Our interview series Five Minutes With… sees us speaking to those in the writing and publishing industry – authors, journalists, editors, biographers, translators – to discover what compelled them to start sharing stories, and the hurdles they’ve overcome along the way. This week we spoke with broadcast journalist Kirsti Melville.
Kirsti, where has your work appeared?
My documentaries are currently broadcast on the program I present – ABC Radio National’s Earshot – but over the years my work has been broadcast locally on Life Matters, Triple J, Background Briefing, 360documentaries, Hindsight and Street Stories, and internationally on Ireland’s national public service media organization RTE’s Documentary on One, and the Third Coast International Radio Festival’s Re:Sound program.
When and why did you enter broadcast journalism?
I like to joke that it was because I’m incredibly nosy and holding a microphone gives you permission to ask anyone anything, but really it was about giving voice to the traditionally powerless and illuminating social justice issues that might otherwise go unreported. I gravitated towards the tough, taboo subjects right from the start. The very first documentary I ever produced was as a university student and it was about the forced sterilization of young women with intellectual disabilities.
Off the back of that doco, I was granted an internship at ABC RN in 1993 working on a pilot for a kid’s radio show and I’ve been there ever since.
What hurdles have you overcome, and what have been your biggest wins?
I think one of the greatest hurdles has been constantly adapting to changing forms of storytelling – especially now in this golden age of audio storytelling/podcasting. Once upon a time if you wanted to hear a radio documentary, you listened to RN. Now the options are endless and that’s awesome. It’s great for writers, for journalists, for listeners and for storytelling and it’s wonderful being part of such a vibrant community. BUT you have to work much harder to attract and to keep your audience.
On a more personal note, the most challenging story I’ve ever told was that of the childhood sexual abuse of my former partner and the father of my eldest child. It was traumatic and gruelling for us both but the documentary touched so many people and it had a HUGE response. Listeners donated more than $20,000 to help him get back on his feet. It was one of the hardest experiences of my life but also one of the most rewarding and heartwarming.
Don’t be afraid to ask the tough questions. Don’t be afraid to gently, forcefully, relentlessly go there. Put your hand up for every opportunity. Show grit, determination, flexibility and creativity.
What’s your advice for aspiring broadcast journalists?
Don’t be afraid to ask the tough questions. Don’t be afraid to gently, forcefully, relentlessly go there. Put your hand up for every opportunity. Engage with other journalists on social media. Get your name out there. Record, produce and distribute your work. Redundancies are at an all-time high in mainstream media and there are more broadcast degrees than ever before. You have to stand out from the crowd. Show grit, determination, flexibility and creativity.
What do you envisage for the future of broadcast journalism?
This is a tough one. The journalism industry is under more pressure than I’ve ever witnessed. As I just mentioned, many journalists are losing their jobs and we’re all being asked to do more with less at a time when we need thoughtful, quality journalism more than ever. Broadcasters are competing with on-demand video and audio streaming services from all around the world. So there’s a much greater focus on ratings and numbers and producing shorter products for a time-poor audience.
Having said that, in the radio/podcast world we’re seeing brilliant longform work coming out of the the US with S-Town and Serial, out of The Wheeler Centre in Melbourne with The Messenger and, of course, from the ABC. So I do have hope that quality journalism will prevail.
What was your most rewarding experience at UWRF?
Oh so many! Do I have to choose just one? If so, I would have to say chairing a session at UWRF 2016 with the author of A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara. I had read her extraordinary book by the pool in between sessions at UWRF 2015, not long after I’d produced that documentary about the sexual abuse experienced by my former partner. I was stunned by how perfectly she captured the damage and self-loathing of a survivor of sexual abuse. She was the most emotionally intelligent, generous, articulate and poetic person I’ve ever interviewed. And utterly delightful. So that’s not only a UWRF highlight but a highlight of my life and career.
But, because I really can’t just stop at one rewarding experience, I’m also going to have to say that my highlight every year is the opportunity to listen to extraordinary people tell their stories and the friends I’ve made through this shared love of books and culture.
Follow Kirsti on Twitter: @kirstimelville, and listen to her UWRF16 In Conversation with Hanya Yanagihara here.