Australian Audio Guide

Working with Sound: Marc Fennell

Marc Fennell is a radio and TV producer, author, interviewer and journalist. He is the creator of the ABC’s award-winning media and technology programme Download This Show, and has been known for the past decade as triple j’s That Movie Guy – both of which he writes, produces, edits and mixes by himself. He is also the host of SBS Viceland’s TV programme The Feed, where he conducts interviews with some of the world’s best creative minds. He spoke to us about media diversity, Australian voices and editing with your eyes closed.

What piece of audio has had the most profound effect on you – as a listener?

I vividly recall listening to Artery on Triple J in the early ’00s and being shocked that there was someone out there making radio with actual, honest-to-God content for young people. The real turning point for me was an episode of Hack where they played an edited version of George Gittoes’ documentary Soundtrack To War – which was about music soldiers listened to during the Iraq war. I simply didn’t want to get out of my car.

Where did the idea for Download This Show come from?

I had presented and produced on three seasons of a weird TV show for ABC TV called Hungry Beast, done a bunch of stories about media and tech, and a string of TV pilots for the ABC. The pilots went nowhere in TV land, but it struck me that Australia really, really needed a show about the one arena where we increasingly live our lives – online.

So I developed a really basic format: three topics, two rotating guests, one feature interview with someone on an amazing new piece of tech or media. RN commissioned the show for a short six-week run and never looked back. iTunes Australia named it 2012’s best new podcast, and it has won Best Audio Program at the Australian IT Journalism Awards (‘The Lizzies’) four years in a row, I think. It can be heard on ABC RN and ABC Local Radio Digital, and seen on the ABC News 24 channel.

What’s your favourite part of making Download This Show?

The show is a cocktail of elements – often invisible to the audience – that we need to get right. I believe the show needs to deliver a great usable fact or idea every minute or so. So I edit the conversation with that in mind. I’m also hyper aware that the fun of the conversation is deflated the moment you can ‘hear’ an edit, so I’m very careful to balance the pacing with natural speech and breathing patterns.

Increasingly over the years, Download has acquired more and more high-level guests like [creator of the World Wide Web] Tim Berners Lee, Andy Samberg, Ang Lee, Ted Sarandos from Netflix and more. And that is awesome. But I also believe that we need to have a strong focus on the Australian tech and media scene. The ABC is, after all, the home of Australian independent conversations.

What’s the hardest part of producing it?

Scheduling and getting the talent and topic mix right is a challenge. I’m the only person employed to make the show, and I have set myself a lot of rules. For example, I think there are too many tech podcasts with a bunch of middle class dudes. As a result, Download This Show will always  have at least one – ideally two – women in each episode.

I also believe that you have to find and develop new voices – male and female – to be on the panel. Many of them are a bit garbage to begin with, but you just have to develop guest talent. Some of our panellists have (and probably would’ve anyway) ended up doing incredible things; Wendy Zukerman from Science Vs is a great example. I take so much joy in seeing someone go from being a slightly timid writer on a tech website to suddenly doing [TV programmes] The Project and Sunrise, and you know that some of that confidence was derived from sitting in the DTS studio and sparring about whatever bonkers thing Uber did that week.

Download This Show can always do better acquiring new voices, so if you know anyone who is great – especially if they break the mould of a ‘tech’ commentator – I’m incredibly keen to hear from them.

What’s the best thing about working with sound?

Sound is an elegant form. Whether I’m making my triple j review or DTS, I’m constantly struck how great radio is at collapsing the space between a good idea and actually great content. Certainly in comparison to TV production. I love playing with sound to create atmosphere, verve and humour. The bigger thing for me is learning restraint. Just because I can throw every sound under the sun at a piece of radio doesn’t always mean that I should.

I’m constantly struck how great radio is at collapsing the space between a good idea and actually great content.

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

The best: always be yourself on the air, but never be boring. There’s only one true rule in broadcasting. Never, ever be boring. I’m a huge podcast listener but so many – even well regarded podcasts – just need to get to the fucking point faster. If I listen to one more three minute rambling preamble to a longform interview or two minute rhetorical-question-laden forward announce, I will literally crash my car in protest.

On a career level: the best opportunity is the one that is right in front of you. Whatever job you’re doing, whatever piece you are working on, make it the best you can – people will hear it and and it will travel. Great content travels.

And worst? I’ve gotten a lot of dreadful advice, mostly from people that think you should do ‘a voice’ for ‘the brand’, and it’s been so awful. 

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

I think the advent of non-linear editing like Pro Tools and whatnot has meant that it’s very easy to think of your radio piece as a visual waveform in front of you. You, as a creator, see the whole piece in one screen. The biggest lesson has been realising that this is a terrible way to think of radio.

Radio is linear. People hear it as a progression of ideas, sounds, voices and thoughts. I frequently edit with my eyes closed. It’s especially vital for cutting vibey conversations or more soundscapey pieces. You really have no grasp of pacing or the progression of ideas until you decouple that visual.

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

I’ve always been a big user of social media. I’m always up for a chat online with the audience – though I think some of the most vocal ABC RN audiences often have a weird propensity to think everything is a conspiracy or scandal. If I change the format of a certain episode, the feedback is always, ‘Did management make you do this? Have you been forced to do this by the IPA?!’

I have zero patience for that garbage. The Triple J or ABC Local Radio audience, by comparison, is far more conversational and constructive.

Radio is linear. People hear it as a progression of ideas, sounds, voices and thoughts.

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

I spent a bit of time with Jad Abumrad from Radiolab a few months ago, and was struck by how utterly lovely and thoughtful he was.

What are you listening to at the moment?

Pod Save America (Crooked Media), The Business (KCRW), The J Files (Double J), No Such Thing as a Fish (QI), Like I’m A Six-Year-Old (Tom Ballard), Game Changers Radio (Craig Bruce), No Filter (Mia Freedman), THR Awards Chatter (The Hollywood Reporter), Recode Media’s podcasts, How I Built This (NPR), Bang On (Double J), Off Camera (Sam Jones), The Real Thing and The Party Room (ABC RN) and Is It On? (BuzzFeed Australia).

What’s your favourite Australian podcast, and why?

Bang On, with Zan Rowe and Myf Warhurst. It’s a show that catches you up on the week in popular culture with two of the smartest, loveliest human beings I know in the media. I just wish I could join in. And that is always a great sign. It deserves great success.

What do you think is unique about Australian audio?

This is a controversial opinion, but – not really all that much. I make sure to consume as much as I can from all around the world (okay, fine: the UK, Canada and the US) but the truth is that we’re not really all that different from those markets. In fact, their production and branding is generally vastly superior in my view.

What does make us unique is our voice. I love hearing the Australian accent and our innate storytelling ability emerge in podcasts. I grow really angry when I hear longform Aussie podcast presenters try to sound like they’re a folksy NPR host or plummy BBC voice. The cadence doesn’t match.

What’s next for you as a producer?

I’m continuing with both Download This Show and The Feed. I’m also working with a new not-for-profit called Media Diversity Australia to foster and develop new multicultural reporting talent, and make sure they have pathways into big media careers. And I’m experimenting with a new podcast later in the year about film history.