Behind the Scenes of Radio National Future Tense

Andrew Davies is the producer of Future Tense presented & co-produced by Antony Funnell on Australia’s ABC Radio National (RN).

As a long time listener to RN Media Report, (another team effort by Andrew & Antony) I wondered what this replacement Future Tense program debuting in early 2009 would be like …

Thankfully the program rose pheonix-like from the ashes of Media Report and is now essential listening because of it’s wide range of topics and critical look at new technologies / approaches / ways of thinking and exploration of the social, cultural, political and economic fault lines arising from rapid change.

EDITOR: A big thanks to Andrew Davies from ABC Radio National for putting time aside in his hectic schedule to answer my interview questions in such depth.

Neerav Bhatt:
On your ABC profile page it says : “When I’m not producing … I seem to spend most of my life online. Luckily for me I get to call that ‘research’!”

What are your favorite research sources on TV, radio, podcast, magazine, RSS etc?

Andrew Davies:
I’m a big consumer of TV documentaries – mainly on the ABC and SBS. Most of my research sources tend to come from radio /podcasts, magazines, blogs / RSS feeds, and newspapers. I have to say though that some of the most interesting and fun material I see comes via the people I follow on Twitter. We’ve done 3 or 4 stories this year arising from links or information that have been on Twitter.

These are some of the Magazines / Newspapers I read:

Wired Magazine, The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Slate, Arts Letters Daily, The Economist, The New York Review of Books, Edge, New Atlantis, New York Times, The Australian, Sydney Morning Herald, Financial Review, Washington Post, The Times, The Guardian, Boston Globe Ideas, New Scientist.

In no particular order these are some of the podcasts I listen to (you can try all of them out by importing my podcast OPML feed into your podcast subscription software eg: iTunes (File -> Import).

Neerav Bhatt:
Are you familiar with the famous quote by sci-fi writer William Gibson “The future is here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet” and what do you think of it?

Andrew Davies:
Yes I am aware of William Gibson’s quote. I’d heard it referenced a few times but only really became familiar with it this year. I think it’s a really interesting quote. I haven’t done a huge amount of research into the background or context of the quote.

I think I first came across it on Tim O’Reilly’s blog. But I guess to me it suggests that many of the ‘future’ developments and predictions that people talk about are actually already happening today – often in small ways.

I think sometimes there’s an assumption that many of the innovations we’ll see in the future will suddenly emerge from out of nowhere. But I think that many of the developments – particularly in fields such as science and technology – will emerge more from incremental change.

Tim O’Reilly said on his blog that ‘it isn’t until much later that the world realises their significance’. I think that’s a really good way of looking at things. Many of the stories we’ve done on the program this year – bio-technology, urban planning, e-government – have focused on those smaller ‘future’ related developments that are already happening.

I guess we’ll just have to wait and see whether they lead to big things or not!

Neerav Bhatt:
30 years ago books like Future Cities: Homes and Living into the 21st Century (World of the Future) were predicting that our living rooms in the future would contain many more electronic gadgets, people would work from home and flat screen TV’s only 5cm thick would be commonplace.

Sure not all the predictions were accurate eg: we don’t have domestic robots yet (though Japanese researchers are working on it).

During your research have you found any modern day publications making predictions about commonly used household technologies 30 years from now in 2040?

Andrew Davies:
That’s an interesting question. I’m someone who’s always a bit suspicious about big future predictions! We recently spoke to the futurist Alex Pang , who’s written quite a funny blog post about what futurists do and how they could do it better.

But getting back to your question. I’ve come across a few future related blogs that touch on these themes but so far we haven’t really covered (directly) the changing nature of household technologies.

One prediction we’re keen to touch on at some point though is the idea of ‘the paperless office’. That was quite a big prediction several years ago. But despite the hype it seems as if most offices still use paper, in one way or another.

So we’re keen to follow-up on that to determine what happened. Of course if anyone has any other ideas about future related household or business technologies, then feel completely free to hassle me about them!

Here’s a list of some blogs I’ve come across that touch on predictions about household technologies: Accelerating Future, Future Pundit, Next Big Future

Neerav Bhatt:
In it’s short lifespan of 7 months to date, who has been the most interesting Future Tense interviewee and why?

Andrew Davies:
I struggled quite a bit with this question. It actually made me realise just how many different topics we’d covered in our short lifespan! Sometimes you forget when you get caught up in the week to week cycle of making programs.

One of our most interesting interviewees was PW Singer from the Brookings Institution in Washington. We spoke to him in February about his book Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and 21st Century Conflict.

The book looks at the growing use by the US military (and others) of robots and what that means for civilians, soldiers and the laws of war. PW Singer is one of the first people to investigate this area and he gave a great insight into some of the moral and ethical issues that the use of robots raises for militaries and governments.

Some of the other interesting people we’ve spoken to this year are: Chris Anderson, Editor in Chief of Wired Magazine, Nathan Eagle, a research scientist at MIT, David Bollier, editor of ‘onthecommons.org’, Tim O’Reilly, and Stephen Baker from Businessweek.

Another favourite interview was with Rhonda Hetzel. Rhonda lives in the small Queensland town of Landsborough and is the author of the popular ‘down to earth’ blog.

We spoke to her about the rise of ‘frugal blogs’ back in April. Rhonda has built up an amazing international community of readers around the theme of ‘simple living’. So much so that her blog has caught the eye of a New York agent who now wants to represent her in a potential book deal.

Neerav Bhatt:
The Future Tense program gets broadcast on radio in Australia on Radio National, overseas on Radio Australia, streamed live on the internet, downloadable as an MP3 podcast and also available as a transcript – so it’s audience is already fragmented across many forms of media.

Please take your ABC employee hat off … as an avid radio listener and subscriber via MP3 podcast where do you personally think radio is headed?

Will the newly launched digital radio (DAB/DAB+) broadcast over the airwaves eventually reach the same level of adoption as analog AM/FM radio over time?

Or is it possible that the National Broadband Network will render today’s broadcast radio obsolete because everyone will have access to thousands of radio stations worldwide via the internet?

Andrew Davies:
I think this is one of the questions that many people in the media are asking themselves at the moment. Given what I said earlier about making predictions, I’d be foolish if I made any grand claims in answering this! I think sometimes you have to say you don’t know.

However I do think some people will increasingly move towards the ‘on demand’ method of radio – downloads, streams, mobile etc.. I think the ability to listen to whatever you want wherever you want is quite appealing.

I think other people may not necessarily want to have to make a choice about what they listen to. I think some of those people quite like the ebb and flow of radio, and to be surprised by what they’re listening to. The great thing about radio is its immediacy, and the fact that you can listen to it while doing other things.

There’s been a lot written and said about digital radio. I think a lot of people will love the great sound and extra choice that digital radio brings. In contrast some other people may prefer the added portability of listening to their favourite radio programs on the bus or train via their mp3 players.

I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what happens with digital radio over the next few years before making any conclusions.

Whatever happens in the future I don’t think it’s necessarily a case of either or when it comes to the future of radio. Hopefully that means (if it isn’t the case already) that there’ll be an even greater range of (ABC!!) listening options to suit individual habit and taste.

Neerav Bhatt:
I have a suggestion – would you consider encouraging listeners to upload photos related to stories covered in Future Tense episodes to Flickr with the tag “rnfuturetense” similar to what NPR’s Planet Money podcast does ?

Andrew Davies:
That’s a great point. I’ve been a regular listener to the Planet Money podcast since it started so I’m very familiar with the way they’ve encouraged listeners to upload images to Flickr.

In the first few months of Future Tense Antony Funnell and I were both quite focused on just getting the program up and running! Now that we’ve been on air for a while we’ve been really keen to incorporate more and more aspects of social media into our production process.

Through my Twitter account @awrd and through our program twitter account @rnfuturetense we’ve regularly talked about stories we’ve been keen to cover, and ideas for questions and topics we should raise.

Twitter – along with so many other social media sites – gives everyone the opportunity for conversation and moves away from the idea of just ‘us’ and ‘them’. And I guess I’m someone who really likes making new connections, collaborating and sharing new ideas.

In my time on Twitter I’ve met and come into contact with so many great people – in many cases people I probably would never have come into contact with any other way!

I should also say that together with some colleagues I’ve been working on a (hopefully!) really interesting social media project that centres around the idea of tinkering. The project will involve Future Tense, Pool and a range of other social media sites like Flickr, Twitter, Facebook, and Audioboo. We’re still finalising everything so more details soon.

And while I’m on that theme. Keep an eye out for something called ‘Flickerman’, another really fun social media project that involves Radio National’s ‘Airplay’ program and Pool. Rest assured I’ll certainly be putting the word out there about both projects!

You can see more on the Flickerman website

Neerav Bhatt:
Do you only work on Future Tense?

Andrew Davies:
No. I spend 3 days a week working on Future Tense and the other two days working with Pool (the ABC’s collaborative media space).

To quote from our about page: Pool is a place where ‘audiences become co-creators’ and can ‘share and talk about creative work – photos, videos, documentaries, interviews, music, animations and more’. On Pool everyone has the opportunity to talk and collaborate with each other, and with the ABC.

At the moment Pool is still in Beta but over the last 12 months there’ve been some really exciting developments. Two of the best examples are the ‘My Street’ and ‘City Nights’ projects.

In the My Street project Radio National’s ‘Street Stories’ program asked Pool contributors to ‘tell us about your street using video, audio, images and/or text’. There were hundreds of great contributions, many of which went to air on the ‘Street Stories’ program.

The ‘City Nights’ project asked Pool contributors for ‘text, audio, video and stills contributions which reflect an experience of the city – any city – real or imagined – at night’.

This project attracted over 350 contributions and the best of that material will go to air on Radio National’s 360 program on September the 5th. As well as being on air, some of the best videos and images are also going to be screened at Federation Square in Melbourne.

Both projects really emphasise the idea of co-creation – Pool users working with Radio National producers.

As well as those projects Pool has also worked with QUT’s Creative Commons clinic and the ABC’s Archives and Library Services Department to really pioneer the release of items from the ABC’s archives for re-use. There’ve been some amazing remixes on the site recently around our ‘remix 360’ project.

For people who are interested. The Australian Cooperative Research Centre for Interaction Design (ACID) have just finished a major review of the Pool project and our (beta) website.

I’ve only been working with Pool since the beginning of this year. So our fabulous community (and the other members of the team!) deserve the credit for some amazing work.

The first project I worked on was a joint effort between the Queensland Writers Centre and Pool. As part of a range of events to celebrate Queensland’s 150 years of independence, two groups of authors travelled on a steam train through regional Queensland to promote writing and literature.

Along the way they were uploading material to Pool. I’m very lucky that by working with Pool and Future Tense I get to indulge all my interests at once!

You can subscribe to the Future Tense podcast by RSS and make comments or suggestions about the program via Post, Phone, Fax, Email or Twitter

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