How does the ABC connect with a younger audience that shuns broadcast television and radio and is conditioned to consume their content on demand and on their smartphones? The answer is podcasts.
Back in February, the ABC debuted The Signal, a daily news and current affairs podcast. The short, sharp show comes in at about 10 to 15 minutes an episode, and while the influence of The New York Times' The Daily podcast is obvious, The Signal has developed its own distinct voice.
Ange Lavoipierre and Stephen Smiley.
"The conversational tone was key and the American podcasts like The Daily are great at it. But we didn't want to emulate the American style," explains executive producer Cathy Bell. "Young Australian audiences are very sophisticated. They listen to a lot of stuff and they won't be patronised or manipulated. So it was really important to have young Australians telling the stories they wanted to tell, in their way."
Telling those stories are journalists Ange Lavoipierre, Stephen Smiley and Chris Dengate with a rotating team of contributors along for the ride. Lavoipierre is thrilled by the opportunity.
"To have the chance to build something from scratch in an organisation like the ABC is a pretty rare thing. We've been able to steer the tone, the values, the stories, and just generally make something that we love.
"I think the main lesson from The Daily, This American Life, and Reply All, is that it's possible to tell stories in our own voice without compromising the standard of the journalism.
"There's only so much cribbing Aussies should be doing from what the Americans are making." adds Smiley. "We have our own irreverent way of talking to each other and maybe a more cynical sense of humour … So yeah – while I was influenced by some of what they're doing in the US, I was pretty keen for us to chart our own course with The Signal."
The team believes authenticity is the key to connecting with a younger demographic.
"I'm more or less in the demographic we're looking to speak to," says Smiley, 31. "So I guess I'm thinking of the show as a product I'd want to consume if I wasn't making it."
"I'm so sensitive to anything condescending. I can't handle listening to it, so I feel very strongly about not ever making that kind of podcast. If I would be embarrassed to say it to my friends, it's usually a good indication that it needs an edit," adds Lavoipierre.
The Signal is a refreshing counter-argument to the idea that young people aren't interested in news and current affairs.
"It's a mistake to confuse people's disengagement from the news itself as a lack of care … I want to do a really good job of telling stories people already care about, but also communicating the stakes in stories that they haven't found a way into yet. I see it as our job to tell the story in the right way. If it truly matters, there's a way to get people to engage with it."
You never know what you'll get with an episode of The Signal. The show is part news, part current affairs. Episodes may address a major news story from the last 24 hours, or deep-dive into a topic; looking into the secretive online world of revenge porn, or zombie clauses in WorkChoices.
"I tend to think that unpredictability is what's appealing about the show rather than something that makes it confusing for our listeners," says Smiley. "It's not a straight news podcast or a youth-focused podcast or an investigative podcast – it's sort of a combination of all those things."
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