Kirsti Melville is an award-winning producer for ABC RN’s Earshot and presents The History Listen. Her series about the devastating impacts of asbestos mining on the Aboriginal communities of the Pilbara, The Ghosts of Wittenoom won the 2019 Walkley Award for Best Radio/Audio Feature.
She chats to us about working in remote areas of Western Australia and learning to trust your instincts.
What piece of audio has had the most profound effect on you – as a listener, as an audio maker or both?
So many pieces for so many different reasons. But a piece I come back to again and again is Meat factory ear worms made for Ireland’s RTE almost ten years ago. I must have listened to it about 20-30 times and still love it. It’s the most perfect juxtaposition of dreamy, floaty music with the visceral, awful sounds of an abattoir. It sounds kind of weird to say that an audio piece about killing animals and ear worms (music you can’t get out of your head) is astoundingly moving and nostalgic – but it is.
Where else do you find influence or inspiration for your work?
Most of my story ideas come from keeping my eyes and ears open as I move through life – from hearing a story about a friend of a friend, to conversations around camp fires, and taking notice of the ‘oh my goodness’ moments I have when I’m reading, or hearing about, something. I think it was Ira Glass who said to pay attention to what you find interesting, and I think that is key – trusting your own instinct about what’s interesting.
Where do you work? And what tools help you the most?
Well, until Covid-19 it was the ABC offices in East Perth. Now, it’s either my dining table in inner-city Perth or at my partner’s in Gracetown near Margaret River. I’ve loved the shift to working from home. Aside from team meetings, the work of editing and creating long-form audio is very solitary, so I’m appreciating the space at home. Tools? My comfy Bose headphones for loooong weeks of editing, my partner’s fancy coffee machine, and the park across the road from my home to help clear my head.
Where did the idea for Facing down the beauty myth come from?
I was reading Sam George-Allen’s book Witches: What Women Do Together in preparation for interviewing her at the 2019 Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. She had a chapter about the online beauty community where she flipped my thinking about that being a very superficial space, to appreciating the creativity, skill, depth and support that exists in those communities.
Back to Ira Glass’ advice to pay attention to what interests you – I leapt on that. I started thinking about Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth and realised 2020 marked its 30th birthday. I thought about how that book had shaped my own feminist thinking and my views on make-up and beauty. What I was seeing in the online beauty community – through young feminists and my own teenage daughter – was a reclaiming of beauty as an expression of creativity and fun. So, Facing down the beauty myth was an exploration of all of those ideas.
What is your favourite part of making features for Earshot?
Without question, spending time with Traditional Owners on country in some of the most remote, beautiful, culturally significant parts of Western Australia and being entrusted with their stories. It’s a privilege I will always be grateful for and humbled by.
What is the biggest challenge working on Earshot?
Finding stories (or angles) that haven’t been done before that will sustain for 28 minutes. Although, having said that, I’m notorious for finding it almost impossible to cut edits down to time.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about podcasting?
The worst – no one wants to listen to long-form radio, that people want short pieces. That was said just months before Serial launched and blew every record out of the water.
The best – pay attention to what you find interesting and trust that instinct.
As an audio maker, what have been your biggest lessons so far?
Learning to trust my instincts on what to cut. And when teaching, lecturing or supervising freelancers – how to articulate what I do so instinctively. Putting into words why (or why not) a particular piece of music works, or why a particular structure will work, for example.
Do you think the work you make reflects your personality? If so – in which ways?
Ha ha I’ve never thought about this before but it totally does! I’ve always been obsessed with the nuance of complex human issues, the moral shades of grey, the small moments that make you gulp or that reveal something of the character of the person talking. I’ve always been one of those incredibly nosy people who asks deeply personal questions. Talking about deeply emotional, taboo and confronting issues comes so easily to me, and I think that is reflected in my work. Also, my empathy. I hope that shows.
What are you listening to at the moment?
We just finished listening to the CBC’s Hunting Warhead as we drove a few thousand kilometres across the remote red dirt roads of WA. That was haunting and twisty and compelling. I’ve also just started The Wait by Mozhgan Moarefizadeh and Nicole Curby. I listen to Coronacast every night and my all-time favourite Bitch Sesh: A Real Housewives Breakdown which helps me get to sleep. I’m a bit late to these but Birds Eye View and Debutante: Race, Resistance and Girl Power are next on my list.
What’s your favourite Australian podcast, and why?
It’s a bit trite to say the ones I work on but they are. I’m so proud of the work we do on The History Listen and Earshot. Our team is so dedicated to telling wonderful stories, beautiful recordings, rich sound design and quality journalism.
What – if anything – do you think distinguishes Australian audio? And, what would you like to hear more of?
Pre-podcasting I think Australian audio documentaries were more informed by the European tradition of rich sound, fly-on-the-wall, little narration. But we’ve become increasingly influenced by the North American tradition of a heavily narrated, producer-centric story. I think we’ve found our own way through the middle and walk the line beautifully between the European and North American traditions.
I’d love to see even more WELL-FUNDED, long-form documentaries that can only be told by having lots of time and building trust with people and communities.
And I’d love to see more money and effort spent on quality training and sustainable jobs for Indigenous and culturally diverse audio producers. We can do better.
If you could go out to dinner with any audio maker, who would it be – and what would you talk about?
I have sat on this question for weeks and every day I have a different answer. But, as predictable as it is, I keep coming back to the past and present team of This American Life. A big, fat, long-table lunch that morphs into dinner. Why? Because they all just love storytelling so much, it’s infectious. This American Life has become so well-funded that I’d posit it has the highest story ‘kill’ rate of any other program on the planet. I have so many questions about that process and about how they drill down as a team to nut out the key plot points of a story. I do struggle with the formulaic structure of their stories but, having said that, I’m sucked in every time I listen. How do they do that so consistently?
Honourable mention to Danielle Schneider and Casey Wilson from Bitch Sesh with whom I’d have deep and dirty conversations about all things Real Housewives. They’re super smart women who love trashy shows and I just know I’d belly laugh all night.
More travel, more talking, more thinking, more reading, more time with family and friends, and more storytelling from hard-to-get-to parts of Western Australia.