Australian Audio Guide

Working with Sound: Kyla Slaven

Kyla Slaven produces the kids ethics podcast Short & Curly. We talked to her about finding the fun in big ethical questions – and why kids are the perfect listening audience.

Photo of Kyla Slaven

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

This is going to seem like I’m avoiding the question, and I guess I am since I can’t think of one biggie, but some of my favourite pieces of audio are actually very small and fleeting. They are those moments when you’re listening back to a recording and you notice something you missed the first time around – where someone uses a particular word or their voice or tone has changed or they say something lovely. And the same goes for moments in an edit mix, when things fall into place in a way you just love, but maybe noone else will notice.

Where did the idea for Short and Curly come from?

I used to work with the late Alan Saunders when he presented The Philosopher’s Zone, and a few experiences producing stories about children and philosophy made me realise I wanted to make radio/podcasts for kids about philosophy.

Children are (generally speaking) the perfect audience – curious, but not stuck in associating certain ideas or beliefs with being a certain kind of person. Plus, I like playing with fun sound and music, and you get to do that making audio for kids!

What’s your favourite part of making this series?

Can I give more than one favourite part?

Firstly, I love thinking of programme ideas, reading and nerding out and then working out how to ground the ethics in things that many kids might experience – like friends, school, pets, music, movies. Two, going to schools and talking to children is super fun. And third, I love editing and especially that moment where the mess and the piles of audio gain shape and you feel like you’ve solved something.

Children are (generally speaking) the perfect audience – curious, but not stuck in associating certain ideas or beliefs with being a certain kind of person.

What’s the hardest part?

Sometimes I have to read ethics articles which are quite academic, and I find myself reading the same paragraph over and over. This sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. Getting the logistics sorted can be a bit trying too, because everyone involved except me has another main job they do, this is their fun side project.

What’s the best thing about working with sound?

Many things. I love people’s voices, and I like that without visual cues you often listen to people differently and hopefully with fewer assumptions. I also think audio is a great medium for talking to people because it can be less confronting or intimidating when you just have a small microphone.

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

Best was probably a radio teacher who taught me long ago to think really carefully about how I edit people – that there is a politics to editing and that the recording is not just your plaything. She also warned about how easy it is to just find the neat or obvious narrative, which I think happens when you see the world through too much of a storytelling framework, rather than the world as something more messy and interesting.

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

I don’t know. Checking you’ve pressed record is always a good one. I messed up a recording like that recently, though I kind of stupidly thought I was beyond such rookie errors. I didn’t even admit it; I just kind of re-asked the questions again differently.

How do you interact with your audience?

We ask children or parents to email us all the time, and I’m so excited when kids write to us with their ideas or to tell us something. Just today, a young girl requested a show about sea slugs and why ‘cute’ creatures get treated better than other animals. I always reply, and I always ask them more questions about what they like and are interested in. I’ve had some good ideas for shows come from kids.

I’ve had some good ideas for shows come from kids.

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

I don’t really want to go to dinner and talk about audio: does that make me a bad person? I’m more interested in the kind of people who appear in shows than in just dining with audio makers.

I would love to have dinner with the philosopher Martha Nussbaum, for example – though maybe I would just freeze in terror, and dinner would be ruined. Having said all that, some of my best friends are audio makers and I enjoy eating with them.

What are you listening to at the moment?

I love Switched on Pop; I’ve saved a pile of episodes up for my holiday in a few days. I have been listening to some kids’ ones too, like Brains On!, and there is a really well produced fictional pod called The Radio Adventures of Eleanor Amplified. I have saved up How to Be a Girl to listen to with my daughter on some train trips we have coming up soon.

I enjoy Reply All, and find it relaxing and easy to listen to when I go for a run, and I’m really enjoying More Perfect, produced by the Radiolab people. And finally, I’m trying out lots of podcasts about Italy. Some are boring and some really interesting, and many are produced just for fun by expats.

What’s your favourite Australian podcast, and why?

I actually have a soft spot for Hamish and Andy, and used to love their themed-based podcasts. Now it’s more catch-up radio, so I tend to skip it. I love the occasional Earshot, but pick and choose based on topical interest.

I’m a bit over hearing comedians talking to comedians, but I do quite like Meshel Laurie. I think she can be funny, but she also has a good way of inserting her personality into questions while not dominating the whole thing, narcissist-style.  

What do you think is unique about Australian audio?

Feature making in Australia has had far less of the reporter or presenter dominating the story, unlike in places like the United States. I think many different approaches can work depending on what you’re trying to do, but I hope we don’t copy that American style too much, simply because they make some great podcasts. That two-hander conversation style can be fun, but it can also be used to cover the fact that your source material is lacking, or you didn’t ask enough questions during that part of the process and so you essentially script away your problems.

I also think you’re more likely to make everything fit a neat kind of structure when it’s written as a chat. I don’t really mean to sound niggly, because it’s horses for courses – and the main thing is to make great audio in whatever forms you feel like.

What’s next for you as a producer?

I want to make more kids’ ethics podcasts, but am also keen to apply some of what we have been learning into making other kids’ podcasts – whether that’s broadening into other areas of philosophy or making a kids show about pop music and its relationship to the history of music generally, another thing I have wanted to do for a long time.