Thursday, 19 November 2020

Podcast review: Voice of Real Australia, ACM (2020)

This show is a production of Australian Community Media, one of the largest newspaper companies in the country, and its editorial office is housed at the Newcastle Herald (see homepage header graphic below).

It’s basically journalism of a kind that allows more breadth, though whether this results in more depth is debatable. The show is evidently aimed at bridging the rural-metro divide but in a way that gives precedence to rural Australia – the bias is clear, in the first place, from the slightly provocative title.

Each episode has a theme but its scope is fairly conventional. For example, the tenuous lives of farmers located near the national capital of Canberra. 

Many farmers complain that metro coverage of the bush is overly negative, so ‘Voice of Australia’ gives a measured and balanced view of this part of the country. Some episodes deal with a crisis (for example, the one about institutions dealing with drug abuse in Dubbo) and some are good news (for example, the one about bicycling in the NSW town of Dungog).

You would get similar journalism if you watched a nightly magazine program such as the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s ‘7.30’. The difference here being that the focus is entirely on the bush. 

With some diversions to other remote regions of national interest. The episode on the Aurora Australis – an Antarctic icebreaker – was as informative and interesting as podcast journalism gets. ‘Voice of Real Australia’ delivers what it promises.

Some elements of each podcast are consistent: for example, how the journalist gets each participant, before their view is heard, to announce their name and profession. So, an engineer who knows about flyash production – a byproduct of burning coal in power stations – says his name, what he does for a living, and describes other relevant aspects of himself in order to establish his credentials. 

Why, the implication is, should we be listening to this person? Why are they qualified to speak? 

This is an important part of the journalistic process but in other ways the series fails to go deeper. For example, in the episode about the periurban area around Canberra the views of peak body heads such as the real estate institute or the local chamber of commerce are not canvassed. You don’t get the views of those who represent the metropolitan interest, so a source of relevance for the listener – the conflict between the bush and the city – is avoided.

And while finding credible sources is half the battle when it comes to writing a story or, as in this case, capturing the sound necessary to do what, traditionally, words on the page have done, the way that the story is aligned with community concerns reflects the journalist’s own biases. You wonder who the program was made for? People in the bush or people in the cities? 

This is a source of drama that is sidestepped, but there’s another lack by my insight. The tones of the speakers’ voices are as important as the meaning of the words used, but in ‘Voice of Real Australia’ the individual characters of the people interviewed do not enter into the picture to any significant degree. As a result what you get here is plain journalism, without any of the literary artifice that makes creative nonfiction so appealing to modern readers. So, the producers again avoid drama, one of the traditional sources of interest when it comes to journalism.

Strangely, though, the home page features the faces of people in a striking and graphic manner (see image above). This disjunct between the aspiration of the program makers – to give substance to otherwise shadowy concepts (what is a farmer …? what kinds of people live in the bush …?) – and the actual contents of the episodes the journalists and editors make forms a site of disappointment. 

To overcome this failing would require a different approach entirely. A different set of guidelines or a different host. (Maybe a bit more gonzo is needed to achieve success.) In my view the makers of this podcast tentatively want metro audiences to engage with their production, but they also don’t want to inflame the passions of their audience members. They want notoriety but they don’t want to do anything that will achieve it. You’re left with brass tacks. But brass tacks that no-one wants to pick up and use are just wasted.

Perhaps the makers of the show decided to stick with what they knew best. Perhaps they feared going out on a limb. But only by breaking the mould can you cut through, so I’d have to say that ‘Voice of Real Australia’ is a lost opportunity, but a brave attempt at doing something that I’ve personally been trying to do (in a half-hearted way) for the better part of a decade. This material is just too cut-and-dried, it needs more warmth (which is partly provided by the actual voices of the interviewees entering the listener’s personal space, be it the cab of a moving car or their lounge room). 

‘Voice of Real Australia’ is not quite adventurous enough to intensely connect with the average city motorist, though this is certainly needed. My estimation is that the show skirts around issues it should be addressing, such as animal husbandry and issues relating to the handling and development of germplasm. What we eat has always been contested, often along lines marked out by religious belief, so it seems odd to be shy of raising contentious subjects when you have a perfect opportunity to do so. 

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