she gave me a box of chocolates and a card, which thanked me for all I’d taught her – especially the good ‘kick up the arse’.

 

Next time I heard of Brea, it was in the unlikely guise of representing Sydney in an archaic pageant called The Rose of Tralee, which featured the daughters of the Irish diaspora competing in a televised popularity contest in Tralee, County Kerry. Even though it was vigorously touted as Not a Beauty Contest, I was amazed to see a feisty feminist such as Brea in such a milieu. It made sense later: the winners were flown to Ireland and she wanted to spend time with her immigrant grandparents back in their native Dublin.

 

It was now 2016. Since the death of Savita, there had been sporadic attempts to launch a repeal of the Eighth Amendment to the  Constitution, the one passed in 1983 that effectively made abortion impossible to obtain.  One Monday night in August, the country tuned in live for the Rose of Tralee contest, an entertainment extravaganza not unlike the Eurovision Song Contest. Brea came on stage to be interviewed, wearing her Sydney sash. Contestants usually presented as wholesome types, interested in Irish dancing and keen to end world poverty. When the compere asked Brea what she’d like to see happening, she didn’t miss a beat  – she’d like women in Ireland to have more control over their bodies and a repeal of the Eighth Amendment.  With commendable aplomb, the compere segued into his next comment: ‘I hear you like samba’. But the audience had already started to applaud.

 

In  Australia, I saw the kerfuffle unfold on Twitter – people revelling  in Brea, or reviling her, as she detailed in a pungent article for the Irish Times. I posted about this firebrand graduate of mine on Facebook. Eleanor McDowall, a British radio producer and FB friend, noticed it. I posted again when a campaign was launched to Repeal the 8th, and when a referendum on the matter was announced. In the run-up, Brea took leave from her job in Sydney to return to Ireland and support the repeal campaign. ‘I want to finish what I started’, she commented.

On 26 May 2018, Ireland voted by a 2:1 majority to make abortion legal.

Prato gals

Bonding  at Prato Radio Conference, Italy, July 2018. Evi Karathanasopoulou, Eleanor McDowall, Siobhan McHugh and an Italian audio producer.

In July that year, I met Eleanor McDowall for the first time, at a radio studies conference in Prato, near Florence. Over a wonderful dinner in the piazza by Prato’s magnificent cathedral, I bonded with her and other female audio creatives, and told them the long looping story of Ireland’s abortion laws and the links between me and Brea that spanned 35 years since that first referendum.

 

The next day, Eleanor approached me about making a documentary about the whole saga. I emailed Brea, who was in straight away. A month later, I picked up El off the train from Sydney and led her to my office, where Brea met us. Her Thank You card was still on my shelf.

El records Brea

Eleanor McDowall records Brianna Parkins as she prepares to address Journalism students

The 28-minute documentary El made for BBC Radio 4 features the voices of four women: me, Brea, Anne Connolly and a fourth, anonymous, woman, who is setting off to the UK to have an abortion. Called A Sense of Quietness, it is spare and beautiful, and has won huge acclaim: the Prix Europa, an Amnesty UK Media award, a Third Coast Audio Award.

 

In a perfect cyclical ending, Brea Parkins has now moved to Dublin, to live and work as a journalist in the city I left for Sydney all those years ago, when I described myself as ‘a refugee from the Catholic Church in Ireland’. Following horrendous child abuse scandals, the Catholic Church has lost the respect and authority it once commanded in Ireland. Ireland is now multicultural, led by a gay man of Indian descent, an unthinkable concept in my day. To complicate things further, Ireland passed marriage equality laws ahead of supposedly liberal and secular Australia – which is now led by a conservative evangelical Christian. We live in, er, interesting times.

 

Siobhan and El Austi

Eleanor McDowall and Siobhan after a day of field recording for A Sense of Quietness

Ian McLean and Margo Neale at the start of our journey, Yuendemu

 

Since January 2015, I’ve been working with the eminent art historian Ian McLean and the irrepressible Margo Neale, Senior Indigenous Curator at the National Museum, on a wonderful project funded by the Australian Research Council: to investigate and document the little known but influential relationships between Aboriginal artists and close white associates.

Siobhan interviewing Warlpiri artist Alma Nungarrayi Granites at Yuendemu

 

I’ve recorded 30 oral histories, in two remote and one urban setting. We are donating this revelatory interview collection to the National Library of Australia, where it will be available as a research resource. But first, I’m mining it for a podcast, called Heart of Artness.

At the ABC, Sydney working on The Conquistador, the Warlpiri and the Dog Whisperer, March 2018. Margo Neale (presenter), Claudia Taranto (Executive Producer) and me (producer).

It’s been an enlightening and extraordinary journey. Sitting by a river, 300 kilometres from anywhere in Yolgnu country in tropical Northern Australia, listening to Yinimala Gumana describe how his great-grandfather came back from a hunting trip in 1911 and found about 30 dead bodies floating there: they’d been massacred in a ‘punitive expedition’ after a white surveyor went missing. (The surveyor turned up unharmed.) And then a tragedy in Yinimala’s own life, when a friend and ranger colleague was taken by a crocodile at the same spot, in 2018.

colour mens museum Gloria and Cec02

Cecilia Alfonso and Gloria Morales, who manage the Warlukurlangu art centre in Yuendemu, NT

Learning to understand the two Chilean women whose tough pragmatism has earned the approval of the Warlpiri artists who employ them.

Cecilia Alfonso and Gloria Morales have increased the turnover of their desert art centre from 300 works produced in a year to 8000.

 

 

With artist Richard Bell on top of the MCA, Sydney, which holds his work.

Sitting with artist Richard Bell in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, with Sydney Harbour glittering outside the window, as he fulminates about the “Captain Cook Cruises” going past – a reminder of the British invasion that cruelled his people and tried to quell his culture. ‘ I’m Irish – they practised on us,’ I tell him. ‘For 600 years, before they got to you.’ It instantly changes the dynamic.

What follows below is a version of an article that Ian McLean and I wrote for The Conversation. To find out more, visit the Heart of Artness website and listen to the podcast. Five episodes are up now (Nov 2018). Four to come: on early days in Yuendemu in the 1980s and on the edgy proppaNOW movement of Brisbane, featuring artists such as Bell, Vernon Ah Kee and Jennifer Herd.

Artist Jennifer Herd, founding member of proppaNOW

Aboriginal Art– it’s a white thing

… so Richard Bell declared in 2002. But as we discovered investigating this white thing, it’s also full of ‘positivity’, to use a favourite Bell expression. Not all that is white is evil.

Bell’s accusation was aimed at the then-booming market in remote Aboriginal art, but it was as true of the urban Aboriginal art scene. Bell should know. His [art] has been acquired by major white art institutions, from Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art to London’s Tate Modern, and he is represented by Brisbane’s Milani Gallery, a major player in the Australian contemporary art world. This white thing is no big deal says Bell:

‘Nobody thinks it’s strange that black people play in sporting arenas owned by white people, for teams that are owned by white people. Josh [Milani] has an arena for us to play in – it’s the same deal. The MCA is the equivalent to Sydney Cricket Ground.’

As in sport there is much more to the art world than the stars, the artists, and this much more is mainly white. Largely invisible in the hype around Aboriginal art, we wanted to know about these invisible white men and women.

Milani Gallery is a major Australian art centre, owned and run by Josh Milani, who trained as a lawyer: ‘I do it as an advocate – with a sense of moral purpose and hopefully integrity. Queensland has a very large population of Aborigines… my work as a gallerist should represent the culture that’s here.’

Growing up with an Italian migrant father, Milani always “felt like a Wog”. His natural empathy with outsiders and intellectual passion for art and justice led him to where he is now: the go-to dealer for international curators. ‘I’ve learned a lot – how power operates, identity operates.’

Artist Wukun Wanambi and art centre manager Will Stubbs, Yirrkala 2010 (photo: Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre).

Issues of power and identity are equally fundamental to the art produced at Buku-Larrnggay Mulka, a Yolngu owned and run art centre in Yirrkala, 600 km east of Darwin. Its art also comes from the artists’ lived experience, in this case of an unusually intact Yolngu culture. Will Stubbs, a former criminal lawyer from Sydney, has been employed to managed the centre for over 20 years. While he has to balance cultural imperatives with market demand, for him cultural imperatives come first. “They bring in what they want to bring in, not what we ask for. And then we have to make it work from there’ – in, that is, the white market and art world.

Celebrated Yolgnu artist Nyapanyapa Yuninpingu (photo: Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre)   

One of its most successful artists is Nyapanyapa Yunipingu. One wet season when the centre ran out of bark, Stubbs handed Nyapanyapa some leftover acetates to keep her busy. She filled them at the rate of five a day. As he filed them away, he noticed ‘this filigree of complexity, of abstract existence, that I’d never seen before.’ As the acetates accumulated, Stubbs realised that seeing them in random permutations and sequences would accentuate their impact – so he contacted a Melbourne digital guru, Joseph Brady, who could devise such an algorithm.

Joseph Brady, digital artist.

The resulting Light Box became an installation in the 2012 Sydney Biennale – and Joseph Brady became so affected by Yolngu culture that he transplanted his young family to Yirrkala, where he now manages the Mulka Project at the art centre, a vast archive of Yolngu knowledge.

Like Milani Gallery, Buku-Larrnggay is one of the most successful purveyors of Aboriginal art, but as different as these two models are, they are not the only success stories. The Warlpiri-run Warlukurlangu Centre at Yuendemu, 300km northwest of Alice Springs, is also defying the post-GFC downturn in the Aboriginal art market.

Warlpiri artist Margaret Lewis Napangardi at work at Yuendemu.

Run by two Chilean women, its market-driven approach is the polar opposite of the culture-privileging mission of Will Stubbs. ‘They hired me because I’m an outsider,’ says Cecilia Alfonso, who started at Warlukurlangu in 2001. ‘They don’t want some hippie-dippy well-intentioned person to run their business.’ She and her business partner, Gloria Morales, monitor the market closely and encourage the artists to paint what is likely to sell. ‘This is a meeting of the two worlds as an enterprise and they come in for money.’ The centre now turns over about 8000 artworks a year, compared to around 300 when she and Gloria started. Traditional owner and artist Andrea Nungarrayi Martin is unconcerned whether the artists paint their traditional ‘tjukurrpa’ or dreaming story or decide to do something non-sacred. “Doesn’t matter – so long as it sells.”

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Cecilia Alfonso with Warlpiri foundation artist of Warlukurlangu, Paddy Stewart.

It’s another twist in the ‘authenticity’ debate around Aboriginal art. In 2002 Bell decried how the white-controlled Aboriginal art industry privileged art from remote areas as more ‘authentic’ than that by urban artists such as him even though ‘we paid the biggest price.’ Bell’s genius is to leverage this loss to get a return. “When I started working with Richard [in 2003], we were selling paintings for $2000”, recalls Milani, but ‘the more people he offended, the more I put his prices up!’ … and the more this white clientele bought Bell’s paintings.

When Milani first met Bell in a pub, he had his trademark punch. He wrote on a beer coaster that he was an ‘enema of the state’. But he was no novice and he had a plan. Brilliant as these white dealers are, they need the artists as much as the artists need them. ‘We’ve positioned ourselves inside the tent’ – though not without Milani’s help – but, Bell told us, ‘that doesn’t stop us from getting outside and pissing on the tent.’

Artist Richard Bell.

 

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April started well with our win for the investigative narrative journalism podcast, Phoebe’s Fall, at The Castaways. This was a surprise and a thrill, given the stiff competition we faced, from such excellent series as SBS True Stories and their series on the gay hate murders of the 1980s. Kudos to Castaways founder Dave Gertler for a great initiative and a fun night. Podcasting events are taking off. The UK have the British Podcast Awards and the London Podcast Festival, the US has an all-women event, Werk It, and 2000 people attending its annual Podcast Movement, while Australia hosts two podcast industry days, Audiocraft and OzPod. There’s also recognition via awards such as the Webbys, which honour media excellence on the internet, and new podcasting categories in older awards such as the Prix Italia and the New York Radio Festival – where Phoebe’s Fall won GOLD in the Personal Lives category in June.

Yep, not to boast, but this is our FOURTH big award: we also scooped a Melbourne Press Club Quill award and a Kennedys Award for Outstanding Radio Current Affairs. So my co-producer Julie Posetti and I thought it was worth mulling over the process that led to Phoebe’s Fall ‘s success.  We wrote about it here for The Age newspaper. We also presented a paper on it at the huge IAMCR media /communications research conference held in the beautiful walled town of Cartagena, Colombia.

I’ve wanted to go to Colombia ever since I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s astonishing  100 Years of Solitude, the novel that launched magic realism. I was then a student, based in grey, rainy Dublin, and the book transported me to an opulent sensual universe of epic proportions. Captivated, I resolved there and then to learn Spanish and visit this extraordinary other world. Learning Spanish wasn’t too hard – a stint as an English teacher in the Basque Country near San Sebastian furnished me with the basics. (I particularly enjoy its earthy curses.) But it took till now to get to Latin America.

Carmen Miranda type

Cartagena was once the epicentre of slave trading. Today’s assertive African-Colombians channel the sensuality captured by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

The first thing we did was tour the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, the largest fortification installed by the Spanish over centuries of colonisation of the continent. The audio guide brought to life the harrowing stories of life in this port, once a thriving centre of slavery.

Next, we tracked down the home of Marquez, who set his other great novel, Love in the Time of Cholera, in Cartagena. There is no plaque, just an unofficial appropriation by the guesthouse next door of one of his quotes. A few days later, I got to ask the unassuming Jaime Marquez, elder brother of Gabriel, why his home was unrecognised. Because his wife and children still stay there sometimes, he told me, and they want privacy.  It was not a private audience – I was one of dozens of delegates trailing Jaime on a walking tour of his brother’s Cartagena, an inspired idea of the conference organisers. Jaime pointed out places where characters and scenes from Love… drew inspiration. A door near the historic clock tower evoked one of Don Emilio’s associates. San Diego Plaza brought forth a tale of a spilled cargo of oranges that inflamed Gabriel’s imagination. I stuck close to Jaime to record his talk and at one point, I had his ear. In ungrammatical Spanish, I told him how I had had ‘quarenta años de esperando’ (40 years of waiting to get to Colombia) after reading Cien Años de Soledad. He smiled. His brother showed him the first 80 pages, Jaime recalled. ‘I told him it was quite good – he should continue’.

As for the IAMCR conference, another revelation was the scope and innovation of media and communications research by Latin American scholars, of which I – and many English-speaking delegates – were embarrassingly unaware. We were roundly chastised for our Anglo-centric views in a provocative and entertaining keynote by Omar Rincon, who chided us for imagining Latin America as a theme park for magic realism.

Among the diverse papers by over 1200 delegates, I counted only five that dealt with podcasting. I had to explain to several colleagues what a podcast was.  There is a strong oral tradition in Colombia and audio storytelling should have traction. Community radio is hugely popular, but its first cousin, podcasting, languishes. It’s partly about lack of band width; it was also chastening to learn that few Colombians have smartphones. Omar Rincon left us with a worthy challenge, to consider communications from a unifying perspective of aesthetic and narrative.

Latin American scholars 1

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.

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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.

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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.

The ability to evoke empathy  is a cornerstone of audio and its deployment in S-Town is both timely and provocative. As Snyder told a Sydney Opera House audience last year:

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.

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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….

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I was consulting producer on this gripping podcast series, which toppled Serial to be #1 in the Australian iTunes charts.

  • Making a narrative/investigative podcast, Phoebe’s Fall, with a crack team from the newsroom at The Age in Melbourne
  • Attending Australia’s first podcasting conference, #OzPod2016
  • Interviewing Aboriginal artists in remote Australia

 

                 ADNAN DID IT!

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Julie Snyder, EP of Serial, at Sydney Opera House 18 December, reveals that their IT guy accidentally posted “Adnan did it” while trying to stop just such comments!

 

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!’

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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!Radiolab ethos on napkin.jpg Read the rest of this entry »

smchugh@uow.edu.au

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