PODCASTING AS EXTREME NARRATIVE JOURNALISM: The literary journalism movement unleashed by Capote, Didion, Mailer, and Wolfe in the 1960s is reinventing itself in a new medium--audio.
IN "THE ARMIES of the Night" (1968), his "nonfiction novel" about the Vietnam War, Norman Mailer enthusiastically rejected the role of absentee author. "I had some dim intuitive feeling that what was wrong with all journalism is that the reporter needed to be objective, and that was one of the great lies of all time."
Since then, celebrated authors such as the Australian Anna Funder have harnessed subjectivity to propel their writing to greater depths. Funder's award-winning 2003 study of East Germany in the Cold War period, "Stasiland," begins in the first person: "I am hungover and steer myself like a car through the crowds at Alexanderplatz station. Several times I miscalculate my width, scraping into a bin, and an advertising bollard. Tomorrow bruises will develop on my skin like a picture from a negative."
It might seem an unlikely opening for a book that will expose the cruel efficiencies of a surveillance state and the human tragedies at its center--but it places Anna, as narrator, clearly in the reader's field of view and invites us to accompany her on a journey of discovery. It also makes Anna vulnerable--that admission, "I am hungover" immediately makes her flawed and human. Just like us. From this perspective, she frames her interviewees: she makes us sit up and admire the immense bravery of 16-year-old Miriam, who almost succeeds in scaling the Berlin Wall; she does not disguise her loathing of Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler, a popular broadcaster and outspoken Stasi supporter of the day.
The great literary journalists of the last 50 years traditionally employed the tools of fiction to write true stories: the real people they depict are developed as "characters" and interviews quoted as conversations; deep research and analysis is conveyed as "plot" and reconstructed scenes; and the writer employs fresh, descriptive language to place the reader at various locations. This genre, also described as creative nonfiction or narrative journalism, thrives today as long-form articles in outlets such as Empire, Vanity Fair, and The New Yorker. Exemplars include Katherine Boo, Ted Conover, Susan Orlean, William Finnegan, and the late David Foster Wallace.
But when the audio medium is added to the arsenal of narrative journalism, its impact is hugely amplified. Firstly, the authorial voice is literally heard, direct and unmediated, via the podcast host. This foments a strong bond. If the host is adept at writing in the vernacular style that audio prefers, as Sarah Koenig did in "Serial," the host can come to seem like a friend. Koenig was often described as being like a "companion" to listeners on the podcast's quest to understand what happened in the 1999 murder of high school student Hae Min Lee.
Meanwhile, back in Australia, Richard Baker, star investigative journalist with venerable Melbourne newspaper The Age, wanted to follow up his acclaimed first foray into podcasting. The award-winning "Phoebe's Fall," hosted by him and Michael Bachelard, investigated the bizarre death of a young woman in the garbage chute of a luxury apartment block and the botched police investigation that followed. Anecdotal evidence and social media reaction suggest it was a hit with a younger female demographic and it had considerable impact, triggering changes to how coronial inquiries were conducted.
I co-produced "Phoebe's Fall," my role being to advise on script, structure, and craft and to help the print journalist hosts transition to this new medium. I endlessly evangelized to them the strengths and weaknesses of audio storytelling: for instance the crucial importance, in a medium that only exists in real time, of space and pace. Unlike video, you can't freeze-frame audio. Now Baker wanted to apply his new knowledge to another, even more highly charged investigation: into the death of a young woman and the disappearance of her boyfriend in a remote part of Western Australia in 1994. The couple was Aboriginal and word was that they had incurred the wrath of traditional elders, because their relationship was 'Wrong Skin"--they came from families forbidden to associate. Further, she had been "promised" as a child bride to a much older man. Besides being about the collision of ancient culture and modern law, the story was about power, corruption, and greed, involving mining royalties potentially worth billions. It unfolded in an isolated and sublimely beautiful landscape and involved voices of Aboriginal people rarely heard in Australian media. It had emotion, intrigue, and no clear outcome: the perfect ingredients for a podcast, but not an easy one to make. With newspapers from The New York Times ("Caliphate," "1619") to the LA Times ("Dirty John," "Room 20" via LA Times Studios) seeking to harness podcasting as an outlet for narrative journalism, I sat down with Richard Baker to reflect on the learning process involved for a traditional print-first journalist moving into audio. "Wrong Skin," he admits, was going to be a challenging undertaking in any medium.
"Wrong Skin" is a story about people and places unfamiliar to most of our audience. Whereas "Phoebe's Fall" was easy to access--we had well-educated and incredibly good-looking white people--"Wrong Skin" doesn't have that immediate easy appeal but I think it is a rich story that educates the audience. And that has been the best feedback. So many people have said they have learned so much they didn't know about Indigenous history and culture through "Wrong Skin."
"Wrong Skin," which I also co-produced, was a year in the making. It dropped online as six episodes in July-August 2018, with an accompanying multimedia site. The production challenges were many. A mainstream audience would have difficulty understanding the uniquely Aboriginal way of speaking English (often a third or fourth language) in this remote community, yet we felt it was vital that these so often marginalized voices be literally heard. Thus we had to develop a way of scripting around the voices, sometimes included in fragmented form. The Kimberley region of Western Australia is the size of France but home to only 44,000 people. The physical distance from Melbourne (approximately 4,000 miles) and vastness and inaccessibility of the region (at times cut off by floods), meant we sometimes had to rely on phone interviews, done without tape synching and in areas of poor reception.
Cultural and political sensitivities were high: some Aboriginal people (colloquially self-described as blackfellas) think non-Aboriginal people (whitefellas) should butt out of telling stories that concern Aboriginal people; others believe that we live in a shared Australia now, and that it is ultimately to the common good that as many Australians as possible understand more about Aboriginal history and culture: at around 60,000 years, it is considered the oldest continuous culture in the world. Our guiding principle was that Baker had been approached by Indigenous people to investigate the story and that there was a responsibility to take it on. We retained an Indigenous consultant to alert us to any cultural transgressions. We tweaked episodes in response to their suggestions--such were the delicacies, the consultant does not wish to be named.
The team was largely drawn from "Phoebe's Fall" and followed a similar process. Baker developed an initial script as a Google doc, then the team worked on improving concision, clarity, and for me, especially, structure and craft--the layering of sounds, such as music and natural ambience, and careful placement of voice, to create powerful synergies. On "Phoebe's Fall," it had been a challenge to educate even these very sawy journalists on their first foray into using sound, not text. I'd listen critically in real time to a draft episode and mark it up with what to them was double Dutch: "let it breathe" was my constant mantra, meaning that the interview content needed "space" around it, an ambient or musical pause that allowed listeners to absorb what they had heard and take it in. This idea, of timing as a crucial element in shaping the impact of the content, seemed absurd to them at first. As Baker told co-producer Julie Po?etti, "Space to me is a thing you hit on the keyboard."
But by our second venture, he was starting to do as I implored: "think through your ears." By this I meant firstly getting the basics right, such as recording interviews with a closely positioned microphone and an absence of interfering background noise, such as traffic, cafe chatter, or worst of all, the polluting rumble of wind. But I also alerted him to the myriad possibilities of sound itself: a distinctive bird call, the drumming of loud rain, the tinny cacophony of cicadas, the shouts and cheers at a sporting event--these can all summon a world in the listener's imagination.
It paid off. In "Wrong Skin," the river becomes a physical presence: the loud splash as Wayne, our guide, seeks refuge in the water conveys the palpable heat, as does the panting of his dog. Learning to "think sound" was a major transformation for Baker. When he visited the grave of Julie Buck, the young Aboriginal woman whose body is found after she has run away with her forbidden lover, he was acutely conscious of the environment.
I made sure to get the crinkle of my footsteps approaching and the sound of the wind and enormous solitude of her resting place before I even considered what I would say live into the recorder. There's no way I would've thought of this on "Phoebe's Fall."
Baker's scripting, too, slipped more easily into the idiom of audio. There were still occasional formalities to rectify and long, involved sentences to be reduced. He learned to describe where he was on the tape at the time and to paint in descriptions of who he was talking to:
When you meet Joe [Killer] for the first time, you soon learn he loves a laugh and is extremely fit for a man who's just turned 70. He wears a big cowboy hat, like lots of men in these parts, and his long-sleeved blue shirt covers a barrel chest. His only concession to age is a haze across his big brown eyes.
Perhaps the biggest shift came when Baker--almost unconsciously--started including his own responses to what he was investigating.
On the matter of promised brides, I'm torn between thinking who am I to question cultural practices that have been going on in the Kimberley for thousands of years and wondering how any girl--my own 10-year-old daughter comes to mind--would feel about being promised out to a man two or three times her age.
Subjectivity is not just possible in podcasting--it is almost essential. Baker acknowledges that writing in the first person was previously anathema to him. "This goes back to formative training as a print journalist, where it was frowned upon for young journalists to have the temerity to believe anyone would be interested in what they think. The 'facts, facts, facts' was the mantra and, for the most part, it is good advice." But storytelling via the affective power of audio is very different.
For the listener, you are a main character whether you think you are or not. They want to know what you think or feel about crucial elements of the story. I think if you as a host are unable to show that you also are affected by the real life drama then you risk alienating your audience and appearing inhuman.
We can feel Baker's ceaseless curiosity, his desire to understand a completely different world-view. We're caught up in his quest, as he sets about asking uncomfortable questions and teasing out the difference between what is "cultural" and what is right.
While in-depth interviewing is an important part of most feature journalism, in storytelling podcasts it becomes the crucial narrative spine. It's vital not only to find the key people who can shed light on the story (the "talent"), but also to "secure" them--to build a strong relationship that can evolve along with the story. Baker found he had to adapt his investigative approach to local geographical and cultural factors:
It is a fact of life in the Kimberley, particularly as an outsider, that if you can't relax and just go with the flow, you are only going to end up frustrated, exhausted, and acting in a way that most people won't want to talk to you, let alone trust you. So that's what I did. I just let things happen and all of a sudden after a meeting with one person I'd end up being introduced to more and more people.
Baker's working process also changed, from his previous document-oriented focus to an emphasis on people and voice. This made the writing phase less predictable, for it had to be fluid.
You can't afford to get concreted into a single-focus view of things. With print investigations that are document-based, you know the material you have to play with and its opportunities and limitations from the get-go.
All these elements helped to make "Wrong Skin" sound distinctive, a podcast whose multiple Indigenous perspectives opened up a very different Australia to the world. One man, an Indigenous lawyer criticized in the podcast for exploiting native title considerations for considerable financial gain, accused Baker of racism--something Baker considers "a badge of honor" that in fact confirms that he exposed wrongdoing, as this was all the lawyer could find to criticize. The overwhelming response from Aboriginal Australians and elsewhere has strongly affirmed the podcast.
The feedback I've received from Indigenous people in the Kimberley and further abroad has been overwhelmingly positive. The women are pleased that somebody has cared enough to stick up for them and more than a few men have complimented me on having "the balls" to stand up to some pretty violent people. "Wrong Skin" is a story that won't let you leave it behind. So in a way I knew going into this that I've made myself a player in a bigger fight. In fact I had a man from the Western Desert in Western Australia ring me after the podcast to say that he and his other senior men were there to go to bat for me culturally and spiritually as they believed I'd come under attack in those senses from dark forces in the Kimberley. So as unnerving as that was to be told that, it was also reassuring. As the man said to me, "you're in our world now."
With "Phoebe's Fall," Baker largely kept his emotions subject to his analytical voice. In 'Wrong Skin," his investigation skills are just as much in evidence in the material he uncovers, but often his narration comes straight from the heart. It is powerful because, far from seeking to get us onside, he is striving to rein himself in.
Personally, I don't warm to podcast hosts whose egos demand they constantly be injected into the story. I still believe in the "less is more" rule. I believe the use of subjective writing and scripting can have immense power and impact if used with discretion and care.
The result has been gratifying at many levels. The podcast scooped Australian Podcast of the Year and Best Investigative Journalism and True Crime Podcast at the Australian Podcasting Awards in May and won gold in June 2019 at the New York Radio Festival, beating works from over 30 countries. But Baker is most pleased to have enthralled listeners about life and lore in this ancient part of Australia and informed and educated people about the Indigenous community. "To do that as well as entertain and push the police inquiry further than it ever expected to go has been a major achievement." A sports enthusiast, Baker sums up what podcasting can do and the immense work it takes as "extreme feature writing."
The team, this writer included, has released a new podcast, "The Last Voyage of the Pong Su," a geopolitical thriller involving drugs, crime syndicates, and a very different clash of cultures. The show, which debuted in October, provides unparalleled insights into the workings of international police operations and toggles between two unlikely venues: a small town on Victoria's shipwreck coast and a rustbucket cargo ship from North Korea. It introduces us to some unforgettable characters, including craft beer-averse, yuppie-hating fisherman and motormouth Dicky Davies, who uses the raw vernacular of the spoken word to give the first episode its pithy title: "This Fucking Boat."
Caption: A sandstone rock formation in Kimberley, Northwest Australia, the setting for "Wrong Skin," a podcast exemplifying narrative journalism in audio form
Caption: Joe Killer is one of the Aboriginal voices, rarely heard in Australian media, amplified in the"Wrong Skin" podcast
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|Title Annotation:||NIEMAN STORYBOARD|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2019|
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