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Podcast spotlight: what’s next?

Over the last 12 months, Nathania Gilson has been interviewing Australian book podcasters—from passion projects to national radio broadcasters, from hybrid experiments to extensions of retail brands, festivals or traditional media outlets. Now, she investigates the evolution of the format, and what the industry can look forward to next.

More Australians are listening to podcasts than ever before. For the book industry, this presents more opportunities to inform, entertain and educate audiences in more convenient and accessible ways. Audiocraft festival manager and podcast producer Jess O’Callaghan hopes to see more collaboration and knowledge sharing among publishers, book retailers, independent podcasters, commercial radio stations, and public and community broadcasters.

This is a really young industry that has inherited a lot from radio making, but the technology available to us now means that our deadlines and publishing schedules don’t have to look anything like the ones radio is built around. Podcasts have a lot to learn in that way from TV, film and book publishing,’ says O’Callaghan. 

Podcast adaptations: a growing trend

Podcast-to-book adaptations have seen a rise in popularity this year, across a range of genres. Notable examples include The Short & Curly Guide to Life (Matt Beard & Kyla Slaven, illus by Simon Greiner, Puffin), based on the ethics podcast aimed at kids, Short & Curly, and Rachael Brown’s true crime book Trace (Scribe), based on the podcast of the same name. Earlier this year, Hardie Grant acquired rights to a book based on storytelling podcast The Full Catastrophe, and NewSouth recently acquired a nonfiction book based on the author’s appearance on an episode of This American Life.

The Fitzroy Diaries originally started as a series of diary-style Facebook posts that creator Lorin Clarke would put into her phone when walking with her new baby strapped to her chest. Released as a podcast earlier this year, it is now being adapted into a book to be published by Pan Macmillan. ‘The question “what does the book want to be in relation to the serial?” has been an ongoing conversation with my publishers. They’re constantly prompting me and asking me the right questions to figure out what this book needs to be. That’s the wonderful thing about this collaboration,’ says Clarke.

Jon Tjhia, senior digital editor at the Wheeler Centre (TWC), cautions publishers to remember that podcasts and audiobooks aren’t the same thing. ‘While instances like Audible’s ambitious interpretation of George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo (Bloomsbury) are interesting attempts to bridge the two, publishers might consider what podcasts and books do differently, and what they can borrow from one another.’ Regarding the translation of a story from print to audio, Tjhia adds: ‘Where can sounds stand in for written or narrated text? Or if you’ve an author signed on for multiple titles, how can you build readers’ relationships with them?’

Podcasting as a public service

Justine Hyde, director of library services and experience at State Library Victoria (SLV), says podcasts and audiobooks are also growing among people who might struggle to find print accessible, perhaps because of low literacy, vision impairment, or a lifestyle or career that limits opportunities to sit and read a book.

Hyde points out a noticeable trend of libraries, including SLV, producing podcasts as a way of making their collections more accessible and engaging. She recommends the New York Public Library’s The Librarian Is In as well as locally produced podcast Desert Island Books, hosted by Natalie Mason at Melbourne City Libraries, as great examples of libraries using the format.

SLV is also building a podcast studio, as part the Vision 2020 development, which will be open to the public in spring 2019. Hyde says that it is part of a broader move towards supporting the general public to access digital technologies that they might not otherwise have access to, as well as supporting creative practitioners.

Expanding audiences for writers’ festivals

Sydney Writers’ Festival (SWF) artistic director Michaela McGuire sees podcasting as a natural extension of the festival’s annual live programming, which has previously included people from podcasts Slate Culture Gabfest and Still Processing.

‘It’s an opportunity to reach new audiences. For SWF, I think of it as kind of like listening to an artist’s album before buying a concert ticket. Living expenses are at a record high—as are luxuries, such as festival tickets—so it’s an opportunity for people to enjoy [our festival] and familiarise themselves with it before necessarily buying a ticket,’ says McGuire.

‘It’s a terrifying prospect that people will stop coming to SWF and only experience it through the convenience of podcasts and screens,’ McGuire reflects. ‘But it excites me that podcast listening habits are growing in the publishing space—so does the enthusiasm for the writers, books and topics that are being talked about.’

Different ways of storytelling

Six Degrees From the City, a podcast about writing in Western Sydney published by the Sydney Review of Books, is hosted by writer and critic Fiona Wright. ‘The first thing I learned was that my production skills—which date from an undergraduate media degree in the early 2000s—were quite out of date! I always wanted the podcast to be a lo-fi affair, so that the production could be flexible and mobile—both to make it easier to fit in with busy schedules, and with the unpredictability that living with chronic illness entails.’

Taku Mbudzi started her podcast Two Words With Taku to document her desire to become a better writer. ‘It’s been incredible because it’s led me to interview people and to record thoughts and ideas that have expanded what I write and who I collaborate with,’ says Mbudzi. ‘It has definitely boosted my confidence in unfiltered storytelling and confidently pitching my ideas to people I may not otherwise have approached—for example, book publishers, screen producers and various writing and podcast competitions.’

Mbudzi is hopeful about what podcasting can offer. ‘I love that people with underrepresented voices and ideas are still only just discovering the power of podcasts. It’s still too new, scary and hard for them, but I know that once people try it out, there will be no stopping them!’

Daniel Browning presents and produces the Aboriginal arts and culture program Awaye! (which means ‘listen up’ in the Arrernte language of central Australia) on ABC Radio National. The program has recently featured Indigenous writers including Samuel Wagan Watson, Alison Whittaker and Anita Heiss. ‘There’s a lot of inventiveness in the podcasting field at the moment, which is really exciting,’ says Browning. ‘Storytelling is the heart of a good podcast—along with sound quality and a bit of dramaturgy. I think so long as we find ever more inventive ways of telling stories, the future is pretty bright.’

To look back on the podcast spotlight series, see the archive. And to get upcoming interviews delivered straight to your inbox, and stay up-to-date with Australian book industry news, sign up to our Weekly Book Newsletter.

 

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