BEHIND THE SCENES with Jesse Cox and Mike Williams

What's Long Story Short 's creation story?

JC: The conversation that started Long Story Short was actually over a hard drive and some raw audio files we were trying to tidy up after a project. Mike was working for the ABC in Melbourne and I was working on All the Best in Sydney. I can't quite remember how the conversation turned from file management to program ideas, but a couple of hours later we had the basic premise for the show mapped out. Over the next couple of months we had a few more long conversations poking and prodding the idea before we felt we had a program that we could pitch.

We knew we wanted to tap into the growing culture of radio storytelling that was gaining momentum in Australia and we also wanted to make the show distinctively Australian. American radio had been a big inspiration for a lot of us younger producers, but we were also really clear that we wanted to look to Australian radio traditions as well. We decided we would combine the direct storytelling and narration that was coming out of the States with a strong sound design aesthetic that looked to Australian and European radio for inspiration. Importantly all the stories would be about Australia. We sent the pitch off to Radio National and people liked the idea and wanted to meet, then they liked it some more and so wanted to hear a pilot, and then they liked the pilot and commissioned the series. We were a couple of young producers (we still are young) and we suddenly found ourselves 6 months from that first phone call with our own program on the national broadcaster.

How would you describe LSS as a person, and is it a stretch to say this person is (somewhat) a combination of the two of you, as hosts?

JC: If Long Story Short was a person, I feel like it went through puberty during the series. Somewhere in the middle of the season you can hear its voice breaking and it definitely went on a few first dates. It would be the kind of person who likes to chat and meet a lot of different people. And ask lots of questions. I'd like to think that they'd be a bit of a risk taker too, and not be afraid to try lots of different things.

We actually started off the series not wanting to have a strong host presence. We were really scared that we would fall into the trap of 'This is...That was' and so our solution was to jump into the stories as fast as possible with little to no introduction. Listening back to the first few episodes it's sometimes hard to hear many pauses because everything is so quick. We realised it was way too fast and so it became important for us to develop a voice and presence as presenters as well as feature makers. This was one of the biggest things we worked on with our series producer Lorena Allam.

Another big part of developing the identity of LSS was trying to define exactly what a short story was and we had endless chats about this with a lot of different people. We had very much billed the program with an emphasise on short but we were also keeping the door open to a whole range of styles for our storytelling, so the program needed to find what would tie it all together. In the end allowing our personalities to come out on air was what became the glue. We were telling and playing each other the stories as much as we were playing and telling the stories to the audience. We gave ourselves a licence to joke around and ask each other questions, and we started to be more creative with our presentation weaving our script links in amongst short grabs and sounds. So ultimately yeah, LSS is very much a combination of Mike and me both in terms of our personalities and our radio making styles. We had half an hour to play each week and we really took that as a licence to experiment.

How did you discover Rick's story, and what drew you to telling it on the radio?

MW: We had an episode about town shows (carnivals) and I was struggling to find any leads online that fit. I noticed there was a show happening only half an hour from my house so I jumped in the car and made a decision that I wouldn't come home till I had a story. The plan was simple – talk to as many people as I could until I came across something... sounds a bit crazy but it's not the first time I've done this sort of story fishing. In the spirit of Studs Terkel, I think most people have something to share; it's just up to us to throw the rod out and catch it. Of course, like any fishing trip, there's a bit of luck involved. Rick was the very first person I struck up a conversation with, funny how it happens like that...

Rick's story works on the radio for a couple of reasons; it's one guy telling you some of the darkest bits of his life – very intimate details - perfect for the most intimate medium. Rick recaps scenes in his life, like when he's standing on the edge of the cliff we're right there with him in our imagination – trying to tell this for TV would probably be boring and just wouldn't work.

Can you talk specifically about the extra production used throughout Persevering Rick ? How did the sound design take shape?

MW: The interview (conversation) at the show was really long and not in any order, it was raining and the atmos was really heavy so I drove to his house two days later and we went through everything again in a quiet room. I also knew where to take it. Because of the show's fast turn around I only had a day to cut it so I think there's a lot more we could have done but I feel it's always better to undercook sound design than go overboard so maybe the deadline was a virtue.

I edit with the natural rhythm of the speaker – often I'm just artificially emphasising this rhythm. The 'umms' at the start are an example of this. He paused and said “umm” as he was listing the horrible events that took place. These events were building up, each one multiplying the anxiety and leading to him driving to a cliff face. So with each umm I copied the one from before, so it doubles... then it triples, then I pitch shifted some of them down an octave. By the time he's about to make the decision to jump or not the umms are now unrecognisable; something else entirely; they represent the monster within him that he has to battle. I used pitch shifting later on when he confronts someone – it's another big decision point in his life and we're seeing that monster – the 'dark side' of Rick – creep back in. The music 'theme' was just 10 seconds of an Animal Collective song. RN sound engineer and producer extraordinaire Timothy Nicastri mixed the piece.

What are a few other episodes from Season 1 that stand out for you, and why?**

JC: I have a soft spot for Bob Hempel and his Ned Kelly robot museum from The Last Stand , as it was the first story we made for the pilot. Bob is a quintessential Australian eccentric plus it has one of my favourite twists at the end. In that piece you can really see a heap of ideas that we wanted to bring to the program and I feel like over the series a lot of those ideas became more resolved in different stories.

Easy Love by Jaye Kranz is a stand out for me because is shows the power of a short story. It takes a moment of tragedy in Warren's life from two decades earlier, something that happened by total chance, and manages to explore the impact that moment has had on his life incredibly beautifully in under 10 minutes.

In terms of a story that had a lot of us debating, Madeleine James' Last Throw of the Dice comes to mind. It's the story of a couple who decided to have a surrogate baby overseas and the legal grey areas they had to navigate to bring the babies home. Throughout the whole editorial process we probably spent as much time having philosophical discussions about whether or not we thought what they were doing was okay, than we did editing and mixing the feature. I think it's a story where there is no clear right or wrong and that's what made it challenging. It was also why is was so important that the role of the narrator was really neutral, which Madeleine does really well. We needed to give space for the story to be told, but not make any judgements. We wanted listeners to be faced with the same ethical questions we had been when putting it together.

I also I like the absurdity of Australia sending the army to take on a flock of wild birds in The Emu Wars and Lisa Pelligrino and Timothy Nicastri's When Pet Crocs Grow Up because it is similarly a uniquely Australian story.

How does LSS fit into the larger landscape of radio storytelling in Australia? We've heard a lot of (beautiful) long-from documentary work over the years, but LSS seems to be exploring new sonic and narrative territories. Have we picked up on something, or are we imagining things?

MW: In terms of long form (and when say long I mean 52 minutes) the senior Australian producer alumni are the experts for sure. However because of show formats, shorter creative work (less than 10 minutes) haven't been an area Australian makers have explored as deeply. Jesse and I recognised this gap so you're not imagining that this exact format is something different for the Australian public broadcaster.

Sonically and stylistically our approach was to combine the old school craft and values of Australian long form with the snappy narrative driven style that Americans are so good at (and which so many younger Australian radio makers are inspired by). What that actually turned out to be on air was something that changed and developed with each show. Whether it is new or not, I'll leave it for others to decide. But I can say I was annoyed when people said we were copying This American Life - we were also copying ideas from Radiolab , 360documentaries , The Night Air , Storycorps and lots of other fantastic storytelling shows!

What's down the road for LSS?

MW:Long Story Short was an experiment in every sense for us, as well as Radio National. It was a huge learning experience for me and I'm excited and looking forward to the challenge of collaborating on other new forms of creative audio.

JC: In lots of ways LSS was a sketch book of ideas, and now it's really exciting to be able to look at how those ideas will continue to grow across a number of projects. There are lots of incredibly exciting radio makers working in Australia at the moment and the art of radio storytelling is leading to some really interesting collaborations with non radio makers too. I'm really excited to see an independent sector grow in this country and to find ways to continue collaborating with existing networks and stations. I hope that LSS will act as a bit of a catalyst for that, and along with our peers and mentors we can all keep building Australia's radio and audio culture.