When I began teaching audio journalism at the University of Melbourne a year ago, I checked a pile of textbooks out of the library. When I opened the first, I was shocked to see a mish-mash of URLs within text. I found it extraordinary that anyone could believe that busy students would bother to type out web addresses as they read the required texts, so they could listen to the radio stories mentioned. Worse still, when I actually tried do this, many of the web addresses were broken. I was convinced there must be a better way of teaching audio, so I set out to design it.
Podcasting seemed an intuitive way to teach audio journalism, as it models best practice while allowing students to listen to examples of great journalism at their own convenience. I worked closely with two other audio junkies, CAJ graduate Buffy Gorilla and Ruby Schwartz, to design a podcast that breaks down the skills students need into digestible chunks. Each episode, one audio journalist will talk through one particular skill, using examples to show how they put them into practice in their own work. We aimed high, and managed to cajole some of the most innovative audio journalists in the world to take part like NPR’s Robert Smith, the BBC’s Neal Razzell who pioneered the audiograph and WNYC’s Manoush Zomorodi, who revolutionised audience engagement and interactivity.
For our team, making the podcast was a meta learning experience in itself. We sometimes ended up using the podcasts to discuss problems that we ourselves were grappling with such as how to use music (sparingly, according to Radiotopia’s Julie Shapiro) and the difference between ‘broadcast voice’ and ‘podcast voice’ (more than you would imagine, according to Elspeth Morrison, a voice coach who works with BBC journalists). Our small team spans the whole gamut of experience – from relative newcomers to two decades in radio – so our aim is that every episode would cater to beginners while also being useful for old-timers.
Talking to journalists from the US, Canada, Australia and the UK, we also parsed differences in journalistic culture, which were thrown into sharp relief by Hamish Macdonald, who sometimes hosts RN’s Breakfast show in Australia. Living in the US during the 2016 presidential campaign, he describes how shocked he was by the politics of platitudes on display in political coverage, “That deference that is offered to the President is also offered to people that are running for the presidency, and you just saw it time and time again,” he said. “All I could think was how different was the election process be, if these candidates were actually held to account and tested on their policy positions.”
Our hope is that through listening to the series, students will learn audio journalism skills, as well as developing a love of the medium itself. In terms of podcasting, Australia still lags behind the US with 17% of the Australian population having listened to a podcast in the past month compared to 21% in the US, according to Edison Research. But Australian listeners are a hungry bunch, on average listening to six podcasts a week. My aim is that, by the end of the semester, there’ll be a whole bunch of new radio and podcast listeners, and perhaps even some new podcasters too.