Sharon Davis, The Art of Podcasting No. 13

We first became aware of the work of Australian producer Sharon Davis when she shared with us her “Inside the Drug Court” radio documentary. It’s a remarkable three-part series in which she follows the progress of several participants in Australia’s NSW Drug Court system. This set us on a path to discover more work that Davis is doing, and we came to appreciate the power of her investigative documentaries. You can hear some of those stories here. We recommend you listen to the Drug Court story before you read this interview, but there are no spoilers and there is plenty to enjoy without that background knowledge.

The Timbre‘s Devon Taylor reached across the time zones to interview Sharon Davis, who is based in Sydney, Australia. The two discussed Davis’ documentary work, how to create serialized radio, the importance of journalistic ethics, and how audio stories can change the world.

THE TIMBRE

Thank you so much for taking the time to talk. I’m really excited about the work you’re doing.

SHARON DAVIS

I’m really excited that you guys have promoted the program. It’s fantastic.

THE TIMBRE

I’m sure it’s gotten plenty of attention in Australia. But, as with many things in the U.S., we can be very focused on ourselves sometimes and tend to forget that other places exist.

SHARON DAVIS

It’s a big place, isn’t it? And there’s a lot of stuff happening over there.

THE TIMBRE

True. But I think it’s important, for our site anyway, for us to be looking to what other countries are doing, not just because we want to bring attention to them, but because part of the conversation we’re trying to have is like, “Hey, what’s good and what do people like and how can this move?” That requires a lot of different voices.

SHARON DAVIS

That’s interesting because that’s sort of a cultural difference, that kind of introspection. As Australians, we’ve become quite good at looking outwards and part of that is because we had this horrible cultural cringe for a really long time that we were never as good as anyone else. I think we’ve gotten over that, but during that period of cultural cringe, we become good at looking at what was happening overseas and what were they doing. We looked to Britain for a long time and now we look to the U.S. more.

THE TIMBRE

Why do you think that Australia had that complex where people didn’t feel like what they were creating was as good?

SHARON DAVIS

I think that comes from being a former British colony. Or probably why we don’t use the word former… she’s still our queen.

THE TIMBRE

<laughs> I can’t believe we still have queens and kings. It’s really amazing. We can be really smug about that over here, but we are probably about to have Jeb Bush vs. Hillary Clinton in the election, so I guess it’s no different here. We just call it something else.

SHARON DAVIS

<laughs> But at least it’s not royalty based 12,000 miles away.

THE TIMBRE

That’s true. At least it’s in-house. That’s some consolation.

SHARON DAVIS

<laughs>

THE TIMBRE

So, thank you for alerting us to your Drug Court story. In grad school, both my partner and I worked on a literary journal. We used to called unsolicited submissions the “slush pile”–I think most literary journals do. Meaning, you never know what you’re going to get in it. We get a lot of emails and we try to listen to everything. Of course there are different levels of quality, but very rarely do you find something where you think, “Holy crap, why don’t I know about this?” That’s how we felt about your work.

SHARON DAVIS

Well, thank you. It’s interesting you say literary journal. I can see that influence.

THE TIMBRE

I’ve always believed that those narrative storytelling devices and tools really do cross those lines from writing to audio. Whether it’s podcasting or written or film. It’s about finding characters and finding a narrative arc that’s relatable and you can tell a larger story through.

SHARON DAVIS

I was thinking about that this morning when I was kind of pondering this interview. I was thinking about “What is podcasting?” For me, podcasting is listening to audio online. It’s a form of radio, really. But the technology has changed. The reach we can have has changed. But I’m not sure it’s changed the form very much.

If you look at something like Serial, for instance, which we are all kind of talking about as a new form of radio. That form of radio existed in the ’40s. People would be glued to these serials that were coming out of the radio every week. The difference now is that the technology allows us to access it a bit more regularly.

THE TIMBRE

This idea of serialized radio is something that my partner and I talk a lot about. In fact, he just wrote a piece about it–

SHARON DAVIS

Yeah, I was reading that last night.

THE TIMBRE

It’s something that sort of confuses us in a way. It feels like it could be a real obvious step for podcasts, since it is audio on demand. You definitely tapped into that with your “Inside the Drug Court” story. But it doesn’t feel like that many other podcasters are really jumping on that wagon.

SHARON DAVIS

Partly I think it’s because, to do that, you need a lot of resources. Like if you look at Serial, for instance, how long did that process take to get together? I think it was something like twelve months.

With my show, I collected that material over two years and I don’t want to think about the amount of hours that it took to transcribe the material and then look at a dramatic narrative structure for the material. It’s resource intensive. Where does the money come from?

THE TIMBRE

But if you have a podcast that’s coming out regularly, do you feel like it’s radically different to produce that on an episode to episode basis versus a serialized story?

SHARON DAVIS

Yeah, I do. I think there are more resources required to keep that story. To keep that dramatic structure going. You have to have a lot of leeway. You have to have a lot of extra recorded material to do that.

You have to have very good, developed characters as well. The characters in my program were extraordinary characters with extraordinary stories. Without them, you lose the dramatic structure.

That’s quite different from a one-off. You have to have the resources to keep going back. You have to have an executive producer or a production team that’s prepared to kind of allow you to do that. That’s tough.

THE TIMBRE

I feel like it’s not terribly different than working on any long-term creative project in that you have to trust that the process will reveal itself–

SHARON DAVIS

Yes.

THE TIMBRE

And that a structure will emerge. And that’s very difficult. Did you feel like you knew what the structure of the Drug Court story would look like? Did it change as you went? Or did you just kind of compile it all and then look at it and say, “What is this going to be?”

SHARON DAVIS

I thought when I started it that I knew what the structure would look like. The Drug Court put a lot of provisos on the recordings that I had to do. Part of that was to protect people. Initially my idea was that I would make occasional programs and also run a blog. But because they were really concerned that publicity might have an impact on their progress–and I think that was a valid concern–and they wouldn’t let me do that. I had to make an agreement that I couldn’t actually broadcast anything until everyone had finished the program.

The other thing they made me do was follow seven people. Once they said that, I knew it was going to be much more difficult. My original idea was to follow three people. They wanted seven in case some weren’t successful. Their success rate is about 50 percent, so you could pick three people who crash and burn really quickly. When they said that, I thought, “I am going to have an unwieldy amount of material.” Which I did.

THE TIMBRE

Your project is such an extraordinary story because it really confirms what many of us know or suspect, which is that if you spend time with anyone, you’ll come to understand their story and relate to them or empathize with them. No one’s story is boring. You want to know how it “turns out.” In your story, when one of them would fall off the wagon or have some problem, you would really mourn for them.

SHARON DAVIS

I felt that in the process as well. Those people gave me a lot, so we became quite close. It was really difficult to sit in the court when they were falling off the wagon and hear the judge really give them a hard time. I would want to jump up and say, “Don’t give them a hard time!” <laughs>

The other thing, of course, is that they were telling me things that the court didn’t know. I knew a lot more about what was going on in their lives than the court necessarily always knew. That made it really difficult to be there and sit there through it. To have inside knowledge but not be able to jump up and say, “But! But!”

THE TIMBRE

At least in what you released–and I think this is true in a lot of your work–you seem very restrained in not offering opinions or any kind of feedback to what someone is saying. Does that just end up on the cutting room floor or do you do that consciously?

SHARON DAVIS

I thought I had to be very careful about that because I was very aware that I was not a counselor, nor do I have any counseling skills. That would be very dangerous territory for me to cross into.

Sometimes I really wanted to give people advice, to be honest, but I had to be careful. They would say, “What do you think?” and I would say, “Well, I think it would be a really good idea for you to talk to someone about this.”

THE TIMBRE

<laughs> “…but not me.”

SHARON DAVIS

Right. I was very conscious about that.

In Janet Malcolm’s book, The Journalist and the Murder, she talks about the ethical relationship that builds up between journalists and their subjects. The guy in her book absolutely crosses the line. He makes all of these promises to the person who he is interviewing–who I think is a prisoner. Then, in the end, having pretended to be their friend, he reverts back to being a journalist.

I’m really conscious of that. I’m really conscious particularly because I’m interviewing people who are really vulnerable. In the case of the Drug Court people, there are people who have never been listened to. They really want someone to listen to them. They like having an ear. That makes them extra-vulnerable in a way because I am an ear they never had.

I’m really conscious of not making promises to people and constantly reminding them that this is being recorded. At some point, this is going to become my material to broadcast. This is not a private conversation between you and me. You may have noticed that sometimes in the program, I actually say things like, “…and all on tape?”

THE TIMBRE

To continue to put that in their ear?

SHARON DAVIS

Yes. It’s very easy for people who aren’t aware of what kind of power media holds to go too far. They might realize later on, “Oh, I forgot the tape was rolling.” I really wanted to make it clear to them all the time that that was what was happening.

It’s difficult, though, because you want people to confide in you and tell you their stories. You’re always walking this edgy line.

THE TIMBRE

And, to some degree, you can’t just be a fly on the wall. Even if you try to ask your questions in the most neutral, objective way possible, you’re always going to be slightly influencing them and affecting them, right?

SHARON DAVIS

Right. It would be a total lie if I said I stayed objective and just sat back and watched the whole thing unfold.

THE TIMBRE

Have you heard from any of the subjects since it aired?

SHARON DAVIS

Some of them can’t be spoken to because they’re back in prison. One of them I can’t talk to because of safety. That’s difficult for me to talk about more. Another one I’ve been trying to track down so he can hear it.

THE TIMBRE

I guess that leads me to my next question, which is: has the response from them been positive? Or have you even heard any response from them?

SHARON DAVIS

The response that I’ve heard via other channels has been really positive. But I haven’t spoken to anyone personally. I hope to.

I’ve had a lot of response from the Court. I thought the Court would be not so happy about it because sometimes the judge sounds kind of harsh. But I’ve heard some stuff from the States where the judges there sound much harsher.

THE TIMBRE

Oh, I thought that judge sounded like an angel! I thought he was the kindest soul.

SHARON DAVIS

<laughs>

THE TIMBRE

It might just be comparing him to U.S. judges, but he seemed like a real human being, not just a “tool of justice.”

SHARON DAVIS

He was very human. I was concerned that they would be hyper-critical of how they sound, but they weren’t. The Drug Court really loves the program. They have had an amazing response to it. They have people ringing up and saying, “How can I get my son or daughter on the Drug Court program?” as a result of having heard it on the radio.

These kind of programs are always vulnerable in the criminal justice system. The States have the same problem that we have, which is this championing of law and order. Lock them up and throw away the key. These programs that try to take a more progressive attitude toward criminal justice issues are always more vulnerable. To hear that people are listening to the program and going, “That sounds amazing. That’s exactly what my son or daughter needs” is great.

The judge has been in touch with me from the Drug Court. The program is now doing the rounds at the drug courts in the States, which is incredible.

THE TIMBRE

Oh, wow. We need that. The war on drugs hasn’t quite been working the way we’ve been approaching it here. <laughs>

SHARON DAVIS

Nor here. It hasn’t been working at all I would hasten to say. We need other solutions. Because prison ain’t a solution.

THE TIMBRE

It’s really remarkable to hear your stories are actually having real world impact. So much of your work has this real social justice feel. Do you feel like that is why you do it?

SHARON DAVIS

I suppose if I hadn’t studied journalism, I would have studied law. And maybe I still will! I have always been interested in the criminal justice system and I’ve been interested in the notion of outsiders.

THE TIMBRE

One thing that really struck me is that you’re not super-present in your stories. I mean, of course you’re asking the questions and shaping them, but you’re not giving voiceover and telling the listener how to hear things.

SHARON DAVIS

I think we have enough intermediaries. Maybe too many. I love the idea of people telling their stories. I particularly like the idea of letting people who aren’t heard very often.

I know I’m in danger of sounding like a cliché because sometimes people say, “Let the voiceless speak.” It’s much more complex and sophisticated than that. But I do think people’s stories are in themselves really interesting and I’m not really interested in a journalist telling me what to think. I want to make those decisions myself.

I want to treat the audience like intelligent beings. I don’t want issues to come across as black and white. People, issues, and life are full of greys.

THE TIMBRE

Right. So often things are framed in these really easy ways. In these politically motivated stories, someone will find the perfect poster child for, say, the welfare queen or the person who has four kids and is working three jobs and is just an angel. Those people exist, but there are also a lot of people who do good things and bad things.

SHARON DAVIS

Exactly! Exactly. We’re all full of good and bad.

THE TIMBRE

What has been the response from people who don’t necessarily share your view of a more rehabilitative approach to criminal justice? Do you get a backlash?

SHARON DAVIS

I get the occasional comment. People will say, “Do I really need to listen to this rubbish? These people are useless.” There are those people who are kind of closed to thinking about something in a different way. They already decided what their worldview is. But there is always that reaction whenever you take on these kinds of issues. My question to those people is always “How is your way changing anything?”

THE TIMBRE

I would like to see that question posed.

SHARON DAVIS

It’s not. The incarceration rates keep going up. The bulk of people in there have drug abuse issues or drug addiction issues. Our prisons in both the States and in Australia–and I’m starting to sound like a broken record–are full of people with mental illness.

What I thought was interesting about the Drug Court, and what opened my eyes a bit about the whole process, is that I was really shocked by the amount of people with mental illness who were there. Drug addiction and mental illness.

Then the question becomes, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” Did drug addiction come about as a result of self-medicating or the other way around? It’s a really important question.

THE TIMBRE

I find it exceptional that you take such a long-view approach to problems. You seem to recognize that there is a larger context within which these problems exist. You can’t understand present day behavior without going back and looking at someone’s childhood and the people that they were surrounded by and the culture they were in.

SHARON DAVIS

Right. It’s not like there are any easy answers, are there? There has to be a reason why 78 percent of the women turning up in our prisons have a background of sexual or emotional abuse. We can’t discount that. We have to start looking at those issues. At issues of dysfunction in families from a very early age. The things that set them on these paths. I don’t think we do enough of looking at that.

THE TIMBRE

I’m curious why you chose radio as your medium for exploring these issues.

SHARON DAVIS

It was at university. I actually wanted to be a writer. As part of my writing, I got interested in journalism. When I was at uni, they were doing film and radio. I did some films and I liked it. But it was the radio that grabbed me.

It was probably partly because attached to the university was a radio station. A whole bunch of students got involved in that. It was a community radio station. At the time–which was 300 years ago–radio was very conservative. Very, very conservative.

Even public radio was conservative. They were trying to emulate the BBC. Most of the people on public radio had these proper British accents. It was as though there was no such thing as other classes in Australia. Or other dialects. It was also very conservative in its approach to the subjects it was covering.

This was a time when there were a lot of social changes going on in Australia. Like gay rights and prisoner rights. It was an exciting time. Suddenly community radio pops its head up and a whole bunch of us thought, “Yeah! That’s where we can have a voice.”

THE TIMBRE

I feel like there are two kinds of artists or even just people–I know that’s a pretty reductive start, but just go with it for the moment. Some people are attracted to a medium because they just love that medium and some people want to do a certain thing and they search for the medium that will let them do that thing.

You said earlier how you could have been a lawyer and you wanted to be a writer and you ended up on radio. It feels like you’re searching for a way to do the thing you want to do. Do you feel like that’s accurate?

SHARON DAVIS

I think it’s accurate for when I started it, but I’m not sure it’s accurate now. Now I have an absolute passion about radio. I love radio. I have a radio in every room in my house. I have the radio on most of the day.

I am very passionate about radio and its possibilities. Though using the word radio feels so old hat. Really what I am talking about is audio. The advent of podcasting has changed so much about what we we’re doing and the audiences we can now reach.

I think there was a period there where I felt like radio may be ending. When the possibilities were ending. Then this wonderful thing called the internet came along.

THE TIMBRE

You guys have that, too?

SHARON DAVIS

<laughs> Yeah! Now I feel like the world is constantly expanding. The possibilities are constantly expanding. It’s a very exciting time to be working in audio.

THE TIMBRE

What is it about radio that you think is unique and allows a story to be told or a feature to be presented that other mediums can’t give you?

SHARON DAVIS

It’s the ability to transport us in our own heads. Unlike TV or visual mediums. Its ability for us to create the pictures. For us to create the vision inside our heads. With good radio, we have a totally different emotional connection than we have with visual media.

THE TIMBRE

I’m going to give you a fourth hand observation. I interviewed Al Letson, who is a producer over here and does a wonderful show called State of the Re:Union and another investigative show called Reveal. He said that a producer named Hillary Frank once told him that radio is the most visual medium because you have to create it in your own mind. Your imagination is your eyes.

SHARON DAVIS

Absolutely. I absolutely believe that. I think because of that, it gets us somewhere else. It can get right into our heart in a way. It’s inside. It’s inside of us.

 

~

Author Description

Devon Taylor is co-founder and editor in chief of The Timbre. Her work has been featured in The Atlantic, CutBank, and The Tottenville Review. She grew up in New Jersey, received her Masters in creative writing at the University of Memphis, and lives in New York City.

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