NYF’s weekly Open Mic Spotlight interview features prominent award-winner’s from the wonderful world of radio. This week, NYF interviews “The Messenger” Producer & Senior Digital Editor, Jon Tjhia of The Wheeler Centre (Australia) and Journalist, Presenter & Producer, Michael Green of Behind the Wire.
“The Messenger” (Behind the Wire and The Wheeler Centre Australia) was honored with the 2017 Grand Award (National or International Affairs) for their ten-part podcast series. The program is based on thousands of voice messages sent via burner phone by Abdul Aziz Muhamat, a refugee detained on the Australian-run detention center on the Manus Island, Paua New Guinea, to journalist, Michael Green. This award-winning series was also recognized with 2 Gold Trophies.
Jon Tjhia is the Wheeler Centre’s Senior Digital Editor. He has worked on the Wheeler
Centre’s multimedia, editorial and digital projects since 2010, including #discuss, the short-form multimedia series Housekeeping, and long-form podcast series Better Off Dead (Finalist, New York Festivals Radio Awards 2016) and The Messenger (Grand Trophy and two Gold Medals, New York Festivals Radio Awards 2017). He’s a co-editor and co-founder of the Australian Audio Guide.
Michael Green is a journalist and producer in Melbourne, Australia. For the last few years he has been working on Behind the Wire, an award-winning oral history project about Australian immigration detention. You can listen to our podcast, The Messenger, about Abdul Aziz Muhamat, a Sudanese man who is in immigration detention on Manus Island. He is co-editor of our book, They Cannot Take the Sky, published by Allen & Unwin, and the producer of our exhibition at Melbourne’s Immigration Museum, which opened in March 2017. Over the years, Michael’s written for The Age, the Sydney Morning Herald, Nature Energy, Nature Climate Change, Nautilus, Right Now and Overland Journal, among others.
In the interview below Grand Award winner’s Jon and Michael share what sparked their idea for their award-winning podcast series, how they came to work together and connect with Abudl Aziz Muhamat, the creative and logistical challenges they encountered and much more.
NYF Radio: What sparked your idea for this podcast series?
MG: The first night I exchanged voice messages with Aziz, I was overwhelmed by how warm and open he was, and by the sound and character of his voice. And that voice was coming from a hidden place. I just wanted to know everything I could about him, and what he was going through. I knew right then that radio would be the perfect way to share his story.
NYF Radio: How did the two of you come together to produce this program?
JT: In mid-2016, the Wheeler Centre ran a competition called So You Think You Can Pod – in which we invited aspiring producers to pitch a podcast series, judged by a panel including producers of Reply All, Soundproof and Ingredipedia. To cut a long story short – Behind the Wire’s pitch was the winning one. Michael was overseas at the time, and had woken up at some heinous hour of his morning to Skype in for the event – but ended up unable to establish a clear voice line during the event itself. Ironic, really; the process was a little reminiscent of Michael’s challenges in connecting with Aziz.
After the competition, we worked with Michael and his team [André Dao, Bec Fary, Hannah Reich] to support the development of their show, think about a structure and sonic identity, and so on. We thought the emerging story was unusual, surprising, nuanced and important, and we agreed on many aspects of the framing and the telling. We wanted to support and expand Behind the Wire’s very direct work in bringing (literally) unheard voices to the fore, and eventually, we all chose to produce the series together.
NYF Radio: How did you first come to connect with Abdul Aziz Muhamat?
MG: For the last few years I’ve been working on an oral history project called Behind the Wire, about Australian immigration detention. I first got in touch with Aziz as part of that project – I was hoping to speak with him for a story in our book. Two people I knew gave me his number. And because of my track record, he was able to do his own research, and figure out whether he wanted to speak to me.
NYF Radio: What logistical challenges did you encounter while working with a refugee who was reporting while in detention?
MG: For the first few months we spoke, Aziz wasn’t allowed to have a cell phone, so he could only use it secretly, in his room when there were no guards around. There isn’t much signal at the detention centre, so he couldn’t make a call. We decided to use WhatsApp voice messages instead, but on many days, even that wouldn’t work.
NYF Radio: What risk did Aziz’s reports put him at and how did he avoid attention while reporting from the Manus Island detention center?
MG: After Aziz had been speaking to me secretly for a few months, the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court ruled that the detention centre was illegal. After that, the authorities allowed some small freedoms, including cell phones. So, thankfully, he is now allowed to use his phone openly – although the lack of signal still makes it difficult to communicate freely.
NYF Radio: What did you hope to achieve by drawing attention to this story with your creative efforts?
MG: Right from that first conversation, Aziz said he wanted to speak out – to be ‘the messenger’ – about the situation in the detention centre, so that people outside would know what was going on. In Australia, the policy of indefinitely detaining asylum seekers and refugees is controversial. It’s a very high profile issue, and it’s in the news nearly every day. But a view from inside is rare, especially something as in-depth as The Messenger. We think it’s important to show the complexity of that experience.
NYF Radio: What creative challenges did you encounter and how did you solve those challenges?
MG: We have a huge amount of material – over four thousand messages, plus other interviews, so thousands of pages of transcript. Our team – André Dao, Hannah Reich, Bec Fary and Sophie Black – has done a lot of hard work to bring the most resonant issues and emotionally powerful moments into the final show.
NYF Radio: In your opinion, what makes “The Messenger” such a successful program?
JT: Hm – it’s hard to talk about your own work in this way! But as Michael mentioned, it’s been important of us to expose the complexity of what’s happening in Aziz’s story, and the myriad tensions of the broader situation; I hope that comes across.
As a piece of radio, we’re very mindful of a listener’s attention, as well as the space you create when you invite someone into a world. We wanted that space to be a generous one, and for it to push against certain tonal expectations that exist around stories of refuge and trauma. That said, I don’t think it’s so far-fetched that, with a few changed circumstances, many of us could face similar challenges to the ones Aziz faces. He’s an articulate and affecting bearer of his own story.
NYF Radio: As a journalist, will you discuss the importance of freedom of speech?
MG: Australia has a long-standing policy of detaining asylum seekers who arrive by boat. Those detention centres are usually located in remote locations, far from outside scrutiny. The people held there are denied the ability to speak out about who they are and what they’re going through. That means there’s a huge gap in the public understanding of this policy and its results. It is also demoralising for the asylum seekers. I know for Aziz, it has been incredibly empowering to be able to tell his story and to be heard.
NYF Radio: How was the podcast series program received in Australia and globally?
JT: It’s hard to gauge with any definitive sense! At the least, we’ve tried to make the series – which happens to anchor in an Australian context, but pulses with a near-universal one – inviting to people anywhere. And here, it’s been a politically polarising issue for a long time, although I would speculate that the narrative is in the process of shifting.
On a personal level, we’ve been approached by people who’ve connected strongly with Aziz through the series. There’s been some academic interest in the work, too. I think the best feedback we’ve received is that it changed somebody’s mind; it’s not very often you hear that these days.
NYF Radio: Your program “The Messenger” earned the coveted 2017 Grand Award in the (National or International Affairs) category, what does earning this award mean to you?
JT: The Awards came as a shock to us; the Grand Award even more so! A real fright in the inbox, in the wee hours no less. We were most excited about telling Aziz, of course – he’s given a lot of himself to doing this work with us, and I hoped he’d take it as one sign that his effort has been acknowledged and appreciated, and his trust validated. It doesn’t change his predicament, of course, but he was thrilled!
The Awards have always been an opportunity to listen to more work from places and producers that we just wouldn’t stumble across in the course of our days. And likewise, we’re particularly grateful for the ways in which it’s helped to bring our work to a wider and different audience. As a small, independent team – largely running on unpaid hours – it’s exciting to have our careful, thoughtful work recognised.
But – the work continues. We’re still producing the series. Aziz remains in detention – in an unpredictable situation which we’re seeing fall apart as a government deadline to close the centre approaches.
NYF Radio: Do you have any advice for young people wanting to create a program that they have a passion about or a cause they want to illuminate?
MG: One thing that sets The Messenger apart is the depth of the reporting. It’s a long hard road, but my advice is to aim for as much depth as you can – be slow and careful and really get to understand your subject. The most compelling and original stories emerge that way.
NYF Radio: Now that you’ve achieved success with this project, what other radio projects are on the horizon? What’s next for you creatively?
JT: We have a couple of episodes of The Messenger to produce, and those are our focus for now. The Wheeler Centre has a few exciting radio/podcasting projects in the works which will be aimed at generating more critical and practical conversations around the craft of radio making, and working with independent producers, writers and so on. I’m looking forward to having more time to consider different ways that audio can be woven together with other formats of creative work – and also, to listen!
For more information on New York Festivals International Radio Award, please visit:http://www.newyorkfestivals.com/radio/ and to browse the 2017 Radio Award winning programs go to: http://www.newyorkfestivals.com/worldsbestradio/2017/