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His Acoustic Art:
On the Legacies of Jesse Cox

Photo: Peter Løvstrøm. Distributed under Creative Commons license.

In December 2017, the artist and radio producer Jesse Cox died from a rare soft tissue cancer, Alveolar Soft Part Sarcoma. He was terribly young, only 31.

I only met Jesse once, in Newcastle, at the 2011 National Young Writers’ Festival, where I was chairing a panel on the literary scene in Sydney. He was there to talk about All The Best, the then-new weekly audio anthology of short documentaries, comprised largely of observational and subjective life stories. Cox had emailed me to ask for festival recommendations. Throughout his time at All The Best there was an abundance of evidence that above anything else Cox had an interest in the stories of others, so it was no surprise that he was so keen to tune into the festival. In person I found him to be maddeningly charming, and thought he was a little too old for a youth festival. It turned out that he was younger than me, which was a shock and this, apparently, was a common discovery for many of his colleagues.

When I heard the news of his death, I remembered that weekend in Newcastle, when looking across the table at Cox I had thought, ‘Why is he on this panel? He’s not a writer.’ Such incredulity has never served me well. It has more recently been a preoccupation of mine to figure out how ‘creative audio’ fits within literary traditions and genres, and what ‘radio’ or ‘podcasting’ or ‘creative audio’, the kind of work Jesse Cox had excelled at making, means to the literary community.

I co-founded a podcast in Sydney in mid 2011 with the writers Rebecca Giggs and Fiona Wright, the year after All The Best dropped online. The Rereaders was a fortnightly critical conversation between the three of us. We talked about a range of genres – films, books, theatre, television, art and music – and cribbed our format from the Slate Culture Gabfest and the defunct ABC TV program Critical Mass. For us, podcasting was just the mode of dissemination. We didn’t consider it art because, for us, it simply wasn’t that. However, we promoted The Rereaders as a ‘literary podcast’ because it amplified the voices of people who considered them first and foremost as writers. Back then I didn’t see Cox as working in the same field as me at all, but now I am not so sure.

Jesse Cox began his career at Sydney’s FBi Radio, an independent community station. The station was known for its unique charter to play 50 per cent Australian music, and a further stipulation that half of that quota must be sourced exclusively from Sydney. FBi wasn’t particularly well known for its talks programs at the time that Cox, along with Brigitte Dagg and Eliza Sarlos, launched All The Best in 2010. The program was clearly inspired by, and built, in part, to pay tribute to, its American counterpart, the monolithic and culturally ubiquitous This American Life. The local production had a scrappier, more youthful energy. (One program was dedicated to the fact that the team had missed a deadline, and Cox was sent out onto the street to create a replacement episode in the space of 24 hours.) Their ambitious upstart program was soon being broadcast beyond Sydney – airing in Melbourne on SYN radio and nationally through the Community Radio Network – as well as being shared widely online in podcast form.

All The Best was a direct connection between Cox and Australian literary culture. From the very beginning, pitches from audio novices, including many writers, were part of the production process. There was an open call out for writers to contribute stories for broadcast. There is still a submissions box on the program’s website, and the producers hold regular pitching sessions in person. Sydney-based writers like Vanessa Berry, Lee Tran Lam and Briohny Doyle contributed to the program in its early years, and stories were often sourced from live recordings of the now defunct short story salon Penguin Plays Rough and the National Young Writers Festival.

Cox didn’t only have literary influences and modes of production on his mind. He seemed just as aligned with the experimental art scene in Sydney, having presented work at emerging arts festivals, including both the Underbelly Arts and Next Wave festivals, and made public sculptures. At the 2007 Sculpture by the Sea, he constructed a number of showerheads, which let audio stories flow out of their spouts. Cox later said that it was this specific artwork that led him to think more closely about the audio form as his primary practice.

In the space of less than a decade Cox developed an astonishing grasp of the documentary format. His individually authored productions attracted significant recognition abroad. Indeed, his radio documentary Keep Them Guessing, originally broadcast in 2012 on the ABC’s sadly shelved 360documentaries, won the Director’s Choice prize at the Third Coast International Audio Festival in Chicago, the annual meeting place for audio practitioners across the world. He would go on to win Silver at the same festival for his brilliantly empathic profile piece The Real Tom Banks. Any individual success he had on the international stage, and the knowledge it came with, he would invariably bring home to share with others.

Radio producer Belinda Lopez, who succeeded Cox as Features Executive Producer at All The Best in 2012, later collaborated with him on the Radio National program This Is About. In a eulogy broadcast on RN, Lopez recalled that, working as a team, in one of their many playful brainstorming sessions, they had devised a code-word for good stories that should work as the ambition for the program: ‘Avocadoes’. She explained: ‘Avocado stories are nourishing, they’re really good for you, they’re also really delicious’. Ultimately, this meant ‘beautiful sounding stories that were also great journalism.’ Lopez finished by reflecting ‘Jesse made us all believe we could make avocadoes.’ Anecdotes like this demonstrate just how much the inner workings of storytelling preoccupied Cox and the producers who worked with him on This is About.

Keep Them Guessing might be the best example of Cox’s approach to ‘avocado stories’. The 35-minute narrated documentary falls into the dreaded category of family history, but, in this case, Cox really did have an interesting story to tell and he presented it as a masterful piece of autobiography. His subjects were his paternal grandparents, who starred in a hugely successful mind reading radio program, aired on the BBC to millions of listeners. In Keep Them Guessing, Cox makes attempts to discover if there is any truth to his grandparents’ acts of staged telepathy. In one captivating digression, Cox relates that the Radio National program Hindsight had dedicated an episode to his grandparents when he was in his early teens. His family travelled to be with his grandmother so that they could listen to the episode together. Radio was a firm fixture in Cox’s family life, as books or films might be for others. I recall being astonished when I entered my first ‘radio household’ – the family home of my then-girlfriend. The ABC played on a radio, around the clock. The influence of this ever-present sound was obvious: she, like Cox, became an excellent, thoughtful producer of podcasts.

Cox’s own producing style is evident within the busy soundscape of Keep Them Guessing. It could, broadly, be described as maximalist. He is enthusiastic when it comes to detail, and there is a lot of it, though things never sound out of place. His editing skills sound light as he glides gracefully over complex steps and beats of a story. This is, perhaps, the key to understanding his achievements. In a casual lecture, for instance, given in 2013, Cox explained:

What I love about audio is when you’re doing stories, you’re hiding so much… like everything you’re cutting up multiple little bits. In radio you can hide all those cuts, and so it’s an incredibly intimate and personal space for stories.

The opposite can also be true –the editorial elisions made in audio can somehow feel more obvious than in other media – and yet this also makes a story far more immediate. There is, quite simply, a more direct connection between the maker of an audio production and a listener than in other media. When I was making podcasts, I could not help but think of the intimacy of headphones; somewhere out there someone was walking around with my voice inside their head.

Cox’s 2014 short radio documentary The Real Tom Banks proves just how intimate and direct the voice can be within the radio documentary format. This is partly because it so artfully plays with the conventions of confession and identity. It opens as a tricked-up piece of audio – going about the busy work obscuring the identity of his subject for several minutes while playing on the idea of ‘voice’. This is because the ‘real’ Tom Banks – a young actor, comedian and writer, lives with cerebral palsy and has used a computerised communication aid in the past. Cox uses the sounds of contemporary technology devices to fill out the soundscape of the story in order to create a rhythmic drive: the tapping of keys on Banks’ communication device, the notification ping of Grindr, the swish of a message sending, the strange inflating log-on sound of Skype opening. This play with identity and digital intimacies was purposeful. Cox depicts a meeting Banks sets up with a man he has met through Grindr. The man arrives for their date, and promptly leaves as soon as he sees Banks waiting for him, Banks’ disability suddenly visible. We hear the disappointment and deflation in the voice of the actor playing Banks, before Banks enters the narration himself to speak to the details of his life. Disability activists often state, ‘Nothing about us without us’. The power of a radio documentary such as this to give literal voice to its subject is something that Cox seemed inherently to understand. It wasn’t just an act of handing over the microphone, it was about shaping a way of telling the story to fit its subject and to do so with upmost sensitivity and care.

Such empathy would bring Cox to some of his best stories. He wasn’t averse to taking a human view of complex political situations. Wael Zuaiter: Unknown, an ambitious multi-disciplinary piece, was originally presented as a theatre work for the Next Wave Festival in Melbourne in 2014. This live iteration featured Cox narrating the story of his great aunt, the painter Janet Venn-Brown, and her life with the Palestinian translator and intellectual Wael Zuaiter, who was gunned down by Israeli agents in Rome in 1972. Zuaiter is widely considered to be the first of a number of high profile Palestinians assassinated in response to the Black September attack at the Munich Olympics.

The staged version of Wael Zuaiter: Unknown featured a live musical accompaniment and projected illustrations from Matt Huynh and Aldous Massie, and an edited version of the nonfiction play was later broadcast on Radiotonic in 2015, including an explanatory, accompanying essay by Cox on the ABC’s website.

Again, the discovery of a slice of family history had compelled Cox on to tell a much larger story; in this instance, a photograph of his great aunt taken with Yasser Arafat, the then leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. The picture of the two made Cox hungry to find out more about his older relative, and in researching her life he discovered details of her relationship with Zuaiter. The two had been romantically involved as they both lived in Rome.  Cox had seen Steven Spielberg’s 2005 film Munich in the company of his mother. The fact that the film recreates the assassination of Zuaiter surely must have been a deeply uncanny and extremely unsettling viewing experience for those who knew him and for those close to Venn-Brown, being aware of her relationship with the slain figure.

The movie, a restless thriller, misses one truly moving part of Zuaiter’s story, that he was assassinated with a copy of One Thousand and One Nights on him. Twelve bullets entered his body, and a thirteenth pierced the book. Wael Zuaiter: Unknown engages more directly with historical literary traditions of storytelling through examining Zuaiter’s unwavering dedication to the folk tales that meant so much to him. Zuaiter had hoped to complete a direct translation of One Thousand and One Nights into Italian; in the years since his death, Cox tells us one has still yet to appear (all the existing Italian translations are generated from other translations).

How appropriate then that as someone obsessed with One Thousand and One Nights, Zuaiter’s own story would inspire so many tellings. Venn-Brown, for instance, had published an anthology For a Palestinian: A Memorial to Wael Zuaiter in 1984, which included multiple contributors. For his audio retelling, Cox interviewed the Palestinian artist and filmmaker, Emily Jacir, who had, in turn, interviewed his great aunt and a number of Zuaiter’s contemporaries for a work titled Material for a film, a performance piece which was exhibited at the 2006 Biennale of Sydney. In that work, Jacir fired 1000 bullets into 1000 blank books with the same caliber of gun that was used to kill Zuaiter. Jacir talked to Cox about visiting Venn-Brown and being shown the exact copy of the book Zuaiter was carrying the night he was shot:

I actually didn’t sleep for a few days after that, seeing that book and holding it in my hands…. [The book] sort of symbolized so much of the Palestinian trajectory and narrative, particularly when you think about what gets translated and what doesn’t. And especially how Wail’s story was framed at that, and how it wasn’t translated and how many Palestinian stories aren’t translated.

These nested narratives were perfectly suited to Cox’s approach to storytelling and his own restless intellectual curiosities: a book pierced with a bullet led to an anthology of multiplicity of voices about a single life led to a performance piece led to a Hollywood film led to a stage show led to an audio work led to online publication.

Keeping Them Guessing, The Real Tom Banks and Wael Zuaiter: Unknown were all made with the institutional support of the ABC, either produced in house or broadcast there at a later date. The general commitment to programming of the arts within Radio National has fostered not only high-quality content, but rich careers. Indeed, Jesse Cox wasn’t the only ABC radio documentarian to leave a mark on the Third Coast festival; producers and presenters such as Sharon Davis, Eurydice Aroney and Joel Werner have also taken home significant prizes over the years. There have long been strong connections between radio production and the literary arts at the ABC; in the 1980s, in particular, there seemed to be a strong understanding of the value of having literary practitioners embedded within the national broadcaster.

In 2014, in the weeks after his death, Soundproof dedicated the full hour of its show to the life and art of the poet Martin Harrison. In addition to his work as a poet and teacher, Harrison had served as a radio producer at the ABC, contributing to programs such as Books and Writing, Surface Tension and The Listening Room. In her introduction to that episode, Miyuki Jokiranta noted that Harrison ‘was often seen conducting in the studio as tape was cut, looped and cross-faded.’ In his own account, Harrison was key to the formation of the ‘Acoustic Arts Unit’, a group of producers who combined an ‘interest in new music, in media and online art, in contemporary writing, in performance work and theatre.’

Harrison authored the first of Currency House’s Platform Papers in 2004 with the title ‘Our ABC’ , A Dying Culture? : one way forward for arts programming. Partly written as a provocation about the quality of contemporary programming of the broadcaster, it also served as a hopeful projection about its future. His long history with the broadcaster meant that his criticisms carried weight. He showed particular interest in how a proliferation of new digital channels might eventuate, and he was prophetic and predictive in some senses (A large part of the essay is given over to speculating a potential secondary television channel for the ABC – years before ABC2 or ABC News 24 – although Harrison had hoped that it would be one dedicated solely to arts programming). Harrison was careful to point out that he felt no nostalgia for the way things were, and, as he did in many parts of his generous and nurturing career in poetry and academia, looked towards opportunities that would support future generations. He was clearly thinking about making space for someone like Jesse Cox to come up and through the ranks. Indeed, I would like to think Harrison would have thrilled to Cox’s multi-disciplinary approach.

Cox made the move to the national broadcaster in 2013, hosting and producing the program Long Story Short, before joining the station’s Creative Audio Unit. Announced in 2012, and launched in 2014, the ‘CAU’, as it became known, was led by Julie Shapiro. Shapiro had worked for the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University before co-founding the Third Coast International Audio Festival in 2000. Her appointment was seen as something of a coup in the Australian independent podcasting community – a signal that the ABC was taking notice of newer, more eclectic trends in audio production. Under Shapiro’s direction, the CAU would house two dedicated programs – Radiotonic, for which Cox served as producer and presenter, and Soundproof, hosted by Miyuki Jokiranta. Soundproof – self-described as ‘art for your ears’ ­– was more experimental, almost to the point of being unclassifiable.

The transition wasn’t altogether smooth. When the establishment of the CAU was announced, a raft of cuts to Radio National’s arts programming were simultaneously signaled. The ABC’s presser delivered the good news and the bad news in corporate jargon, accounting for the cuts in terse terms:

Radio plays and book readings have, for many years, faced declining audience numbers, while remaining an expensive activity for the network.

There was a vocal response from the literary community to the cancellation of Airplay, a program dedicated to the production of radio plays.. Poetica, which had provided a dedicated space for poetry on the national broadcaster for years, was controversially axed in 2014. Cox would later directly address these cuts, collaborating with the poet Aden Rolfe on a series of radio plays, instigated independently by Rolfe to fill the gaps left in programming.

The cuts to Radio National arts programming in the 2010s made it clear that the priority for the station was the audio equivalent of creative nonfiction –  namely, the radio documentary – and that fictional productions were practically done. This mirrored the commercial realities of Australian literary publishing: nonfiction, particularly Australian titles, outperforms local fiction in sales; the market for local fiction and poetry is shrinking. Indeed, Cox must have known this on some level, as his independent production company – formed in 2012 with his wife and creative partner Que Minh Luu – was cheekily titled Creative Nonfiction. Radiotonic, however, had promoted itself as being genre diverse, presenting a ‘heady mix of fiction, non-fiction, essays and drama from writers’. Scrolling through its archived episodes that pledge seems to have been largely been upheld – though I’m still genuinely interested to know what constitutes an audio ‘essay’ and what sets it apart from a recorded lecture.

In 2016, This Is About replaced Radiotonic, which according to Cox, in an interview published on the Australian Audio Guide, allowed the team to ‘fulfill the narrative non-fiction part of [their] old brief.’ The program doubled down on the biographical portraiture that Cox had mastered during his years with All The Best and Radiotonic. The collage-like soundscapes were turned up too. There was a sense that Cox had well and truly graduated from his This American Life inspirations, even as its growing spin offs – amongst them the mega-hits Serial and S-Town – climbed the iTunes charts. I couldn’t stomach these American iterations with their increasingly homogenised voice. Perhaps it was the sound of cultural dominance. Compare this with the fact that when Radiotonic morphed into This Is About, Cox gave up his seat as presenter for the comedian, singer and transgender advocate Jordan Raskopoulos to take up hosting duties. It is difficult to imagine Ira Glass doing the same.

Radio documentaries flourished in the 1930s and 1940s with the advent of portable recording devices. This chiefly influenced the production of news reporting for radio. Later innovations in documentary radio production involved bringing across elements of sound design previously used within radio dramas – musical cues, non- and diegetic background soundtracks, and various sound effects. This hybridised approach could be seen as roughly analogous to the introduction of literary techniques to nonfiction which saw the establishment of the ‘New Journalism’ school of the late Tom Wolfe and co, also giving way to the supposed ‘nonfiction novel’ embraced by Truman Capote and others.

One way to stress test both audio and literary work is to see whether something that works spoken aloud works equally when read in written form, and vice versa. When Spalding Gray’s monologue Monster in a Box was published in book form in 1992 it featured a blurb from journalist and author Michael Herr, which acted almost as a qualifier: ‘He is as good on the page as he is on the stage.’ This could be said of Cox’s work. The audio transcript of Keep Them Guessing was edited and published in Alice Gage’s literary-art hybrid journal Ampersand. That much-missed magazine housed a considerable amount of writing that was based on material that was first performed rather than written, providing an opportunity for the work to make its claim as literature (This felt particularly welcome in Sydney, whose writerly circles lent more to the performative side of literary production than elsewhere).

When asked which piece of audio had the most profound effect on him, Cox pointed to a 2001 feature by the late ABC producer Tony Barrell about a plane that had disappeared over the Bass Strait, apparently due to the intervention of a UFO. Barrell was one of the co-founders of The Night Air, a program described as the ‘go-to for abstraction, collage and radio bricolage.’ Founded in 2002, just before the advent of the digital distribution of radio, the show had an incredible influence on contemporary Australian experimental radiomakers. Barrell, who had published a number of books during his lifetime, and had written four unpublished novels in his youth, was particularly influenced by literary experiments with ‘cut-ups’. Barrell died in his sleep in 2011 and Mark Colvin speculated, in a eulogy delivered for his friend and colleague, where Barrell’s work should ultimately fit:

I think of him as an artist. Collage was a visual artistic experiment, which really came to the fore with the Dadaists and the Surrealists, as well as major figures like Bach and Matisse and Picasso. Modernist collage obtains its effects by placing things together that you would not expect to be placed together… when I think of Tony I think of him as the artist who took the modernist adventure of collage to audio.

Speaking to the poet Adam Aitken, Martin Harrison explained, at Aitken’s prompting, how his work in radio had influenced his thinking in poetry:

I’ve always been interested in electronic media and I also realised early on that I would work in radio – it has all sorts of connections in my life to do with childhood; radio is often a childhood experience for people. Your love of things starts there.

At Cox’s memorial service, held on a clear-skied day at Carriageworks in Redfern, his family talked about giving him a tape recorder at a tender age. Audio was played from his very earliest of recordings – a three-year old boy with a high-pitched voice, in love with the natural world, narrated a story about various birds and animals. That voice matured into something deeper but no less enthusiastic, empathetic and impassioned. Voice also guides great radio. Walter Benjamin – who himself recorded and scripted a number of short radio works – understood that voice and its defining characteristics are what create the distinction between good radio, and bad:

It is the voice, the diction, and the language – in a word, the formal and technical side of the broadcast – that so frequently make the most desirable programs unbearable for the listener. Conversely, for the same reason but very rarely, programs that might seem totally irrelevant can hold the listener spellbound.

In writing this essay, I was spellbound by Cox’s work, but I was also often slowed by the thought that I was not the right person to write about Cox’s distinctive voice in this way. When someone dies this young, their body of work can get lost too easily to time, and so some sort of effort must be made. Another thought carried me along: this will be far from the last word written on Cox’s achievements. As I wrote I had a persistent voice in my head, saying, ‘I want to be joyful when I celebrate his work.’ The desire to do so was simply found in the fact that, throughout his short life and career, Cox was joyful and celebratory about his subjects. At his memorial service on that sad and sharp summer day, so early in the new year, his coffin was draped in a patchwork quilt, pieced together by his mother, a textile artist, from colourful pieces of fabric he had cherished throughout his life. His life’s work was similarly a patchwork of vibrant colours, made from the stories of others, and, how appropriate, I thought, that their stories were collectively his story too.

Works cited

ABC News, ‘Radio National plans program cuts to save money’, 25 September 2012
Aitken, Adam, ‘Adam Aitken interviews Martin Harrison’, Cordite, 1 November 2014
Benjamin, Walter, The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writing on Media, 2008
Harrison, Martin ‘Our ABC’ , A Dying Culture? : one way forward for arts programming, 2004
Lindgren, Mia ‘RN’s Creative Audio Unit – what’s that all about?’, The Conversation, May 9, 2014