Birds Eye View: a review

By Rosa Ritchie
Photo by Jett Street

Birds Eye View

Produced by StoryProjects

The first episode of Birds Eye View guides listeners through the intake process at Darwin Correctional Centre. It begins in a paddy wagon and ends in the prison, the setting for the rest of the season.

Here, the details are important. The stink of compulsory scabies cream. Ill-fitting prison bras. Hours spent waiting. Fear and boredom and freezing cold feet.

This strict intake process is always the same and contrasts the podcast itself; from the outset Birds Eye View places importance on individual experiences and how they combine to form something collective.  

The narrative non-fiction podcast is the result of a program run by StoryProjects. Over two years, 70 women took part and 18 women share their voices in published episodes. The prison is built to house 1038 prisoners, and only 80 of those places are for the women who live in Sector Four. Of those 80 women, 80 per cent are Indigenous.

Executive producer Johanna Bell says her work is about elevating unheard voices and giving people time to build skills and confidence before they tell their story. Unlike most mainstream audio projects, where more energy is spent in post-production, Bell says a lengthy pre-production phase is crucial. She calls this “slow storytelling”. The women who participated were always part of the creative decision-making process. It’s their podcast.

Some women in the prison knew what a podcast is and some didn’t, so the project started with a podcast club. They listened together, and to each other, and talked about what they heard. It was eight weeks before a microphone was brought in. Bell says there were lots of giggles when the mic was first passed around, and some women refused to go near it. But given time to become familiar with the object, it became something useful – a tool.

Regular podcast listeners are familiar with a common format. One or two hosts introduce a topic and tell a story. Often, they will discuss the minutiae of others’ lives. The host might invite a guest to tell their story, or an academic to lend expertise.

Birds Eye View is the opposite. There is no host. Each woman tells her own story, her own way, without introduction. Each speaker is an expert about her own life. This was an editorial decision made in the first six months of the project by those women involved, and the producers.

The podcast is designed to challenge stereotypes, and a single host would give too much space to a single voice.  The series would be flavoured by one perspective, not serving what the women set out to do, which was – in part – to challenge the oversimplified narrative that a certain type of woman ends up in prison. 

The format seems messy when written down. There is no host and each episode covers a lot of ground, moving between deeply personal stories, poetry, music, freestyle interviews and laughter. Over the course of the series the group discuss family, sex, love, trauma, race, alcohol, drugs, beauty, violence, food, religion, fashion and, of course, prison.

And yet, despite being a mashup, it’s not messy. Each episode is themed, providing a structure to the course of the season. The host, who would usually signpost the structure of each episode, is replaced with sound effects and music. These devices are pragmatic and beautiful – they create space between different segments, room to breathe. 

The women in Sector Four understand who might be listening, and so the variety of segments in Birds Eye View is somewhat strategic. Bell explains the podcast was originally intended to be a collection of personal narratives. Those stories – now scattered throughout the series – include recurring themes of trauma, substance abuse, racism and domestic violence. While it’s important the broader public hear those stories and learn from them, a compilation of just those stories wouldn’t fairly represent the complex individuals who they belong to.

Without more depth, they wouldn’t challenge public perceptions. The variety of content in each episode honours the plurality of the women who created it – their wit, smarts, humour, resilience and trauma. But there’s a crucial distinction between who the women in Sector Four made the podcast for, and who might be listening to it. During its creation, audience reception wasn’t their focus. Bell says primarily the podcast is for the women who created it, who set out to find answers to three questions – who are we really? How did we get here? And where to next?

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