The Age’s Richard Baker on podcasting

Age investigative journalist Richard Baker. (Photo: supplied)

Even after 12 years in The Age‘s investigations team, and despite winning countless awards, Richard Baker still finds himself chasing a challenge.

So when he heard vague whispers about missing couple Julie Buck and Richard Milgin deep in the heart of Western Australia’s Kimberley region, he knew he’d found his next yarn.

“For me the attraction was this was a fascinating story in a culture most of us are totally unfamiliar with and there was nothing on it,” he said. “So it was a chance to actually bring it to life as a story and get a bit of momentum going for chances of justice.

“I think it was that combination of factors but for me probably what personally drove me first was the journalistic challenge was pretty immense.”

The result would become Baker’s latest investigative podcast with The Age, Wrong Skin, released in July this year. Beginning with the investigation of a cold case murder and a mysterious disappearance, the podcast moves on to explore issues of indigenous culture and traditions in an area of Australia little known by outsiders.

“One of the big attractions was being able to build a bridge or have some connection and understanding between the realities of life in a remote community, where they have social media and all the things we have but 40,000 years of culture as well, and then dealing with 200 years of colonisation and all of this stuff just sort of warping things,” Baker said.

“Trying to first make sense of that myself but then find a way to tell that story and broadcast that, so we could actually build some layers of understanding between big parts of Australia where most people live, like Melbourne and Sydney, and what goes on out there.”

The project was far more ambitious than Baker’s first foray into podcasting, an examination of the mysterious death of 24-year old Phoebe Handsjuk in a Melbourne rubbish chute. Phoebe’s Fall became a critical hit and topped the Australian iTunes charts during its six-week run.

“With Phoebe’s Fall we had the benefit of a family that was living very close to where I work, family and friends from similar cultural, socio-economic backgrounds to not only me but to the bulk of our audience, so doing what we were doing wasn’t unfamiliar,” he said.

“We had the benefit of … probably the biggest thing in a story sense, but also in a legal sense to protect you from things, which was [that] Phoebe’s case had been the subject of a coronial inquest, so we had access to 25 or 26 days of hearings and the transcripts for those. There were exhibits and different things like that to draw upon, so for me that made investigating and telling the story 100 times easier than doing the Wrong Skin story [where] we had nothing, nothing on paper at all.”

As an outsider tackling complex cultural issues deep inside Aboriginal Australia, Baker had to tread lightly. In gathering information and making contacts, he says he does his best to be ethical above all else.

“When you are having a go at a person or an individual [you ask yourself], ‘Am I justified in doing this?’,” he said. “‘Why am I bringing this up; what relevance is it to the story?’ And there was lots of gratuitous stuff we could have put in both podcasts to make people look worse.

“We didn’t because I’m a big believer in less is more, and that your restraint will actually hold you in good stead down the track.

“Even in other bits of journalism, not podcasts, I’ve found when I’ve done stories that are really bad for a particular person, that the way you conduct yourself [in] that story and giving them a opportunity … You can actually turn a subject who you’ve written a story about that is absolutely terrible for them at that point in time, but they survive, and as time goes on, they can actually become a contact or a source for you down the track.

“Because they might not like or appreciate what you did but they respected the way you went about it. So that’s always a really good thing to keep in mind, when you are out there and you’re going to talk to someone who’s a subject of a negative story, is really trying to engage, cut them a bit of slack. Where’s the grey? Can you see if I was in that situation how would I have responded? So put yourself in their shoes.”

Baker is particularly energised by the way podcasting allows him to communicate and interpret stories for his audience, and he appears to relish the challenges offered by telling them in an ever-evolving medium.

“I like that it’s a permanent story that can still be updated,” he said. “I like it that I guess there’s an audience out there that likes to spend time.

“So if you’re into a podcast or whatever, you’ll dedicate a segment of your day, put it aside to go, ‘Right, well that 20 minutes or 40 minutes or whatever, I’m going to get in this world,’ and it seems like the emotional response from your audience is far richer and far deeper than it is even for a really good bit of writing.

“So I like that, and I also like the honesty of a podcast in that it’s not just me telling you what someone said. You’re actually hearing, hopefully, what someone said. So you bring to life a story in a way that I think is much more emotional and impactful, and it’s sort of its own set piece of journalism or art, or whatever you want to call it, and it’s just there forever.

“It’s become a saturated market, though. There’s an insatiable audience out there for true crime stuff, and that was one of the things we wanted to do with Wrong Skin is that, yeah, there’s this apparent criminal element to it, but understanding that and unwrapping that takes you to a world that’s far beyond just white-bread true crime, which I actually think is getting pretty boring.”

The winner of multiple journalism awards, including several Walkleys, Baker is able to sum up in one word what makes a great investigative journalist.

“Stubbornness,” he said. “You’ve got to be a good people person because stories always start and end with people, and so for me that’s the biggest challenge of being an investigative journalist … just to be able to mix or relate to people from all sorts of walks of life or backgrounds.”

Yet for all the challenges Baker faces in the course of his work, he believes the character of people attracted to journalism as an industry remains one of its most appealing factors.

“Journalism attracts some pretty weird people,” he said. “But that’s what makes it good.”