Grand Jury POV: Dr. Siobhan McHugh

Siobhan McHugh was consulting producer for the multi-award-winning investigative storytelling podcasts Phoebe’s Fall and Wrong Skin, in collaboration with The Age newsroom, Melbourne. She is founding editor of RadioDoc Review, a free online journal that critiques audio documentaries and podcasts.

New York, NY | December 18, 2019

Each year New York Festivals Radio Awards assembles the world's most revered storytellers from around the globe to participate on the Grand Jury. 2020's Jury is comprised of award-winning individuals from all facets of audio storytelling and are known for their creativity expertise, innovation and years of experience. These industry experts include some of the most world’s recognizable voices and captivating content producers in the radio industry. New York Festivals Radio Awards Grand Jury judge all entries on production values, organization, presentation of information, creativity, and use of the medium.

2020 Radio Awards Grand Jury member Siobhan McHugh was consulting producer for the multi-award-winning investigative storytelling podcasts Phoebe’s Fall and Wrong Skin, in collaboration with The Age newsroom, Melbourne. Wrong Skin, about the clash between Indigenous culture and corporate interests. Wrong Skin won Australian Podcast of the Year (2019) and gold at New York Radio Festival. Phoebe’s Fall, about the bizarre death of a young woman in a garbage chute amidst a botched police investigation, won gold at New York (2017). She is founding editor of RadioDoc Review, a free online journal that critiques audio documentaries and podcasts.

In the interview below Siobhan shares her advice for the next generation of storytellers, the exciting things happening in storytelling today, why the Sony PCM- M10 recorder is her favorite and much more.

New York Festivals Radio Awards: Share your thoughts about the future of storytelling.

There are lots of exciting things happening in storytelling generally, from the amazing web series we see on Netflix, HBO and the like, to novels that emerge in unusual ways. One such is Ta-Nehisi Coate’s The Water Dancer, an exploration of slavery in the US which he wrote over ten years, fed by his non-fiction writing on reparations and the economics of slavery.

In audio storytelling, we are seeing more sophisticated productions in both fiction and non-fiction. In fiction, shows like Carrier, Passenger List, Moonface are ‘cinematic’ works that reinforce audio’s claim to do powerful ‘theatre of the mind’.  In non-fiction, more and more journalists, writers and thinkers from a non-audio background are seeing the potential of a podcast to showcase their ‘passion project’. The episodic format and flexible length of a podcast allows you to really get your teeth into a story, flesh out the details and shape a strong narrative arc per episode. Non-audio people are always amazed at how the medium brings their ‘characters’ alive – compared to say, print, it’s so much easier to create a sense of a person when you can hear their actual voice. I’ve watched this happen with Richard Baker at The Age newspaper in Melbourne on Phoebe’s Fall and Wrong Skin – now when he gets an idea that might make a podcast, he starts thinking sound as well as story, which is a huge change!

New York Festivals Radio Awards: What are the most profound changes you’ve noticed in the art of storytelling in the past 5 years? 
The growing interplay between a big web series  and a companion podcast is interesting. Chernobyl was taut television, with each episode then unpacked in a specific podcast episode that discussed the approach, production decisions etc. The Handmaid’s Tale and Game of Thrones have spawned numerous fan/chat podcasts.
Serial launched October 2014 so the past five years really marks when podcasting took off and became A Thing. One big change is the number of podcasts – there are 800,000 now on iTunes – but a lot of them are very bad! Narcissistic monologues or earnest marketing folk plugging their product do nothing for me. 

All STORY has to be about plot (what happens next), character (we need to care about the people we meet) and voice (who are you, as the storyteller, and where are you positioned). After that, you have to play to the strengths of the medium and avoid the pitfalls. So, don’t try to do stories based on statistics and facts in audio – the brain can’t process it. But emotion is intensified when there is sound but no pictures – we lean in. Learn the power of the pause! It’s radio and podcast gold.
The last big change I’ve seen is the transformation of news into narrative. The Daily nailed it – partly due to their audio-savvy team and partly due to the affable Mikey Barbaro as host – and media organisations are shamelessly trying to copy their formula. It throws out the bloodless recital of news as event and instead focuses on putting a human face on what happened, either via the host interviewing his own expert colleagues about what’s going on behind the scenes, or by going straight to a key player and trying to extract from them not just the facts but how they feel about the facts. It’s a kind of hybrid feature journalism that also uses illustrative audio actuality to increase impact. And we love it!

New York Festivals Radio Awards: What types of technology do you find yourself using to enhance your storytelling? 

I am no tech-nerd. I like audio partly because it is fairly simple and unobtrusive. I have a favourite Sony PCM- M10 recorder. It’s the size of a cigarette pack and has amazing battery life (months!) so it’s easy to keep in your bag and whip out to grab actuality -- better than a smartphone, though that will do. I have amassed a huge audio library of sound ‘scenes’ that I draw on – elevators pinging, birdcall, generic restaurant hubbub, crowd shouts and applause at a football match. You can use them literally or metaphorically to enrich your storytelling. Add a good rifle mic like Rode and you can get great interviews too.
If you have funding, do time-coded transcripts of interviews. You need to edit from audio not print, but the transcript helps you process the interview faster and jump to the bits to listen to. I’ll give a shout-out here to Trint.

Hindenburg editing software is intuitive and makes it easy to cut up speech and mix in music and sound. And they’re decent Danish guys who sponsor some philanthropic work too.

A soundproof studio is a bonus – though I recorded episode 4 of Heart of Artness in my loungeroom, featuring my dog! Because my narration acoustic sounded different, I needed to explain I was doing it from home because while walking my dog, Bonnie, she growled at another dog, who charged me – and broke my kneecap. Hence my home production, with me on crutches. I waited till Bonnie started whining persuasively for her dinner, recorded that, and built it into the introduction. You got to work with what you got!

New York Festivals Radio Awards: Any advice on the craft of storytelling that you can share with next generation?

The narrative spine usually comes from interviews, so get that right: pick a quiet, comfortable spot to record, do prior research but above all, LISTEN intently to what you’re being told. I call it aerobic listening – if you’re doing it right, it’s exhausting, but worth it, as the interviewee can feel your interest and will respond and open up more. Make sure they are closely on mic – a handspan from their mouth. The further away the mic, the more you squander the intimacy of voice.

Think through your ears. Pick up additional sound to punctuate your ‘chapters’ and ‘paragraphs’: the key in the door, a phone being answered, someone making coffee, a car coming to a stop.

Layer sound, voice and music carefully. Think about how music alters the mood and make sure you don’t overshoot the mark, ​being too cheesy or too melodramatic. Timing is everything in audio… let things breathe. 

Also, write like you speak and read it aloud to check, changing it for the ear. Then you should be able to sound natural when you read the script – as if you are talking to a best friend.