Sam Twyford-Moore is the founding host of The Rereaders, a fortnightly literary and cultural podcast. He was Festival Director and CEO of the Emerging Writers’ Festival from 2012 until 2015, and as a freelance writer has contributed to the Monthly, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Australian, Meanjin, the Guardian, the Lifted Brow and others.
We spoke to Sam about mixing writing and audio, and what podcasting offers cultural criticism in Australia.
What piece of audio has had the most profound effect on you – as a listener, as an audio maker or both?
I think it’s important to say from the outset that I don’t come from an audio background, per se. I do come from a writing background, but then I do a lot more talking than I do writing, so maybe it’s all the same anyway. I do think that we’ve seen the literary take an increasing turn towards the auditory over the last couple of decades, largely thanks to the proliferation of podcasts. Which is a way of saying that I was late to the game when it comes to being inspired by audio, so I’m going to give you something that is extreme in its recentness because of that.
David Carlin’s Making Up: 11 Scenes From a Bangkok Hotel, which was produced by Kyla Brettle for Soundproof. In a lot of ways, the audio is an adaptation by Brettle of Carlin’s essay of the same name. It offers a cacophony of actors, whereas the essay is in a very powerful singular voice. I offer it as an example, partly, because it works so well on paper. The essay has been collected in The Near and the Far: New Stories from the Asia-Pacific Region, put out by the excellent Melbourne publisher Scribe. It holds out this possibility for writing to exist both as a work of prose, and as a work of creative audio production – not quite side by side, but existing on the same plane at least. It gives that work multiple lives, which seems significant.
Where did the idea for The Rereaders come from?
The Rereaders was started back in 2011, in Sydney. It came out of a feeling that there wasn’t really very much space for cultural criticism in Australia – and that podcasting represented a new and technically kind of unlimited amount of space; endless, open, unregulated air. We were originally inspired by the Slate Culture Gabfest, from which the format of the show is a direct lift. But before the Gabfest, there was a little known show on ABC TV in Australia, hosted by Jonathan Biggins, called Critical Mass, which was exactly the same format – three hosts, talking about three cultural topics. I think it screened on Sunday mornings, and I used to watch it devoutly – so it must have soaked in there somewhere.
When we launched we did a year of the show in Sydney, recording at 2SER and farming some of the content out to the station’s book show. Then I moved down to Melbourne, and we relaunched in 2014 with new co-hosts Stephanie Van Schilt and Dion Kagan. Since then, Mel Campbell – a fierce and erudite cultural critic – has joined the show and we’ve been very generously funded through Creative Victoria for the last couple of years, which has given us an incredible sense of stability, scope and independence.
What’s your favourite part of making The Rereaders?
The real key to what we do, I think, is that it is associative, in a couple of ways … in the sense that we do a lot of free form associations, through thinking about cultural objects and artefacts, mostly of the pop kind. And then, that we associate with each other. There’s something about podcasting as a group, coming together to talk that is really essential to the popularity of the format.
Our associations as thinkers give the whole set up a sketchbook feel – you know, a really great thing to come out of this has been us workshopping ideas that would result in later work. For Dion Kagan and Steph Van Schilt, both have regular columns in the Lifted Brow and oftentimes, they will end up writing about something that we’ve talked about on The Rereaders. I’m a much slower writer, but when I have gone on to publish something, you can usually trace its cultural musings back to something I’ve said and recorded on the podcast.
I do think that we’ve seen the literary take an increasing turn towards the auditory over the last couple of decades, largely thanks to the proliferation of podcasts.
What’s the hardest part of producing The Rereaders?
Ours is a fairly relaxed, laid-back format – so the stresses are relatively minimal. Time management is always key, particularly when it comes to writing scripts. The host of the show also has to contribute to the critical conversation – so both writing an introductory script to each segment, and then having your own thoughts on the topic, can be difficult to balance. Your scriptwriting voice is very different from your commentary voice, I find. And that really does come down to finding time to think about both styles of presentation and preparation.
What’s the best thing about working with sound?
I think there’s something wonderfully free form about it, actually liberating – particularly when you compare it with the act of writing. It’s so much closer to the idea and truth of thinking than writing, and in a strange way can be closer to a pure idea of essaying. You can sit with writing and find a thousand ways to phrase an idea, and get incredibly stuck in the process, but when you force yourself to do a back and forth in a studio for an hour and publish the results regardless of what is said, it can definitely be freeing.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about podcasting?
We’ve been lucky to work with a number of incredible creative producers – including the fantastic Jessica Minshall back in Sydney, Jess O’Callaghan and Izzy Roberts-Orr when we moved to Melbourne – and though the format of the show is incredibly basic at its heart, I think they’ve all improved what we’ve done and brought a critical eye to what we’ve been putting out.
What has been your biggest lesson as a producer so far?
Not to underestimate the importance of audio quality. We very much wanted high production values from the first day – this was something that was going directly into people’s ears. People travel with podcasts in an incredibly intimate way, and I have just heard too many start up podcasts that have started without really thinking about audio quality – turning people off from the start, who may not come back when the quality has picked up.
Do you interact with your audience, or receive feedback or criticism about your work?
We have been very lucky to be invited by Lisa Dempster, the director of the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, to present the podcast live at the festival over the last couple of years. Live episodes are a chance to interact with your audience, and potentially have new members stumble onto you. Social media offers a space for people to reply to what we’re doing, which is great. And last year we ran a nationwide survey on the state of podcasting, which was great for receiving feedback.
If you could go out to dinner with any audio maker, who would it be – and what would you talk about?
The late Martin Harrison – really, I have had meals with him in the past, and I never thought to ask about his history in radio making. He was my teacher at university, and I was lucky to work beside him for a very short period. I knew him as a poet and an incredible academic, but it never really dawned on me how influential his work on sound was during his time at the ABC. When he died, Soundproof on Radio National dedicated a whole hour to his practise, and I was simply floored by it. I really do wish I could go back and talk to him on that level. It’s painfully sad that he is no longer with us; we are the poorer without him.
What are you listening to at the moment?
I’m really not a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell out in the wild, in his natural habitat – his populist social psychology tends to make me ultra-queasy – but I am listening to his podcast, Revisionist History, because I think it is interestingly formatted and moving towards the essayistic form. It understands that synthesis is essential to the essay, incredibly well. It also blends cultural journalism – interviews – with a kind of internal reflection – commentary – which is, of course, made external by the mere fact that it is broadcast. I get the feeling it has a great producer working in the background.
What’s your favourite Australian podcast, and why?
I think simplicity is its own kind of genius, and on that level, Ingredipedia has a lot to teach us all. Emily Naismith and Ben Birchall ooze charm, and chatting about food is such a natural fit for the podcast format. I love the idea of a duo too. When I was director of the Emerging Writers’ Festival, in my final festival, we invited Rebecca Shaw and Peter Taggart down to do a live recording of Bring a Plate, which continues to crack me up even when on hiatus (I invent imaginary episodes in my head). Paper Radio should never go without a mention when this question comes up too.
What do you think is unique about Australian audio?
I think there is a willingness to experiment and to push the boundaries, but with a sense of institutional support somewhere in the background, a nod of support. I think Radio National has been doing such terrific, forward thinking work for decades, and I think it’s undoubtedly influenced a new generation who are finding their feet in the independent sphere of podcasting. That’s a good balance.
What’s next for you as a producer?
The team behind The Rereaders has been quietly working on a spin-off, literally sister podcast, Sisteria. At a certain point last year, we did an episode with an all female line up of The Rereaders, and we just asked ourselves why this didn’t exist as an ongoing thing. We got some funding to scope out a new podcast, and it’s just about ready to launch. Sisteria will be co-hosted by The Rereaders regular Stephanie Van Schilt and the Stella Prize manager Veronica Sullivan, who has guested on The Rereaders a couple of times, and will focus on women’s experiences as creators of arts and culture. It’s really exciting to think that from this one podcast, we might be able to test out and launch a slate of new recordings, and push the critical voice further in Australia.