What exactly do you do at the ABC?
Technically my title is digital content producer. I’ve been doing this gig since the start of last year, and I also just make radio generally, and occasionally get commissioned as a freelancer by Radio National to do packages in my own time, which I then file at work.
What kind of freelance pieces have you done for RN? At the moment I’m doing one for the Law Report, which is on the future of the live music industry and specifically how poorly insulated it is from regulatory change, with a specific reference to what’s going on in Sydney with the lockout laws. Then looking back to the closure of the Tote hotel in 2010. Also I’m doing a weird documentary on hip hop for a program called Earshot… which basically, I had interviewed a few people as they were coming through town with an idea in my head… and weirdly enough RN said yes. So it’s got Raekwon from Wu-Tang, Freddie Gibbs and Vince Staples. They’re kind of not people who would traditionally be Radio National talent. I guess it’s proof that if you can get your pitch right, and if you can sell it well…
How does commissioning work?
This could apply to you too right now actually: you develop a strong pitch, you bring it to them, and they commission you. A big part of that process is knowing the program you’re pitching to, intimately, and knowing how your story will fit in and what it will offer that’s new and different and interesting. How it will fit well within the existing framework of the show.
Do you have any advice for young journalists?
I do really value every second I had in the regions [as a rural reporter]. Not in the sense that you should go there and there’s only jobs there – although there are potentially – but more from the fact that I think it teaches you some pretty core journalistic basics. If you have those in your pocket you can do sort of anything. But if you’re trying to be a blogger, and then turn to being a news journalist, to turn to being an opinion piece writer, it doesn’t quite work for a place like the ABC. A lot of my advice would probably be ABC-centred but I think the regions are a really amazing place to teach you what you don’t know. Equally I think one of the biggest mistakes young journos make going to the regions is thinking how lucky that place is to have them, you know that there’s a sense of entitlement. You know, you go to the country, you do your time, and then a job will just be waiting for you. But you are really, really fortunate to have that gig. You are talking to an audience who your report really matters to, and who is going to call you out on your bullshit. You are going to have no more immediate connection to your audience than when you are covering a country area. If you do a shit story on Country, you’ll find out really quickly.
And have you ever done a shit story on Country?
Umm… I’ve definitely had people say like, ‘why are you talking to him, you shouldn’t talk to Bruce you should talk to John.’ They’ll come up to you at the pub on a Friday night and tell you all about it [your story]. Which is great, because it keeps you on your toes and also you stay humble. And in those moments you play a pretty key part in peoples lives, because they don’t have a lot of other outlets that are discussing their area. It’s a pretty privileged position I reckon.
What was the biggest challenge of your career?
The biggest challenge was probably when I first started at the ABC because I’d done radio in a community radio sense, but the ABC is a totally different thing. Every day you get in at 5am, your show goes to air at 6.40am, and when you get off air you file for all the different platforms and then you think, ‘right, what am I going to do for tomorrow?’ and ‘where are stories coming from?’ and just sitting at your desk thinking, ‘I couldn’t think of a single story right now if you paid me.’ Just hitting that wall, and everyone does it, and I wish I knew then the strategies that I know now, because it makes life hard, and you pull some crazy days.
What are the strategies when you can’t find a story?
Seeing stories in everything, or seeing kernels of ideas that are stories. And I guess, trusting your sense of curiosity. One of the mistakes I made was too often thinking I should know the answer to things. Like thinking ‘oh that’s an obvious question, I should know that this soil type is low in microbial stuff’… of course I don’t know that! And chances are that most of the audience don’t either. As soon as you start thinking that you should know everything that your talent knows then you’re also probably excluding the people you are actually reporting to. Asking questions like ‘why is that important?’ and ‘why does that matter?’ can be the start of the whole story.
How do you cope with the stress?
Hmm…find outlets, don’t let it consume you. Take a step back and look at what you are actually trying to achieve, rather than letting it just envelop you because it’s a really easy thing to let stress build up really quickly in this gig but just be like ‘that’s cool, that’s out of my control’ or ‘I’m going to put something to air that’s going to be great. It’s going to be fine.’
Positive reinforcement? Yup, exactly, positive reinforcement.
And your biggest highlight since starting in radio?
In terms of things I’m proud of, the ‘I’m Here Now’ music series over summer definitely. I mean that’s what I do on weekends, go to gigs, so to have work and my personal passion collide so intimately was just a real treat. And no one would ever have asked me to do a series like that, but you just come at it. It doesn’t matter whether its about independent music or painting or ballet or whatever, it’s just approaching it with that same sort of enthusiasm and energy and trying to bring people in. I’ve had a lot of nice feedback since ‘I’m Here Now’ and a lot of opportunities have come from that. I’m getting random messages from people in Sweden saying ‘Oh I heard your series, I didn’t know about half these bands, its made me want to fly to Melbourne to come see bands.’