Australian Audio Guide

Working with Sound: Lee Tran Lam

Lee Tran Lam is a book/mag/blog-worm who writes, podcasts, DJs on FBi radio and is guilty of taking too many food pics. Her work has appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, Big Issue and Rolling Stone, and she’s appeared as a guest on The Mitchen, Hey Fam and Vincast podcasts.

She spoke to us about uncovering surprising details from the lives of chefs, plus the importance of investing in decent gear and going after good quality production values.

Lee Tran Lam (Photo: supplied)

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

Ah, there are too many to filter down to just one! Criminal recently did an episode about the life-changing power of a dictionary in a prisoner’s life. Memory Motel‘s series on the people attempting to disappear from the internet and public life has been fascinating. That Radiolab episode about the extremely premature baby was incredible.

Richard Fidler’s interview with one of the survivors of the London bombings was pretty hard to shake. And Terri Gross’s interview with filmmaker Mike Mills about his father outing himself after the director’s mother died (and his mother knowing his father was gay from the outset – yet Mike Mills is probably an ‘accident’ and not a planned child) is pretty astounding, too.

Where did the idea for The Unbearable Lightness of Being Hungry come from?

My friend Andrew Levins wanted to set up a podcast network for FBI radio ages ago. He asked me what I’d like to do and I said I wanted to do long, in-depth-ish chats with chefs and people from the food world. It’s a licence to be nosey, really! Plus, most of the time (back then), you only heard from non-celebrity chefs in a superficial way – maybe via a published recipe, short review, etc. I think chefs, critics, baristas, etc. have really amazing stories and they don’t have to be famous to be interesting (like ramen whiz Nick Smith proved with his bomb squad story)!

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Hungry - podcast tile

What’s your favourite part of making The Unbearable Lightness of Being Hungry?

Talking to people and learning such surprising details – whether it’s Analiese Gregory’s spectacular experiments with mould at one of the world’s top restaurants (and learning not to poison herself in the process!) or her spell working in a town in Morocco where everything – from rubbish to gas bottles and beyond – had to be transported in and out via donkey. Or Ibrahim Kasif talking about being on the roof of Porteño as it was raging with fire (or recalling the time he was a yacht-based chef for the ninth richest man in Australia).

What’s the hardest part of producing The Unbearable Lightness of Being Hungry?

Scheduling is tricky – chefs rarely have much spare time and I work full time, so finding a free hour that overlaps can be a game of diary-scheduling Tetris!

What’s the best thing about working with sound?

It’s so direct and honest. These people are telling their stories straight up, whether it’s Helen Yee talking about eating one-metre roti overseas, Alex Elliot-Howery on the time the police over enthusiastically cordoned off the street in response to her Cornersmith cafe having an urban rooftop hive, or Chui Lee Luk on the lack of women in the industry.

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

I’ve been in scenarios where people who have never done a podcast have given me ‘expertise’ on how you shouldn’t bother buying decent recording equipment. Definitely invest in some decent gear, instead of relying on your iPhone. We tend to overuse that as a one-fits-all device, and as anyone who has run out of battery at an important moment would know, sometimes it’s not so good to have all your eggs in one basket!

I’ve been in scenarios where people who have never done a podcast have given me ‘expertise’ on how you shouldn’t bother buying decent recording equipment.

These ‘experts’ also told me not to bother editing! Even a light, basic edit really improves a podcast exponentially – especially if you’re just excising a lot of waffle at the start, so the listener gets hooked as soon as possible.

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

Even though my podcast is quite lo-fi – sound quality is important and getting it right (or right enough) in the moment is really key. You can always edit raw material, but no bag of tricks is going to save the day if your recording is unlistenable straight off the bat. Plus research and prep goes such a long way.

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

If people comment, I try to give them a shout-out. It’s always nice to get personal correspondence, like the listener who told me she used the podcast as a soundtrack to her engineering thesis. I did get trolled once on an Instagram, by a chef (with his own podcast, apparently) who was somehow offended by me mentioning the fact I was a vegetarian during an hour-long podcast!

No bag of tricks is going to save the day if your recording is unlistenable straight off the bat

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

It’s such an obvious answer, but Ira Glass. Even when he gives very technical interviews, he is fascinating and revealing. I love the Longform interview that he basically ‘edits’ for the presenter, and the Opera House interview with students is also a great masterclass in storytelling. As for what I’d ask – I’m sure he has quite an archive of war stories to share.

What are you listening to at the moment?

My iTunes feed is pretty hefty! But my must-listens are always the Slate Culture Gabfest, The Mitchen, Criminal, Reply All, The Watch, Radiolab, Ingredipedia, Hey Fam, Conversations with Richard Fidler, Keeping it 1600 and I really like what I’ve heard of Memory Motel so far.

What’s your favourite Australian podcast, and why?

If anyone wants to do some archive-hunting, search out the brief but great podcast that Sophie Braham and Max Lavergne did called The Walkthrough. I really enjoy The Mitchen, because it’s such an uncensored and direct portrait of the Sydney hospitality industry (and their level of access is amazing).

What do you think is unique about Australian audio?

Besides the ABC, there aren’t many big podcast institutions yet (like Gimlet, NPR, Radiotopia, etc.), so there are lots of different kinds of podcasts seeping through, rather than one mammoth media outlet that’s setting the tone. It means there are lots of interesting oddballs and unique, super-niche voices out there, which is really great! There are also little clusters of like-minded podcasts giving each other support, guest spots and cheering each other on – that’s cool, too.

What’s next for you as a producer?

I’m not sure, I’d love to do other podcasts if I had the time. I’ve got some people that I’ve been hoping to interview for years and that will hopefully happen soon on The Unbearable Lightness of Being Hungry.