Sep 14 • 35M

The Unmakers: Richard Baker's plan to build 'the best independent premium audio storytelling house in the Southern hemisphere'

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Insights into the media and marketing industry from an Australian perspective, from the founder of Mumbrella and the author of the best selling book Media Unmade, Tim Burrowes
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Welcome to the latest episode of The Unmakers, Unmade’s podcast series where we talk to the people remaking the media and marketing world. 

If you're an unmaker with a story to tell about how you're changing the media and marketing world, we’d love to hear from you on letters@unmade.media.

Baker:

Today we talk to Richard Baker, one of Australia’s most awarded investigative journalists. Later this month he leaves The Age after more than two decades to start his own independent audio company - Southern Ocean Media.

Today's episode of The Unmakers was edited by Abe's audio.

Transcript:

Tim Burrowes:
In today's episode of the Unmakers, I talked to Richard Baker, one of Australia's most awarded investigative journalists. In just a few days time, Richard departs The Age where he spent most of his professional career, 23 years. He's launching his own podcasting company, Southern Ocean Media. The new direction is not completely out of the blue. Richard's been involved in the creation of several fascinating investigative podcasts. That includes true crime podcast, Wrong Skin, Phoebe's Fall, which was the investigation into the mysterious death of Phoebe Handsjuk and the failures of the justice system involved in that case, and tale of drug smuggling, The Last Voyage of the Pong Su. I started off by asking Richard about the amazing work that he's done for The Age first, when it was owned by Fairfax and more recently by Nine and asked, "Why was he leaving?"

Richard Baker:
It's a good question, one I've obviously asked myself from time to time. A couple of reasons. One, I just feel ready for a new challenge. I guess I came straight to The Age at the age of 21, so fresh right out of uni. And I had a summer break and started my cadetship. And I've had a wonderful time and I wouldn't change anything, and I couldn't have imagined to have had such a career there and I'm very grateful for all the opportunities. But I just felt like I needed a new challenge and I felt like I could do the audio storytelling that I wanted to do more efficiently and how I want to do it, I think without all the natural or usual... sluggishness isn't the right word, but bureaucracy of a big organisation. And that sort of criticism that's just a fact of life when you're dealing with any big organisation, the allocation of resources and things needs a lot of people to tick off on. And I guess maybe now at the age of 44, I'm just getting more impatient and wanting to do things my way.

Tim Burrowes:
Yeah. I suppose that's the thing, particularly when one's doing something like podcasts where you are planning on investing a huge amount of time. It's not unrealistic that when you're working with an organisation, you've got to sell that idea and that proposal in. And of course, people might agree with you to do it, or they might not, but either way, there's just an effort to get the ball rolling, I suppose.

Richard Baker:
Oh, that's, yeah, spot on. And that again, it's just the way it is. It's not a criticism. And I think a lot of big media organisations that have not been broadcast based or audio based are still grappling or still trying to work out what their strategy is when it comes to podcasting. And there's a lot out there, there's a lot of really good stuff. There's a lot of not so good stuff. How do you find the formula that works for you and your organisation? And I guess I've found, I think I've found a formula that I think I can make work for what I like to do. So rather than working in a combative sense or frustrated sense, why not just take a punt and go out and give it a go? And if the worst thing that happens is that it doesn't work, well hopefully there's always other lines of work or other opportunities in the media to fall back on.

Richard Baker:
But yeah, it's the right time and place and yeah, it's fair enough in a big organisation too, that not everyone's going to agree with the way you see things. And I'm very narrow focused. I don't have my eyes across all areas of the business, that's not my job. And I'm just determined and pretty hell bent on doing what I believe in. So I'm probably a pain to manage as well because I'll ask for forgiveness rather than ask for permission.

Tim Burrowes:
I'm guessing you must have a bit of an entrepreneurial streak as well. I've got a vague memory. You won't remember this, you spoke at a Mumbrella event that we organised, actually not far from where I'm recording this now, in Tasmania. And you were talking about The Last Voyage of the Pong Su and you'd just been out and sold the ads yourself.

Richard Baker:
That's right. Yeah, yeah. I just had an idea there for a synergy, I guess. I was with the TAC in Victoria, which is the Transport Accident Commission. And I thought, well, the great ocean road, which is where the Pong Su story, a lot of the drama took place is a popular road, but can be a dangerous road and also drink and drug driving, because the podcast was about a big heroin shipment. I thought there were a few just natural selling points there and I thought, oh, why not go and see if the TAC wanted to be involved, and thankfully they were. And so that was my one and only... we’re normally not allowed to get involved in the advertising side of the business for good reasons. But yeah, I do have an entrepreneurial streak and that's what I'm hoping to explore with my company and through a strategy that sort will really carefully target audience in terms of what podcasts I put out.

Richard Baker:
So I'll be looking to do more of... I've got two more longer form things, narrative or investigative series underway or in development already. And then looking to launch two more weekly chat style things which will be targeted towards... one, towards people who are interested in the media or working in the media and it'll be fairly, hopefully some lively debate, but also informative and educative for people about how stories happen and what happens when things go wrong. So there's really high-end people involved in that. And then another one, looking at the relationship between animals and their owners, and I think there's an audience there too.

Tim Burrowes:
Look, I think there probably is. And I guess there's only so much you’re going to be able to say about the ones you are working on. And I think you've already partly answered the question I was going to ask, which was, I suppose if I had to sum you up as a podcaster, I'd say a cold case investigator. Will we see that characteristic come through or is that not how you think of yourself when you think of yourself as a podcaster?

Richard Baker:
Yeah. In the ones that I'm looking at, no, they're not cold cases. I do have one more podcast series coming out through The Age and Sydney Morning Herald, it's going to be called The Confession, and that will be out hopefully in October, some time, around mid-October. And that's really good, and that's a look at the criminal justice system and some remarkable audio from the Supreme Court of cross examination of some senior homicide detectives about the adequacy of their police work when an item thought long lost is discovered and it upends everything. And then you've got the person at the centre of it all was the woman who was charged with a murder and convicted that she was adamant always, she didn't do. So sort of telling her story, but through that, we get this lens into the working of the justice system.

Richard Baker:
So I guess in sort of showcasing that new thing coming out there and getting back to answering your question, yeah, the ones I've done are looking at cold cases or events, but then try to do stuff that there's extra layers to. So with the Wrong Skin thing, it was about actually bringing the issues, that encounter people living in a remote Aboriginal community up in the far northwest of Western Australia deal with in their daily lives, but also in their beliefs and living in too, in a world where there are almost two systems of law and trying to bring that out to the wider audience, to the rest of Australia.

Richard Baker:
And yeah, I mean an unsolved or a tragedy where you've got a young mum found dead after missing for nearly 12 months and then her boyfriend who she wasn't meant to be with because of their skin groupings, never been seen since 1994 and would be presumed dead. I find that fascinating. And I made it that point in that podcast. If the woman in that story, Julie Buck was a white mum from Melbourne Sydney or Perth, at the age of 24 and she went missing and then was found under a tree, two k’s from her house and hadn't been solved I reckon everyone would know about it. But because it happened where it did and when it did and within the group of people, it did... no one had ever heard of it. So for me, that's the reason to do the story.

Tim Burrowes:
What's your assessment of The Teacher's Pet's place in the landscape, now that that case is over?

Richard Baker:
Oh, well it's a force of nature. Yeah, a very powerful podcast, it's obviously hit a nerve or hit a touching point with a lot of people were fascinated by the story. And I think Hedley Thomas and The Australian are very combative journalists and I think the overall result and what it showed was, for me, you can argue around a lot of stuff and there's a lot of debate about interfering with witnesses or how much of the work was underway by the police strike force or whatever, but ultimately, I think without the power of the podcast and the investigation, and then the force with which Hedley and The Australian execute their case, that that prosecution wasn't going to happen without that energy. And I guess that the other thing it raised is if most of these facts were known back at the many, many, many years ago, why wasn't there an attempt to prosecute?

Richard Baker:
So I think that was for me, the real powerful takeaway from that work. I think I have a different style, to the way I do it, I'm not saying it's better or worse. And it certainly, yeah, my style isn't to go out and just point the finger at someone day after day and say they did it. Now that may be weak of me or whatever, but I don't feel that that's my place. It's certainly our place to showcase, highlight weaknesses, the gaps, ask the questions, but I don't think it's our job to prosecute necessarily. So it's a scale.

Tim Burrowes:
It is. It's difficult, isn't it? Because I suppose I think about something like Phoebe's Fall, which I think, and obviously one has to choose one's words carefully here as a listener to all of the evidence, one, comes to a conclusion that the coroner could have been more curious to say the least, and that perhaps her family didn't enjoy the full workings of the justice system. There was obviously a lot to get angry about in there. And I suppose it's yes, how you find that balance of forensically telling it versus full on crusading journalism. So you'd put yourself maybe one or two dots back from The Teacher's Pet on the spectrum presumably then?

Richard Baker:
Yeah, I would. And again, it's each to their own in this and my view is each to their own in this at the moment. But my view is that we're in a bit of a dangerous ground in Australia and worldwide that journalism's becoming activism. And that's not in relation to The Teacher's Pet or anything like that. This is a much more general comment and it gets tied up in identity politics and ideology and stuff. And I just think we find out new facts, we present new stuff, we give, try and give every voice, every side to something, a say and use our judgment and intellect to follow the strongest facts and ask the questions and raise doubts and create doubt and obviously create discussion. But yeah, crusading journalism turns me off, frankly, because I think they lose people who take it that far, lose objectivity.

Richard Baker:
And then we get a symptom of the media, different sides attacking each other and things like that. And that's just very tiring and I don’t think it serves the community or our audiences very well. They couldn't give two hoots about journalists taking pot shots at each other. I think we just admire the way different people do their work. And it's only my personal point of view that yeah, there's a line between journalism and activism. And I think for whatever reason, maybe it's some social media stuff too or things that in some cases, we're just getting too close to that line or stepping over it. And it's not my cup of tea, but it may be for others.

Tim Burrowes:
And obviously a lot of this is important, is public interest journalism, which is notoriously hard to fund. How are you thinking about the business model of actually making this happen? Because a lot of time and effort is going to go into this. So how will you structure it to actually make sure that you can make a living from it?

Richard Baker:
Yeah. I've thought pretty hard about that. And I'm putting, I guess I'm putting on my chips on the table, in my faith, in my ability to do these stories and do them well and that there is an interest there. And so for all those longer, what I call longer form, a series, it would be a commission based thing. So you would want to take the story and the package and present that to a platform like a Spotify, Audible, the BBC, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Apple. There's a number out there. The hunger for really good, unique content is strong. I think if we're honest in podcasting and even in streaming now, I think we're seeing a real discrepancy in... there's some really good stuff. I think there's some pretty ordinary stuff out there as well. And so I'd be hoping to... and I've been quite careful in the stories that I'm would be presenting there, that there are global, universal themes that are interesting for people not confined to a geographic region.

Tim Burrowes:
I was going to ask about that because I was sort of thinking... I mean, firstly, because the organisations you mentioned are all global organisations, even if they've got footprint in Australia as well. I was thinking of someone like Mark Fennell, who's done some great podcasts, but he's always found really quirky, interesting, internationally interesting angles. They're not Aussie specific and the things you are working on, that's similar again, is it?

Richard Baker:
Yes. Yeah. So there's obviously in the two that I'm sort of developing at the moment, there's an obvious Australian angle and connections, but a lot of the action takes place, in one of them, takes place, not in Australia, but in multiple countries overseas and involves other characters from United States, Canada, to the Middle East.

Tim Burrowes:
Sounds expensive.

Richard Baker:
Yeah. Yes and no. Yeah. I mean it all comes down to budget, right, in terms of what you can do. But I guess, and you mentioned guys like Mark earlier, but one thing, I think, or one skill we have coming from Australian journalism, newsrooms and things is I’m my own fact checker, I don't have a researcher, I don't have a fact checker - any of those things. I do a lot of my…. I’m a bush lawyer, because I’ve been around enough, I kind of know in the writing of what I can get away with what I can't. So of course things still have to be legal, but what I'm saying is the overheads aren't that high. Yeah, there's travel and other things and I'll put my hand up and go, I'm not the world's greatest producer or sound designer, and I don't want to be, because I want to be one of the best at finding, writing and creating. So there's got to be money for that.

Tim Burrowes:
And do you see yourself as employing those people or is it more likely that that will sit with the people that you're licensing this content to when it comes to sound design, that sort of thing?

Richard Baker:
I'd be hoping to arrange in the budget that I can employ the people that I want to work with, that I think, that I know can do the job. And whether that be, it would have to be a project to project arrangement. So it would have to work for those people, but there's obviously a lot up for negotiation and discussion, but in my head, that's how that would be. Because I've already had discussions with certain people that I admire their skills and would really like to work with again or to work with in the future, would they like to come on board for those projects? And so there's that angle to the business model. And then by trying to set up the shorter, more weekly things and sponsored stuff, obviously that's about generating audience and income immediately and trying to grow through finding a niche or bringing out a product that either isn't there in the market or isn't being done as well as it could be perhaps. And just having a crack there and selling the idea and with that, I'll be getting some help.

Richard Baker:
So the guys from Ranieri & Co, which is another little Melbourne outfit who put out a great podcast early this year called Motherlode, which is on the early 90s hacking scene in Melbourne that spawned Julian Assange and stuff like that. So those guys there specialise in finding sponsors and advertising because they're ex-radio executives and stuff. So I'll be looking to work with them on one thing in particular. And so it's a bit of trial and error about stuff, but yeah, I've got a pretty clear idea of not having all your eggs in one basket. And I'll also be doing some consulting work to other companies or organisations that I guess have a good story or good stories in what they do for their work, but maybe having their trouble putting their finger on them and so coming in and helping, okay, let's have a look at what you do. Here's what I think you can do, so…

Tim Burrowes:
And could this go as far as helping them create effectively branded content for the podcast space?

Richard Baker:
Yeah, yeah, potentially. And again, it would be just on a if it fits basis, but yeah, absolutely, branded content. Or internal, if they're wanting to educate or upskill stuff or get a message across about stuff. Well, we've all had to sit through those mindless 45-minute slides shows for OH & S or whatever, or about new modules that you just… I can still manage to fail, even though you get all the right answers a million times, because I switch off, I don't pay attention because it's boring. So if you can create something with a story or a narrative to it and give your staff something that's really good to listen to and they can do it in when they're having a jog or at the gym or washing or whatever, that could be a better way of getting your message internally or externally than many other forums at the moment.

Tim Burrowes:
And the company's called Southern Ocean Media. Where does the name come from?

Richard Baker:
Well, it comes from where I grew up down the coast past Geelong. So in the Bellarine peninsula there and the surf coast, and a lot of my family is still back there and I've got a little place down there myself. And it's where I like to spend a lot of my time in the Southern ocean or around it, and yeah, I just like the name. It sort of speaks to me and the Southern ocean's mysterious and moody and it's got a bit of depth to it obviously and it changes. And so I just thought, yeah, it's kind of... it geographically places you without being too specific.

Tim Burrowes:
And let's talk about your ambitions for the company. I suppose anyone who listens to podcasts at some point listened to the Startup podcast, which was about a content maker going out on their own and had the fairy tale ending of being bought by Spotify for a gazillion dollars. Are you thinking that this is a cottage industry sort of bespoke artisan that you'll be the main voice or do you see it as becoming something bigger that might actually involve employing other journalists in time?

Richard Baker:
I'd really like to be able to employ other journalists in this and other professionals because I just want the company to be the best independent premium audio storytelling house in the Southern hemisphere. And I want it to be a repository and to grow and to bring other storytellers in under the, I guess, under the banner. And if I can provide them with the opportunity to do what they do so it's not always just me, I guess, if I can help through my experiences and learning the hard way, which I no doubt will throughout this new venture, can help other people and give other storytellers a platform and grow.

Richard Baker:
So it's got to be quality, that's all. It's just got to... And the story's got to be there for a reason, particularly, I believe, if it's a true crime thing, I don't see just raking over the colds of a salacious case that isn't telling us anything more or challenging something or whatever. I don't see any value in that. So that kind of stuff doesn't appeal to me, but yeah, just getting the inside story, I guess, and then what's the deeper meaning that we can take away that almost tells us something about ourselves as people through exploring this. And they're the things that interest me.

Richard Baker:
So yeah, I want to grow it and it's still maybe artisan and boutiquey and bespoke, but yeah, I'd love to, because I like working with people and I love seeing what other good storytellers and good journalists can do and if I can get that happening. And the way I look at it too, as part of the business model too, is the I.P. that you create in a narrative podcast, if you own that, then that's yours to then on license or sell. I know in the streaming world and screen production is something I'm interested in and learning a bit more there and have a couple of sort of very early work going on a few fiction or based on experiences script, getting written at the moment.

Richard Baker:
And again, I've got no idea if they'll fly, but I think at the heart of what the germ of the ideas there are really good and what I've road tested with people so far, people seem to say, yeah, you should have a go at doing that. And so I see the value in creating these long form things. If you get to commission, obviously, make it and try and make a living out of that but if you can retain the ownership of the I.P., gives you another chance to have that project or that story live on in another way.

Tim Burrowes:
And going back to something you touched on a few minutes ago when you sort of mentioned the fact that you do have, just from having been around the tracks, a pretty good legal knowledge, how are you thinking about the defamation risks involved? And I don't mean so much in terms of getting something wrong. Just the fact that powerful people, if they want to, can call in the lawyers and tangle you up. And that must have been one of the great things of being under the Nine umbrella was there were lawyers to help you stand your ground. How are you thinking about that as an independent?

Richard Baker:
Yeah, that's a really good question. Obviously, you've got to legally protect your assets and the way you structure your affairs, but also your company. And then, there's insurance policies as well which are expensive, but you would be getting those. And look, you can't stop someone from suing you, right? But I think you can mitigate a long way by just being, doing responsible journalism and giving people opportunities and things there. And then it may well be, and this is all hypothetical, but you put it out on a big platform, there might be a spread of the defamation risk there in a contract or something like that, that you would look to negate your risk to the fullest extent that you can. But you may not be able to negate it all, but yeah, then you get the homework done and have your assets separated from the vehicle.

Richard Baker:
So I know you look at what land developers do, for example, with the development, when they get whatever, five, three, two Hoppers Crossing Road or whatever, development Proprietary Limited, that's the vehicle through which that project is done. It's a $2 company, right? They try and protect their assets by the vehicle being a special purpose vehicle for a particular project, set it up, do the project through it, shut it down.

Tim Burrowes:
And I suppose one of the problems with defamation is of course they can also name individuals in the case as well, which I guess to a certain extent skirts around them. I mean, you must see it, I've only have experienced it right on the periphery. You must have seen so many lost hours, days, weeks, months of work spent on dealing with legal stuff. What do you make of the state of Australia's defamation laws?

Richard Baker:
They're a mess. Don't get me wrong though, my starting point is I believe people have a right to defend their reputation and investigative journalism does throw punches. It wouldn't be doing its job if it doesn't and there’s a balance there. But I just think at the moment, it's too easy, the onus on the journalist and the publisher or broadcaster to disprove an imputation and now an imputation is different to what's in the copy. An imputation is down to interpretation and I think the interpretation is very generous towards the plaintiff in most cases. And it's not healthy. It's not good for Australian democracy. Irresponsible journalism, yeah, absolutely, should be rightly condemned and punished. And if we make errors or we get it wrong and we're duty bound to tidy up our mess and cop our lumps quickly and without trouble for the person, that's been all the whoever's been harmed.

Richard Baker:
But it's hard, yeah. It's really hard to defend and you're right about the hours and the time and it makes reporters... it can just wear people down and make them gun shy on things that should be written or broadcast aren't being, or may not be, just purely because I can't go through this again. And your employer might go, we don't want to go through this again. And it has a real... Yeah, look, I can tell you without getting into examples, it is a constant discussion between journalists and editors at the moment about the defamation risk in a story, and is this story, is the bang for buck going to be worth it?

Tim Burrowes:
Now nearly final question, I suppose. Thing about new things, new media adventures, whatever they are. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don't. How much runway have you given yourself before you need to go and get a job again, working in big media or are you definitely done with that?

Richard Baker:
I wouldn't say I'm definitely done, but no, probably 18 months to two years, not being foolishly optimistic, I think, but I'm reasonably optimistic with a bit of trial and error and a little bit of luck I can make some of this work, if not most of it.

Tim Burrowes:
Well, the new venture is called Southern Ocean Media, Richard, the very best of luck.

Richard Baker:
Thanks Tim.

Tim Burrowes:
Thanks for listening to the Unmakers from Unmade. If you are an Unmaker, I'd love to talk to you. Email me, tim@unmade.media. Today's episode of the Unmakers was edited by Abe's Audio. I'm Tim Burrowes. Before you remake it, you've got to unmake it.

Speaker 1:
The Unmakers.

Speaker 4:
Podcast edit by Abe's Audio.