Twenty-five years of telling stories

ABOVE: Sixteen-year-old Bob Bramley from rural Tasmania is the focus of the first episode on the new series of Australian Story. He is taking to the skies with the aim of becoming the youngest pilot to circumnavigate Australia and to raise awareness for youth suicide after two friends attempted to take their lives. BELOW: Hazel Hawke is just one of the many people who have appeared on Australian Story.
ABOVE: Sixteen-year-old Bob Bramley from rural Tasmania is the focus of the first episode on the new series of Australian Story. He is taking to the skies with the aim of becoming the youngest pilot to circumnavigate Australia and to raise awareness for youth suicide after two friends attempted to take their lives. BELOW: Hazel Hawke is just one of the many people who have appeared on Australian Story.

by GLEN HUMPHRIES

The much-loved ABC show Australian Story turns 25 this year - and executive producer Caitlin Shea has been involved in the program right from the start.

She started out as a junior researcher when the show began in 1996 - at the time it was called Australian Correspondent and was viewed as a local version of Foreign Correspondent but set in Australia - and has risen through the ranks.

Because of that long association, she said Australian Story was in her DNA.

"I think it's that I really like people stories," Shea explains.

"Personally I'm not a huge news junkie like a lot of people are in current affairs in the ABC, but I really like a good people story.

"Also I had a bit of a natural affinity for scripting in our narration-less format.

"The jigsaw puzzle of putting together grabs and fitting them together and structuring them well so they told a story, for some reason I was just better at that then I was at writing a traditional narrative script."

That unusual approach to telling the story, where there is no journalist seen or heard came very early on in the show's creation.

After the first few episodes, Shea said Deb Fleming - the show's executive producer at the time - realised if they wanted to be different and distinctive they needed to get rid of the reporter's presence.

"That had never really been done before in Australian television," she said.

"That was very difficult and back then we didn't have the non-linear editing system that we have now. What I mean by that is back in the olden days we physically had to start at the beginning then put another grab down and it was very difficult to make changes.

"Now we can just change things all over the place and the quality of that narration-less storytelling has really improved because of that."

Making a half-hour show without the on-air presence of a journalist can be tricky; without someone on camera asking the subject questions it means that subject really has to tell the whole story themselves.

"It literally changes the way that we interview people," she said.

"You have to try and get people to start their answers in a way that makes sense, that gives you that bit of context but you also have to make sure they finish their answers in a way that it feels finished and a thought feels finished.

"And you also have to keep in mind that every little thought that is going to happen in this story somebody has to say it.

"So you have to have a very good understanding of what your story is before you go into those interviews so all that glue that binds it together is actually said by someone."

In the show's 25th year, Shea said there was a real focus on featuring the stories of more women.

She said women tended to knock back the offer even if they were fans of the show, while men were more than willing to take part.

"During the COVID period things were difficult keeping the program going on air during that time," she said.

"We did have too many stories on men during that time simply because the men would take to it and all the women would say no to us.

"I keep on saying to people 2021 will be the year of the woman on Australian Story."

AUSTRALIAN STORY

8pm, Monday, ABC

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