Julie Shapiro is returning to Chicago — briefly. She already has her plane ticket for the Third Coast Festival in November, where no doubt she'll spend most of her time getting hugs from friends and former co-workers who still can't believe she moved halfway around the world. There'll be tears, toasts and late night ear bending. But when it's over, she's headed right back to the land down under. You would too if you were lucky enough to have her job.
In fact, is there a better radio gig anywhere than being Executive Producer of Australian Radio National's Creative Audio Unit? That's what we hoped to find out, and Julie was her usual unselfish self in answering all of our nosy questions.
ABC Radio National appears to be rebooting their spoken word production with the new Creative Audio Unit, headed by you. Can you talk about how it works and your role in developing it?
JULIE: One thing I realized as soon as I arrived at the ABC, was that I knew very little about existing programming on RN (They've switched from Radio National to just initials — RN — as another familiar broadcaster did a few years back), not to mention the other networks — there's a LOT going on at the ABC, and that's without even really getting into the TV side of things.
Before I started with the Creative Audio Unit (CAU) I was mostly familiar with the documentary and feature programs currently on: 360documentaries, Into the Music and Hindsight, and knew about past shows The Listening Room, Radio Eye, The Night Air, and Street Stories. But RN is packed with smart, engaging content of all stripes: culture, arts, music, politics, religion, design, technology; really every angle/topic covered by American public radio, and inspires the near-religious loyalty among listeners that NPR does. I should add that This American Life airs on RN, and is hugely popular, and by the way, many of the top shows and podcasts in the US are mentioned regularly in my conversations with producers and listeners here — Radiolab, the Truth, Love + Radio, to name a few.
But to your question... with the CAU, RN is supporting in full force the commissioning and production of creative audio content across two weekly, national shows — Radiotonic and Soundproof. This support for creative radio is hardly new around RN — we're carrying the torch forward from a long-respected tradition of sound-rich programming here — from acoustic art to complex documentaries. We'll be working with audio producers in Australia and beyond, and also reaching out to artists, writers, makers from other fields who have not yet worked in radio, but are interested in trying. We plan to collaborate both within the ABC and RN, and with external partners from a wide range of organizations, institutions, and community groups — theatre companies, arthouses, writing centers, museums, festivals, independents... all of the above and everyone else too. We're also keen to explore the beckoning potential of digital technologies, multi-platform presentations, experimentation with new forms, and to push/pull audiences (gently!) into new listening territories.
The CAU was a long time in the making, and already in existence when I was hired as Executive Producer, but hadn't yet begun producing any work. In my role as EP, I'm responsible for all commissioning and budget management, partnership alliances, and incubating of new ideas in the big picture realm. At the day-to-day level... well just imagine the work involved in producing regular shows — editing script, recording hosts, writing/proofing web content, and then add a whole host of new (to me) duties — hiring actors, booking studios, learning countless new systems. And then of course the best part — listening, listening, listening. That's a small taste of what I'm up to over here.
The full CAU crew is small but mighty — besides me there are two full-timers (Jesse Cox, presenter of Radiotonic and Miyuki Jokiranta, presenter of Soundproof) and part-timer and sound artist Sophea Lerner.
And I should take this opportunity to let folks know they're welcome to pitch stories to us. You can download our guidelines here and here, or send an initial idea to me at email@example.com. I do recommend that you listen to both shows before pitching, to get at least a broad sense for what we're looking for.
Do Australians have a greater appreciation for audio documentaries and features than U.S. listeners? And if so, is that one reason you took the job?
JULIE: I wouldn't necessarily say this is the case, but there may be a more ingrained tradition of regularly listening to longer-form work — cultivated, I'm sure, by decades of programming devoted to this. And I do wonder if Australian listeners realize how *beautiful* the work being made here is... From my years at Third Coast I've always been aware of the exemplary sound design in any/everything that originated from RN, and now that I'm here I can really sense how important this is across the network — especially for the feature/documentary shows. I've also now worked directly with a few of my engineer heroes, and I must say it's incredible to watch/listen to them do their thing(s). I feel very lucky in those — and many — moments.
Is it easier or more difficult for independent producers to get their work aired than their U.S. counterparts?
JULIE: My sense, so far, is that there isn't a very big independent producer community here like there is in the US. There are some fantastic community stations that I'm getting to know more about (FBi and 2SER to name a couple here in Sydney — though they're primarily music-based) and I've met a handful of people outside the ABC in Sydney and some brilliant producers in Melbourne (and several beyond, via email/phone) but I don't sense the volume of indie producers that I was aware of in the US, through Third Coast, AIR, Transom, and PRX. There isn't the training ground equivalent of Salt, or the Center for Documentary Studies here. And my impression so far is that it's pretty difficult to crack ABC/RN in terms of getting work on-air, and that community and local stations can't afford rates that would sustain independent livelihoods. Hmm, sounds familiar, doesn't it?
Maybe I'll get to know more independents over time? I certainly hope to be commissioning work from them...! I also hope CAU can help cultivate a stronger independent community here — for starters, by providing these new outlets (and monies) for new work.
What lessons from your Aussie experience (so far) would you pass along to public radio programmers and producers in the U.S.?
It still feels too early to be passing along lessons — mostly I continue to learn, a lot of them, with each passing week. Can you ask me again in a year?
What's been the most rewarding part of the job so far?
Getting these shows up and running, and hearing work I'm extremely proud of going out nationally on the radio is hugely rewarding. (Like a Writing Desk, Western Sydney Sonic Sacred, Event for a Stage and The Real Tom Banks to name a few — oh and let's not forget Sound Houses.) Spending hours in the studio with producers consulting on work has been great fun and deeply satisfying — this isn't something I've done regularly in the past. There's nothing like building something from the ground up — and so decisions from naming the shows, to developing show theme music with the amazing engineers Russell Stapleton (Soundproof's) and Louis Mitchell (Radiotonic's) have all been rewarding in their own ways. Plus — besides the opportunity to continue working with so many radio colleagues from my years at Third Coast, I'm getting to know a new universe of radiomakers and audio lovers, and that — like it always was with Third Coast — is a real thrill. Radio people are golden the world over.
I'm also about to start on a piece of my own, which I'm little-girl excited about, knowing the resources and facilities I have access to here. So keep ears open for that down the track.
How are you and the family adapting to work and daily life down under?
Phinny (nearly 3) doesn't speak Australian yet, but we're expecting this sooner than later. My husband Nathaniel — a musician — is already gigging with a couple bands and teaching on the side. I've been pulling long hours and mostly focusing on work since we arrived, but we've had some great adventures around Sydney — from seeing friends play in the Opera House, to riding the ferries to nearby towns, bays, islands. We're about to move out to a beachside neighborhood and after settling in there, hope to start exploring this enormous country we've landed on.
We miss our friends and family and the lives we lived in Chicago (of course) but it's been a great adventure so far, and without doubt, will continue to be. No, I haven't met a wombat yet, but I remain hopeful this will happen any day now. And a small but relevant detail in all the adjusting: the coffee here is amazing!