Mufti VOL 58 NO.2 June 2019
Mark Donaldson, former SAS trooper and Victoria Cross recipient. Emma Grigson, ex-medical officer and intelligence officer in Afghanistan. Don Barnby, Vietnam veteran and former Special Air Service member.
These are just some of the incredible subjects that have shared their stories on Life On The Line, the Australian podcast that recounts the experiences of war veterans from all around the world. Launched in 2017 by Alex Lloyd and Angus Hordern, LOTL now reaches tens of thousands of listeners every month and has a loyal and growing following.
Alex first started working with Hordern on the documentary miniseries For School and Country while attending Sydney’s Knox Grammar School. Horden’s brainchild, FSAC traced the story of twelve Knox Grammarians (one of whom was Hordern’s father) who served during WWII. Alex was engaged as a cameraman on FSAC, but ended up writing, editing and directing the miniseries and with Hordern formed a production company, Thistle Productions. Alex’s work on the documentary helped inspire the idea for LOTL.
“I was listening to lots of podcasts, and it occurred to me that it was an obvious fit, you can do any era, any conflict, any service type and focus,” says Alex. “Plus audio is easier than video so that we can be more efficient with our storytelling.”
Alex inherited a love of military history from his father, who inherited it from his father before him. But it was the human side of war stories that resonated with Alex when working on FSAC.
"Sitting behind the camera and meeting those WWI veterans, most of whom had never shared their story, was a transformative experience."
Alex continued to work with veterans when he started at book publishers Pan Macmillan working on Mark Donaldson’s memoir The Crossroad. He realised there was a real lack of awareness among the general public when it came to modern veterans’ war stories.
“Their stories weren’t getting their due justice,” he says. “Not everyone gets an opportunity to have a book -- you might be lucky and get an article in a newspaper or 30 seconds on TV, but there’s no nuance or depth to that.”
And so, Life On The Line was born. A couple of years and over 150 podcasts later, the interviewing team has expanded to include Sharon Mascall-Dare, Thomas Kaye and Rohan Viswalingam. The project is a labour of love for all involved, none of whom are paid for their time. “I knew it was going to be a lot of work, I did understand the logistics, but it is in a sense another full-time job,” says Alex, who moved to London at the start of this year on secondment with Pan Macmillan. “It’s demanding, but it’s rewarding. I guess that’s how I justify it and keep pushing.”
Sharon Mascall-Dare joined the LOTL team last year. A highly decorated broadcaster, journalist and academic who is now Military Public Affairs Officer for the Department of Defence, Sharon has nothing but the highest praise for Alex.
“He’s got a rare mix of genuine compassion and fascination for veterans’ stories combined with technical expertise and an understanding of his target market,” she says. “He’s quite a standout.” Perhaps unsurprisingly given Sharon’s own impressive CV and service experience, it wasn’t long before Alex insisted he interview her for the show.
“I said, ‘No, I’m usually the one doing the interviewing, I’m not used to that,’” she laughs. “But I was back in the UK for Christmas with my family at our house in Suffolk, and he came out and interviewed me on my home turf which was kind of sweet.”
Sharon’s work on LOTL dovetails nicely with another of her projects, StoryRight, an organisation that helps veterans to transition to civilian life by telling their ‘story right’. The StoryRight motto is ‘Empowering serving and ex-serving members, one story at a time.’
“It was a no-brainer to partner with Life On The Line to get some of those stories out to a wider audience,” says Sharon.
All LOTL interviewers have been privy to countless exceptional stories, some of which are tougher to bear than others. One subject that Alex had on the show three times was Dave Stafford-Finney, a Royal Australian Navy veteran who served in Bougainville, Timor and the Middle East before being medically discharged in late 2017. Sadly, he took his life in 2019.
“He was scheduled to be interviewed formally by The War Memorial,” says Alex, who became a friend of Stafford-Finney’s following his LOTL interviews. “We have a couple of hours audio of his voice, so for now, his podcast is his record, its important to us that we were able to do that. That refocussed the show for us because it made us think about the greater point of what we are doing.”
For every tragic tale, though, there are many more of triumph over adversity. Alex is keen to try and sway public perception with the show, and the stories shared on the podcast are a testament to the character of veterans interviewed. “We talk a lot about transferring into the civilian workforce, resilience, misconceptions and post-traumatic growth,” he says. “It’s become a big theme of the show -- some people don’t change and grow, but many are able to get through trauma, and it’s that cliche of what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
Alex suspects that the bulk of LOTL listeners are either veterans or friends and relatives of veterans, but he designed the show with the civilian listener in mind. “I try to stay away from jargon and using too much military language,” he says. The interviews are largely unedited, save for getting rid of some “ums and ahs and awkward pauses.” Interviews usually take the form of a relaxed conversation spanning veterans’ lives from childhood to the present day. “I wanted to have a freestyle conversation rather than a stylised interview.” says Alex, whose interview style is notable for his intelligent, perceptive questions.“I’d had exposure to veterans’ stories, by the time Life on the Line started I’d been in the publishing industry five years, so I had storytelling instincts,” he says.
By 2020 Life On The Line will have shared the stories of more than 100 veterans. Additionally, there have been spinoff series such as Life On The Sea, which hones in on the experiences of Navy veterans, and panel discussions on specific topics. The show has also become an important resource for the Australian War Memorial, which adds all LOTL episodes to its national collection at the end of each season.
LOTL has already exceeded all of Alex’s expectations; now it’s about building and improving on their winning formula.
“Certain individuals in the community have been very effusive, and that’s been very gratifying to feel like we’re making a difference in some small way.”
"We want to keep cracking on, share more stories and grow and reach an even wider audience and keep hitting new highs"