Giving voice to crime coverage

What is it about true crime stories that works so well in podcast format? Award-winning print journalist Richard Baker writes about diving into a new medium with The Age’s audio project “Phoebe’s Fall”. Photo above: Richard Baker recording “Phoebe’s Fall” in the studio.

One April morning this year I waltzed into The Age’s newsroom and announced to other members of the investigations team that I wanted to do a podcast.

Not just any podcast. What I had in mind was a bells and whistles six-part investigative series on the mysterious 2010 garbage chute death of young Melbourne woman Phoebe Handsjuk. Phoebe’s story was one I had covered on and off for several years and I’d not been able to let go of it. Having not yet gotten around to listening to the seminal “Serial” podcast, I for some reason thought Phoebe’s story would be best told through audio.

My colleagues’ reaction to the podcast idea was ambivalent. Podcasting wasn’t really on The Age or Fairfax Media’s agenda. Certainly not ambitious projects involving a baffling death, more than a dozen characters, highly questionable police and coronial investigations, and Victoria’s perhaps best-known legal family.

To their credit, Age editor in chief Mark Forbes, digital editor Michael Schlecta and my direct boss, investigations editor Michael Bachelard, let me have my head.

So I set off to see if Phoebe’s nearest and dearest would be willing to lay bare their emotions and secrets for the world to hear. I had no idea what I was doing or how much work lay ahead for the small team that would form to produce “Phoebe’s Fall”.

Inspiration
For the last 14 months of her life, Phoebe lived in a luxurious 12th floor apartment in Melbourne’s prestigious St Kilda Road with her boyfriend, Antony Hampel.

An events promoter who moved with the city’s A-List, Ant Hampel was almost 20 years her senior. His family was legal royalty. His father is retired Supreme Court justice George Hampel and his step-mother is sitting County Court judge Felicity Hampel.

The catalyst for the podcast was a message Ant Hampel’s older sister, Kristina Hampel, briefly posted on Facebook alongside a photo of herself and Phoebe earlier this year.

It read: “In loving memory, I just stumbled across my favourite pic of beautiful Phoebe. I miss you darling … You were a fragile little flower that no one watered. You and you’re (sic) family were let down by the justice system and those who represent it. I only hope that one day the truth will come out so that they may have some peace.”

This message was pulled down from Facebook not long after it was posted. But someone sent me the screenshot. As soon as I saw it, I knew it was the perfect ending for Phoebe’s story.

Challenges
My biggest rule in journalism is that relationships are king. If you don’t create them and nurture them, you can’t tell stories. I had maintained contact with Phoebe’s determined mother, Natalie Handsjuk, and her dogged grandfather, Lorne Campbell, since 2012.

Without the trust that had been built, there is no way others in Phoebe’s family and social circle would have felt comfortable speaking publicly and with such intensity.

You have to know when to give the listener a reward, but you also have to keep them hanging on.

My first attempt at interviewing Natalie wasn’t a total success. I thought it would be a good idea to take her on a long walk atop some steep cliffs on Victoria’s surfcoast. I thought we could capture some waves crashing and birds singing. But what we ended up with was lots of wind noise and a breathless Natalie.

I soon learned that these were rookie errors for anyone working in audio journalism. And we had bigger challenges ahead: Scripting and speaking into the microphone.

For a print journalist used to writing hard news, a podcast script is a bit like what Kenny Rogers bangs on about in “The Gambler”: You have to know when to give the listener a reward, but you also have to keep them hanging on.

By the end of July, we had hours of interviews done and evidence from Phoebe’s inquest reviewed and documented. But we still had no working script and the first recording of my voice was painful to listen to.

We urgently needed to sort things out if the podcast was to get off the ground.

The whiteboard
A crisis meeting of sorts was held in the boardroom at Media House in Melbourne. Aside from me, those present were Michael Bachelard, Age producers Tom McKendrick and Tim Young, ex Radio National journalist-turned-Fairfax training boss Julie Posetti and audio expert Siobhan McHugh as consultant producers, and Dewi Cooke, who would lead audience engagement.

Bachelard, who had taken on the executive producer job to manage the various parts of the Fairfax behemoth that would become involved, also came on board as a co-host. Our lack of broadcasting expertise meant that two voices might be better than one and give us a different dynamic.

The weekly deadline we’d set for ourselves to record and produce the next installment was comforting and confronting at the same time.

Over a few hours, we plotted a chart on a whiteboard that would become the spine of our six episode series. McHugh, who teaches at Wollongong University, urged us to tell Phoebe’s story in a thematic rather than chronological way. It was a breakthrough moment.

Writing episode one took weeks and hundreds of emails back and forth, as we had a democratic approach to script, pacing, spacing and sounds. Recording the first episode also took hours as Michael and I struggled to relax and be ourselves.

Thankfully, writing and recording mostly got easier as we went along. The weekly deadline we’d set for ourselves to record and produce the next instalment was comforting and confronting at the same time. It was our producers, McKendrick and Young, who had the hardest job in fine-tuning every detail.

Why a podcast?
By the time we were ready to launch “Phoebe’s Fall” in September, I had of course heard “Serial”. It was compelling. Locally, The Australian’s Dan Box had put out the engrossing “Bowraville” podcast while we were recording and writing our own.

Through voice and sound, you can get inside the audience’s heads in ways that you just cannot when relying on the written word.

Both of those podcasts displayed why it is such a good medium for journalism. Through voice and sound, you can get inside the audience’s heads in ways that you just cannot when relying on the written word. The story and the characters come alive in our imaginations. It is a most intimate form of storytelling.

A big challenge we have in Australia compared to our US counterparts is the lack of access to official footage or audio from police and the courts. In the Netflix documentary Making a Murderer, even police interviews with a teenage Brendan Dassey were available.

But for “Phoebe’s Fall”, we had to deal with a Coroner who refused to use his discretion to release audio from Phoebe’s inquest. This meant we had to rely on actors to read transcripts. We also faced ongoing suppression orders over the entire police brief of evidence to the inquest, even though a finding had been handed down two years earlier.

Siobhan McHugh and Julie Posetti in studio.

Aftermath
It was gratifying to see “Phoebe’s Fall” sit atop the iTunes chart for podcast downloads in Australia for about five weeks. So far, around 750,000 people have downloaded the series — far more than I ever expected.

We attracted a paying sponsor, which pleased the bean counters and built some credibility for Fairfax in a new field that holds immense promise for long-form investigative storytelling. The series also prompted debate on reform of Victoria’s Coroner’s Act and asked hard questions of the justice system.

“Phoebe’s Fall” needed the skills of a small, committed team and the backing of a media company with enough resources to allow us to devote many hours to one story. It also needed a gutsy, loving family with the courage to speak up on behalf of a daughter, sister and friend lost so young.

I look forward to more podcasts from Australian newsrooms and hope to do it again when the right story comes along.

Richard Baker is a Walkley-winning investigative reporter with The Age.