IN 2005 I BEGAN HOSTING an ABC local radio program called The Conversation Hour. The program had its beginnings in Brisbane, but the following year it was brought into Sydney and NSW, and then eventually to all the other Australian states and territories (except Victoria, which features Jon Faine’s popular Conversation Hour in the same time slot).
My first producer was the brilliant Kellie Riordan and we agreed that the show should often feature citizen storytellers who were unknown to the wider community but who had a story to tell that was wonderful, weird, intense, funny or moving or all of those things. It was these ‘unfamous’ guests that listeners responded to most strongly, because they felt they could measure their own lives against them.
In 2006, Kellie went on to bigger and better things and a new producer, the amazing Pam O’Brien came on board. Pam had worked for years at the BBC as a TV director, until she gave came with her family to live in Australia.
WHEN WE BEGAN on the program, the conventional wisdom at the time was that no radio interview should run longer than seven minutes. But we were sure there was an appetite for something richer, less combative and more discursive - something that would appeal to the head and the heart at the same time. We changed the name to Conversations with Richard Fidler to differentiate the program from Jon’s show in Melbourne.
We podcasted the show right from the start. At first I regarded the podcast as another annoying thing we had to attend to at the end of the day, but our wise overseers at ABC Radio, to their credit, insisted we keep at it. I didn’t really start listening to podcasts until 2008, when I began to listen obsessively to some classic public radio shows from the US - This American Life, Radiolab and The Moth. I was also drawn into some outstanding history podcasts like Mike Duncan’s History of Rome and Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History. These shows were a revelation. Pam and I could hear that the people behind them were operating under a similar set of ideals to Conversations: a bias towards stories from everyday people, a preference for natural speech, an aversion to pompous media cliches (‘the tragic loss of life’, ‘the continuing crisis in the Middle East’ etc, etc.) and an appreciation for strangeness, paradox and humour.
In 2011 I received a Churchill fellowship to meet some of the people behind these programs, including Ira Glass, the founder and presenter of This American Life. Ira was generous and full of insights, and my interview with him can be found here. I was also invited to sit in with the Transom Story Workshop in Wood’s Hole, Massachussetts, established by the great Jay Allison.
I absorbed the lessons from my time in the US, and wrote a report for the Churchill Trust. Conversations began to change as I tried to make the program more immersive, and more - I can find no better word - cinematic. I wanted listeners to the podcast to feel like you do in that moment at the movies when the trailers finish, the houselights dim, the curtain widens and the feature starts.
The audience figures for the Conversations podcast began to climb, from twenty thousand to fifty thousand program downloads a month. That’s a lot of podcast hours and I figured we would have to reach a ceiling sometime soon. Then as the numbers climbed higher, we said we’d celebrate if the monthly figure reached 100,000 downloads. The following month they shot up to 125,000. In 2016 we began to record 1.9 million downloads a month.
IN THE LAST DECADE we've held live events in venues across Australia, from the Sydney Opera House to a tin-and-timber outback shearing shed. We've recorded conversations with guests in New York City, in tropical north Queensland, in Reykjavik and at the bedside of a woman who had so much to say and just ten more days left to live.