Reaching out: Dr Graeme Smith

Every month I’ll be interviewing a humanities, arts or social science academic who engages extensively with their wider community, asking them about the kind of outreach they do and why they feel it’s important.

Dr Graeme Smith (centre) with Little Red Podcast co-host Louisa Lim (left) and guest Dr Feng Chongyi (right).

Our guest today is Dr Graeme Smith, an part-time Research Fellow in the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at the Australian National University, and co-host of the Little Red Podcast.

What is your area of research?

Chinese political economy.

What kind of outreach do you currently do? What’s your favourite type and why?

My major outreach effort at the moment consists of hosting and editing the Little Red Podcast, a podcast that I started in order to popularise the work done by Australian academics on China. In the past, I’d enjoyed radio interviews and public lectures. TV and print media are heavily edited, whereas radio tends to give a more faithful (or at least longer) account of your thoughts, so it’s great to move into audio journalism. It’s also been fun to work with a co-host, Louisa Lim, who has over a decade of experience working with the BBC and NPR, and whose work I’d long admired. It’s less solitary than traditional outreach. Each episode we pick one topic – whether it be minority languages in Tibet or China’s influence in East Timor – and try to find engaging speakers to probe and question on that topic.  We’re always trying different approaches. We might have a panel of three different speakers with conflicting opinions, or include Mandarin interviews with Chinese academics voiced-over to provide a spectrum of opinion.  We even did an episode on the One Child Policy, where we paired an interview with a young Chinese theatre director who had just directed a play on the impact of the policy with an economist working on the behavioural impact of the One Child Policy.  Our aim is to spark debate by providing fresh and interesting conversations.

Why do you undertake these outreach activities (why do you think they’re important)?

The primary motivation behind the show is to cover stories about China that aren’t being covered in the media or by other China focused podcasts. For example, Fergus Green, who’d just co-authored a report on China’s greenhouse gas emissions with Nicholas Stern, was in Melbourne for a short visit. I was keen to get him on the record, as few people are aware that China’s greenhouse emissions are falling. I think the most important goal of the podcast is raising the profile of Australian scholars whose work isn’t as well known as it should be. One great joy is seeing Louisa constantly surprised by the quality of work done by China researchers that she’d never heard of before. US China scholars tend to only cite other US China scholars, so hopefully our podcast can go some way to breaking down this barrier.   With our backgrounds – as a journalist and academic who are both fluent in Chinese – we are also able to cover issues that the mainstream Australian media may not have access to, for example the way in which Beijing has almost succeeded in taking over Chinese-language media here in Australia.

Who is your main audience and why did you choose to focus on them?

With our respective backgrounds spanning both academia and journalism, we have dedicated followers in both camps.  We try to keep subjects accessible enough for mainstream audiences, but detailed enough for academics. Our sound editor, Gavin Nebauer, is invaluable in pulling us up when we start talking about things that no one other than China nerds will follow. Where our listeners come from varies with each episode. Soundcloud gives an accurate breakdown and it’s sometimes surprising. Our second episode, with Gerald Roche on the politics of language in Tibet, was a big hit so we have a substantial following among the Tibetan diaspora. About a third of our listeners are in Australia, followed closely by the US and then Hong Kong and Britain.

How did you get started with your outreach? What was the first thing you did?

At the time I was working full time at the University of Melbourne, so we sought advice from their outreach staff, who now organise an ever-expanding podcast hub. Eric van Bemmel and Andi Horvath provided great advice on how to raise the profile of the podcast through Twitter and Facebook, and were extremely encouraging during those early days. Louisa Lim has a Twitter following of 38,000 people, so that was useful in building an initial audience among journalists based in China, and my own network of academics working in the China field complemented that so that we have been able to build an audience across both fields.

Why did you start the Little Red Podcast and how did you go about it? What was your reason for choosing an audio medium?

I’d been thinking about it for some time, partly as a solution to the perennial academic pressure of demonstrating ‘impact’, but largely because I thought it might be fun. Two other academics at the Asia Institute, Ken Setiawan and Dave McRae, produced Talking Indonesia every fortnight, and gained inspiration from them. A good friend, Andrew Zammit, had also started up the fascinating Sub Rosa podcast, looking at security and human rights issues. He provided invaluable advice about getting started on Soundcloud and iTunes. I’m also drawn to audio because I am a longtime radio fan and I was interested in exploiting the possibilities of audio-on-demand. In addition to the convenience that mobile access offers to listeners, it was also appealing to capture a permanent record of some of the finest minds in the field. The other stroke of luck was the arrival of Louisa Lim in Melbourne who has helped shape the programme.

What sort of response have you had to the podcast?

We’ve had a very positive response to the podcast, and the first ten episodes have been downloaded over 9000 times.  We’ve also had a lot of notice on Twitter, which has been fantastic, including being called “outstanding” by the ABC’s Chris Uhlmann, who told us that he’d listened to our podcasts while working on the Four Corners reports on Chinese influence in Australia.  So we hope that we are helping drive the broader conversation about Australia-China ties.  Some of the most exciting responses are the new partnerships that we’ve made this year. The ANU’s Chinoiresie, a wonderful site filled with fascinating “mismatched shards of China,” hosts our podcast. We’ve also joined forces with the LA Review of Books. Louisa will be writing monthly think-pieces to accompany each podcast episode.  We have heard from those we interview that it has helped raise their profile, and that has been gratifying.

What are some of the important things you’ve learned about what works well and what doesn’t? Do you have any memorable stories about outreach activities that went either really well or really badly?

One of the wonderful things about hosting a podcast is that you can never be sure about what works and what doesn’t until it’s on the air. Louisa and I will typically have a long back-and-forth about what to cut from each episode. As a radio journalist, she likes to keep the episodes tight and fast-paced, which is why people respond well to the show, whereas I’m always trying to smuggle obscura back in. It’s nearly always excess baggage, but every now and then it works. A long discussion with Swinburne University’s John Fitzgerald about the history of the United Front during the episode “Control and Capture” comes to mind. Sometimes episodes you are sure will be a huge hit don’t take off. Our interview with UTS China scholar Feng Chongyi was the first time he had spoken at length since being detained in China. It’s still the most comprehensive record of his thoughts on his detention, so I recommend a listen!

What benefits do you think your outreach has had for your work (both research and teaching)?

The podcast has been valuable in raising my profile, but it has also been fantastic fun in that it has allowed me to have incredibly stimulating conversations with scholars whose work I respect, at the same time as bringing their work to a wider audience. The podcast has already been put on the undergraduate curriculum as recommended listening at Monash University, and I hope that more institutions will follow suit.

What personal benefits do you think it has had in terms of developing your skills?

Until I started hosting a podcast, I’d worked under the delusion that I was a pretty good communicator. At about take 25 of trying to get out the words “little red podcast” in an intelligible fashion, those illusions were shattered. Listening back over the raw audio of the episodes is also confronting. Like a lot of people of my gender, I have an awful habit of jumping in at the moment when a guest is about to share an interesting thought. Sometimes Louisa will pull it back, but not always. Delusions about being a masterful interviewer, honed by years “in the field”, again had to be put aside. I’ve learned so much from Louisa about how to put together a program that entertains and starts a conversation; hopefully she’s gained something from it too!

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