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Working with Words: Heidi Pett

Read Wednesday, 4 Mar 2015

Heidi Pett is a journalist and radio producer with a passion for untold stories and collaborative projects. At present she’s the Executive Producer and co-host of Backchat, FBi Radio’s news and politics show, Features Executive Producer of national storytelling and documentary program All The Best, and Vice President (Youth) on the FBi Radio board.  Her writing has also appeared in Right Now and The Vine.

In this edition of Working with Words, she talks about different approaches to writing for audio, why transcription is not always your friend – and what Australia shouldn’t necessarily envy about America’s huge radio sector.

Image: Heidi Pett in studio
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What was the first piece of writing you had published?

The first piece of writing I had published was, on reflection, a pretty flowery album review for Caitlin Park’s Milk Annual. I still love that album. I’m probably going to talk about writing for and making radio for most of this, so may as well switch it up now.

My first radio feature was broadcast in the Haunted episode of All The Best back in 2012. I’d never done any audio editing before, so a simple eight-minute piece took me about four days to produce. I kept trying to tell Belinda Lopez (the Executive Producer of All The Best at the time) that I’d never done this before, had no idea what I was doing and was almost certainly going to mess it up. But she just had complete faith in me – and now I do her job.

What’s the best part of your job?

This is definitely not how ‘best’ works, but there are two equally great things about my job.  

The Strongest Bloke Wins: Mining in the Bylong Valley

James Purtill spent a weekend in the Bylong Valley north of Sydney, to interview land-holders about a proposed coal mine. He found that before the first meadow had been stripped, or even before a mining licence had been granted, the process of mineral exploration and land acquisition had disrupted a settled community.

The first is handing down that experience, of helping new volunteers to produce radio features for the very first time. One that I’m most proud of is a piece that James Purtill produced for Backchat – he’d never made radio before, but at the end of a long couple of weeks (and late nights) in the studio, we high fived over a beautiful 20-minute doco called ‘The Strongest Bloke Wins’. It’s a sensitive and considered story about the people of the Bylong Valley, where the farmers are being picked off and bought out by international mining companies.

The other best part of my job is that I get to job-share with my best friend Jess O’Callaghan as Co-Executive Producers of All The Best. We applied as one person, share an inbox, argue in the best way and I honestly don’t know how anyone ever did this job alone.


What’s the worst part of your job?

Long weeks and late nights in the studio! Despite the privilege of working closely with my best mate, a lot of creative radio is quite solitary. Audio sort of lends itself to continuous tinkering and I’m the worst kind of perfectionist. Not the sort that you boast about in job interviews as another way of saying ‘great attention to detail’, but more a crushing inability to leave things be – or to accept that sometimes you simply cannot make average tape into a sparkling feature.

[Public Radio International senior editor] Julia Barton wrote this really great piece for about digital permanence and the dangers of audio perfectionism that really resonated with me. The thing is, there’s an hour and a half of air that needs filling every week and you can’t make it perfect every time, but radio used to just float off into the ether and it was fine. Now it lives forever, which is wonderful and terrible at the same time.

And transcribing. I loathe transcribing.


What’s been the most significant moment in your radio career so far?

For a few years there, I would call my parents with news of my small successes and they would duly congratulate me before asking whether this meant I was being paid. I would have to explain that no, I wasn’t, but I was getting to do a bigger and better thing with more responsibility for free. Then, at the start of last year, I started getting paid. It was significant not so much for the money but for the time it bought me.


What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing or radio?

You know, I actually can’t think of anything that stands out that somebody has said to me personally, but I went to Chicago for the Third Coast International Audio Festival last November and just learned so much, you guys. Along with figuring out the best way to beat post-holiday blues (go to a really nerdy and inspiring conference at the end of the trip so you’re really amped to come home and make all the radio), I went to a couple of really great sessions. 

Image: Heidi Pett broadcasting Backchat
Live broadcast: Heidi Pett presents Backchat at the National Young Writers’ Festival

The one that’s stuck in my mind is Making News Stories Good Stories with Marianne McCune, where she contradicted everybody and said not to bother logging your tape, but to spend that time hanging about after your interviews – make it awkward, leave your recorder on and allow your subjects to interact with each other, not just you. You’ll be late back to the office with less time to edit, but you’ll have great tape. She’s right; you don’t forget about the gems. You know they’re in there, so just go find them and don’t bother wading through the rest.

I thought that was really interesting, because there are definitely two approaches to making creative radio. Some people make a paper draft, carefully script their narration, and it’s more writing than radio, and then there are others who edit with tape only. Writing for radio is certainly different to what you’d publish anywhere else. Sentences that read beautifully can sound flowery or pretentious or just plain weird when said aloud. Likewise, a lot of the best radio would look terrible on the page. Think loads of ellipses everywhere.


What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself?

Aside from the snarky texts we sometimes get during Backchat, people don’t really say things about my work! The most surprising thing I suppose is when people who I don’t know personally say they’ve listened to and loved a show.


If you weren’t making radio, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

Truly NFI. I fell into radio almost completely by accident, having started volunteering with FBi Radio because I hated my law degree, and thought I might put on gigs for a living instead. On a whim, I applied for on-air training and things have just happened from there. By ‘things have just happened’, I guess what I mean is that I worked really hard at something I loved for free for a long time, and that has paid off, and I regret nothing. If I wasn’t doing this I’d probably be half passing my 18th semester of a degree I still hated because I couldn’t give myself permission to quit.


What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a radio producer?

Go find your nearest community radio station and say hello. If it’s anything like FBi, you will find a collection of brilliant, passionate people who will give you skills and confidence and studio space to try things out, sometimes fail at them, and make exactly the radio you want to make.

That’s the one thing I really brought home with me from Third Coast: it’s so easy to look at the American public radio system and be envious of their listeners and money and systems, but I met loads of people who felt constrained by their editors, or the NPR model, or whatever, and I realised that while the Australian radio sector is way smaller and has far less money, we do have so much freedom to experiment and really get creative.

The other great thing about community radio is having a group of colleagues and friends who will put fresh ears on your work and give you feedback. Just like any form of writing, editors are invaluable.

Also, ahem, email me and if you have a great idea we will train you up and help you make a piece for All The Best.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

Both – I love a good day in Gould’s on King St if you’re willing to poke around, probably not find what you had in mind but pick up something else instead. If I’m looking for something specific, I’ll use Abe Books. For new books, I generally buy from Gleebooks, Better Read than Dead, or I make Jess send me her books in the post. I think the only new book I’ve ever bought online was Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams because I couldn’t get it from a bookshop fast enough.

Image: Gould's Book Arcade
Gould’s Book Arcade, Newtown. (Credit: Toby Hudson. CC-BY-SA 3.0)


If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?

She’s hardly fictional, but I have a lot of questions for the thinly veiled Martha Gellhorn character in A Stricken Field. Like, why are you so awesome? How do you maintain your earnest do-goodery in the face of such cynicism? Can we be friends?


Which piece of writing has had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

A story from Audio Smut (now rebranded The Heart) called ‘Movies In Your Head’ restored my faith in radio plays as a format. I was already bit in love with Kaitlin Prest – and then she went and made this beautifully designed ‘radio opera’* about falling in love and the ways it alters our sense of reality, and I just … Oh. My heart. And my radio brain. I’ve listened to that piece probably three or four times now, and it’s expanded my ideas about what radio can be.

* Look, if it’d been pitched to me as a radio opera I would probably not have listened to it – but trust me/her on this.


Heidi Pett is currently researching stories about the competitive and performative aspects of grief. You can hear more of her work on her website, and on community radio stations Australiawide including FBi Radio, Radio Adelaide, 4ZZZ and SYN.

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The Wheeler Centre acknowledges the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation as the traditional owners of the land on which we work. We pay our respects to the people of the Kulin Nation and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders, past and present.