Australian Audio Guide

Working with Sound: Jess O’Callaghan

Jess O’Callaghan produces The Party Room with Fran Kelly and Patricia Karvelas – ABC RN’s weekly political podcast – as well as producing radio and social media for RN Drive. Before that, she was executive producer of All the Best and producer of The ReReaders.

She spoke to us about marrying current affairs and creative audio, her seriously extensive listening list, and the bounty of Australian sound sitting right under our noses.

What piece of audio has had the most profound effect on you – as a listener, as an audio maker or both?

There are two. Why Oh Why’s ‘Hacking the Uterus‘ totally changed how I thought about audio – there are so many different textures and modes of storytelling here, and I come back to it all the time. It takes such a taboo topic (contraception) and makes it into something spoken and felt and heard, and it’s the best. One moment you’re at a bar with friends talking about the effects of coming off hormonal contraception and thinking oh good, I’m not crazy, then you’re getting cautionary tales from [host] Andrea Silenzi’s mum, and then you’re hearing the stomach-churning audio of an IUD being inserted without general anaesthetic. It changed how I think of what could make sense and how a story can be told.

As a news and current affairs producer, Radiolab’s ‘60 Words‘ had a profound effect on me as an audio maker. So often, the most important stories are hidden in documents and shrouded in the mundane to make them impenetrable. How can we make those stories interesting – and compelling, beautiful audio? This episode hits the spot, but I could list a whole bunch: I’m a real sucker for creative hard news.

I’m a real sucker for creative hard news.

Where did the idea for The Party Room come from?

[ABC RN Journalism Editor] Dina Rosendorff and Patricia Karvelas cooked it up at the end of 2015. We were all listening to a lot of US politics podcasts in the lead up to their election, and talking about them amongst ourselves. They brought me on board when it was just starting to become a reality because they needed a producer for the nuts and bolts of the thing, and also probably because I kept sending them ideas for it in all-caps.

At that stage, we were expecting a September election [in Australia] … but within a month, the double dissolution happened and we had to hit the ground running.

What is your favourite part of making The Party Room?

Working with such experienced, smart broadcasters like Fran and PK. I’ve worked with a lot of broadcasters, and not all of them are up for trying new things, new tones, and new formats. They’re also just super smart.

In our editorial meetings each Wednesday I just kind of say, ‘OK, what’s the story of the week?’, and they talk non-stop for half an hour while I try to scribble things down, and then structure their universes of knowledge into a conversation. There’s always new information in the podcast, because they’ve been texting and calling sources from years of political reporting … and then they manage to present it in such a conversational, shooting-the-breeze way. It’s a podcast dream to build something like this with two such experienced broadcasters.

What is the hardest part of producing the show?

Keeping it short. We’re not tied to the broadcast clock the way we are on Breakfast and RN Drive [Kelly’s and Karvelas’s respective daily radio programmes on RN], but we’ve learnt that there is a sweet spot, a bracket of time length-wise, that we want our podcast to fall within.

It’s tricky, because without the adrenaline that comes with the news looming at the top of the hour, it can be easy to just give ourselves extra minutes/hours, and there is always more to talk about. But at the same time, our listeners form habits around our podcast – people know what they’re getting when they hit download, and they have certain expectations we want to meet every week, which includes not giving them a 45 minute podcast when they are planning on listening to us for 20-something minutes. Some weeks, if there has been a lot of politics, it is hard to not just fill up our hour of studio time.

Another challenge is temporality – we’re all used to broadcasting so nothing is dated when people are hearing it; everything is live. The Party Room is recorded on a Thursday, often before [Australia’s parliamentary] question time, so I’m always trying to edit it as well as I can in a short amount of time, so we can get it up before too much has changed.

It’s something you’ve probably heard a bunch of political podcasts deal with – Pod Save America whines about news breaking pretty much every week, and the FiveThirtyEight crew keep it out of the podcast but are constantly joking about it on Twitter. It frustrates us, but we try and keep it out of the podcast and remember that not everyone is spending their days glued to question time, producing political news. If a story is moving, we situate our discussion within that timeline, something that is becoming a sort of convention in political podcasts.

It’s important to remember why we’re NOT broadcasting – the good stuff that is coming out of being a pre-recorded, edited show that is sent out on an RSS feed hours after it is produced.

What’s the best thing about working with sound?

That chest feeling when things fit together just the way you want them to, and you can exhale again. Also working with the listener’s imagination.

Support each other, share your favourite episodes, shout about podcasts from the rooftops. More listeners for them means more listeners for you.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about podcasting?

The best advice is that no one listens to just one podcast – the audience is expanding so quickly that we’re not in competition with each other as much as we are building each other’s audiences. Being competitive is good and healthy, but the proven best way for someone to discover a podcast is through another podcast: so support each other, share your favourite episodes, shout about podcasts from the rooftops. More listeners for them means more listeners for you, rising tide and all that (at least for now!).

The other best advice comes from Manoush Zomorodi at last year’s OzPod conference: tell people you work in podcasting. I used to say I worked in radio (also true), but the next question the Uber driver/bartender/friends parent will ask you is: ‘Do you know Neil Mitchell/Fran Kelly/Phillip Adams?’. If you say you’re working in podcasting, the question is more likely to be something like ‘Which podcast?’, ‘Like Serial?’ or ‘What is a podcast?’, which is your opening to offer to show them how to subscribe to your show on their phone. Genius; thanks, Manoush.

What has been your biggest lesson as a producer so far?

A big lesson came early on when I was working at All the Best, and Serial was just taking off: learn from other media, not just podcasts.

Sounding unique and new doesn’t come from imitating other podcasts. How does your favourite TV show use music? What makes you want to binge-watch a drama? What do newspaper stories do well? This is a terrible example, but: in a TV show, if a song is quoted or mentioned, or covered kind of badly, I want to hear the whole song at the end during the credits.

Photo of Fran Kelly and Patricia Karvelas
Fran Kelly and Patricia Karvelas, co-hosts of The Party Room (Photo: supplied)

That feeling is the same for podcasts. Podcasts and creative audio inherited a lot from radio, but a lot of radio conventions come from serving that clock. How can you change your workflow to suit the demands of podcasting instead?

Another very important lesson is this: you will be a lot happier when you and your whole team start ignoring the iTunes rankings.

Do you interact with your audience, or receive feedback or criticism about your work?

This is something we’re slowly doing better at The Party Room. We interact a lot on Twitter, through the @RadioNational account, @RNDrive, and also PK and Fran’s personal accounts, and we ask people to use #ThePartyRoom so we see their tweets. My favourite is the guy who always tweets us pictures from his tractor when he’s listening. We’ve started taking ideas for songs for Fran on Twitter as well, and have had a good response. (You can also reach us at

At RN Drive, we’re just starting to experiment with voice memos to try and incorporate our audience into the way we cover policy debates – we did this three times in the lead up to the 2017 federal budget and the responses we had were really interesting, especially on housing. I really love what FiveThirtyEight and Civics 101 are doing in this area, and it’s something we want to play with more.

If you could go out to dinner with any audio maker, who would it be – and what would you talk about?

The wonderful women behind Witch, Please  Marcelle Kosman and Hannah McGregor. As much as I love talking about sound, put a glass of wine in my hand and the conversation will turn to Harry Potter and feminism no matter who is at dinner, so it’s for the best. Also, I live with Bec Fary who hosts the excellent podcast SleepTalker, and she is a top-notch dinner companion as well.

You will be a lot happier when you and your whole team start ignoring the iTunes rankings.

What are you listening to at the moment?

I try and listen to something newsy on the way to work, and something creative and fun on the way home.

So, some way-to-work podcasts are: Pod Save America, Pod Save The World, NPR Politics, PRI’s The World, Background Briefing, God Forbid, Pacific Pundit, Loopcast, The Run-Up, The Daily, First Mondays, Marketplace, Off Message, Katie Couric and Make Me Smart.

Some way-home-from-work podcasts are The West Wing Weekly, Witch, Please, Longform, This American Life, On the Media, This is About, SleepTalker, All the Best, Off Track, Still Processing, The Messenger, Why Oh Why, Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, Another Round and The Real Thing.

I recently loved Making Oprah; it made me burst into tears on the train over the making of a flash mob. That is very good storytelling, because I’ve never cried over a flash mob before. I loved More Perfect from the Radiolab team – I can’t wait for it to come back.

What’s your favourite Australian podcast, and why?

At the moment, it’s The Real Thing: it consistently gives me that satisfying feeling when someone nails the right combo of audio/narrative/listener deduction. Listen to the opening scenes of ‘Nineteen‘ and you’ll hear what I mean. The first time I heard it, I chose the podcast, it was playing through the car speakers and my boyfriend was driving. Before he knew what the episode was about, he thumped the steering wheel with delight and exclaimed, ‘Frankie kicked a mine the day that mankind kicked the moon!’ and I was like, ‘Whoa, Mike and Tim have nailed this.’ It’s storytelling music.

And there will always be a place in my heart and podcast app for All the Best. Don’t underestimate the audio magic to be made by producers who know how to use a recorder but don’t know all the rules yet. Some gateway episodes are ‘The Block‘, ‘A Walk in the Park‘ and ‘That Girl‘. I’m also getting very absorbed in The Messenger from the Wheeler Centre and Behind the Wire. It’s so creative and important.

What do you think is unique about Australian audio?

There’s a familiarity to Australian audio that I don’t get listening to American audio, a recognition in my chest when someone really nails it. That is a terrible explanation, though. I think I have to work backwards to explain this.

A lot of Australian producers have come to audio through listening to and loving American audio. I didn’t realise how poor my understanding of Australian audio history was until I was at a Radio Club meet-up in Brooklyn with about 30 American producers and five Australians. We listened to an Australian piece set in a hospital, and an American producer said it reminded them of ‘If’ by Sherre DeLys and John Jacobs. We all just looked at them blankly. Then there were like, 30 Americans all saying ‘If’ over and over, excitedly, and we’re all like, ‘What is happening?’. Anyway, they played it, and I got that chest feeling. Because it is incredible and just so familiar.

The moral of this story is 30 Americans knowing more about Australian audio than you do is a great motivator to download everything ever produced down under. It’s so diverse that I can’t think of a unifying factor, except that when they get it right it feels so good.

Thirty Americans knowing more about Australian audio than you do is a great motivator to download everything ever produced down under.

What’s next for you as a producer?

I’d love to make something that really combines what I’ve learnt producing current affairs and conversations with what I’ve learnt in the world of creative audio. There is so much potential for those things to work together, but I haven’t found the right place for it yet. On the Media does this so consistently, and FiveThirtyEight’s politics podcast dabbles in it.

There’s a Venn diagram where creative audio makers and news hounds overlap, and I want to try and squish into the middle, overlapping bit.