Highlights from our Instagram Live with Basia Cummings, Editor at Tortoise Studios, who was an OWM Awards Judge in the Podcast & Radio category in 2022. Basia spoke to us about what makes a great investigative podcast.
Tell us a little about your background and current role?
Basia: I didn’t start my career as a journalist. I studied anthropology at university and then focused on film, worked at film festivals. Through that, I started writing for blogs back when blogs were a big thing. It was through that writing that I managed to get a job at The Guardian.
At that time, around 2013, 2014, The Guardian was trying to think about how it covered the world. It had this project called the World Networks, which was partnerships with local media organisations across Africa and the former Soviet Union. And one of our focus areas was North Korea. I did that for a few years and also worked on the foreign desk. Then I went to work at the UN and then at HuffPost. And then I found myself at Tortoise. I didn’t have a background in podcasts before I joined Tortoise.
Pig Iron has been a popular podcast for Tortoise, why did you produce it?
Basia: It was mostly because I had just done a series the previous summer, a three-part series about an attack in Mozambique. Not long after that went out, I got this email from somebody called Jeremy who was introduced through somebody at ‘Reporters Without Borders’ who had this idea for a podcast about his cousin, Christopher Allen.
And I had been interested in his death previously, because I had thought it was likely that we had come across each other when I was at The Guardian. And it felt like a story that was sort of part of my world in some way. He was a young freelancer who was interested in South Sudan. I had done a big project in Sudan. Later it transpired that actually we had been in touch. He had emailed me. So it felt like it was the right thing for me to take on myself rather than commissioning. It felt like it had drawn on a lot of my experiences as I had worked on the foreign desk. Also being interested in war reporting, it felt like the right thing for me to do.
Can you tell us a little about it?
Basia: The story is the investigation into what happened to this war reporter who was 26 when he was killed in South Sudan. Very quickly after the news spread, there were different stories about who he was and what he’d been doing there. His family were really clear that he was an ambitious freelancer who was there to try and tell the story of what was happening with the rebels in South Sudan. Part of the journey that I went on with this cousin Jeremy was to try and unpack that and what draws young men, in particular, to war. And how was he treated within the news industry?
A big part of the project was to understand how journalism works and the reality is, you lift the bonnet, there are dark sides to it, where young people are being commissioned without much thought of their safety. It felt like it would touch on lots of parts of being a journalist and the myths we tell ourselves. That’s what I thought would be very interesting.
What was it like running that investigation while also having to work closely with his family?
Basia: I think it was complex for all of us and I think if Jeremy was with me, he would say the same thing. It’s something that I reflected on a lot in the making of it: how do you reconcile these two positions? One is, as a journalist you are investigating. It sounds sort of high minded, but your commitment is to the truth and finding out, with evidence, what might have happened. I think when you’re grieving the loss of a loved one, the stories and narratives that you tell are very powerful in your healing process. But that’s a different kind of investigation to what a journalist has to do.
There was a constant negotiation between what would happen if I found out something about Chris that would really undermine the argument that he was just a freelancer who was killed in the course of reporting? What happens if I found out that he really had been doing something that he shouldn’t have been? How would that impact his family because they were so closely involved in the project. There was a really delicate balance in our relationship with each other.
We tackled it by being very honest and very open with each other. You can hear that they speak to me very openly about concerns and criticisms of my work. But I think that question of closeness wasn’t just pertinent to me and them, it’s pertinent to anybody who does on the ground reporting and has to form relationships with people and having to balance the relationship with the story. The story you might tell might upset the people who you’ve been working with.
What do you think makes a great investigative podcast?
Basia: It’s such a difficult question because I was thinking about the investigative podcasts I like. They’re very varied. There are some things that are inescapable, the ingredients you have to have.
- Having good characters is crucial. The audience has to invest in somebody. They can’t only be following the journalist. They need to care about somebody.
- And for that you need access. Those two things really come in handy. You need characters who are going to let you into their world, who are going to share with you their story in whatever form is appropriate. Whether that’s through documents or long interviews with them. You need to get an “in”.
- A sense of a destination. I met with somebody the other day who said he had just started listening to Pig Iron and was worried he was going to have ‘Antici-Pointment’ which is the anticipation-disappointment because so many investigators in a podcast start with this huge promise that they’re going solve the mystery. And if you were being very critical, you could definitely say that of Pig Iron and of a lot of podcasts, of something being open ended and that you’re following somebody live in the process of reporting it does mean there’s an element of risk in that you don’t know if you’re going to get the answer. But that sense of destination, even if you don’t know what it is, is really important to keep that narrative running and people wanting to come back for more.
- One of the final things I’ll say which I think is slightly underappreciated, sometimes, and maybe that’s because of the popularity of true crime, but texture is really important. Having different voices, different archive material, going places, having a sense of energy in the reporting that you actually hear people in a place doing something. That is so important because it transports you. I think that investigation cannot only be chronology. “Or I did this. And I did this”. You have to have a feeling that you’re building a world that people can stay in for six episodes, or eight episodes, and that needs real texture, which can be built in multiple different ways.
- That’s why sound designers are so important. I don’t think anyone should ever underplay how important sound design is in creating a really compelling, investigative podcast. The reality is most of the investigations are very boring. It’s a combination of reflecting a process that is honest to the journalism but also interesting to listen to. This is a constant tussle we face.