This article offers in-depth, time-stamped criticism of the craft, scripting, hosting, research and production aspects of these storytelling or narrative podcasts, with illustrative audio examples. See also my (short) review of Trojan Horse Affair in the Sydney Morning Herald.

By Siobhán McHugh

Reprinted from RadioDoc Review, 8 (1) 2023

There are many ways to ruin a narrative podcast. As a consulting podcast producer and avid podcast listener, I have heard quite the range. Some, unaware that audio is a linear and temporal medium, present unlistenable works-in-progress: turgid, untextured aural stodge. Others serve up a rambling screed where lazy scripting and poor structure undermine nuggets of insightful journalism. Hosts who do have a compelling storyline can sound alienatingly wooden or sarcastic; and music seemingly selected by algorithm can massacre a story’s emotional heart.

The good news: skilled producers, story editors and sound designers can rescue these efforts and work with would-be hosts to make audio-friendly content. Narrative sense can be conferred by simple punctuation, as in print—but in audio, you might do this using a beat of silence, music or sound, to switch narrative direction or let a statement land. An interview clip might need to be interpreted by you, the host, to tell us the context, the way this voice fits with the other story elements; or it might sit better as a sharp counterpoint to another voice, the meaning heightened by the bald sequence. These are some of the discussions that inform the collaborative art of creating the kind of storytelling podcast that keeps a listener listening.[1]

The deployment of all these elements—voice, actuality, music, archival sound—in the service of story makes a big difference to how engaging the podcast will be. Underpinning all of this are the script and narrative structure: the host should fully inhabit the script, tweak it till it sounds real, for them. The script also has to link, foreshadow and clarify the various story elements, while the narrative arc works at both a micro level, providing a satisfying journey within each episode, and a macro, whereby thorny details and bum steers are explored, eliminated or developed, and by the end of the series, finally resolved—or at least exhausted.

Non-narrated audio, or montage, in the hands of a deft producer is its own art form.[2] But in a conventional narrative podcast today, the listener is guided by the host. If they let us know their thoughts on what they are uncovering, it’s a bonus—we are included now, on this quest. Unlike chatcasts, where listeners are exposed to everything from echoey bathroom-like acoustics to crisp on-mic delivery, technical quality matters in storytelling. Intimacy, that cherished currency of podcasting, starts with a close mic.[3]

Intimacy, that cherished currency of podcasting, starts with a close mic.

Earlier, before important interviews were recorded, there were probably team meetings to nut out a rough episodic structure. This is often conceived with a taut ending and a slow, unfolding opening—a scene or character to intrigue, lead into the story. Once all (or most of) the interviews have been gathered (and usually auto-transcribed[4]), the host, producer and narrative consultant /producers will shape an episode script and annotate it with sound ideas, from archive to actuality. They will worry away, filleting clips, rewriting a word or phrase for coherence, clarity and flow. Someone might suggest a re-sequence, moving a section around to raise stakes, or add tension. Bits get shifted to another episode or deleted. General ideas for sound design are added, along with suggestions for music and what it’s for: a mood shift, a rise in tension, a beat (short or longer) for effect.  

Over-juicing someone’s speech with manipulative music is a cardinal sin that can turn poignant into mawkish.

In studio, the host records narration and a first audio draft is built. Sometimes the producers listen without sound design, judging only script and story, flow and feel. Maybe the host sounds lifeless or is getting the intonation wrong; the script might need fine-tuning for the ear. After the sound design is mixed, more adjustments follow.  The music might overwhelm or undercut the content: ‘over-juicing’ someone’s speech with manipulative music is a cardinal sin that can turn poignant into mawkish. Sometimes tone is fine but timing is off. An episode that drags needs surgical intervention.

On it goes, draft after draft, for as long as budget and schedule allow. Then one day, it drops online—and listeners decide whether to choose this, out of the over five million podcasts available. A trailer helps get their attention: a precis or titillating taste of what lies ahead. And so, it transpired that I listened to trailers for three narrative podcasts on a China-related theme and opted to press play. My response follows.


It’s unusual and welcome to see not one, but three, well-produced narrative podcasts made in the West about China. All provide strong context on Chinese history and politics but focus essentially on an individual: The King of Kowloon (produced by the ABC, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation) memorialises an eccentric graffiti artist called Tsang Tsou-choi, his art seen in the context of Hong Kong’s shrinking democracy. Both The Prince (by The Economist) and How To Become A Dictator (by The Telegraph) zero in on Xi JinPing, President of the People’s Republic of China, their release coinciding with the fifth annual Communist Party Congress in October 2022, at which Xi was expected to be anointed as supreme leader in virtual perpetuity (spoiler: he was).

The Prince (also referred to hereafter as Prince) and The King of Kowloon (KOK) both open with a theme of disappearance: in the former, Xi inexplicably goes missing in 2012, just before his leadership takes off. In KOK, Tsang Tsou-choi’s ephemeral art is here one moment, gone the next. How To Become A Dictator (Dictator) starts with a more conventional ‘scene’: host Sophia Yan is trying to get a flight back to China, where she has been working for ten years as The Telegraph’s correspondent.

All three podcast hosts are female journalists with a Chinese background, but we find them in very different contexts. Prince host Sue-Lin Wong was born and raised in Sydney, of Malaysian heritage. Now in her mid-thirties, as a student, she was a notable all-rounder: competitive athlete, volunteer surf lifesaver, debater, musician, dux of her high school. She headed to China in a gap year to learn Mandarin, then to the Australian National University to study Law and Asian Studies. She worked as a journalist with Reuters and the Financial Times before joining The Economist and having to leave Hong Kong along with other international journalists during protests in 2021, as surveillance increased. Remarkably, The Prince is her first podcast.[5]

Louisa Lim grew up in Hong Kong with a white English mother and a Singaporean Chinese father. Raised in an English-speaking enclave, she ‘was made by the city. I was shaped by Hong Kong values, in particular a respect for grinding hard work and stubborn determination’.[6] Lim speaks ‘basic Cantonese’ and was China correspondent for the BBC and NPR for a decade. Her first book,The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited , was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for Political Writing. She co-hosts The Little Red Podcast, an award-winning podcast on China, has a PhD in journalism studies and is senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne. She also hosted an insider ‘how-to’ podcast, Masterclass, in which she interviewed top audio professionals about best-practice audio journalism and podcasting.[7] Her recent book, Indelible City: Dispossession and Defiance in Hong Kong, was a finalist in the prestigious Australian Walkley awards for excellence in journalism.

Taiwanese-born Sophia Yan is based in New York when not on assignment. An award-winning journalist who has been a China correspondent for ten years, she previously made the podcast Hong Kong Silenced (2021), ‘the inside story of how life in Hong Kong was turned upside down in just one year’. In The Panic Room (2022), she interviewed people about how they surmounted curveballs and challenges. Like Prince, Dictator was conceived as a biographical analysis of Xi: inevitably, both cover similar ground. We hear the same archival audio (e.g. Xi giving a bullish speech in Mexico in 2009) and traverse Xi’s policy decisions, from his crackdown on corruption, big and small (hunting ‘tigers and flies’) to his infamous repression of the Uyghur minority. The two podcasts differ, however, in host style and scripting, whom they interview and how they revisit key moments, such as Xi’s stint living in a cave as a young man ostracised by the party. Their content is also governed by structure and length: Prince has eight c. 35-40min episodes, totalling about five hours, while Dictator has four 35–44-minute episodes, totalling under three hours. KOK is around three hours, comprising six approximately 28-minute episodes: unlike the other podcasts, produced by newspapers as digital-only content in which an episode can be as long as it needs to be, KOK was also broadcast on ABC Radio National and was constrained by a 30-minute broadcast slot.[8] 

The following analyses aspects of the podcasts’ approach, from production/structure and craft/sound design to editorial/research, hosting and script.


The more relatable a podcast host is, as a human being and in connection to the podcast theme, the more listeners are likely to engage. Academic research is starting to confirm this anecdotal dictum: a recent Danish study found that listeners ‘take comfort in podcast hosts who self-disclose by showing vulnerability, authenticity, and humour, and who share their own point of view’.[9] In practice, the importance of this parasocial relationship in podcasts was emphatically established by audience reaction to classics from true crime juggernaut Serial (2014) [10] to The New York Times’ hit news show The Daily (2017).[11]

Serial host Sarah Koenig was reluctant to bring herself into the narrative at first. But as her colleague, executive producer Julie Snyder explained: ‘The story really lived in the details [but] the details, a lot of the time, felt a little dull… And when Sarah told us what she was doing or thinking, and the significance of it, it was “Oh, I see.” And then there were also other times when Sarah told us what she didn’t know, and I thought it was kind of ballsy and… emotional.’[12]  

Koenig developed a spontaneous-sounding style that included little conversational asides, as if she was mulling things over in the moment with a friend (us, the listener). For example, in episode six, she’s considering a potential witness, whom she dubs ‘The Neighbour Boy’.

The Neighbour Boy never shows up at trial. He’s never mentioned. So I let it go. But, you know, it is weird. And if Laura’s story is true, then there’s another witness to this murder. It’s one of the things about this case that kind of bobs above the water for me, like a disturbing buoy.

This offhand language (‘kind of’, ‘you know’) is miles away from the stiff newsreader voice of authority. It’s beguiling—we feel that she is taking us into her confidence.

The charismatic host-on-a-quest is now an established podcasting trope. The tone might be cheeky, such as Marc Fennell in Stuff the British Stole, charmingly persuasive, such as Patrick Radden Keefe in Wind of Change, or revelatory, such as Afia Kaakyire in S***hole Country.  But importantly, where the host is conducting investigative journalism, core narration still needs to be grounded in solid fact. ‘I don’t think you can get away with it if you haven’t done your homework’, warns Koenig. ‘Even when it sounds like I’m kind of casual in my interpretations of things, I’m not. My observations were based not only on my reporting but on the documentation that exists in the case.’[13]

The hosts of TP, KOK and Dictator have clearly done their homework.[14] The podcasts are rich in historical detail and sharp political analysis, reflecting the hosts’ years of immersion in China-related affairs, but their tone and host persona are distinct. Prince’s Sue-Lin Wong comes across as infectiously curious and smart verging on sassy. Discussing how the Chinese Communist Party indoctrinates its 100 million members, she asks: ‘How do you get them all on the same message—your message?’ We hear audio of an electronic device. Wong clarifies: ‘It turns out there’s an app for that’. After providing detail on how the Xi JinPing Thought app codifies its propaganda, Wong explains: ‘Party officials must use the app daily. They get a score—it’s a sort of ideological fitness tracker.’ These sort of short, snappy sentences work well in audio, and provide a useful contrast to the more subtle explorations Wong conducts with interviewees, who range from journalists and academics to eye witnesses such as a woman who knew Xi as a child. As narrator, Wong talks a bit fast at times, but mostly we are swept along by her energetic approach. 

Wong occasionally inserts herself into the story, recalling how she reported from Beijing on the Olympics in 2008, and visiting a home in Muscatine, Iowa (Ep 7) where Xi stayed in 1985  on his earliest American visit, as a lowly regional official. Xi is still recalled with affection by the earthy owner, Sarah Lande, who provided his first encounter with popcorn and who welcomed him back there in 2012, when he was a distinguished guest of President Obama. Besides providing a surprise window on Xi’s life and a welcome contemporary scene in a podcast so focused on history, Wong skilfully weaves this incidental detail into a narrative transition that sets up a major expository shift.

 A lot’s happened since Xi Jinping first tried popcorn in Muscatine. In the subsequent years, the Chinese Communist Party watched as America abetted the collapse of the Soviet Union—a seismic event for the party and Xi Jinping himself. The Tiananmen Square democracy protests in 1989 only added to their fears.

This is assured writing. Throughout The Prince, Wong balances authoritative insight with just the right blend of informal aside. (‘National Rejuvenation is Xi’s way of saying Make China Great Again’.) Only once does she reveal a truly personal moment. In episode five, unable to get back to Hong Kong, she is cooling her heels in Sydney, staying in the family home. Over the sound of a hissing pan, Wong tells us she is ‘learning how to make one of my mum’s favourite Malaysian dishes, chicken rendang’. Firstly, it’s a relief for the listener to know that this likeable over-achiever seemingly can’t cook. Secondly, the scene allows Wong to reflect on her predicament. ‘Do you think it’s weird I’m covering China from Australia?’, she asks. ‘Of course’, replies her unflappable mother, adding, ‘especially I don’t know what’s the relevance of my cooking!’ It’s a very human interlude that leads seamlessly to an incisive point: ‘I’m very aware of how lucky I am. As a foreign national, I was able to leave easily, and I was never put in jail. More than a hundred journalists are currently behind bars in China because of their work.’ This is what podcasting does so well: a grace note of the personal amplifying the professional.


This is what podcasting does so well: a grace note of the

personal amplifying the professional.

Sophia Yan’s Dictator also includes revealing personal details that both advance the story and cement a bond with listeners. She keeps an audio diary of her 14-day quarantine before she can re-enter Beijing, due to Covid restrictions. We hear her finally insert a key into the door of her apartment, but her sojourn will be cut short by increasing surveillance—‘I stayed here long enough to go through a two-litre carton of milk’, she tells us succinctly. As the very title of the podcast (How to Become a Dictator) makes clear, her attitude to Xi Jinping is deeply sceptical, at times outright hostile. ‘China claims it’s modernising Xinjang [where over a million Uyghurs have been incarcerated], but what’s really happening is the mass torture and suppression of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities.’ Yan has personal grounds for her scepticism, particularly about Xi’s media censorship. In one dramatic scene, as she is visiting the cave where Xi once lived, now a tourist shrine, she realises she is being followed by police. She has been accosted by security forces before—we hear tape of an encounter in Xinjang in which she sustained a cut lip. Now, she sequesters herself in a lavatory to upload her location recordings of the cave to the cloud, in case she is apprehended and made to delete the files. This sort of real-time scene confers great immediacy. We also appreciate her cool-headed resolve.

Yan also retraces Xi’s visit to Iowa, meeting another farmer Wong visited, Rick Kimberley. Kimberley told both journalists (almost word-for-word—it must be a well-rehearsed set piece) how Xi had been particularly taken with his tractor and sat aloft for a photo. Yan gets the drop on Wong here: she takes the tractor for a drive. But Wong uses this seemingly insignificant scene to telling narrative effect. Kimberley is still a soybean farmer, decades on from Xi’s visit, and he is now directly affected by his erstwhile guest’s actions. As Wong narrates: ‘A picture of a delighted Xi Jinping on that tractor featured prominently in the Chinese press afterwards too. He was so impressed that he asked Rick to build a replica of his farm in Hebei province, Iowa’s sister state. But that wasn’t enough to protect Rick and his family from the fallout of spiralling US-China tensions.’ Wong goes on to explain how Donald Trump’s 2018 tariffs on Chinese imports caused retaliatory action by Xi, including a tariff on… soybeans. ‘The price definitely went down and, and that affects us as a family… it was a big hard time for us’, Rick tells Wong. This is adept narrative structure, moving constantly from the particular and the emotional to the bigger, dryer political picture.

Louisa Lim is well placed to exploit the same natural flow between micro-moments of her formative years in Hong Kong and the huge transformations the city has experienced over the last 25 years, first with the cessation of British rule in 1997 and then with the increasing crackdowns on democracy of recent years. She is a beautiful writer: her book about Hong Kong, Indelible City, drew this accolade from none other than Ai Wei Wei, the celebrated Chinese artist and activist: ‘Irresistibly real and emotionally authentic, it shines with a shimmering light rarely seen in political narrative. A truly extraordinary elegy.’ Lim’s description of the calligraphic art of her podcast subject, the so-called King of Kowloon, is indicative: ‘His words were a celebration of originality and human imperfection with a who-gives-a-fuckness about them that was genuinely inspiring’. But that’s from an article Lim wrote for The Atlantic. It is not in the podcast script; one can only wonder why not. It can’t be that the language was too explicit, given that a contributor quotes the King’s vulgar graffiti, ‘fuck the queen’s ass’. Whatever the reason, it is a great loss to the podcast that Lim does not narrate the story of her beloved, complex Hong Kong with anything like the luminosity of her words in print elsewhere.

Each episode is time-stamped, from 1997 to 2020. The podcast begins with raw, evocative actuality of the 2019 protests by Hong Kongers objecting to an increasing crackdown on democratic freedoms by Chinese authorities. This David vs. Goliath struggle gripped the world for months, and Lim was right there on the frontline. It’s a powerful, enticing opening. Over the chants and shouts, Lim tells us:

It’s nighttime. I’m wearing a yellow hard hat, plastic goggles and a gas mask. Sweat is dripping down my face. It’s all so unfamiliar. It feels like a waking nightmare. I grew up in Hong Kong, but right now, I don’t recognise my own city.  

As the protesters break into Hong Kong Legislative Building, Lim gingerly follows:

Standing there, dazed, I suddenly see it: on a pillar, spray painted in black, a message for Hong Kong’s chief executive. In Chinese, it reads: ‘It was you who taught us that peaceful protest doesn’t work.’ In this moment all the disparate pieces of my life suddenly come together.  

This text, sprayed on government property, took me back to the real reason I was in Hong Kong. See, I hadn’t come back to cover the protests. I’d moved back on a much more obscure mission… to chase a dead graffiti artist.  

Ending the preamble, a montage recounting impressions of Tsang Tsou-choi, the King of Kowloon, interweaves with Lim’s deepening interest in him:

He led me here. And in return, I’m telling his story.It’s a quest that’s taken me eight years, a move across the world, and a PhD.  On the way, I rediscovered the city I call home…. then I lost it forever.

After this engrossing introduction I am keen to hear more about this curious figure, to get a feel for Hong Kong’s uniqueness as a hybrid, threatened culture, and to understand where Lim fits into it all. The podcast will deliver in spades on the first count—among other things we will learn that this stinking, indefatigable and deluded (if not mentally ill) artist lived in filth, eschewed family and was feted by the international art world from the Venice Biennale to Art Basel. We will also meet a fascinating range of the artist’s acolytes and advocates. On the second count, we will get an excellent potted history of the British involvement in and handover of Hong Kong, a strong sense of the commitment and diversity of the protesters and their courageous opposition to Chinese autocracy. But what is jarringly missing is a felt sense of Lim’s personal attachment to the place she professes to care so much about.

This absence comes partly from Lim’s tone. Her presentation often suggests the BBC/NPR reporter she once was: crisp and clear, describing events with detachment and detail, but without a sense of real connection. The podcast sounds more like ringing reportage than alluring audio storytelling and is sometimes unduly formal for this in-ear genre. For instance, in episode one, she describes the King’s evanescent graffiti as: ‘a real-life example of what theorist Ackbar Abbas calls Hong Kong’s ‘culture of disappearance’: a culture that only reveals itself when it’s on the point of disappearing.’ Lim has chosen an expeditious, but cerebral way of deploying this concept. A slower, but more emotional way might have been to first unpack the reference more, for listeners (like me) not familiar with this academic’s work; his fascinating idea could then set up a transition to an auditory and verbal reflection by Lim on what his words mean to her, at a personal level, drawing on her impressionable Hong Kong years. Audio can facilitate just this kind of poetic diversion, and this would give us the intimate backdrop, Lim’s own memories, which we crave. Perhaps she recreates a ferry trip, samples a favourite food, recalls a family outing—anything that takes us inside her special city. Instead we are left with a frustratingly obscure reference and little of the host ‘self-disclosure’ that podcast listeners so desire.[15]  

Episode two offers a promising start: 

In the 1980s, when those negotiations were beginning, I was a child of the colony. My father’s Chinese, my mother English. But I had a thoroughly British upbringing in Hong Kong. At my primary school in Mid-Levels, we recited English poetry and staged Victorian era music halls, dressed up in crinolines and top hats. We didn’t learn Cantonese at all. In fact, we didn’t learn ANYTHING about Hong Kong’s own history; it simply wasn’t taught back then. We lived in a bubble.  

Against this backdrop, the King of Kowloon’s mania—his ABSOLUTE REFUSAL to forget history—it seems almost valiant.

But after this, Lim mostly reverts to reporter mode, in both language and tone. She does, however, describe a couple of intense personal moments. One of her interviewees, famous rapper MC Yan, is also a fervent Buddhist. We meet him in episode three, in one of the few locative scenes that takes us to place (rather than protest). It opens with Lim on a noisy street.

I’m on a very narrow road, huge industrial buildings either side, lorries thundering past. I’ve come here to see MC Yan, he’s one of Hong Kong’s most influential graffiti artists and hiphop singers. And the King of Kowloon was a friend of his…

The sound takes us inside, as Lim searches for MC, the clanking of a lift cage providing a live feel.

 Enormous cargo lifts with massive iron doors… cage lift… not sure it feels particularly safe. Right… here we go. We arrive in an interior, quiet atmosphere. Oh it’s nice in here… Lim says, sounding surprised. Smells of patchouli oil 

 In print this might look rambling, irrelevant. But in sound, it anchors us in the moment, builds interest in the upcoming guest, and strengthens our kinship with Lim on her journey. We are experiencing audio’s temporal power, accompanying Lim in real time, and developing a physical, sensory sense of place that heightens our connection to the moment.

When he arrives, he’s a short, compact figure, wearing a burgundy t-shirt and fisherman’s pants. [sounds of dog barking] And he doesn’t go anywhere without his beloved pug, Gudiii.

This dynamic blend of actuality, sound design and mix of stand-up (in situ) with well-scripted (back in studio) narration implants MC as a character in our mind’s eye. We are therefore comfortable when Lim has a bizarre second encounter with him.

In episode five MC suddenly offers to expose her to the mystical ‘third eye’. ‘It might be the oddest thing that’s ever happened in my reporting career’, Lim tells us.

He says he can do it using polyphonic sound—the combination of two or more tones in harmony all at once. I don’t think I actually believe in third eyes. But I wish I could google the risks of him opening mine.

She gamely agrees.

Suddenly… sound is coming at me from three directions all at once… from his mouth, and from both corners of the room behind him. It’s so loud I can practically see the soundwaves zigzagging through the air. I’m so shocked I can hardly speak.

Distorted, trippy sound design cleverly evokes the event. It’s an unexpected glimpse into Lim’s openness to the weirder end of Hong Kong life, and though it feels somewhat tangential, she deftly reels it in to serve the narrative: ‘I’m totally discombobulated… as if the normal rules of physics have been suspended’, she begins, then segues to, ‘I realise that’s how we all feel here in Hong Kong. Everything is upside down. We’ve lost our footing, to the old, familiar world.’ Podcasting can do this—where the host goes, we will follow.

Podcasting can do this—where the host goes, we will follow.

But somehow a much bigger experience earlier in the same episode gets lost in production. It’s 2019 and Lim charts the city’s growing rumblings and demonstrations. Then she takes us to this extraordinary moment [17.19–18.19, Ep 5]:

One day, I interview some sign painters… a secret collective that makes eight-storey-high protest signs that they hang from the territory’s tallest mountains. It’s the day before China’s national day celebrations… high up on a rooftop, they’re painting a really offensive sign. In Cantonese, it basically reads: fuck your national day celebrations.

I’m sitting on the sidelines watching.

Eventually I can’t bear it. I stand up, pick up a paintbrush, and join in. I know I’ve crossed a line. I’ve become a participant. A protester.

And I can’t deny it… I feel the old King pushing me on, urging me to use my words. It feels powerful. I imagine the young woman from the Lennon Tunnel seeing the banner. I feel the power of the words viscerally… in a way that I hadn’t before.

When I first heard this, I could scarcely believe it. A journalist had JOINED IN a protest?

This was huge: a breach of journalistic ethics to some, a heroic standing on principle to others. Had I heard right? I rewound. Yes, not only had she done this, she acknowledged that she had crossed a line. Mentally, I cheered: I was with the underdog in this struggle, and so, clearly, was Louisa Lim. But as a listener, I felt short-changed. The moment almost passed me by.

In the production phase, you carefully assemble and distil your raw material: choreograph interview, actuality and music and hone script and delivery to achieve maximum synergistic engagement with the listener.

In the production phase, you carefully assemble and distil your raw material: choreograph interview, actuality and music and hone script and delivery to achieve maximum synergistic engagement with the listener. This is the ultimate realisation of your story and ideally, the production team strives to finesse each element so that they are all working together to optimal effect. In this instance, bizarrely, there was no pause after ‘I joined in’, to let that radical action land. The narration continued without a beat, par by par.

From the start of the scene, understated music builds mild tension. That aligns with Lim’s script—but after ‘I joined in’, listeners need time to absorb its significance. A resonant music bridge, in the clear, would have emphasised the moment, let it sink in. Under ‘I’ve become a participant’, there is a tonal change, but the mix ultimately does not allow the whole scene to ‘breathe’ and settle in the listener’s mind.

Another option would have been to have a producer interview Lim about this transgressive or liberating decision, seeking to have her reflect, three years later, on what that choice meant for her commitment (or not) to objective reporting. A probing conversation could have encouraged Lim to divulge some of the swirling, paradoxical emotions we sense in her response, but never fully share. Instead, we segue to actuality of the escalating protests. It feels like a missed opportunity to shift from polished presenter persona to moving human storytelling. ‘I feel the power of the words viscerally’, Lim says. But because she is doing Tell, not Show, we are kept at one remove.


Xi Jinping was born in 1953, four years after Mao Tse Tung established the communist state of China. Condensing seven decades of Xi’s life and contextualising it within the huge political, social and cultural milestones that have framed China’s modern history is a mammoth ask, in any medium. Both Prince and Dictator rise well to the task, adopting a clearly-delineated thematic structure: Prince’s eight episodes are roughly chronological, while Dictator has four pithily-titled ones. The first, ‘Live in a Cave’, traces Xi’s early years, ‘from being sent to a cave to do manual labour during the Cultural Revolution, to his dark family history’. The second, ‘Order a Crackdown’, looks at his anti-corruption campaign and human rights abuses. The third, ‘Create a Personality Cult’, examines increased propaganda and censorship under Xi. The fourth, ‘Build a Superpower’, takes us up to date with Xi’s ambitions and influence today. Tellingly, each episode has a sub-tagline that focuses on the host: Yan tries to get back into China, wrestles with quarantine, deals with media censorship and flees China to avoid possible arrest.

Prince makes much weightier use of archive and interview than Dictator. It features an impressive range of commentators, from old China hands (journalists, diplomats and officials) to contemporaneous voices such as Xi’s brother and father, recorded in official documentaries. A sublime moment opens episode two. It is the late 1990s and Xi’s (second) wife, a popular singer called Peng Liyuan, is being interviewed on a Hong Kong talk show. Wong sets up the clip:

The host says to her: It must be hard for the man you married! I bet most people only know him as Peng Liyuan’s husband. A lot of men wouldn’t be able to handle that.

Peng Liyuan graciously demurs, saying ‘I wouldn’t marry someone who I really felt was beneath me’. Wong continues: ‘Watching the clip makes me wonder—why did she think that man was Xi Jinping?’ It’s a real jolt: how DID this man go from a political family fallen into disfavour, to the most powerful man in the world? It’s also an excellent set-up for the coming episode, a clever use of sound that has previously entertained us with a clip of Xi being peed on by his infant daughter in another TV show. Both reveal a little-seen human side of the enigmatic Xi, a lode Wong continues to mine over her five-hour show.

Wong buttresses her unfolding picture of Xi with telling personal interviews. In episode five we meet Eric Liu, a former censor of the Chinese internet turned expat whistle-blower. He paints a sobering picture of the increasing authoritarianism that governed the popular Chinese social media platform, Weibo. ‘Every day, unethical and inhumane things would happen and I’d be forced to cover them up by censoring them. I felt I really couldn’t take it anymore’, Liu explains. ‘The list of words deemed sensitive is always changing, depending on what’s trending online; even words that seem innocuous, like “walk” or “disagree”’ can be banned’, Wong tells us. ‘A student was jailed for six months after tweeting a picture comparing Xi to Winnie the Pooh.’

In episode six we hear from a man called Abduweli Ayup, a poet, linguist and teacher from Xinjiang, home to about 12 million Uyghurs. He and his young daughter live in Norway now as refugees, and the episode opens with a beguiling audio scene, as he tries to teach her their native tongue. The girl is recalcitrant, not wanting to have to learn yet another language. His response, eloquent and heartfelt, sets up the emotional stakes for the repression the episode explores, in which Ayub will describe his incarceration, torture and indoctrination. ‘This is the language of love, not the language of school, not the language of your daily life. This is the language of love between us.’

Strong interviews, deployed in these three shows, are the spine of most narrative podcasts. When they are sourced from good ‘talent’ (people who have something important or useful to say and who can say it convincingly), conducted to reveal insights, polished via edits and carefully crafted so as to advance the story, such interviews add considerable heft.

Strong interviews are the spine of most narrative podcasts. When they are sourced from good ‘talent’, conducted to reveal insights, polished via edits and carefully crafted so as to advance the story, they add considerable heft.

Yan has her ‘scoop’ moments too. In episode two, she interviews a Swedish human rights activist who was imprisoned in China (along with his girlfriend) for 23 days and had to sign a forced confession (that he had breached Chinese law) to get them both out. He recounts how his grovelling apology on state television was stage-managed: ‘sit straighter, speak slower, look more sombre’. His Chinese colleague was jailed for three years. Yan also tracks down the ex-husband of one of China’s richest women, Whitney Duan (also known as Duan Weihong), who disappeared in 2017, two years after he left China with their young son to live in the UK. Desmond Shum, now living in Oxford, is afraid to let their son visit China. ‘It’s never one person goes down; it’s a cleansing, always it’s a cleansing’, he tells Yan. In 2021 Shum got a call from Duan out of the blue. She asked him not to publish his imminent book (Red Roulette) exposing corruption in China. ‘Classic Beijing, weaponising your family to get what they want’, says Yan, characteristically not mincing her words. ‘In this case, for Desmond to shut up.’ In the final episode, Yan interviews former Prime Minster of Australia Kevin Rudd, China expert, Mandarin speaker and smooth talker, a surprise omission from Wong’s podcast.

Louisa Lim also interviews a wide range of characters in her attempt to understand the King of Kowloon and his art. Some are well fleshed out, like Joel Chung, an acolyte or ‘regent’, who visited the King weekly for 16 years, and is a prominent collector of his art. Lim paints a memorable word picture: ‘Joel Chung is tiny, stylish, eccentric… wearing thick, black, perfectly circular spectacles. His attitude to the King is that of a subject to his monarch.’ In episode two we meet ‘probably Hong Kong’s best known fashion designer’, William Tang. He comes after a taut, terrific section on Hong Kong’s history of British rule: Lim excels at this kind of reportage and in portraying the recent pro-democracy protests.

But now, the script performs a sudden about turn, from the ending of the colonial era in 1997, to a fashion show.

[Ep 2, 17.06] In June 1997 just weeks before Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule, the King undergoes a further transition of his own. This old man with his filthy vests and stinky socks is suddenly a most unlikely fashion muse. The inspiration for the most memorable fashion collection in Hong Kong history.

William Tang: No-one will really remember the collections, they remember collection, except King of Kowloon.

LL: Of all the designers in Hong Kong?

WT: Of all.

That’s William Tang. He’s probably Hong Kong’s best known fashion designer. He’s in his sixties, but when we meet at a crowded coffee shop, I almost miss him… he looks decades younger.

The section with Tang runs for about four minutes. At one level, it’s a fascinating insight into how art, pop culture and politics can collide. Tang had grown up seeing the King’s words on his city’s streets, Lim tells us, and returning after studying in Canada, was amazed to see the old man was still going strong. ‘I couldn’t believe after all these years, he was still so influential… he was everywhere! So I thought Wow! That’s really Hong Kong to me. That’s really Hong Kong.’ As Lim narrates:

For his last fashion show under British rule, Tang devotes his entire collection to the King of Kowloon. An arch daubed with the King’s characters dominates the catwalk. The models wear evening dresses silk-screened with the King’s graffiti, layered over black trousers. It’s urban, streetwise, defiant and utterly modern, but with traditional Chinese elements. It’s also the epitome of Hong Kong’s identity—appearing at the exact moment it’s on the cusp of disappearing. 

The very last dress in his show, the finale of the whole show, has tiny, intricate pleats—and a train the entire length of the catwalk, all covered in the King’s crooked characters. It’s exquisite.

This remarkable imagery is not served well by Lim’s narration, which, apart from the warmly endorsing ‘It’s exquisite’, has the enunciating tone of a current affairs report rather than someone describing a hugely symbolic and provocative moment. It is also difficult to discern Tang’s words some of the time. This is partly because of the noisy café background, and partly due to his Chinese accent and intonation. Culturally-diverse voices are absolutely critical to all of these podcasts about China, and a strong point they share is that we hear a range of Cantonese, Mandarin and other languages, replete with varieties and inflections, in voice-over/translation and in English. But given that the podcasts are aimed at English-speaking audiences, sometimes a speaker will require finessing for Anglophone ears.

There are various ways to address this. One is to use only the clearest sections of a recording: e.g. Tang’s intro, No-one will really remember the collections, they remember collection, except King of Kowloon could have been shaved to No-one will really remember the collections. The words ‘they remember collection’ are extraneous and while the phrase ‘King of Kowloon’ is desirable, it’s hard to hear. The purpose of the clip is to introduce Tang and that is served by the first line alone.  

Another option is to ‘float’ the voice in and around Lim’s paraphrasing /reinforcing narration, rather than use a big unrelieved chunk as below. Interesting as the content looks on the page here, its full force is missing on a first hearing. And when listeners cannot hear, they tend to lose focus, tune out and at worst, turn off.

WT: I didn’t want to cut it because it’s just too beautiful. It’s a long story. It’s like how the Cantonese say—yut put bou gam cheung—it’s like one roll of fabric. It’s exactly like the handover, it’s so complicated, it’s very difficult to explain. So that was the last dress. And people gone crazy about it. And that became the headlines on all the newspapers. It was on the front page.

Tang now provides a strong twist: his family, one of the five great clans of Hong Kong, are in fact the legitimate owners of the part of Kowloon to which the King has laid claim. They’ve occupied this land for over a thousand years. Lim ends the episode by spinning this new information into her increasingly tangled narrative web:

Knowing William Tang’s family history sheds a different light on his collection. It might not be an intentional message, but through it, the man who would be King is making a nod to his pretender. Both are equally dispossessed. My search for the truth into the king’s claims might be over for now, but his hold on me isn’t.

Lim goes down new paths in the remaining four episodes ‘like a Russian doll of searches. Every time I think I’ve found what I’m after, it sets me off in a whole new direction,’ she tells us. Her script carefully ties her exploration of the King to her quest to understand ‘Hong Kongers… and the identity they’ve constructed for themselves’. But the synthesis feels forced. The epic struggle by Hong Kongers to withstand relentless authoritarianism and the heroism of proponents of democracy are vividly portrayed, Lim sounding increasingly horrified. But the testimony of the motley array of characters who comment on the King begins to merge and backtrack. Even when Lim scores an interview, on the phone to Belgium, with the King’s daughter and her husband, it is strangely flat. There is no catharsis, no small, meaningful moment that makes sense of a life—except the thesis that the artist became mentally ill as a result of an early car accident. In a sense, the King remains as enigmatic in his small ‘territory’ as that other unstoppable force, Xi Jinping, is in his vast empire.

                   Ending a serialised narrative podcast is a big call.

Ending a serialised narrative podcast is a big call. Listeners have invested a lot of time and hopefully, emotion in your story, so they need to feel some sense of resolution. Unlike the true-crime genre, which gets pilloried on social media by fans annoyed at the lack of a conclusive ending to a whodunnit, premium investigative journalism podcasts such as these can opt for a more reflective or nuanced finale.

The King of Kowloon builds gradually to a close. Throughout the series, Lim has played with the theme of disappearance, as both a physical (the expunging by authorities of the King’s art) and symbolic (the loss of civic and democratic freedoms) act. In the last episode, we learn that a collector of the King’s art, Joel Chung, has brought both aspects together, uncovering and repainting some of the King’s public works as a kind of homage. ‘I use a term in Chinese—xianling, he tells Lim. ‘It’s like a reincarnation. Like rebirth after death.’ In fact, Lim tells us, it means ‘a ghost making its presence felt’

This leads poetically to a coda on Hong Kong’s capacity for reinvention. An artist, Kacey Wong, who designed the King’s exhibition catalogue back in the year of the handover, 1997, gives an incognito TED talk in Vienna in 2019. In a clip, he declares ‘my city is dying… it’s at war with a much more powerful force than ours. It’s a war on culture.’ His stance is criticised in the official Chinese press. Kacey’s days are numbered, as he tells Lim.

When I saw that article, then I understood my script is already written by the Chinese Communist Party. My crime is already written. And my crime will be collusion with foreign forces. If I stay in Hong Kong, I would not have a chance to defend myself properly.

Kacey escapes to the West, but he makes a video before he goes. We hear him singing, a capella:

Let’s say goodbye with a smile, dear
Just for a while dear 

It’s the opening of Vera Lynn’s sentimental wartime ballad, We’ll Meet Again. The song plays in the background as Lim describes Kacey at the Hong Kong waterfront, looking at the harbour, tears in his eyes. Then he’s dancing, alone, in his empty studio. As Kacey sings the immortal words, ‘we’ll meet again’, Lim asks him why that song, which seems an odd choice, not a particularly Hong Kong one. His reply is sober and thought-provoking.

I want to remind everybody that this is a war on Hong Kong culture. That’s why I’ve chosen a wartime song. If we understand the context back then, she was saying to the soldiers heading to the frontline of World War Two. And those soldiers, these British soldiers, probably will not come back. So I can see myself kind of like that. I will leave Hong Kong and I probably will not come back.

The song is reprised by a wistful accordion instrumental version, over which Kacey and Lim muse on loss. Kacey links it back to our eponymous subject: ‘the King of Kowloon became this open source for reinterpretation and reinvention’, he tells Lim. ‘You need to preserve the culture, create and to recreate. And the King of Kowloon is that open source for everybody to recreate Hong Kong.’ Lim mines this rich metaphor, throwing down her own gauntlet of protest in a rousing finale.

The ghost of the King had guided me over the years. I’d started with such a small aim—to find out whether the land had ever been his. But it turned out that wasn’t important. He led me to people I’d never have otherwise met. And they taught me what the King taught them—just how many ways there are to tell Hong Kong’s story.

There’s more to it than the top-down, state-sponsored version of Hong Kong’s past, told by its colonisers. This is my personal story of Hong Kong and of the King. Telling that story is in itself an act of resistance. An act that probably means I can’t ever return.

And this podcast: It’s MY wall of dispossession. My own story of Hong Kong.


          Which will always be one of persistence and reinvention. 

After ten seconds of the majestic closing theme, Lim rolls the credits. It’s a satisfying end to a podcast that had many memorable moments. The series left me feeling informed and concerned at an intellectual level for the citizens of Hong Kong, but rarely moved—perhaps if Lim had been able to find a less declamatory, more confiding tone, I would have been drawn in more.

The Xi-focused podcasts also reached a finale, but through very different approaches. After building tension that suggests she may be detained, Dictator host Sophia Yan boards a plane, complete with exit stamp and no apparent minders/snatchers around. As the PA prepares passengers for take-off (a common but effective use of actuality), she (seemingly) ad libs her thoughts on this momentous moment, ending a decade as a China-based correspondent.

One thing I realised doing this pod: we don’t know where the red lines are anymore. This is not the country I came to in 2012. China has changed in ways nobody could have predicted. Y’know it’s frankly crazy that a country this powerful, of this size, of this influence, that we really know very little about it. And we know even less about the guy in charge. Because for all the work I’ve done here over the last ten years, for all the work of my amazing fellow-journalists in the China press corps, there’s still a lot we just don’t know. And we don’t know because China blocks access.

So, I really wonder, what are we missing? Maybe it’ll be like when the [Berlin] Wall fell. Maybe someday there will be a moment like that for China. Maybe then I and the rest of the world will have a chance to know.

These urgent and heartfelt ruminations round out the very personal sense we had of accompanying Yan on a physical journey back to China, her private experiences a counterpoint to a public turning-point in Chinese affairs. It’s a satisfying near-ending. A short music bridge leads to a broader tie-up of loose ends:

My hopes aren’t high that change will happen anytime soon. After I left, the big party congress finished and Xi got his historic third term. And that’s not all. He ejected his predecessor Hu Jintao from the stage, in front of a carefully selected coterie of press. Nobody knows why—but it was humiliating and very symbolic: the New Guard literally ushering out the Old Guard. He also stacked the elite Politburo standing committee with loyalists, getting rid of any possible rivals. That means no potential successor and no threat to his reign. He’s finally done it…

Music fanfare:

Dictator Xi JinPing!

A short postscript explains that the team put all the podcast’s allegations to Chinese officials and got a stock response, pointing them to Xi’s Congress speech. Yan recaps it, concluding it’s ‘heavy on ideology and light on policy’. Credits then roll. A punchier finale might have been to let the closing music hang longer (5–10 seconds) after ‘Dictator Xi JinPing!’, a declarative moment which takes us to the emotional and narrative climax the podcast title has been building towards all along. After that more lasting music bridge, during which we can absorb this key utterance—Xi’s assumption as dictator!—now is the time to roll credits, and place the informational backgrounder about the official response post-credits, to be what it sounds like: a postscript to the story proper.

The Prince ends in a very different register. Unlike Yan, Wong has not had the chance to report much from inside China; instead, her podcast has relied heavily on well-assembled and -researched archive and interview, and on her ‘ownership’ of the material, via a confident, unambiguous script. She has sought to parlay the personal (a cleaner’s husband left to die of Covid—‘Better to let a man die at home that defy party orders’, she explains, with irony) with the Big Picture throughout. Now, to wrap this vast survey of a people and their fearsome new leader, she zooms in. Her focus is on Shanghai, whose 25 million residents suffered a particularly harsh lockdown in early 2022. So often we talk about China in terms of mega-numbers: populace, landmass, economy. It’s true, of course, that this is where its influence and power reside. But China is also a country of ordinary individuals, with hopes, dreams, beating hearts. After epic tales of famine and forced marches, socialist zeal and class traitors, tigers and flies, massive growth and steely repression, this is where we land, at an impromptu street party:

In the final days of the city-wide lockdown, residents of Yanqing Road gathered in the street, and they sang.

The song starts underneath narration and is briefly heard in the clear.

It’s nighttime in the video. The scene is illuminated by a streetlight—soft, and yellow. Most of the few dozen people are masked, not standing too near each other. They’ve formed a semi-circle around a keyboard player. There are adults, children, pets. Two people sit together on a skateboard, rocking side to side to the music. The song was a charity single from the 1980s—the Chinese-speaking world’s version of “We Are the World” and “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” [16]

It’s called: “Tomorrow Will Be Better.”

[More song]

But will tomorrow be better? And for who? Like the many China correspondents who were kicked out before me, I’m moving on. After this podcast comes out, I’m getting on a plane to Singapore. My new beat will be Southeast Asia. This series might be the last bit of China journalism I do for a long time.

People in China don’t have this easy option. Xi Jinping’s political project is about protecting the many in China at the expense of the few, no matter the cost. And only the Chinese Communist Party, he believes, is up to the task. In Xi’s view, only the party should be allowed to decide what the needs of the many are.

But maybe you’re a Uyghur like Abduweli, or an idealistic university student. Or perhaps you’re just unlucky enough to be in the wrong city at the wrong time, like Jin Feng [the cleaner] and her husband. It’s not hard to end up on the wrong side of that line—or at least come dangerously close—sometimes without even realising it.

[More singing]

As neighbours in Shanghai sang, red and blue lights were flashing just outside the video’s frame. Police had arrived. But they didn’t intervene. Online, social media users would later commend the officers for their restraint.

They let the song finish before telling everyone to go home.

Music ends. Roll credits.

It’s a superb climax. We feel for these people, for we know the reprieve is temporary.


While strong sound, craft, characters, script and structure can all add immensely to a narrative podcast, the most important factor in engaging listeners is undeniably the STORY at its heart: put simply, what happens. The Prince, How To Become A Dictator and The King of Kowloon all shape story deftly for an episodic audio medium. But The King of Kowloon does not have quite the lean-in story chops as the others. Yes, the King is an intriguing figure, a compulsive mark-maker who intersects with a fascinating historical time and place: Hong Kong before and after its handover to China. But perhaps because we never meet him, even through archive (the sound of him using a disinfectant spray in a TV ad is the nearest we get), he remains two-dimensional, a mystery even to his own family. We don’t care enough about him for a biographical portrait to be satisfying, and the broader symbolic importance of his artistic role is at times sketched too didactically. What Lim does make tantalising is the precarious future of Hong Kong and its risk of being subsumed by China.

The story subject of the other two podcasts, Xi Jinping, unequivocally affects us all. We need to know what makes this man tick and where he is likely to take China: his attitude to geopolitics, the economy, health, human rights, communications and democracy. Both podcasts provide informed analysis, but we’ve heard plenty of that before. Where they really shine is in bringing to life tiny personal moments that put flesh on Xi’s bones. This is not just a potted history of China; it’s a deep dive into the machinations and manoeuvrings that saw Xi emerge on top. Learning how he did it (‘what happened’), through these podcasts, is like getting Important History You Should Know served up with a generous dollop of delicious gossip.

The final factor in a narrative podcast’s impact can be the clincher: the host’s presence, as writer, interpreter and guide. The personalised host voice, which I have argued here can be a strikingly positive factor, can also be considered in the light of pressing debates about trust in media. Of course a charismatic podcast host can use their presence for ‘good’ (e.g. public interest values) or for nefarious means (conspiracy and disinformation, or blatant propaganda). As Heiselberg and Have warn, ‘the ability to persuade listeners also comes with great responsibility.’ [17]

          Subjectivity need not be a dirty word in journalism.

But in a world where crimes inspired by hate speech against racial and other minorities are fanned and facilitated by some corners of the media, even bastions of traditional journalism are rethinking what constitutes fair and balanced coverage. Two eminent US journalists and academics, Leonard Downie and Andrew Heyward, who together have some six decades of experience as cutting edge journalists, recently published a report, ‘Beyond Objectivity’. After consulting with 75 news leaders, their report offers ‘a fresh vision for how to replace outmoded “objectivity” with a more relevant articulation of journalistic standards’. This might sound innocuous, but coming from journalists who hail from the Watergate era and its long-held sanctity of impartiality in news coverage, it is quite the game-changer.

Younger journalists have already shown outspoken support for radical action to increase diversity in media, actively seeking to include representative and minority voices among reporters, across race, gender, disability, sexuality, identity and socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. See for example The View From Somewhere: undoing the myth of objectivity in journalism,  a book and podcast by independent award-winning journalist Lewis Raven Wallace.[18]

Subjectivity, then, need not be a dirty word in journalism. On the contrary, it can be an influential force, if not for ‘good’, at least for greater understanding. Well-executed narrative podcasts where the host employs an authentic and personal voice can apprise audiences not just of the facts, but of the emotional truth of an event or issue. Podcasts can touch the heart and get through to the head—the right combination, well executed, can be one of the most powerful forms of storytelling there is.


Recommended Citation McHugh, Siobhan, “Sounding Out Stories: A Critical Analysis of The Prince, How To Become A Dictator, The King of Kowloon, Three Narrative Podcasts on Contemporary China”, RadioDoc Review, 8(1), 2022.

[1] These propositions can seem strange at first, to those new to the medium. E.g. it is because audio only exists in real time that timing is critical in podcasting. It works very differently than the way timing works in video, where sound is perceived in tandem with pictures, both adding up to a synergistic whole.See Michel Chion’s Audio-Vision: sight on screen (2013) for masterly discussion of this.   

[2] Alan Hall’s Saigon Tapes (BBC Radio 4 2021) is one example; David Isay’s Ghetto Life 101 (NPR 1992) is another. The IFC (International Features Conference) also showcases the form. 

[3] Everyone has their own interviewing technique, but this article (Pagel 2017), summarising the approach of Prix Italia-winning Canadian/Danish producer Stephen Schwartz, has some excellent tips. I have never had somebody lie down for an interview, but it is certainly important to create a relaxed space for a longform or self-revelatory interview.

[4]Audio stories need to be created from sound, not print, but transcripts make it much easier to navigate long interviews and select tentative clips, to be ratified by listening. Auto-transcription software is increasingly reliable (e.g., Descript, Trint, Whisper and Hindenburg).

[5] However, the team supporting Wong is highly experienced. Senior producer Sam Colbert worked at CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation), BBC and The Guardian; producer Claire Read previously worked at BBC News; producer Barclay Bram speaks Mandarin and has a PhD from Oxford; EP John Shields is a former senior editor at the BBC’s Today show.

[6] Lim, Louisa, CHASING THE KING OF KOWLOON, The Atlantic, April 19, 2022

[7]Lim is supported by an impressive production team. This includes Sophie Townsend (host/producer Goodbye To All This award-winning memoir podcast, reviewed RDR 2022), award-winning producer Kirsti Melville (The Storm, reviewed RDR 2015), award-winning producer Elizabeth Kulas (host 7AM and Days Like These), Russell Stapleton (sound engineer /composer and multiple Prix Italia co-winner, including for Children of Sodom and Gomorrah, reviewed RDR 2014) and Clare Rawlinson (formerly with Audible and Stitcher).

[8] This can be a challenge for broadcaster/podcasters, who have to create content for a dual audience: ‘live’ listeners, for whom content is bound by regulations on explicit material as well as a set length. Broadcasters could perhaps consider embedding a podcast series in a longer live show, which can at least accommodate a variable episode length, as the material demands.

[9] Lene Heiselberg & Iben Have (2023) Host Qualities: Conceptualising Listeners’ Expectations for Podcast Hosts, Journalism Studies, DOI: 10.1080/1461670X.2023.2178245

[10] Released in 2014, Serial investigated a cold case in Baltimore USA, asking whether Adnan Syed, jailed for killing his former girlfriend Hai Min Lee, was innocent or guilty. After twelve episodes, it remained equivocal. In 2022, a court vacated Syed’s prosecution due to procedural and other irregularities and set him free.

[11] Host Michael Barbaro, previously a print reporter at the masthead, was flabbergasted at the audience’s attachment to him. ‘People who love the show really feel connected to my face, my voice. It’s shocking!’ he told the podcast Asked about an incident where he famously teared up while interviewing a coalminer whose ragged breathing brought home viscerally that he was dying from silicosis (dust disease), Barbaro pointed out that he got emotional when doing print interviews too – it was just that nobody could hear that. ‘Audio is a very honest medium,’ he reflected. ‘You’re discovering how you feel as you feel it – and that is very powerful.’

[12] Speaking to John Biewen in Reality Radio (2017), ‘One Story, Week by Week’, p.81

[13] ibid

[14] Disclosure: Sue-Lin Wong attended an online masterclass on narrative podcasts I ran for Sydney Writers Festival in May 2022. I did not know this when I first heard and recommended the podcast. Later, Wong told me she and executive producer John Shields consulted my book, The Power of Podcasting: Telling Stories Through Sound. I have never met Wong. Louisa Lim is a professional acquaintance, as are some of the team at ABC RN.

[15] Heiselberg & Have (2023) 

[16] Video at

[17] Heiselberg & Have, p.14

[18] The View From Somewhere podcast was reviewed in RadioDoc Review (Boynton 2020). Wallace is a transgender journalist and activist, who ‘was fired from his job as a national reporter for public radio for speaking out against “objectivity” in coverage of Trump and white supremacy… Using historical and contemporary examples—from lynching in the nineteenth century to transgender issues in the twenty-first—Wallace offers a definitive critique of “objectivity” as a catchall for accurate journalism. He calls for the dismissal of this damaging mythology in order to confront the realities of institutional power, racism, and other forms of oppression and exploitation in the news industry.’ (University of Chicago Press book blurb).


1. The King of Kowloon

Six episodes, 26-31mins, RN Presents, ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) 2022

Series reported and written by Louisa Lim.

Executive Producer: Sophie Townsend

Supervising Producer: Kirsti Melville

Original music, sound design and mixing: Russell Stapleton

Studio production: Elizabeth Kulas

Script editors: Michael Dulaney and Clare Rawlinson

Fact checking and production assistance: Wing Kuang

2. The Prince

Eight episodes, 32-41 mins, The Economist, UK, 2022.

Series written and hosted by Sue-Lin Wong.

Producers: Sam Colbert, Claire Read, Barclay Bram, Sue-Lin Wong

Sound Design: Weidong Lin

Music: Darren Ng

Executive Producer: John Shields

3. How To Become A Dictator

Four episodes, 35-41mins, The Telegraph, UK, 2022

Series written and hosted by Sophia Yan.

Producers Venetia Rainey and Joleen Griffin

Sound Design Giles Gear

Executive Producer: Louisa Wells

Commissioning Editor Louis Emmanuel


Boynton, Robert S., The View from Somewhere: A Review, RadioDoc Review, 6(1), 2020. View at

Chion, Michel, 2019. Audio-vision: sound on screen. Columbia University Press.

Downie, Leonard and Hayward, Andrew, 2023, ‘Beyond Objectivity.’ Knight Cronkite News Lab, US. Jan 26, 2023.

Hall, Alan, 2021. Saigon Nights, BBC Radio Four. Radio documentary, 28mins.

Heiselberg, Lene and Have, Iben, 2023. Host Qualities: Conceptualising Listeners’ Expectations for Podcast Hosts. Journalism Studies, pp.1-19.

Isay, David, with LeAlan Jones and Lloyd Newman, 1992. Ghetto Life 101, NPR. Radio documentary, 30 mins.

Koenig, Sarah and Snyder, Julie, ‘One Story Told Week By Week’, in Biewen, J. and Dilworth, A., 2017. Reality Radio: Telling stories in sound. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, pp. 77-89.

Pagel, Julia, 2017. ‘The Schwartz technique: how to get vivid colour and riveting detail from your interview’, 25 January 2017,

Wallace, Lewis Raven, 2019. The View from Somewhere: Undoing the Myth of Journalistic Objectivity. University of Chicago Press.

Wallace, Lewis Raven, 2020. The View from Somewhere: Undoing the Myth of Journalistic Objectivity. Podcast:




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.


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.


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.

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:

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.


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.


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.


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!


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.”


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.



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

My much longer analysis, Narrative Podcasts as Digital Literary Journalism: Conceptualising S-Town, is published by Literary Journalism Studies, where it won the John C. Hartsock Prize for Best Article, 2022. Read it HERE.

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 McLemore 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 McLemore’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 podcast 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. McLemore


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.


An abridged version of this article was published in The Conversation, 27 April 2017, as  ‘S-Town Invites Empathy Not Voyeurism”.

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