Radio documentary and podcast research focuses on the power and intimacy of sound and the creative adaption of oral history to transform non-fiction stories into audio projects of cultural worth and significant social impact. Produced in partnership with public broadcasters and global media outlets, these works gave voice to overlooked or marginalised individuals and communities. They reached thousands of listeners and increased the impact of podcast journalism: the series “Phoebe’s Fall” (approx. 1.5m listeners) helped to trigger a judicial review. Expertise in crafted audio storytelling and the evolving media format of the podcast enhanced access to and engagement with journalism. It enabled the professional development and success of journalists transitioning from traditional media.
16. Peace, justice and strong institutions
Details of the Impact
Research conducted by Dr McHugh, an internationally recognised writer, producer and critic of radio documentary and an oral historian, helped capture and transform marginalised voices through the affective power of sound and story-telling. Practice-based research was conducted and delivered as non-fiction narratives using audio, print and digital media platforms. It drew public attention to a broad range of topics, including: sectarianism, extra-judicial killings in Indonesia, Irish-Australian studies, Australian multiculturalism, Indigenous history, women and war, migration and personal narratives. The research and its outcomes demonstrated how interdisciplinary research could connect with large, popular audiences and generate both social awareness and, at times, social or policy change. It also provided important opportunities for journalists to adapt their practices to the challenges of the digital media environment.
Research into the aesthetics and impact of crafted audio storytelling and into podcasts as a distinctive and rapidly evolving media format provided the foundation for these documentary production partnerships which were distinguished by the early adoption of highly effective podcasting production methods. McHugh’s research demonstrated the power of sound, the production of intimacy and the transformations of voice that were achieved when oral history and journalism combined in aural format. Her findings were creatively adapted for use in production of the podcast documentary series “Phoebe’s Fall”. Developed via a collaborative partnership between McHugh and producer Fairfax Media, the making of “Phoebe’s Fall” provided leadership and influential professional development for journalists. It is an outstanding example of the various levels of impact that a thoroughly-researched, well-produced podcast can have, achieving broad audience reach and significant social impact.
“Phoebe’s Fall” was produced by a team at Fairfax Media with consulting producer McHugh; the Fairfax team was led by then Head of Digital Transformation journalist and UOW Research Fellow, Julie Posetti. The 6 episode podcast examined the death in 2010 of a young Melbourne woman, Phoebe Handsjuk, whose body was found in a garbage chute, and the botched police investigation that followed. The series employed in-depth interviews with Phoebe’s family and friends as well as legal, forensic and criminological experts resulting in an analysis of the circumstances surrounding Phoebe’s death and questioning of aspects of police procedure and the coronial inquest that followed.
Initially published on 22 September 2016 on the Apple platform iTunes, the podcast went straight to Number One on the iTunes Chart, deposing the American documentary podcast, “Serial”, until then widely acknowledged as the most successful podcast globally. “Phoebe’s Fall” held this position for most of its 6 week run, with over 1.3 million downloads.
At a politico-legal level, the podcast led to questions in the Victorian Parliament and triggered a major Victorian government legal review. In December 2016 a review of the Victorian Coroner’s Act was commissioned, conducted by the Coronial Council, made up of the State Coroner, senior academics, top legal experts and the Chief Commissioner of Police. The review recommended that the legislation be changed to allow findings "against the evidence or weight of evidence" to be appealed. The potential public benefit is significant. Previously a Coroner's finding could only be challenged if a perverse error of law was made. A Coroner could not be challenged for misinterpreting a fact or ignoring evidence, making it very difficult for people to appeal against a finding. The Council also extended the time period for appeal from 28 days to 3 months.
The review came amid public concern, generated on a widespread public scale through the podcast series, surrounding the Coroner’s finding that Phoebe Handsjuk's death was the result of a ‘tragic accident’. The podcast cited experts who believed that there was not enough evidence to rule out suicide, murder or accidental death, and pointed out that the Coroner had ignored the advice of his Senior Counsel. Such was the public impact that Ms Handsjuk’s family were approached by members of the public wishing to raise funds to enable the family to appeal the finding.
In producing “Phoebe’s Fall”, Posetti and McHugh leveraged the qualities of best practice crafted audio storytelling and digital journalism identified in McHugh’s research, which included:
- bringing the power and intimacy of the audio medium to investigative journalism
- creating a compelling episodic structure that cohered and maintained narrative tension;
- including vocal mannerisms and personal anecdotes to develop and distinguish interviewees as ‘characters’;
- coaching journalists Richard Baker and Michael Bachelard on writing conversationally for audio and interacting authentically as hosts;
- advising on best audio field production methods such as minimizing distracting noise at interview locations; and
- using music and sound design judiciously and adeptly in post-production.
These factors built empathy for the main characters (Phoebe, her family and friends) and increased audience engagement. The podcast’s content was extended with an interactive website with high quality artwork and mapping of ancillary material, such as a ‘tree’ of characters, a chart tracking the location of a crucial mobile phone, short films made by Phoebe’s family reconstructing the manner of her death and a copy of the Coroner’s report. Audience support was developed, initially by harnessing Fairfax Media’s substantial subscriber base and strong reputation. Interest in the series developed further via word of mouth, social media discussion and reviews in media such as “Crime Writers On”, a US podcast about crime-themed podcasts. Winning the Melbourne Press Club Quills Award generated further publicity.
- General public (cultural life, public discourse, the Law)
- Practitioners, broadcasters, media publication outlets, arts, cultural institutions, and professional artists
- Target communities including, but not restricted to, the families and friends of individual subjects, and marginalised and culturally diverse communities
- New Zealand
- United Kingdom
- United States
Approach to Impact
Summary of the approaches to impact
Our approach to impact recognises that collaboration and professional networks are critical to success for creative arts/industries researchers, as the sector relies on an entrepreneurial approach to the production and distribution of content. Researchers access university and faculty initiatives that reflect UOW’s strategic emphasis on research with “impact at global and regional levels”. These include: (i) the UOW Global Challenges Program, a university-wide interdisciplinary research program under the theme ‘Transforming Lives and Regions’ that supports projects intended to bring about beneficial social impacts and (ii) faculty research centres that support thematic, impact-oriented research. Faculty research support schemes and grants have led to successful linkages and partnerships.
Approach to Impact
Our approach to facilitating impactful, multidisciplinary research in creative arts and industries aligns strongly with the UOW mission to leverage multidisciplinary research strengths for impact, reflected in our flagship Global Challenges program, and the close relationship between our case study and our creative arts/industries strategies and support. Our approach encompasses: creative research projects across a range of art forms and cultural sectors; the provision of internal faculty and university grants supporting impact; an internal culture recognising the value of potential impact; and, the establishment of interdisciplinary faculty networks, funding and research support schemes intended to foster, mentor and support the research trajectories of all their members.
UOW’s creative arts and industries strategy and research support has enabled McHugh and her collaborators – journalists, colleagues and creative practitioners such as sound designers and composers – to build a strong track record of high-impact broadcast projects. UOW’s commitment to practice-based research in the creative industries and investment into the early adoption of new media platforms has led to strong support for McHugh’s research-led documentary practice. Since joining UOW in 2008, her work has been supported through a Faculty Challenge Grant, a Global Challenges Grant, a Community Engagement grant, and a University Research Grant, as well as in-kind support of equipment and studio facilities and study leave. International collaborators visited UOW via the School of the Arts, English and Media’s Artists in Residence program, including in 2014 Barrie Dowdall and Siobhån Lynam, two Irish producer/directors who make acclaimed documentaries that context official representations of significant figures, explore marginalised voices and reinstate characters overlooked by mainstream histories.
The radio documentary “Eat Pray Mourn: Crime and Punishment in Jakarta” (2013), made for ABC Radio National’s Documentaries 360, was undertaken in collaboration with UOW early career researcher, Dr Jacqui Baker, an expert in Indonesian politics and society. Baker’s anthropological research into extrajudicial killings of petty criminals by Indonesian police was converted into an engaging audio documentary format. The resulting documentary was commissioned and broadcast by ABC Radio National. It has been a set text at the ANU and Murdoch University and received international acclaim as a creative work. It won a bronze award at the New York Radio Festival and was selected for screening at the International Radio Features Conference in Leipzig (2014), the only Australian entrant, and featured at Ubud Writers Festival (2014). It was commended by international security expert Sidney Jones. In domestic impact, Baker was invited by AusAid, the then Australian Government unit responsible for foreign aid, to discuss her findings on Indonesian police, who were part-funded by AusAid at the time. Baker’s research in this area, published previously by Amnesty International, had triggered little to no response. We concluded that the considerable engagement was due to the effectiveness of the podcast/audio storytelling format used to showcase research as personalised story.
“Marrying Out” (2009) was a two-part radio series which McHugh wrote and produced, with music by Melbourne-based composer and UOW doctoral alumnus Tom Fitzgerald. It explores the religious bigotry and post-colonial tensions between English (Protestants) and Irish (Catholics) still prevalent in Australia. Initially broadcast on ABC Radio National’s Hindsight, the issues raised in the series were extensively discussed on ABC Drive and Life Matters; it was also broadcast on state broadcasters in New Zealand and in Ireland.
The partnership that delivered “Phoebe’s Fall” was facilitated through faculty support for lecturer and PhD candidate Julie Posetti to take up a research fellowship with the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) in Paris. Brokered by UOW, the fellowship allowed Posetti to investigate the future of journalism in a digital age. Valuable opportunities for journalism students at the WAN-IFRA Paris headquarters were part of the fellowship. Posetti was subsequently appointed Head of Digital Transformation at Fairfax Media and developed the production team that worked under McHugh’s leadership to create the innovative six-part podcast series in 2016. This productive partnership, fostered through UOW’s focus on practice-led research, delivered innovative professional development for the creative production team on the podcast series. UOW journalism alumnus Jake Evans and final-year journalism student Lucy Dean also worked as assistant producers on “Phoebe’s Fall”.
Broader communication of our research is a key strategy for reaching stakeholders in the creative industries, the arts community and the general public. In further enhancing the reach and public engagement of this case study, UOW selected McHugh to present at UOW’s high profile Illawarra-based ‘Budding Ideas’ public talks. McHugh was invited by the Sydney Opera House to interview Julie Snyder, co-creator and executive of the leading US “Serial” ahead of her appearance during her Australian tour. The interview was published by The Conversation as a podcast in their Speaking With series. McHugh also authored several high impact articles on aspects of audio storytelling, podcasting and public broadcasting for The Conversation; one was shared c. 8,000 times on Facebook from The Conversation’s site – about 8 times the average. She was also supported by UOW to offer her research for industry professional development by delivering regular workshops for emerging Australian writers on writing for the podcast medium at Varuna Writers’ Centre in the Blue Mountains.
McHugh published research into oral history and audio storytelling, establishing herself an international leader in this field. Her research demonstrated the distinctive characteristics of audio and how it has intimacy, power and reach. She described (2012) the importance of aurality tone and temporality allow interviews to generate additional meaning through non-verbal content. Further, the relative un-intrusiveness of audio recording minimises self-consciousness. For people with disability or those who have experienced ageism through visual media that privilege younger, stereotypically healthy bodies, the audio medium can be liberating. Audio can also confer anonymity. All these factors facilitate revelatory interviews that can be leveraged to examine sensitive matters that are in the public interest. An oral history interviewer needs to deploy ‘aerobic listening’ (2007): intense, careful listening that lets the informant know they are being heard, without judgement. This helps an interviewee feel validated and the resultant oral history, especially when recorded as part of a collective theme, has considerable social value.
McHugh has also researched the podcast as an emerging medium with particular characteristics. She argued (2016) that podcasting is a new media genre as well as an accessible digital delivery form. As an opt-in medium, free of institutional gatekeepers, podcasts connect directly to the listener, generating a sense of companionship with the podcast host.
1. “Phoebe’s Fall” (2016). Michael Bachelard and Richard Baker (Australia: Fairfax Media), viewed at https://www.theage.com.au/interactive/2016/phoebesfall/related.html
Accessed 4 May 2018
2. McHugh, S. (2016). “How podcasting is changing the audio storytelling genre”. The Radio Journal: International Studies in Broadcast and Audio Media, 14 (1), pp. 65-82.
3. McHugh, S. (2016). “The Affective Power of Sound”, in R. Perks & A. Thomson (eds), The Oral History Reader, Routledge: Oxford, pp. 490-507.
4. McHugh S. and Posetti J. (2015). “The podcasting revolution: the audio renaissance needs your attention”, in Trends in Newsrooms, World Association of Newspapers and News Media, Frankfurt, pp. 57-62. https://blog.wan-ifra.org/2015/07/29/trends-in-newsrooms-the-podcasting-revolution
5. Serial (2014). Sarah Koenig (USA: Chicago Public Media). Podcast, viewed at https://storycorps.org/about. Accessed 1 October 2017.
6. McHugh, S. (2014). “RadioDoc Review: developing critical theory of the radio documentary and feature form.” Australian Journalism Review, 36 (2), pp. 23-35.
7. McHugh, S. (2014). “Audio storytelling: unlocking the power of audio to inform, empower and connect.” Asia Pacific Media Educator, 24 (2), pp 1-16.
8. RadioDoc Review (2014 –). Viewed at http://ro.uow.edu.au/rdr/ Accessed 30 November 2017.
9. McHugh, S. and Baker J. (2013). “Eat Pray Mourn: Crime and Punishment in Jakarta”. Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Sydney, 7 April 2013. Radio documentary, 53mins. Viewed at http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/360/eat-pray-mourn/4598026. Accessed 4 May 2018.
10. McHugh, S. A. (2007). “The aerobic art of interviewing”, Asia Pacific Media Educator, (18), pp. 147-154.