• arts & culture

History, feminism, pop culture and more: creative storytellers across our state have leapt into the podcast fray, producing unique, entertaining and award-winning shows for a fast-growing audience.

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When the judging panel for the Wheeler Centre’s So You Think You Can Pod? competition last year picked a pitch from oral history project Behind the Wire as the winner, they had no idea they had a hit on their hands. The official prize was a mentorship and podcasting kit, but this quickly escalated to a co-production deal. A ten-part series based on voice and text messages from an asylum seeker detained on Manus Island, The Messenger has gone on to win a Walkley, a Grand Award at the 2017 New York Festivals International Radio Program Awards and Best Radio – Documentary at the UN Day Media Awards.

The Messenger is just the tip of the iceberg. Australia’s podcast scene is thriving, and Melbourne is a hotbed of audio activity. A peek at the listings curated in the Australian Audio Guide shows that there truly is something for everyone: the food-obsessed Ingredipedia, stories about the law from The Rule Book, politics and culture discussions with the Rereaders, Chat 10, Looks 3 and Kill Your Darlings, plus favourites from ABC’s Radio National, The Guardian and Triple J that are proudly made in Victoria.

The Australian Audio Guide is put together by the Wheeler Centre in association with national organisation Audiocraft, and forms part of the Wheeler Centre’s mission to become Victoria’s podcasting hub. In addition to co-producing the Audio Guide and running the podcasting competition, the Wheeler Centre records all live events and makes them available online, produces original podcasts including The Messenger and Andrew Denton’s Better Off Dead, and programs podcast-related content throughout the year. On top of all that, they were recently awarded $300,000 in funding in the 2017-18 Victorian Budget to create a new podcasting centre, which will further drive original content made in Melbourne.

Sophie Black, the Wheeler Centre’s Content Strategist, says that events featuring podcasters attract new and diverse audiences to the Centre. “The thing about podcasters is that they're so good a tapping into a niche that you may never even have known existed,” she says. “So the really great thing about programming those people is that we see a real mix of listeners, fans, and makers in the audience. There are a whole lot of practitioners who are there to learn the craft, as well as the listenership.”

At a live recording of Chat 10, Looks 3, members of the audience brought cakes for hosts Annabel Crabb and Leigh Sales. An event featuring history podcast Emperors of Rome attracted “uber history nerds”. Guests have ranged from Jay Abumrad from Radiolab and Julia Turner from Slate’s Culture Gabfest, to indie locals like Brodie Lancaster and Kamna Muddagouni from Can U Not?.

“It’s really lovely for the podcasters to see their audience in the flesh, and get a sense of who they are,” says Sophie.

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For many podcasters, the seeds of an idea – and the connection with an audience – come from an obsession with an obscure topic. Carly Godden, who co-hosts Melbourne history podcast Dead and Buried with fellow researcher Lee Hopper, was inspired by her work at Victoria’s State Archives.

“I was impressed by the richness, quirkiness and diversity of local history, yet equally frustrated by most people's lack of exposure to it – Australian history has a bit of a bad rap for being boring,” says Carly. “I thought that creating a podcast would be a powerful way to connect people to these narratives.”

For multidisciplinary artist Honor Eastly, starting her interview podcast, Starving Artist, was a great excuse to ask fellow creatives thorny questions about money and career issues. “It’s about having honest conversations about art and money,” she says. “There's practical stuff, like how do I do my tax? How do I negotiate a raise? Then there's stuff that's more difficult, like is my creative career more important than having children? It's like the financial education you didn't get in art school.”

Panel-style discussions about arts and culture are also a popular format. Growing out of Australia’s independent literary scene, the Rereaders debuted in Sydney in 2011 before re-emerging in Melbourne in 2014. Started originally by writer Sam Twyford-Moore, it has since had several changes of the guard and is now hosted by cultural critics Mel Campbell and Dion Kagan, who launched the 80th episode in October. The folks behind the Rereaders also have a side project, Critical Attention, which looks at the art of criticism and is co-produced with literary journal Kill Your Darlings, and a former Rereaders host and executive producer now presents Sisteria, a podcast made for and by women in the arts which features an all-female line-up.

Measuring the success of a podcast can be tricky. Audiences might be small, but they are often highly dedicated. “It’s hard to see our total listenership at once, because some people access us via Soundcloud, others subscribe on iTunes and some follow our website and social media,” says Mel from the Rereaders. The show saw a leap in listeners on Soundcloud from 11,000 total plays in 2015 to over 19,000 in 2016, and the average episode receives 600-700 plays. “But our most popular episodes this year are getting close to 800 plays,” Mel adds. “I feel like we still have heaps of opportunities to find new listeners, and speak to a broader range of people.”

Starving Artist’s first season, which was a whopping 16 episodes, received 120,000 downloads overall. “It's funny to think about what all these metrics mean,” says Honor. “That's a lot for an independent podcast, but it wouldn't be a lot if it was the ABC. It's all relative.”

For others, it’s not about the numbers. Dead and Buried won this year’s Frankie Magazine Good Stuff Award for writing and podcasting, and the show was recently invited to join the Melbourne podcast network Earbuds. “In other ways [recognition] can be a bit more random,” says Carly. “For instance, I went for a sharehouse interview a few months back and was recognised by one of the housemates who was a Dead and Buried fan!”

Now that podcasts are part of the mainstream, listeners expect higher production values and quality content. But Sophie says that new shows still have the potential to make it big. “There's kind of a palpable sense of opportunity, people are excited by the fact that it is relatively easy to do, accessible, and cheap,” she says. “If you can tap into the right niche, it's amazing the kind of following you can build.”

Rereaders and Dead and Buried have received support through the VicArts Grants program.