Australian Audio Guide

Working with Sound: Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a digital producer and documentary maker who lives in Sydney. Across ABC Radio, he’s been part of the team that launched RN Drive and Double J, and the duo that made the series Long Story Short; with collaborator Timothy Nicastri, he’s now producing the podcast The Real Thing.

In this interview, he explains why audio makers are in the communication business – and why the next innovation in podcasting isn’t going to come from another podcast.

Photo of Mike Williams

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

‘What’s Rangoon to you is Grafton to me.’ It’s an infamous Australian piece, and one of the most creative audio pieces ever; a road trip adventure, narrated by ABC newsman James Dibble and writer Russell Guy. The ambition, the writing, the music and sound design were incredible for its time, but the thing is, it still stands up today. There’s nothing like it. It set the bar for what creative radio can be. I’ve written more about why it’s a masterpiece here, and last year made an homage here.

Where did the idea for The Real Thing come from?

The idea is really simple: in each episode we tell a story about a unique Australian character.

Timothy Nicastri [co-presenter/producer] and I were originally going to call the show Gonzo. I’m a huge fan of people like Hunter S. Thompson, Louis Theroux and John Safran. I like that style of really honest, personalised storytelling where certain walls are broken. Those guys break conventions around the role of the storyteller. They rip back the curtain a bit to show they’re actually just one biased human trying to figure out another human.

Timothy and I have both been chipping away on a brand of feature making that’s fits somewhere in that universe. Probably not as far as gonzo, but certainly nowhere near traditional journalism. We fall somewhere in the middle. It’s a nice pocket that suits Australian radio, and was probably pioneered by Tony Barrell. With that in mind we’re openly trying to be ‘realer than real’: The Real Thing.

The Real Thing podcast tile, designed by Steph Hughes

What’s your favourite part of making The Real Thing?

Working on stories for The Real Thing is a dream come true. I certainly don’t take the opportunity for granted. I love the adventure of tracking someone down, getting out on the road to meet them, learning about their life and then trying to figure out how to tell that story in the most interesting way. I’m lucky to learn on the job – finding out about people’s experiences and perspective expands my own worldview. Working every day with my best mate is pretty cool too!

What’s the hardest part of producing The Real Thing?

Time. The show is an experiment for the ABC, so we’re trialling a few new ways of working. Firstly, our attitude and what we prioritise. Secondly, our workflow and how we do a lot of things – in the most efficient way possible. We want to squeeze the most out of every story. This means making a story work on different platforms, including writing articles and cutting videos.

Because of this, our time management is critical. Our secret to the volume of work we’re currently doing is that Timothy and I will back each other at every step. We’re a team and we’re bigger than the sum of our parts. But time is mostly our enemy, and we’re always talking about how we can do more, or do things faster.

What’s the best thing about working with sound?

Audio is the most creative medium. George Lucas said, ‘in a movie, sound is half the picture’. If that is true then I think in radio, sound is still only half the picture; the other half is what the listener brings to it in their own mind. That’s why it’s so intimate. It’s also why your options for what’s possible are limited only by your imagination. I also think there are generally less rules in how you can tell a story with audio. That is liberating.

In radio, sound is still only half the picture; the other half is what the listener brings to it in their own mind.

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

In his graphic novel, The Medium is the Massage, Marshall McLuhan talks about experts. He warns not to become one, because once you’re an expert you have something to lose. Eternal students take risks and keep pushing new ideas. There are so many things that are yet to be tried in audio. My worst fear is that I stop learning and become jaded.

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

Actually understanding what the job is. ‘Producer’ is such a vague word and is used in a lot of contexts. I take a broad view of the gig: a producer makes stuff happen. The more stuff you can do – in an efficient way, to really high quality – the better a producer you are.

Of course, when I say ‘stuff’, I mean storytelling. It’s all storytelling in the end. Whether it’s one photo or a tweet or a documentary – it’s about expressing or reflecting something that will resonate. I’m in the communication business. When that clicked for me, I felt really empowered.

I’m in the communication business. When that clicked for me, I felt really empowered.

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

The whole point of my job is to solve a problem for the audience. This involves telling a relevant story, in the best possible way. Early in my career I made a whole program from contributions by the audience – it was a gigantic collaboration. The process had a big impact on me, and in particular how I feel about the role of public broadcasting. Later, it helped inform how we thought about Double J’s The J Files music doco show – which is made by fans, for fans.

Because The Real Thing is an experiment, audience feedback is critical. If we’re not listening and tweaking what we do and how we do it, we’re failing. Most people will get in touch with praise, so you’ve got to push to get criticism. The key question is ‘how could it be better?’. You’ve got to be open to it, ask for it … and when it comes, be prepared to take it with a pinch (or bag) of salt. Then get back out there and go again.

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

Tony Barrell. Barely a week goes by in The Real Thing office where his work isn’t mentioned. He was the godfather of Australian audio storytelling. Just go and listen to his work. We’d probably talk about Frank Zappa.

What are you listening to at the moment?

I hate this question. Right now I’m so flat out with the podcast that truthfully, I’m not actually listening to a lot. Bad, right? Not really. The next innovation in podcast storytelling isn’t going to come from listening to another podcast. It’s going to come from being inspired and applying the attitudes of a completely different person or platform. So with that in mind, the question I hope podcast makers ask each other more is: what media are you consuming right now that’s not a podcast? I watch a lot of Casey Neistat vlogs.

The next innovation in podcast storytelling isn’t going to come from listening to another podcast.

What’s your favourite Australian podcast, and why?

I met James Milsom at the Audiocraft award ceremony and found out about his podcast The Rule Book. It’s a podcast ‘about the rules we make, and sometimes break’. I’ve only heard two episodes, but I’m really excited. James is a triple threat – he’s a killer writer, at home on the mic and he scores his own shows, too. Move over Jad Abumrad.

What do you think is unique about Australian audio?

Like a lot of our culture, I think we’re influenced by a hybrid of British and American work. But when we’re at our best, I think we take the cream of both traditions and mix it with our own unique perspective to create something completely new. In that way, I think we have the ability to be the platypus of the audio world – something familiar, yet really weird, that often has to be heard to be believed.

I like to think that we break the rules. We do whatever we can to tell a story in the best way possible. We’re fearless in our ambition and our production. We have our own tradition and our own voice and all of this adds up to some really, really creative work. The ABC hasn’t always been great at sharing the history of those makers. But as emerging producers get inspired by big American podcasts, I’d love them to also discover past work by people like Sherre DeLys, Tony Barrell, Jane Ulman, Robyn Ravlich and John Jacobs to name a few.

What’s next for you as a producer?

I’m just going to continue to focus on trying to become a better storyteller.