Richard Glover is happy to serve up hot, buttery chunks of life. It's not hard news, but it paints a more complete picture of the world.
On ABC Local Radio, in between the political news and stock-market reports, we sometimes invite talkback calls on what could be called "lighter" topics. A few months back, there was a discussion of clothing and the ages at which various styles became untenable. One listener, Mary, wrote in to complain. She thought the subject matter trivial and gave some advice: "Lift your game."
So why do we include such discussions?
If we left them out, wouldn’t it allow more time for more substantial issues? Are we trying to be "downmarket" by discussing such matters?
I've been pondering these sorts of questions for years – first as news editor and page-one editor of The Sydney Morning Herald then, for the last 15 years, as the presenter of Drive on ABC Local Radio in Sydney.
In journalism courses at university, George Orwell is often quoted. "Journalism," he wrote, "is printing what someone else does not want printed. Everything else is public relations." I love Orwell, yet I believe this definition of journalism can end up producing a quite distorted picture of the world.
I prefer a different starting point. I'd put it this way: "The aim of good journalism should be to leave readers and listeners with an accurate sense of the world." I'd like to feel that if someone spent a fair amount of time with a newspaper or a radio show they would emerge with a nuanced sense of their city, their country, their world.
The menu would contain plenty of hard news, much of it fairly bleak. Within those stories there would be at least some of what Orwell ordered: information someone wanted to keep quiet.
Yet to only offer this sort of hard news is to hold up a distorted mirror, as if everything is conflict and collapse, crime and calamity.
Much of the media does run such an agenda – partly, I suspect, because it's easier to achieve. It requires less thought and creativity, less time spent really listening to the world and trying to hear its various tunes, outside the hand-holding of the AAP news diary.
Maybe, too, some believe the audience has a taste for the bleak – "if it bleeds, it leads" is the old news editor’s slogan.
Some claim our epidemic of depression and anxiety might be partly due to the bleak sense of the world transmitted by the "hard news" media. Perhaps. Certainly people have an exaggerated fear of crime, presumably because of its over-reporting.
So how do you try to deliver an accurate sense of the world during a three-hour radio program? My answer is to reach for a mix of subjects, some drawn from a "non-news" agenda of people's own experience and lives.
Talkback about, say, kids' sport may seem trivial. A question such as "tell us about the relationship between your child and their coach" may seem soft-minded. Yet the stories that emerge are a way of saying: "Yes, our world contains shocking crimes that make you feel nervous on the streets, but it also contains young men, often from recent-immigrant communities, often with no children of their own, who give up their time to coach a ragtag team of local kids."
If you want to know what life is like in this city, right now, it’s good to have a sense of both these things.
Many media outlets – newspapers and TV news – have difficulty accessing this day-to-day, happier world. They can't just suggest a topic and invite contributions. It's a strength of both radio and the internet.
Twenty years ago I worked at the Herald with Max Prisk, a fine editor. We'd talk often about how to break free from the straitjacket in which we felt ourselves constrained, caught in a self-referential world of lobby groups, political parties, the NRMA, the RSPCA and so on. I remember Max shaking his head in frustration. "I'd like to just get a reporter to walk down George Street, find some small doorway, knock on it, and tell the story of what was inside."
It was his way of dreaming about a journalism that could include the whole world and not just this news-agenda shadow of the world.
I took his idea and proposed a series called "13 Church Street" in which I'd write about people who lived at 13 Church Street in various suburbs and towns. The idea didn’t work out, but it was driven by this hunger to smuggle a chunk of the real world into the newspaper.
Which brings us back to the discussion about clothing and the process of ageing. It followed a quite harrowing discussion about the new refugee policy with David Manne, the lawyer who torpedoed the federal government's refugee policy, and ranged from sharp banter about particular shoe designs – "are Crocs unfashionable at any age?" – to an acute observation from a 73-year-old woman about her "invisibility".
She could wear a hot pink mini-skirt and still the store assistant would serve the young person standing directly behind her. It was reality, served up hot and buttery, by turns funny and insightful. Some other time I'd like to write about the sexism that defines some subjects as "serious hard news" and other material as "lifestyle". The overexcited boys'-own-adventure-sports-call of the bombing of Baghdad at the start of the second Iraq war would be presented by many as the perfect example of "serious journalism"; a life-changing discussion of, say, handling children after divorce would be labelled as "lifestyle".
Really? I don’t know that I agree.
None of this, of course, is to say we make the right decisions all the time, or even most of the time. Just that our intentions are serious even when our topics are at their silliest, and that we set out each day to capture an accurate, nuanced sense of the world, scooping up at least part of its colour and variety.
Richard Glover presents Drive on 702 ABC Sydney; richardglover.com.au