(Image: Unsplash/Jonathan Velasquez)

As the podcast boom rolls on in Australia and around the world, the locally-produced offerings getting the most hype haven’t been those produced by the 86-year-old ABC, but by newspapers — relative newcomers to audio production.

A week ago, US cable network HBO confirmed it has optioned The Australian’s Walkley Award-winning Lost in Larrimah — a podcast pitched to and turned down by the ABC. Another of The Australian’s podcasts, The Teacher’s Pet, won a Gold Walkley and has made waves around the world. At last month’s Quills, a team from The Age won the podcast category for Wrong Skin over three other finalists, also produced by newspaper mastheads.

The ABC has a slate of 400 podcasts, and while it has popular productions (Richard Fidler’s Conversations has been Apple’s most downloaded podcasts for five years), they don’t tend to generate the same buzz as those produced by companies that until recently only produced written words and photographs.

University of Wollongong associate professor Siobhan McHugh, a researcher and journalist who was a consulting producer on Wrong Skin and also worked on Lost in Larrimah, told Crikey that a good podcast needed a compelling story and a skilled storyteller — something traditional newspaper journalists were good at digging out. The final product can be polished when they’re paired with a skilled audio producer.

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McHugh, who worked for the ABC’s Radio National has been critical in the past of the ABC’s cuts to that network, and said the loss of long-form audio journalists meant the network didn’t have as much experience as the ABC’s legacy suggests.

“There was a kind of purge of enormous talent that went on at the ABC, particularly at RN from 2012 right through to 2017 or so, and they lost an enormous amount of the real long-form radio-making talent, people who were the international envy of people around the world,” McHugh said. “They threw the baby out with the bath water. They have some very good young journalists, and yes, bring in fresh voices so you get new ideas coming through. But it would’ve been far better to have a gradual phasing out with mentoring. They’ve ended up with too many people at the same stage.”

McHugh said one of The Australian’s most recent productions, Who the Hell is Hamish?, took advantage of feature writer Greg Bearup’s storytelling talent: “He knows how to craft a narrative, and the same principles apply to aural journalism: setting scenes, character development, dialogue. You knit it together with good, fresh writing and all these things can apply to long-form storytelling, whether it’s in print or audio.”

Northern Territory journalist Kylie Stevenson created Lost in Larrimah with Bond University journalism lecturer Caroline Graham, and she pitched her podcast to the ABC but was knocked back. They took it to The Australian, which picked it up. The idea was going to be about the characters in the town of Larrimah, and took a turn during the pitch process to the ABC when one of those characters, Paddy Moriarty, went missing.

“We took it to The Australian because we really loved Bowraville and thought we’d be taken seriously there, and they obviously had a bit of a commitment to podcasts,” she said. “Newspaper journalists could learn a lot from the ABC about audio quality, but the reverse is probably also the case — that unpolished authenticity of some of the podcasts from newspapers is part of what makes them really great.”

The ABC’s head of audio studio Kellie Riordan said that the ABC’s podcasts needed to fill niche as well as broad interests. She said she was pleased to see Lost in Larrimah’s success, and that it made their shortlist of 30 submissions in 2017 after a callout (for which they received 1200 pitches).

“We were considering a number of true crime ideas at the time as the ABC was building out the now wildly successful Unravel True Crime podcast strand,” she told Crikey. “We considered the editorial implications and access issues involved in a production that would be happening at the same time as a live police investigation which might be too difficult to navigate, and we had other projects we wanted to pursue ahead of this one.”

Riordan said the ABC’s responsibility to fill market gaps meant she also wanted to have podcasts in her slate in the family and comedy genres — areas that haven’t traditionally been served by radio in Australia.

“We’re not there to duplicate what our radio colleagues do,” she said. “For some podcasts we want a big broad audience … but then we also want to get distinctive compelling content where the market doesn’t provide it.” Riordan said podcasts were an opt-in activity, which meant producers could be more creative and experimental in sound design and the way they tell their stories.

And she said that while she wanted her podcasts to do well and be popular, she was equally keen to see other producers do well. “The more podcasts that are created the better because that helps the whole industry,” she said. “I want more people to listen to the ABC but I’m equally keen to support the industry, whether they’re mine or Audible’s or Spotify’s.”

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to include Siobhan McHugh’s role in the production of Lost in Larrimah.