Beyond Journal Articles: Navigating the NTRO (Non-Traditional Research Outcome)
Siobhán McHugh / University of Wollongong, Australia

WARNING: This article contains names and images of Aboriginal people who have died.

McHughinterview

Aboriginal artist Alma Nungarryai Granites is interviewed by Siobhán McHugh for a radio documentary as a Non-Traditional Research Outcome, Yuendemu, Australia, 2016.

I am walking around the remote Aboriginal community of Yuendemu, in the Australian desert, when a pack of fierce dogs appears. I tentatively record their loud barking.

Later, a procession of Aboriginal women emerges from the art centre, their dark bodies painted with white ochre in ceremonial markings. They are talking and laughing. They begin a slow dance, their singing rising and ebbing as I record.

At the art centre, I interview Alma Nungarrayi Granites, a renowned painter. Alma draws her ancient Star Dreaming, a celestial formation. But she’s absorbing Western art thinking too. “Nothing is a mistake in painting,” her friend Gloria told her. “Just work with the mistake: that’s how I learned,” says Alma. Gloria comes from Chile. She is an art conservator, a martial arts enthusiast and an animal lover. She’s organised vaccinations and adoptions to improve the health of the local dogs. “There were about 700 dogs to 1000 people when I came,” she says. She personally looks after about fifty of them.

Alma

Gloria Morales (left) and Alma Nungarryai Granites at Warlukurlangu Art Centre, Yuendemu, Australia.

Gloria introduced over 200 colors to the artists, who previously used only red, white, black and yellow ochres from the land. She and her co-manager, Cecilia Alfonso, also from Chile, have ramped up sales from about 300 artworks a year in 2001 to about 8,000 now. Tourists are surprised to hear the artists take the market into account, she tells me. “Are they working for money?” one asked. “I work for money,” Gloria shot back. “Don’t you?” Her voice shows her annoyance. It’s patronising Aboriginal women to suggest they don’t think about earnings.

All of these audio “scenes” will build depth and character for a story I’m telling as part of a research project funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC), Australia’s main academic research body. [ ((McHugh, S, McLean, I, Neale, M (2018), Heart of Artness podcast series Season One: Five episodes, viewed at http://artness.net.au/about/))] It’s led by an art historian, Professor Ian McLean, in partnership with Margo Neale, Senior Indigenous Curator at the National Museum of Australia. We’re seeking to document the significant but little known cross-cultural relationships that influence the production of Aboriginal art today—an important economic and cultural activity. This research will first be published, not as a refereed journal article, but as a crafted audio storytelling documentary, The Conquistador, the Warlpiri and the Dog Whisperer, broadcast on national radio (ABC 2018) and as a podcast. [ ((McHugh, S (2018). The Conquistador, the Warlpiri and the Dog Whisperer. Radio documentary, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Sydney, 18 May 2018, 55mins Viewed at https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/earshot/the-conquistador,-the-warlpiri-and-the-dog-whisperer/9617950))]

Alma2

Alma Nungarryai Granites with her painting of the Star Dreaming, or Seven Sisters, at Warlukurlangu Art Centre, 2016.

In the podcast, sound, as well as speech, expresses aspects of the community: the culture of singing and dancing, Gloria’s closeness to the ubiquitous dogs, the affection and respect the two women share, children speaking their Warlpiri language. The holistic audio artifact allows us to appreciate at many levels, including the sensory, the cross-cultural dimensions of Indigenous art production—and in choreographing these sound recordings into a layered, affective, creative work, I am creating not just an engaging and accessible documentary, but a scholarly “non-traditional research output” (NTRO).



CRAFTED AUDIO STORYTELLING as a NTRO

Since 2010, NTROs have been classified by the ARC and audited alongside traditional books, book chapters, journal articles and full conference proceedings in periodic assessments of Australian universities’ Excellence in Research Australia (ERA). The ERA reports provide “a nationwide stocktake of discipline strengths and areas for development” and are a crucial indicator of a university’s standing. I’ve had two NTROs processed by ERA: a two-hour radio documentary/podcast, Marrying Out (ABC 2009), [ ((McHugh S, (2009). Marrying Out: Part One – Not in Front of the Altar. Radio documentary, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Sydney, October 2009, 55mins Viewed at https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/archived/hindsight/marrying-out—-part-one-not-in-front-of-the-altar/3068558))] about religious bigotry and interfaith marriage, and a one-hour radio documentary, Eat Pray Mourn: Crime and Punishment in Jakarta, made with an anthropologist, Dr. Jacqui Baker, about extrajudicial police killings in Indonesia (ABC 2013). [ ((Baker, J and McHugh S, (2013). Eat Pray Mourn: Crime and Punishment in Jakarta. Radio documentary, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Sydney, April 2013, 55mins
Viewed at https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/360/eat-pray-mourn/4598026))]

To approve a NTRO, ERA applies rigorous standards of peer review—crucial for the evaluation of any academic research. Applicants submit a research statement, which describes the background, contribution, and significance of the particular work. ERA defines research as: “the creation of new knowledge and/or the use of existing knowledge in a new and creative way to generate new concepts, methodologies, inventions and understandings.” NTROs are admissible in six categories: live performance of creative works, original creative works, recorded/rendered creative works (such as my crafted audio works), curated or produced substantial public exhibitions and events, research reports for an external body, and portfolio.

Far from being an easy option, NTROs receive even closer scrutiny than conventional research outputs, as Professor Ross Woodrow (2016) notes.

They have been scrutinised by editorial or peer-review selection processes by publishers, gallery directors, curators, and selection panels before publication. Post-publication, the outputs have undergone verification and evaluation by Research Deans and Officers in each university and, finally, by external ERA reviewers. In addition to this, a number of universities, such as the University of Sydney, also appoint external peer assessors to oversee all creative research outputs collected in its research data repository. [ ((Woodrow, R (2016), “NTRO: A Model for Change,” NITRO, August 11 2016. Viewed at https://nitro.edu.au/articles/edition-2/ntro-a-model-for-change?rq=Woodrow))]

Thus, having my documentaries accepted by the national broadcaster (a competitive process with generally under 20% acceptance rate, similar to major research grants in Australia) and/or winning endorsements such as prestigious awards (e.g. Marrying Out and Eat Pray Mourn won gold and bronze at the New York Radio Festival) constitute tiers of peer review.

I argued to ERA that Marrying Out created new understandings of existing knowledge. For the series, I interviewed 50 people about marrying across the bitter Catholic-Protestant divide that bedevilled Australia, an echo of the troubled colonial history between largely Catholic Ireland and Protestant England that dated back centuries. Those tensions were documented.

What was new in my synthesis was the visceral experience for listeners of sharing the pain of family feuds and societal bigotry: it was carried affectively in the interviewees’ voices and in their non-verbal sighs and tears. [ ((See McHugh, S. A. “The affective power of sound: oral history on radio.” The Oral History Review 39, 2 (2012): 187-206. Viewed at https://ro.uow.edu.au/creartspapers/345/. NOTE: it is essential to listen to the audio clips in conjunction with reading the article. Audio at https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1jesv_GhLcpVrdi4rwDet4SGM))] It was amplified by specially composed music and historical references powerfully evoked by the archival recordings and actuality I selected—verite recordings of church weddings, funerals, family scenes, royal visits invoking old Empire worship, sectarian taunts performed with vicious gusto by actors and with blithe unconcern by today’s children, for whom they held no currency. This effect on listeners was maximized by the relational way I mixed these sounds in order to heighten their affective power: e.g. having the taunts float over an ethereal boy soprano singing a Catholic hymn, in an emotive evocation of the conflict between prejudice and spirituality. Finally, the original oral history interviews were archived at the National Library of Australia, open to scrutiny and further research.

Protestant Couple

After Julia O’ Brien, a Catholic, married Errol White, a Protestant, in Sydney in the 1940s, she was ostracised from her family and barred from her father’s deathbed. Their story features in Marrying Out.

In a similar way, in Eat Pray Mourn, Baker and I argued to ERA that hearing the personal responses of a wife, a mother and a sister to the deaths of their loved ones, shot summarily by police, could give listeners a deeper, felt understanding of the extrajudicial killings than would a lengthy journal article. Once I found myself defending the finer points of audio narrative craft to the university’s Ethics Committee (IRB), who wanted us to protectively anonymise the crusading sister of Yusli, a young man killed on a trumped-up charge of motorbike theft. When we first meet Yusli’s mother, she rattles off the names of her six children, including his sister, Yeni. “Everyone is Y,” the mother says with a laugh. Yeni adds: “We gave Yusli five letters, more than the others…more posh. We never thought he was fated to die.”

If we were to remove the names of Yusli and Yeni, we would have to lose that poignant scene. Stories depend on character and voice as well as plot, I told the sceptical social science academics on the committee. And this scene is setting up Yusli’s mother and sister as characters we care about: it’s crucial to getting listeners to engage with the documentary’s underlying purpose, of examining police behavior. Further, far from endangering Yeni, using her name affords her the protection of Western media attention. In the end, the committee approved the original segment.

Yusili

Yusli’s family and friends mourn at his graveside.



NEW DIRECTIONS for NTROs

Australia was an early adopter of NTROs; my own University of Wollongong graduated the first practice-based Doctor of Creative Arts in Australia, in Visual Arts, in 1988. Practice-based and practice-led PhDs are now increasingly common in the humanities. Australian scholar Mia Lindgren has examined how radio journalism offers a model, but they are also common in creative writing, film and media studies, visual arts and theatre.

Some scholars use podcasts not as NTROs but as a way of increasing their non-scholarly engagement with the broader community: US philosopher Professor Barry Lam was an early adopter, with Hi-Phi Nation, “a show about philosophy that turns ideas into stories,” while Australian historian Dr. Tamson Pietsch hosts the popular History Lab podcast, whose tagline, “Australia’s only investigative history podcast,” indicates its role in examining the historical process as well as showcasing new understandings of history.

The episode itself does not represent new research…it is more a communication or interpretation (by the producer) of existing work. …Our commitment is to doing the work of thinking and making meaning, not for our listeners, but with them. [ ((Pietsch, T (2019), personal communication to the author, 5 February 2019.))]

History Lab is a finalist in the 2019 Australian Podcast Awards in the documentary/storytelling category, a testament to the collaboration of its academic hosts with their university radio station, 2-SER. Academics increasingly seek out skilled audio producers to co-create conversational podcasts on academic themes: Stuart Hall: In Conversation, produced by KUT journalist Rebecca McInroy and hosted by University of Texas sociology professor, Ben Carrington, celebrates the life and achievements of the late cultural studies theorist.

A Canadian scholar is testing the podcast NTRO further, as a form of non-traditional scholarly publishing. Hannah McGregor, an Assistant Professor of Publishing at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, is “in the midst of a collaborative research project with Wilfrid Laurier University Press in which we’ve subjected my podcast, Secret Feminist Agenda, to peer review.” [ ((McGregor, H (2019), personal communication to the author, 16 February 2019))]

In Secret Feminist Agenda, McGregor interviews a broad range of feminists and reflects on “the insidious, nefarious, insurgent, and mundane ways we enact our feminism in our daily lives.” Four lengthy peer reviews, by digital humanities, social justice and literature scholars, analyse the first two seasons and are published online. The reviews provide a valuable assessment of many aspects of the podcast, but neglect to appraise the use of an audio format: a bit like having a review of a journal article fail to address the clarity, correctness and style of the writing—an integral aspect of its ability to communicate research. If podcasts are to be put forward as research outputs, they need to be evaluated by someone who is also audio-literate.

The potential of the podcast medium to deliver innovative research opportunities is being harnessed in highly imaginative ways. In the UK, for instance, the BBC has teamed up with three universities to develop an absorbing audio “eco-thriller” or sci-fi story, Forest 404, which incorporates sounds of the natural world as plot elements. These sounds are developed as accompanying tracks, along with short talks by a PhD researcher, who uses listener feedback to study how natural sounds can impact mental health. I look forward to seeing many more interdisciplinary research collaborations that tap into the awesome power of audio and the new medium of podcasting in fresh and exciting ways.

Image Credits:

1. Aboriginal artist Alma Nungarryai Granites is interviewed by Siobhán McHugh for a radio documentary as a Non-Traditional Research Outcome, Yuendemu, Australia, 2016 (Author’s personal collection).
2. Gloria Morales (left) and Alma Nungarryai Granites at Warlukurlangu Art Centre, Yuendemu, Australia (Author’s personal collection).
3. Alma Nungarryai Granites with her painting of the Star Dreaming, or Seven Sisters, at Warlukurlangu Art Centre, 2016 (Author’s personal collection).
4. After Julia O’ Brien, a Catholic, married Errol White, a Protestant, in Sydney in the 1940s, she was ostracised from her family and barred from her father’s deathbed. Their story features in Marrying Out (Susan Timmins).
5. Yusli’s family and friends mourn at his graveside (Jacqui Baker).

Please feel free to comment.




What Happens When Chinese and Western Podcasters Meet?
Siobhán McHugh /University of Wollongong

podcast presentation

Siobhán McHugh delivers a keynote on podcasting to the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union, Chengdu, China, October 2017.

The success of podcasting, in the English-speaking world at least, is closely linked to its emphasis on the personal. Podcasts have hosts, not the more formal “presenters,” and these hosts, who often speak directly into our ears via our headphones, are like new friends. So how would podcasting work in a culture where “people’s sense of themselves as individuals atrophied…” That quote is from the Chinese satirical novelist, Yan Lianke, profiled recently in The New Yorker. [ ((Jiayang Fan, 2018. Yan Lianke’s Forbidden Satires of China. The New Yorker, 15 October 2018.
https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/10/15/yan-liankes-forbidden-satires-of-china
))] Lianke, mentioned as a potential Nobel Prize winner, attributes the “dark, fierce realism” of contemporary China to decades of living under a highly controlling Communist government.

With the post-Mao reforms of the last four decades and recent globalization and economic growth, many Chinese are reclaiming personal space, a development that Chinese media scholars Wanning Sun and Wei Lei call the “privatisation of the self.” Sun and Lei describe in fascinating detail how the market-driven transformation and social stratification of China have had a direct impact on perceptions of intimacy. [ ((Wanning Sun and Wei Lei. In Search of Intimacy in China: The Emergence of Advice Media for the Privatized Self, Communication, Culture and Critique, Volume 10, Issue 1, 1 March 2017, Pages 20–38, https://doi.org/10.1111/cccr.12150)))]

In a society where the very notion of individualism was anathema for so long, how would the promise of digital intimacy, the implicit foundation of so much of our engagement with podcasts in the West, be received?

That’s the question I asked myself in October 2017 as I prepared to give a keynote on Tuning Into the Podcast Revolution, in Chengdu, China, at the General Assembly of the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union (ABU), whose members broadcast to over half the world, some four billion people.

Would audio storytelling’s ability to build empathy and connection, prized by Western radio makers and podcasters over decades, resonate in a nation where, Lianke asserts, Communism had “made it impossible to express true feelings in conscious life…”

The short answer is yes, absolutely. The interest was palpable and I was subsequently invited by the ABU to run an intensive podcast training workshop for participants from China, Vietnam and Malaysia.

In the run up, I held a masterclass in Sydney for delegates from China Radio International (CRI), the English language arm of the state broadcaster. Many see CRI as part of a global Chinese push to conduct soft diplomacy. But the persuasive power of podcasting appears to have largely slipped under the radar. In the class, I hesitated before playing a clip from Serial Season One, thinking it might be too old hat—it had had c.300 million listeners by then and been the subject of countless articles. “What do you know about Serial?” I asked, before bringing up the slide. A broadcaster reflected. “It’s something you have for breakfast?” He was not making a joke. That’s when I realized what cultural difference truly means.

It’s not as if podcasting does not exist in China. Far from it, but it is different from Western storytelling and long-form conversation formats. China’s commercial podcast market is worth over 7 billion US dollars a year, based largely on subscribers who pay to access self-improvement and educational content, hoping to gain an edge in a highly competitive society. Lei has documented another popular set of audio products, distributed via listening apps and online platforms, which cater to two main streams: “knowledge products,” including audio books, poetry shows, business and finance; and “healing” content, which offer advice on personal and relationship issues, love and intimacy. Offerings tend to be short (under ten minutes) and simple: constructed of voice and music, without fancy production. [ ((Wei Lei. Radio and Social Transformation in China. Routledge, forthcoming.))] The numbers are staggering: Ximalaya FM, China’s biggest platform for shared audio content, reports 400 million downloads of its app. It has recently invested in an American podcasting distribution startup, Himalaya Media, which can monetize content by having listeners “tip” small amounts.

In my residential workshop, I wanted to see how participants responded to the Western podcast canon and how they might adapt it to cultural taste. Every morning I deconstructed the theory and practice of Anglophone podcasting, playing examples, analysing formats, structure and content, and expounding the grammar and logic of podcasting as a distinct media format, capable of producing “enhanced intimacy” compared to radio. All had brought, at my request, an interview in English on the theme of “absence.” Now we began to shape these into crafted stories, considering the choreography of sound, how layering and placement and even—especially—silence can alter impact and engagement.

podcast participants and Siobhan

ABU/UOW Power of Podcasting workshop, Nov 2018. Participants point to their story on the theme of absence. Niu Honglin, third right, Luo Laiming on right, Siobhán McHugh, centre.

The three Chinese participants from CRI had impeccable English, tertiary qualifications in arts, science and business, and over three decades’ experience between them as radio broadcasters. On Day One, I sent them out around the campus to gather sounds for a one-minute “audio postcard” from the university. The exercise showed how powerfully sound itself could evoke a place—they captured strange-sounding birds, the buzz of students in a café, the peace of a lake and its resident ducks. One, Zhi Ruo (not her real name, which she preferred not to use), scripted it as a moving note to her young daughter. The exercise convinced her, as she said later, that podcasting could function on a micro-level that allowed for content that radio could not:

Radio would not have the tolerance for you to do such family-bound things, you know, you’re pretending you’re speaking to just one person … your relative or your beloved one. So you’re taking advantage of a public platform to express your personal feeling. That is not okay … So, yeah, podcast, it gives me more “enhanced intimacy” to do that.

Luo Laiming, aged 32, who co-hosts a current affairs discussion program on CRI, also took to this style of audio crafting with alacrity. His sixty-second “postcard” (listen HERE) was a polished blend of philosophical reflection and personal commentary, including the line, “The University of Wollongong has the most beautiful campus I’ve ever seen.” This simple statement carried more meaning than we first realized, as Laiming explained:

This is the first time I tried in my writing to use “I” instead of “one could expect.” I said “I have seen.” It’s always been my style on the show, when I go live on a talk show or in the movie review, that I write to hide behind the narrative, behind the language.

Laiming was not convinced it was a purely cultural factor; he said he knew a lot of people in China who were “not afraid of showing their true colours,” but that he had been raised as an only child with a father who was not easy to communicate with and so, “I kind of shut myself down.” But his early years of editing other broadcasters had taught him that authenticity was crucial to make people stay listening. “You could tell whether the hosts were being spontaneous or not, if the emotions they’re expressing are authentic or not … you could tell from their voices.” The informality of podcasting was now giving him the chance to try out a subjective tone.

But when Laiming re-voiced the audio postcard in Chinese, he found it quite different (listen HERE). “I’ve always paid attention to rhythms in English—more than the words. I’ve found this hard to represent in the Chinese language. Second thing is some of the translation. E.g. ‘on the planet that we share with many other species’: the English sounds a little modest; in the Chinese language I said it as ‘we are the owners of this planet.’ And there’s another part where I had to say the opposite of what I said in English: ‘we can’t get rid of all the material comfort mankind has so ingeniously invented’ becomes ‘we can’t go back to the traditional slash and burn.'” If Laiming does get to make a new podcast, he’d like to make one about Chinese fantasy and mythology—a topic that would surely yield rich pickings.

audio postcard script

Laiming’s one-minute audio postcard script.

The vivacious Niu Honglin, the third Chinese broadcaster, aged 29, already hosts two podcasts available on Western platforms: Takeaway Chinese teaches aspects of the Chinese language and Illuminating Chinese Classics looks at Chinese literature, going back centuries.

Illuminating Chinese Classics

Artwork for the podcast Illuminating Chinese Classics, from China Radio International.

In early production sessions, Honglin tended to include everything she had—ambient sounds, voice, music—just because she had it. “Like you’re a six-year-old, you’ve got a collection and you need to show all of them to your parents!” The effect was overpowering, undermining her very strong raw interview, with a man describing coming out as gay to his family, whose reactions were not all accepting. I advocated narration that does not bludgeon the listener into thinking a certain way, but invites them to reflect. We cut an overly-explicatory sentence, an intervention she appreciated. “It’s really much better, it’s [left] with the music, with the feeling, you’re wondering what will happen next. It’s just revealing.”

We finished our showreel, an eight-minute trailer for the forthcoming ABU/UOW podcast series called Stories From the Heart (listen HERE), two minutes before our workshop ended at 5pm on the Friday—as professional broadcasters, all respected the tyranny of a deadline.

It was left to Zhi Ruo to sum up how podcasting might differ from radio after all.

Doing a podcast, it’s not like a task that you go live every day on radio. Okay, I have to work now. Ding, Ding, Ding. The time is here. But for podcasting, whenever you have great ideas, you pop up your eyes and have shiny eyes, great ideas. There’s a light bulb, lighting up on the top of your head so you feel the passion to tell the story and strengthen that bond and make listeners want to come back and find you.

Will podcasting become a tool of self-expression in China? Passion is one key factor and politics is another. Perhaps, as with so much else, the market will decide.

podcast participants with Siobhan

Workshop participants on the last day in studio. Niu Honglin second left, Luo Laiming in white shirt, Olya Booyar, Head of Radio, ABU, centre, beside Siobhán McHugh. Participants came from China Radio International, Voice of Vietnam, VTV, Vietnam and Institut Penyiaran dan Penerangan Tun Abdul Razak (IPPTAR), Malaysia.

Image Credits:

1. Siobhán McHugh delivers a keynote on podcasting to the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union, Chengdu, China, October 2017 (author’s personal collection)
2. ABU/UOW Power of Podcasting workshop, Nov 2018. Participants point to their story on the theme of absence. Niu Honglin, third right, Luo Laiming on right, Siobhán McHugh, centre (author’s personal collection)
3. Laiming’s one-minute audio postcard script. (author’s personal collection)
4. Artwork for the podcast Illuminating Chinese Classics, from China Radio International (iTunes)
5. Workshop participants on the last day in studio. Niu Honglin second left, Luo Laiming in white shirt, Olya Booyar, Head of Radio, ABU, centre, beside Siobhán McHugh. Participants came from China Radio International, Voice of Vietnam, VTV, Vietnam and Institut Penyiaran dan Penerangan Tun Abdul Razak (IPPTAR), Malaysia. (author’s personal collection)




Podcasting’s Dirty Secret: Audio Storytelling Takes Art, Craft—and Tons of Time
Siobhán McHugh / University of Wollongong

Mark Barbaro

Michael Barbaro, host, The Daily podcast

The other day I opened my podcast feed and pressed ‘play’ on The Daily, awaiting the familiar chords and host Michael Barbaro’s mellifluous intro to the New York Times’ news wrap—only to be rudely surprised. The podcast opened cold, with the actuality of two New York Times (NYT) staff awaiting a Russian in the office foyer. Then a wry voiceover: “From the New York Times, I’m NOT Michael Barbaro. I’m Kevin Roose.”

Roose, the NYT technology reporter, launched into his investigation of a propaganda site, USA Really. Though the report was well researched and produced, I felt cheated. It lacked the magic, mediating ingredient of the affable yet hyper-engaged Barbaro, or Mikie, as I know him from his Twitter handle (@mikiebarb). I gave up listening halfway. Like many others, I’ve come to think of favourite podcast hosts as new best friends—so why is this happening, and what does the podcast boom mean for media studies?

I’ve watched the post-Serial podcast explosion of the last four years with mixed feelings. On the one hand, as someone who has been a committed audio storyteller since the early ’80s, I felt vindicated—at last, audio was being celebrated, not just as the significant cultural force that radio has always been, but as something cool. People who had never listened to a radio documentary I might have spent a year making, or shown the slightest interest in the form, were suddenly asking me for my podcast recommendations. Even weirder, after they’d binge-listened, they’d tag me on social media, wanting to sound off about this character or that moment, and how much it sucked them in or incensed them or made them cry. Yep, I’d go. That’s the affective power of sound.

“But there are no pictures, and yet I feel like I’m there, like I know those people,” they’d say. “Yes,” I’d reply. That’s because audio is not prescriptive, doesn’t harness you passively to a screen—it bounces off your memory, engages your mind, your senses and your imagination all at once and makes YOU create your special meaning, thereby becoming invested.

That’s not an exactly new concept and nor is the vaunted intimacy of audio—Franklin D. Roosevelt was onto it in the 1930s with his “wireless radio chats.” But it seems to surprise born-again podphiles—because, I believe, the perceived idea of audio, even, or especially, among journalists from other media, has long been that it’s simple: unlike television, it’s “just talking.” But audio is far more than video-without-pictures. It’s a thing.

description of image

This New Yorker cartoon captures the Zeitgeist: podcasts have proliferated to near plague proportions and most are of very poor quality.

The success of Serial (340 million downloads of the first two seasons) forced people to acknowledge the power of audio stories, but most still fail to consider the immense time, skill, and yes, artistry, it takes to do them well. Culture vultures will murmur appreciatively about the innovative tracking shot in the film Children of Men or the symmetrical imagery of Wes Anderson. They will celebrate masterly theatre design or direction. They will readily attend art exhibitions and reflect on the artist’s intentions. They will wade through the literary canon. And they will dissect their musical preferences with expertise and elan.

But the creativity behind the great crafted audio features, documentaries, and works of fiction and non-fiction now paraded on podcast platforms by the thousand—I know there are 600,000 podcasts on iTunes, but I said “great”—that creativity is rarely interrogated, deconstructed, or frankly, understood. The NYT Facebook Podcast Club, for instance, has 26,000 members. Each week they discuss a designated podcast—all the usual suspects have been covered, from Dirty John to Invisibilia. This is “just” fan commentary, but it’s surprisingly low-level as critique. Listeners comment mostly on the content or themes of the show, maybe on the ethics or politics that surround it, but very rarely show an understanding of the audio storytelling art and craft that underpins it.


Sarah Koenig

Sarah Koenig, host of Serial podcast

It was because of that gap, that lack of awareness and articulation of what good audio storytelling is and what makes it so, that I founded RadioDoc Review in 2013. (It was a year before Serial, or yes, I would have called it Pod-something.) Its board is made up of top audio makers and scholars from around the world. It publishes critiques of selected works, written by highly credentialled audio folk: something like having the Coen Brothers review Almodovar. It’s been a revelation to see these authors develop language and concepts that allow us to probe and understand how excellent audio works are built and crafted: the writing; the capture, placement and layering of sound; the use of space and time; and the placement of sound and voice and music in relationship…all these elements have been unpacked and explored. And it’s all free and open access, done as a collective labour of love.

Of late, mainstream outlets such as The Atlantic, Vulture, and the New Yorker have provided thoughtful criticism of the aesthetics of podcasts and the crucial role played by their hosts. Some narrative podcasts, such as S-Town, have consciously extended the form. Others, such as Wrong Skin, in which investigative journalist Richard Baker examines the clash of ancient Aboriginal law and modern culture in Australia, are a departure because an award-winning print journalist has abandoned the page for the ear, in an acknowledgement that podcasts can do things that print simply cannot. [ ((Disclaimer: I co-produced Wrong Skin))]


wrong skin

Script editing on Wrong Skin podcast, The Age, Melbourne, 2018: Greg Muller, executive producer, Siobhan McHugh, consulting producer, Rachael Dexter, producer.

Which brings me back to where we started. A lot has been written about the success of The Daily. What’s less appreciated is how much that also depends on how its team of ten or so audio experts cleverly exploits the audio medium. They add texture and immediacy via archival audio grabs, capture atmospheric meta-scenes and understand that timing is crucial: you can’t freeze-frame audio—it unfolds in real time. A beat between sound bites, an eloquent pause, a reflective music bridge, all change how we as listeners take things in. Thus a phone’s ringing tone builds expectation; when it is picked up, we hear a seemingly unvarnished exchange that establishes the normality of the interviewee, before we get to the topic in hand.

One episode of The Daily opens like this: [ ((The Daily: The Climate Change Battle Through One Coal Miner’s Eyes, 30 March 2017.))]

Michael Barbaro (MB): Forget the political, forget the legal: for the 65,000 coal miners in the US, this is just about daily life.

ACTUALITY: Phone rings, twice

MB: We called one of them…

Miner: “HELLO?” (open, friendly tone)

MB. …Mark Gray.

MB: “Hey! Is this Mr Gray?” (pleasantly)

Miner: “Yes.” (pleased, affirming tone)

MB: “Hey, it’s Michael.

Barbaro.

From the Times.

Miner: “Okay.” (more guarded, resigned tone, shallow breaths)

Barbaro: “I think I had the wrong number. By one digit.”

Gray chimes in, his wariness forgotten: “Yeah, I think I GAVE you the wrong number.”

MB laughs appreciatively. “It happens,” he says. Gray laughs too.

Miner: “I’m not used to this number over here (breathes audibly). It’s a Tennessee number and I’ve not lived over here too long (breathing raggedly).”

MB: “So does that mean you have moved?”

Miner: “Yes I moved from Kentucky. I’ve had to move away…”

In 44 seconds (listen here), much has been established. Some of it is overt: MB is interviewing a coal miner, who comes from Harlan County, a district famous from the eponymous 1970s documentary about a bitter strike there. Non-verbal meaning is also apparent. Hearing those strangled breaths brings home viscerally the existential struggle Mark Gray is living minute by minute. Soon we will learn that he has “black lung disease.” But he doesn’t regret for one minute having been a coal miner—although it’s killing him.

The news hook for the podcast was federal battles over climate change. One man’s story makes it personal, an old journalistic device, but the audio medium humanises it further. We can hear that they are actively listening to each other, an underestimated but vital tool of a good interview. When people feel validated by knowing they’ve been truly heard, they are more inclined to trust and open up. MB has a particular talent for listening keenly, often punctuating his understanding with his now celebrated auditory exclamation, “hmmmmph”.



He then recaps what has been said—further validation—and asks his interviewee if he got it right. Invariably he did.

In this interview, the questioning shifted. Gray asks MB, “you ever been to a coal town?” MB, an urbane resident of NYC, says no—and gets tearful. Gray listens kindly as MB sniffles through his reply. It’s an extraordinary and powerful inversion of roles.

Later, MB was excoriated by some for not advocating the evils of coal. He cried, he told longform.org, because after 45 minutes of “talking like real human beings,” he was simply moved. He suddenly felt the unconscious bias he carried against men like Gray, who yet had suffered. Barbaro had become emotional in interviews before—but the difference was, the public didn’t hear it. “Audio is a very honest medium,” he reflects. And that is what builds relationship, between host and guest, between host, guest and listener—between Mikie and me.

Image Credits:

1. Michael Barbaro, host, The Daily podcast
2. This New Yorker cartoon captures the Zeitgeist: podcasts have proliferated to near plague proportions and most are of very poor quality.
3. Sarah Koenig, host of Serial podcast
4. Script editing on Wrong Skin podcast, The Age, Melbourne, 2018: Greg Muller, executive producer, Siobhán McHugh, consulting producer, Rachael Dexter, producer. (author’s personal collection)

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