Sept. 26, 2021

Interview | Audio Journalism for the Climate Crisis | Robert McLean of Climate Conversations

If you’re able, I’d recommend listening to this as a podcast episode. Unlike other excellent newsletter creators, I am not first and foremost a writer. For at least the short-term future of this project, I think the odds are good that the best content will be that which started as audio - as the workflow here is audio first, text second.

This is one such piece, a chat with a fellow podcaster, about podcasting - but specifically how his podcast is his form of engagement (action) on the climate crisis.

Podcasts are usually about the hosts. Not always, but most of the time a podcaster will intersperse their questions with anecdotes, their personal opinion, and jokes (some better than others). That's not Robert McLean's approach with Climate Conversations.

This is an interview for Write Hear, Right Now - the working title of a newsletter and podcast about the intersection of podcasting and climate change. We're running a series of interviews with climate-engaged podcasters. Some of the podcasters highlighted will have overtly and obviously climate-engaged shows, others may surprise you in the ways they are engaging with climate.

This is an interview with Robert McLean, a newspaperman turned podcaster, from Shepparton, a town in northern Victoria that straddles the banks of the Murray-Darling River, the lifeblood of eastern Australia. That river played a major role in Robert's story of how he became aware, concerned, and engaged with climate change. 

This interview will be edited for length and clarity for the newsletter, and also be made available on the Write Hear, Right Now podcast feed, along with excerpts from Robert's podcast.

Now, let's get started.

What follows is a transcript from the podcast episode, edited for length and clarity.

From a clip from an intro of a recent Climate Conversations episode.

Welcome to this latest episode of Climate Conversations. I'm your host, Robert McLean. And I'm coming to you from the unceded land of the Yorta Yorta people. Yes, the stolen lands of the Yorta Yorta people on which I live in Shepparton in northern Victoria, Australia. I've been involved with the practical side of the climate conversation since the early 2000s. That's attending lectures, and reading whatever I can find. It became apparent to me a few years ago, that much more needed to be said. And it was important, terribly important, that we start making much more noise.

Unsure of what to do to reach more people. I decided to try my hand, or shall I say more correctly, my voice, at podcasting. And what you're listening to now is the result of those efforts. There appeared to be great silence about the climate crisis in podcasting, and this is an effort by me to increase the volume of my voice, and to help break that silence. Fortunately, it was not as silent as I thought, as many other podcasts were beavering away. And were attempting to alert the world of the climate crisis. And several months ago, I was found so to speak, by Mark Spencer from the Trans-Tasman Climactic Collective.

Music for this podcast comes courtesy of Music for a Warming World, a Melbourne-based group, and you'll find a link to that group in the episode notes. I trust you enjoy this episode. And if you do, please feel free to share with your friends.

Mark: Hello, and welcome. This is an interview for Write Hear, Right Now, the working title of a newsletter and podcast about the intersection of podcasting and climate change. We're running a series of interviews about climate engaged podcasters. Some of the podcasters highlighted will have overtly and obviously climate engaged shows, and others may surprise you in the ways they're engaging with climate. When I started making a podcast specifically about local, relatable individual scale climate stories in 2018, I could find nothing similar. Now though, there's a plethora of climate podcasts out there.

So I'm turning my time and attention to exploring, discussing and highlighting the world of climate podcasting. Because in the face of the climate crisis, we don't need everyone inventing their own wheels for climate engagement. Sometimes we also need to get the existing ones spinning faster.

So exploring what works, what doesn't and what advice the creators of existing shows would maybe give themselves early on. This is an interview with Robert McLean, a newspaperman turned podcaster from Shepparton, a town in northern Victoria that straddles the banks of the Murray Darling river, the lifeblood of eastern Australia. That river played a major role in Robert’s story of how he became aware, concerned and ultimately engaged with climate change. You can read an article that Robert wrote for the local newspaper linked in the show notes this interview will be edited for length and clarity for the newsletter and also be made available on the Write Hear, Right Now podcast feed, along with excerpts from Robert’s podcast. Now, let's get started. Robert, hello, welcome. Thank you very much for joining me.

Robert: Well, thanks for having me, Mark. I appreciate it.

Mark: It's a great great privilege thanks. Let's start by talking about you now, rather than your origin story - let's talk about the the podcast you’re making that exists now. And that is Climate Conversations. How do you describe that show to like a potential listener? Somebody says, Oh, I hear you got a podcast. What's that about?

Robert: It's rather challenging. But I believe that if we have the information, we can solve the problem. And I think that through climate conversations, my aim is to provide people with information. And I do that in a whole variety of ways, sometimes with personal rants, but largely by interviewing people, and trying to find people who have something interesting to say about the climate crisis. And I think that if people have the information at their fingertips or in their minds, they're in a position to make the right decisions by how they should progress on the whole issue.

Mark: So do you kind of see it as like a steady stream of climate information? As you say, it sort of takes on a variety of forms. But is it kind of like a steady stream of climate engaged news? It's an information source, or kind of like an audio wire service?

Robert: Well, of late, I've been trying to produce a daily sort of roundup of climate news I can find around the place. And again, not all of it, I entirely agree with completely, but I think it's just all information and people should be able to distil that, from that make some decision about how they will progress the whole issue.

Mark: So not always are you editorialising or kind of analysing or giving your opinion on the news, you're just kind of presenting the news, you can find, yeah, that you think people need to hear.

Robert: My view is that we've all got minds of their own. And we've all got slightly different views and opinions about all sorts of things. And I think that if you've got a whole plethora of information there, you can decide what's important to you, and how you're going to apply it and how you're going to make it work. So

Mark: So in the proverbial, you can bring a horse to water, but you can't make it drink. You're trying to be the water source.

Robert: Well, sort of you if you want to call it that. Yeah, that's what I'm trying to do.

Mark: Excellent. You've been involved in newspapers and journalism for a long time. Now, I was reading up on you before this. And I understand you got involved with the local newspaper in year 11, which is, you know, like late, sort of, like sophomore, high school for the Americans. You were 16, 17?

Robert: I was 16.

Mark: And how do you feel about podcasting now at this stage compared to journalism? And that's journalism, as you've seen it develop over decades? Like, is there any compare and contrast you can give between podcasting and journalism?

Robert: The word, the written word is really powerful. And I think the spoken word is also equally powerful. It's just, some people are really good at delivering either one or the other. I'm not sure that I'm very good at either. I sort of enjoy them both. And I think what's changed a lot is that this modern world is people are busy, they don't have much time to actually read long articles, whereas they might have half an hour, just listen to a podcast. And so if you can produce a podcast that people can listen to, while they're walking, or while they're exercising, or while they're driving their car, or whatever they doing, doing the housework people can listen to them more. So you actually get inside the head, which is really important. Like, if they're listening to a podcast, they’re not listening to anything else, just listening to you. And so I think that's really important that you're inside the head, you're giving your views and opinions. And so I think the whole thing about news as change news is quite different than what it used to be what I used to work on a newspaper.

When I started, it was the only newspaper in town. It was a prime source of information. But now that's no longer the case. People can get their information from everywhere. I've got a friend who says he takes all his information from Facebook. So for goodness sake, like I'm not sure that’s where you should get your news, but he thinks it is.

Mark: So how have you found news consumption changing over the years, like when there was a big rage about blogs about 15-20 years ago. This was a heyday and a lot of the editors and chiefs of new media publications, things like Vox, started with being bloggers in their late teens through their 20s. Going really niche on a topic and yeah, finding their audience wasn't in their local community. It was global, of people who are interested in that niche. Did that kind of intersect with your career at all?

Robert: Well, my career newspapers ended 23 years ago in a bad motorbike accident. And so for the last - well, for a long time I did nothing pretty much. Then I thought I'd start a blog because I think that was one way to make contact. My initial thought was, I'll have a newsletter and I'll deliver it to people. Then suddenly, things change and change and change and social media becomes possible, blogs become possible. So I wrote a blog. Then I heard about podcasts. And I thought, gee, that's an interesting idea and thought, I'll try that. A few years ago I set up the podcast. And it's been really good because I'm able to get all sorts of people from all over the place to talk. About all sorts of odd things, people who could never reach before, never reach. Plus, well, as I said, before about the accident. That's limited me in all sorts of ways.

And taking notes is one of those things I'm not very good at anymore, or never was very good at, but I'm worse now. So doing a podcast allows me to record people. So I just record what they say and I then sit down and spend a long time editing it. And that's a perfect solution.

For me, the only problem I have with all that, of course, is that as a result of my crash I ended up with a thing called aphasia, which limits your understanding and your ability to talk and recall matters and talk quickly and respond to things. So that's been quite a challenge.

So when I interview somebody, I need to write out all my questions. So I have the whole question sheet in front of me. And that allows me to do this, because I can’t just bring things up on the spot, I'm getting better at responding to people, actually, it's been very good training, because you're actually practically doing something about it. So it becomes much easier as times passing.

But it's still hard work.

Mark: Thank you for for going there, on the accident. Understand that was in 1997. And the road to recovery was quite long. And it's so great to hear where you're at now, that you’re not only able to overcome those limitations of what aphasia means for your ability to recall and have conversations like this, but to actually notice improvement - and have a record of the improvement, is great!

Is there any advice you give to other people who may not understand that it's possible to have aphasia and run a podcast? Can you offer a little bit of insight into your your method of how you actually make that work?

Robert: First, it takes a long time because you have to be prepared. So you have to think seriously about your questions. And you actually have to write them all down. When I'm doing an interview like an interview yesterday with a lady who's got an electric car, I had to have all the questions written down. From that I can sometimes spin off into something else, but I don't get very far from my script, so to speak. So it's just hard work and you just prepare for it.

The other thing is I've got all my my intros and outros already pre-created. So I just load them on the front and back automatically. I'm not sure they’re as good as they should be, but they're okay. And then if I have to put little bits in the middle, like bits and pieces here and there, and I have to record them sort of live, so to speak, sometimes it takes me a bit to get them right. The beauty of this is that I've got control of it all, I can try it and if it doesn't work, I can delete it and try it again. Delete it and try it again until I get where I think it's not too bad or when it's at least acceptable.

Mark: There's no deadline or publication deadlines, no editor. But is there some of that stuff, that structure that is absent in podcasting that you got used to in the journalism world, the apparatus of being part of a news team, that you miss? What's the difference in dynamic?

Robert: I do like the fact that it is fully my show. I often forget that beyond the listener, and the person I'm interviewing or dealing with, I'm in charge. It's my show and I can do as I like. I can say what I like. I can leave bits in. Take bits out. And it's important to know that as your show, you can make it any way you like. Provided you think about the listener, provided you think about the person you're dealing with. The person on the interview, the interviewee.

Mark: So to turn to audience, this is what people complain about most on the internet. Podcasters, every single one, wants a bigger audience. Climate Conversations in the last 30 days had a unique audience of 446 people. Now I can give you that stat, because you’re a member of the Climactic Collective, and I've got access. I’ll have to ask guests about their audience in future, but what I've tried to do with the collective is say, look, let's just be transparent and talk about this stuff openly. Robert, you put in so much work into individual episodes, you have international guests on, you stay up till early mornings, or do odd hours to make it really convenient for your guests. You put in a lot of sweat and hard work into the show. And sometimes individual episodes have 10s of downloads. But in the last 30 days, you've reached hundreds of unique people, over 400 of them. And is that hard to imagine or conceptualise? How does that make you feel?

Robert: I don't know, I'm pretty happy with it. I'm pretty happy with it. Like my view is, you just need one person, one person of influence to hear what you've got to say, or to hear what your guests got to say. And they act on that. And they do something that's worthwhile. So I don't care whether it's 400 people or 4 million people, you know, if there's just one person in that audience that is doing something in response to what they've heard, that's fine.


Further points (summary)

  • Robert holds events in his town of Shepparton (now virtual) and being able to compare an in-person audience to a podcast audience is useful for him, to conceptualise episode downloads as people.

  • On ‘Climate Conversations’ as the show title. Robert thinks that a show being descriptive and obvious in its naming is a positive. Though, a show title that’s both descriptive and attention-grabbing is of course the goal.

  • On the show being on one side of the mass appeal - climate engaged spectrum, firmly on the climate side, Robert thinks that as society shifts the Overton Window on climate, the show will move - but it’s not the job of the show to appeal to those who need convincing about climate change.