Photo credit: Patrick Pielarski

‘Walking is the gentlest form of listening’
– Anthony Magen

Off Track strode onto Radio National and into our podcast feeds in 2012. This was a year of significant change in RN’s program schedule, remarked on at the time primarily for the axing of Ramona Koval’s The Book Show. Of the programs that debuted then – amongst them current affairs focused RN Drive, the re-introduced Media and Religion Reports, and the pop culture show Common Knowledge (recently re-badged as The List) – Off Track’s combination of relaxed wanderlust and well-judged sound design stood out.

Presented by the science journalist Joel Werner, Off Track describes itself as speaking ‘for the environment beyond policy and politics, as told by the people who live and love it.’

Off Track’s topics have ranged from honey in Marrickville (Urban Beekeeping), biking Melbourne’s suburbs (The Casual Cyclist), peer-reviewed science (The Science of a Changing Climate), urban acoustic ecology (Permeate: Anthony Magen) and installation art (Standing in the Warmest Light). This range demonstrates not just a wide variety of interests but a thoughtful engagement with the qualities of different soundscapes.

Off Track is podcasting upright and outdoors. Its voices speak largely in the unbuffeted outside. Some background noise is artfully retained. Feet are heard stepping along streets, bodies push against the brush. Descriptions of each locale are offered in a deliberately casual manner, as if to an acquaintance uncertain of the way. The vocal emphasis gently seesaws between two voices, usually Werner and his interviewee. Werner’s even toned, slightly high-pitched voice is allowed to get breathless walking up an escarpment or cycling an inner west backstreet, his vocal timbre giving the impression of a compact, wiry frame.

If it seems odd to infer physical attributes from a voice, this is key to Off Track’s success as a listening experience. Off Track isn’t just podcasting under an open sky; it’s a sharply produced and often beautiful piece of crafted audio. Even the program’s musical sting, whisked out of piano strikings and tape loops, is like a breath taken before the path forks in a new direction. Werner and his producers’ sure sense of the rhythms of communication (and its necessary gaps) strike close at the surprisingly complex act of listening.

Listening is a creative act. It has to be. A listener can only take in so much sound. Jean Aitchison, Oxford Professor of Language and Communication, writes in her book The Articulate Mammal that if ‘we assume an average of four sounds per English word, and a speed of five words per second, we are expecting the ear and the brain to cope with around twenty sounds a second. But humans cannot process this number of separate signals in that time – it is just too many.’

To cope with this influx, we select, elaborate, predict, and ultimately get lost in own thoughts.

It’s Off Track’s quiet knowledge of distraction and its gestures towards the physical that give it the sense of an experience through time and space, as opposed to the timelessly dry quality of a modern studio. Off Track is a hike through the contemplative outside shrunk down to an MP3.


James Tierney is a Sydney-based freelance writer who blogs irregularly at A Long Slow Goodbye and tweets too frequently as @Viragohaus.