Broadcasting Racial Injustice: Listening and the ethics, aesthetics, politics of attention

I am currently developing a project that examines how recent investigative podcast series concerned with cases of racial injustice and state-sanctioned violence in settler colonial Australia (and its former colonial territories) respond to, reimagine, and resist norms of listening and attention in a media landscape where sensationalised narratives of injustice-as-entertainment proliferate.  The project feeds into an emerging research agenda on listening economies of attention in conditions of inequality and injustice.

This project is conceptually grounded in an emerging scholarship on listening in media and cultural studies and political theory (Bickford 1996; Bassel 2017; Couldry 2010; Dobson 2014; Dreher, 2009, 2010; Dreher and de Souza, 2018; Fiumara 1990; Husband 2009; Lacey, 2013; Lipari 2010; Ratcliffe 2005), but pushes it in new directions. In my own work, I have extended Bickford’s (1996) notion of ‘political listening’ to include attention to sound and sonic histories of racism to challenge ‘the listening logic and privileged position of the white ear’ in conditions of settler colonialism (de Souza, 2018). In this project, I apply this methodological and analytical approach to new sites of struggle where uneven economies of attention within the landscape of podcast media are playing out. This is particularly evident in the rise in popularity of serialised ‘true-crime’ genre podcasting, epitomised by breakout American series Serial in 2014, and the podcasts under study in this project must also be understood within this recent media history.

Bringing an orientation towards sound into conversation with important scholarship on the ethics and politics of listening, the project takes up listening as a) frame or political metaphor, b) an intervention or ethical practice and c) a method of analysis to map the shifting contours of attention in media activism and struggles for justice. By mobilising listening in multiple ways, I bring to the fore unjust arrangements of power that refuse ‘just hearings’ in the mediatized public sphere. I examine the contrasting reception and response of six podcast series – as well as their conditions of creation – placing them in a broader history of media activism and journalism. In this way, I explore the possibilities for resistant listening, ‘listening differently’ (Lacey, 2013) and ‘listening as solidarity’ (Bassel 2017) as ethical interventions that refuse the logic of desire and consumption at the heart of the attention economy.   Theoretical and methodological insights from Jennifer Stoever’s (2016) work on ‘the sonic color line’ in the United States further orientate this project,  to map the relationships between sound, race and the politics of listening in settler colonial Australia.

The project will focus on six Australian podcast series:

  1. Curtain (2016-current, ongoing, 55 episodes to date), first 10 episodes made in association with the Brisbane Indigenous Media Association; now an independently produced and partly crowd-funded production about the wrongful incarceration of Aboriginal man Ken Henry and the death of Aboriginal woman Linda (name withheld for cultural reasons), made by Darambul and South Sea Islander journalist Amy McQuire and Yuin man Martin Hodgson;
  2. The Messenger (2017, 10 episodes, plus 13 unedited audio posts), a collaboration between a not-for- profit organisation Behind the Wire and The Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas, and based on thousands of voice messages sent by refugee Abdul Aziz Muhamat detained on Manus Island;
  3. Bowraville (2017, 6 episodes plus one ‘bonus’ episode) made by Rupert Murdoch’s flagship Australian newspaper which investigates the three unsolved murders of Aboriginal children;
  4. Wrong Skin (2018, 6 episodes) made by Fairfax’s The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald on the unsolved death of a young Aboriginal couple;
  5. Unravel: Blood on the Tracks (2018, 6 episodes) made by the ABC building on Indigenous journalist Allan Clarke’s 5 year investigating the suspicious death of Indigenous teenager Mark Haines; and
  6. Breathless (2018, 6 episodes), a partnership between The Guardian Australia and community media organisation 2SER about the death in custody of Indigenous man David Dungay Jr.

As part of the project, I will conduct a ‘close listening’ (Hoffmann, 2015) of each podcast, employing listening as a method to analyse audio forms that are themselves shaped through listening practices. This will be combined with second register of analysis through qualitative interviews with podcast makers, including with First Nations and refugee collaborators as ‘theorists of listening’ (Stoever, 2016,17) finely attuned to the workings of power and privilege.

The project is framed by a series of motivating questions:

  • How does each podcast respond to, reimagine and resist the logic of desire and consumption at the heart of the ‘attention economy’ to broadcast racial injustice and mobilise broader social change?
  • What are the underpinning ethics and models of collaboration behind the production of each series?
  • What kinds of listening practices do these podcasts insist upon; how are they invitations to listen in differently? How are listeners located, and how/is an ethics of responsibility/response engaged?
  • How have their conditions of production, collaboration and distribution shaped the ways they have been differently heard and listened to in mainstream public debate?
  • How do the makers and their collaborators think about listening in both the crafting and making of their work, to enable more sustained, durational forms of listening?; and
  • How do sounds and soundscapes within each program connect to questions of listening and ethics?