Andrew Denton talks Podcasting with Brad March
Andrew Denton’s ground-breaking podcast series Better Off Dead launches this week. It’s been more than a decade since he was on breakfast radio with Amanda Keller on Triple M Sydney, and his foray into podcasting sees Andrew tackle the serious and sensitive subject of euthanasia.
It was more than a year in the making. Andrew spoke to Brad March about the series.
What first caught your interest about podcasting the medium?
I thought it was the most interesting storytelling on offer in any media – and also some of the best journalism.
What podcasts did you start out listening to? Your favourites ?
It was early stuff from ‘Radiolab’ and ‘This American Life’ that first caught my ear. I’ve also really enjoyed Alec Baldwin’s ‘This Is the Thing’, ‘The Infinite Monkey Cage’, ‘Great Lives ’from BBC Radio 4, ‘StartUp, some of Marc Maron’s ‘WTF, Wendy Zuckerman’s ‘ Science Vs…: and Bill Maher’s ‘Real Time’
Your thoughts on podcasting as a medium in general and it’s future?
A brilliantly flexible medium – and a great reminder that radio is still the most creative and diverse of all media. It’s future? Very hard to monetize in a small market like Australia. In the US, I think a bright future – but it still helps if there’s a traditional media platform (eg NPR) to boost awareness.
What lead you to do a podcast series about death, in particular euthanasia?
I had agreed to give a public lecture arguing for assisted dying for the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne. I knew it would attract a lot of attention and I wanted to do it properly. Realising that I would be doing many interviews for research, I decided that, since I was going to record them anyway, I would make a podcast series out of them so people could follow the journey I had taken in reaching my conclusions for the speech.
How may episodes is Better Off Dead and how is it being distributed ? Where can listeners find it?
It’s a 17 part series (yes, I know, 17!!) and is available via• wheelercentre.com/betteroffdead (with supporting material)
• YouTube ( playlist)
• Omny (pending setup)
• Tune In Radio
* Pocket Casts
I will also come and perform all 17 episodes privately at parties, bar mitzvahs and funerals.
You were known for your forensic interviewing style on shows like Enough Rope. Have you done the same with your interview subjects on the Better off Dead series?
Sometimes forensic. Sometimes more informal. As with Enough Rope, there’s a lot of serious research that lies behind the questions.
You travelled a lot doing interviews for the series?
Yes. Criss-crossing Australia. Also to Belgium, the Netherlands and Oregon in the USA (twice) – all places where assisted dying is legal. And guess what? Contrary to the bullshit we’re constantly being fed here – the vast majority of people in these countries support these laws.
What were your overall observations about people who were dying who were considering euthanasia?
First of all – and, perhaps, most obviously – that these were people who had run out of options; most of them dying anyway, all of them with incredible, and untreatable, suffering. Secondly that, no matter how bad their suffering, and even if the option of assisted dying was available to them, nobody took the option easily. People cling to life like you can’t imagine.
Is there anyone in particular who you covered in the series that really made an impact and stuck with you?
Many. But the story of 48-year-old Australian woman Liz, a brilliant businesswoman dying of cancer, is particularly powerful. She’s one of the most articulate people I’ve ever met – which is saying something considering who I’ve had the good fortune to speak with in my career – and the story she tells of what it’s like to have to live, and die, in fear and alone because the only way she can do that is to import an illegal drug … well, I defy you to listen to it and not be filled with anger for what our current law puts her through (ep 2: How Dare You want To End Your Life: Liz’s Story)
It must have been an emotional and at times a harrowing journey and project?
I have spent the last year looking straight on at death and people who are dying. There has been much sadness, and times where I have felt emotionally exhausted. But, always, there was that sense of mission – what’s happening in Australia is unjust, these laws need to change – that drove me through. The more I saw people suffering needlessly, the more I felt determined to do something about it.
Better Off Dead seems like a passion project for you and one which will cause much discussion and some controversy?
I hope so. I hope it jolts the consciences of our politicians and doctors. I hope it informs the debate in this country which, up until now, has been poisoned and derailed by the same old discredited arguments, largely promoted by the Church. I hope it inflames people to speak out. Inflaming and informing – that’s the aim.
After putting this series together what are your own thoughts on euthanasia?
I believe that people who are suffering unbearably and untreatably have a right to ask for help to die. Simple as that.
Spending so much time researching, discussing and interviewing people about death, does it change your view on life at all?
I’ve always been more in favour of being alive than dead (even though death will be an excellent opportunity to catch up on some sleep). Being so close up to death over the last year has not only reinforced that view, it’s made me focus even more closely, not just on how much time I have left, but what I do with it.
So far you have had an amazing career with your television work and of course your radio career mostly with Triple M Sydney. What are your memories of the early days on Triple M with Doug Mulray ?
Brilliant, gonzo, off-the-wall, radio listened to – would you believe – by over a million Sydneysiders. Even though, to outward view, we are very different people, comedically, Doug and I totally clicked. I used to love our writing sessions over breakfast at Bondi Junction. And then there were times Doug would be reading stuff I had written for him live – and I was still writing the ending while he was reading! Nothing beats the thrill of that.
And you had great success hosting Triple M breakfast with Amanda Keller.
Amanda is one of my oldest and dearest friends. Also one of the funniest people I know. I used to describe our relationship as “just like a brother and sister, only without the sex”. Working with her for 5 years was total fun. Add to that the brilliance of Dave Gibson, and a radio station that was so grateful for a breakfast show that rated it let us get away with pretty much anything, and you’ll understand why I look back on that show with nothing but affection.
Of many standout moments, I’d name three: The day Mr Methane ‘sang’ to us in the studio and Amanda and I completely lost it; Willie Nelson performing his version of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ for the Musical Challenge; and the morning of 9/11 where we stayed on air for 6 hours and simply took calls. The tribal drum never beat louder than on that day.
How does putting this podcast together / hosting it compare to your radio days? Obviously one big difference is its not live?
Live radio is an instant explosion of stuff. This podcast has been more like a year of putting together a 10,000-piece jigsaw puzzle – but with no picture on the front of the box.
Do you think you’ll have another crack at another podcast series?
I love the medium and the freedom. Can’t see how to make a living out of it, though. Will probably try something – but maybe a little less ambitious and taxing. Something like ‘Chocolate is yummy’ or ‘My favourite colour’.
Any aspirations to do more radio in the future?
Definitely open to the thought.
Andrew I’ve listened to Better Off Dead, it’s a brilliant series and sets a new benchmark for podcast quality. Listening to some of the eps I found it to be even more compelling as a really well put together tv show. So it just shows what can be done with audio only.
I hope it has the impact, reach and success it truly deserves and look forward to hearing a lot more of your work in the future. I’m sure it will be a great success on all levels. Thanks
Brad March is Managing Director of Connected Management – www.weareconnected.com.au. He is Director of Marchmedia, a Director of Radio Today, and is a former CEO and Group Programmer of Austereo and ARN.