In Radio and Podcasting, does popular equal good?

Comment from Peter Saxon

The runaway winner of the Gold Walkley last week for excellence in journalism was a podcast, The Teacher’s Pet. 
It’s true crime, so real, so compelling, it actually compelled real police to reopen a cold case from 1982 and search again for the body of missing Sydney mother, Lyn Dawson.
It is written and voiced by The Australian broadsheet’s crack investigative journalist Hedley Thomas and produced by composer/producer Slade Gibson. With more than 19 million downloads, The Teacher’s Pet is not only the number one podcast in Australia but in the US, the UK, Canada and New Zealand too. 
The Walkley judges described the podcast as “a masterclass in investigative journalism… The investigation uncovered long-lost statements and new witnesses and prompted police to dig again for the body of Lyn Dawson.” 

But not everyone has been effusive in their praise for this unbridled success. Dr Siobhan McHugh, (left) Associate Professor in Journalism at the University of Wollongong, herself an award winning, internationally recognised audio documentary maker has told radioinfo:

“19 million listeners – tabloid journalism will do that. Yes, the story premise is compelling, but its execution as audio is dire. Only the host, Hedley, is on mic – the narcissism verges on satire, wooden writing, zero craft.
“The repetition is laughable: cannibalising earlier episodes, tedious tee-ups of previous tee-ups, flogging the salacious aspects, reusing tired phrases ad nauseam (“fringe benefits”, the “lovely drink”, “insular peninsula”) and playing interviews with himself about how important his podcast is.
“Yes, the sincerity of the interviewees is clear. That’s what elicits more people to come forward – and if this causes a paedo ring of teachers to be charged 35 years on, good. If Lyn’s body is found and her murderer convicted, also good. But at the expense of the loss of precious hours of our lives listening to vacuous rambling that charts but never challenges or contextualises the blokey Stepford wifey all-white beachside soap opera where it’s set,”
says Dr McHugh.
So, does popular equal good? It depends what you, that’s you the individual, define as good. If a singing contest was purely about vocal ability and technical prowess, then Pavarotti would beat Bob Dylan every time. The true test of any art form is does it connect with you in a visceral sense?
As a young man in radio, I had access to new music ahead of release and felt that I had discovered artists such as Chicago, Melanie and Traffic before they were aired on radio and became popular. And once they had, my interest in them waned because they were no longer esoteric, no longer a find. They’d become common. Did that make their music worse? 
Generally no. Yet, to be honest, in the case of Chicago it did because they’d strayed from the original concept of Chicago Transit Authority’s bluesy, brassy rock with songs like 25 or 6 to 4 and that incredible remake of Spencer Davis Group’s I’m a Man to becoming a soft pop purveyor of ballads such as, If You Leave Me Now and pap like Saturday in the Park. That’s just my subjective opinion, for what it’s worth. But millions of others thought the band had improved.
Did The Teacher’s Pet deserve a Gold Walkley? Well, if the award was for Best Production in a Podcast, perhaps not – if you agree with Dr McHugh’s critique. But as a piece of Investigative Journalism (it won that category too) it was undoubtedly worthy of its accolades. What’s more, it has, despite its technical shortcomings, engaged with millions of people around the world. 
I’m not suggesting that every song that goes to number one is necessarily good but it isn’t necessarily bad either. In fact, many of the best songs that have stood the test of time were enormously popular hits when released and still top polls of greatest songs.
Having said that, I doubt that any of those greatest hits are poorly written, performed or produced. And one wonder’s if readers of Hedley Thomas’s articles in The Australian would not be constantly complaining to the editor if they were riddled with typos and grammatical mistakes.
My guess is that as the podcast market matures, listeners will become more discerning about production values, as they have become with radio, television and other media.
This isn’t the first time that the ‘quality versus popularity’ argument has been raised on radioinfo. In March this year the self-confessed “wanker” Helen Razer (left) broached the subject by criticising this very publication. Oh, the impudence, the impertinence!
She wrote in The Daily Review, “Radio trade mags are intended not to elevate the work of broadcast but to efficiently diminish the broadcast worker. Radio trade mags distance the worker from the possibility of creative labour.”

We get our fair share of criticism here at radioinfo but no-one has ever said to me, ‘You know what? I’m sick of how you guys distance the worker from the possibility of creative labour. Either stop it or I’ll cancel my subscription!’

Ms Razer continued: “So, what these business documents can never provide is a true account of broadcast itself. If it’s all market share, messaging and ways to please some Adult Contemporary gobshite boss from the lower north shore, there can be no legitimate criticism of what comes out of the radio. They can describe this as a commodity only. They cannot tell us if it is good or bad. They only know if it has been profitable.”
Ms Razer forgets that stations can only be profitable if the content attracts sufficient numbers of listeners. And ultimately, it is they who determine whether the station is good and by extension, profitable. 
Kyle and Jackie O or Alan Jones like many of the highset profile radio presenters, their loyal listeners love them but those that aren’t, despise them. That’s why they make chocolate AND vanilla… and strawberry, raspberry and mint (yuck) too.
If most consumers prefer chocolate, can you blame the confectionary industry for producing more of it than vanilla or (yuck) mint?

I invite you to contribute to this debate of Good versus Evil… I mean Popular by leaving your comments below. You just need to be registered and logged in. Registration is free.


Peter Saxon

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