home Women in Sport Media Bigger and bolder: the next chapter of the Outer Sanctum

Bigger and bolder: the next chapter of the Outer Sanctum

The Outer Sanctum is back and ready to melee. Kirby Fenwick spoke with Lucy Race and Rana Hussain about community, having hard conversations and sustainability.

The Outer Sanctum have returned to their independent roots after their amicable split from the ABC earlier this year. After three months away from the microphones, a new episode dropped last Wednesday, revealing their new partnership with the Acast Podcast Network and giving some indication of what Outer Sanctum 2.0 will look—and sound—like. So what can listeners expect of this next chapter of the Outer Sanctum story?

“You can expect us to be back doing what we’ve kind of done for the last few years,” said Lucy Race, one of the founding members of the podcast. “We’re not going to stray away from our core principles and our core reason for doing what we do. That’s incredibly important to us. But I think going back to being independent opens up some opportunities.”

Some of those opportunities include having more freedom to cover the topics they want to, in the way they want to cover them.

“We want to be able to speak our truth,” Lucy said. “That’s important. But also, independence gives us a way to cover football and to cover especially the AFLW, which we love with our whole hearts, in a way that we really feel honours it and that is also sustainable for us.”

While the relationship with the ABC introduced the Outer Sanctum to a bigger audience, and leant it a kind of legitimacy all too often only afforded to mainstream media, Rana Hussain sees the return to independence as a positive part of the evolution of the podcast.

“You can expect deeper conversations, that extended nuance and really grappling with issues,” Rana said. “You can also expect us to be a bit bolder.”

“This is that next evolution where I think we’ve all sort of found our voice and who we want to be in the broader context of sport and sports media. And so, you’re going to, I think, get more authenticity and more of who we are.”

That evolution includes stepping up the output to two episodes a week, one to drop on Wednesday and a second, called the Fifth Quarter and inspired by the segment of the same name that developed in the midst of the covid-effected AFLM season in 2020, to drop on Friday. That’s not all they have planned.  

“We’re also hoping that once we get through this pandemic, that we can do some live shows, that we can do some co-pros and mash ups with other people,” Lucy said. “And that we can continue to try and innovate and really try and provide something that is of value to our audience.”

The Outer Sanctum origin story

The Outer Sanctum origin story is one many will be familiar with. A group of friends (three of whom were also sisters) who all too often didn’t feel that the game they loved, loved them back.  There was—and still is—a group chat that found its way into From The Outer, a collection of essays about Aussie rules edited by two of the six founding members, Nicole Hayes and Alicia Sometimes (the other founding members include Kate Seear, Emma Race and Felicity Race). Then came a suggestion that their conversations would make a great podcast.

“We were all at a bit of a point in our lives where we were wondering, do we walk away from this game that doesn’t feel very welcoming to everybody or not,” Lucy said. “And we decided, instead of walking away, that we’d jump in further.” 

Leaning into the conversation is something that the team has always embraced, even when it seems challenging or overwhelming to do so. Lucy points to the infamous comments made by Eddie McGuire about award-winning football journalist, Caroline Wilson.

“That story really blew up. And the week that that story became very public was, it was quite scary and we weren’t entirely sure where everything was going to land. But I think that does mark a bit of a point, a signpost in the road, of when we started to see mainstream conversations about what is acceptable in terms of language. And I like to think we played a small part in that.”

While still only a listener in 2016, Rana says that was a moment that speaks to how the Outer Sanctum has often been at the forefront of some of the game’s trickier issues.  

“I think this is changing, but oftentimes the Outer Sanctum were the only people having the conversation. So, you think back to when it first started and misogynist comments that were made about Caroline Wilson, they were the ones who brought that to the fore. Nobody else was calling out or highlighting the fact that that was really wrong. And time and time again, that’s happened. And sometimes other people pick it up, sometimes they don’t, but they’re conversations that by and large, other media outlets aren’t having.”

Having the hard conversations

Over the last five years, the Outer Sanctum have continued to have those challenging conversations, calling out and calling in and asking questions that many still can’t, or won’t. They’re conversations that they take seriously, but Rana says they also come from a place of love.

“[We’re] a group of like-minded people who love the game but are not afraid to say there are gaps there and there are things that are problematic. And I think that’s the key…It’s not about a lack of love for the game. In fact, it’s the love of the game that brings us together, because we want it to be better.

“Everything we say comes from a place of genuinely wanting the game to be better, because we love it so much.”

That doesn’t mean that it’s easy to explore those gaps and those problematic things. In fact, it’s more often than not exactly the opposite.

“Sometimes it’s really hard having those conversations,” Lucy said. She likens the podcast to an iceberg, where listeners see only one part of the wider and deeper conversations that the group has. “We talk a lot, and our group chat is a lot. But what I love about it, is it gives us opportunities to work through things and to challenge each other. We don’t all have the same opinion about things, we come at things from different perspectives. And that’s great.”

Hard, yes. Scary, sometimes. But Rana believes their approach can be instructive for others.

“It’s a lot of wading through ‘what is the possible fallout of us having this conversation?’ There’s obviously trolls and people calling you out and disagreeing with you. That’s one level. Then there’s ‘are we doing the conversation justice? Are we honouring the people that we’re trying to reflect?’

“So, we’re constantly going over and over. Is this ethical? Is this just? Is this responsible? Is this a responsible conversation? And that takes time and energy and collective effort to do that. 

“To be honest, that was the one thing that struck me when I became part of the team, just the culture in this group of women to be painstakingly ethical and rigorous in what we say. And to make sure that we’ve considered as many angles as we can… They’ve shown me what that actually can look like when it’s done well.”

Lucy acknowledges that they don’t always get it right and there have been times when they’ve received feedback from listeners, some of which has stung.

“It’s hard to sit in that discomfort. But what I’ve learnt, and I think what everyone else has learnt, because I think we’ve all had an instance of this, is that actually listening when someone calls you out on something, and going away and doing the work and making that apology is so valuable.

“It feels so positive when you’ve kind of been through that. In the moment, it’s really uncomfortable. But having been through that, and looking back on it now, I just feel that it’s probably one of the most precious things that I’ve experienced from this whole process.”

From little things big things grow—expanding the Outer Sanctum

In 2020, the Outer Sanctum grew from six to ten when Shelley Ware, Tess Armstrong, Julia Chiera and Rana joined the line-up. Rana, who’d been a guest on the show several times before being offered a seat at the table permanently, says the decision to accept the invitation was a “no brainer”.

“They were just speaking my language, and then the idea that I could then be a part of those conversations and add my own lens to it and experience to it was sort of a no brainer.

“But what I found actually was, like a really solid group of friends, and a sisterhood that I didn’t expect… And I’m very thrilled about that, by the way.”

For Rana, the way in which the original members of the team made the choice to build a bigger table to bring in more voices and perspectives is testament to the values that have long been embedded in the Outer Sanctum.

“[They were] very clear about the fact that they were a group of white women and wanted to make sure that they were representing the community as best they could. And so instead of going, ‘oh, well, there’s already six of us, we’ll just have to wait’. They went ‘no, let’s just open up our doors and invite more people in to be part of our group’.”

“Tess and Shelley and Rana and Julia bring so much more to our group,” Lucy said. “I feel like the Outer Sanctum is actually now as it should be… Just the life experience and the wisdom and the humour and everything that those four women bring to the team is just invaluable.”

“We think about our audience a lot”—the Outer Sanctum community

The community that exists around the Outer Sanctum is as original and distinctive as the podcast itself. For the team, the audience factors into a lot of their thinking. Who they are and what they want or need.

“We think about our audience a lot,” Lucy said. “They interact with us a lot, they share so many things with us. The stories that people have shared with us, privately and publicly about their own journeys in and around sport are just so real, and they resonate, I guess, because it’s the reality of what most people’s experiences are.

“The thing that we are so committed to is always staying true to trying to be a voice for people in the outer and trying to elevate the voices of people in the outer. It’s actually a big reason why we’ve gone back to being independent.

“Sometimes we get it right, sometimes we don’t. But, you know, we just keep fronting up and keep going with it because it’s really important to us, as is having the fun and making the jokes and I guess sharing our friendship, which we hope translates to other people that they feel like they’re part of the gang as well.”

For many the Outer Sanctum feels like home, somewhere where their experiences are reflected at them and where there is a place for them to be a part of the conversation. Just what it is that makes that community so special? Rana says she struggles to put her finger on exactly what it is but what she sees is a “real solidarity”.

“It’s people who feel on the outer and by feeling on the outer, I mean, people who don’t feel seen or heard or represented in the game, in the industry. I worked in an AFL club and I still felt more [at] home with this group and talking in this way than I did in the system.

“I feel like that’s why [the audience] love to listen… and I only know that because that’s how I felt as a listener. It was a place where I could feel honoured as a fan and honoured as someone on the outer because my experience was being reflected back to me. And I didn’t feel diminished by having the conversation or listening to the conversation and agreeing that there are things that could be better.

“That’s my hope, for this next phase is that we build, keep building that community and strengthen it and hopefully be more representative.”

Reimaging the sports media landscape—sustainability and the Sanctum

Sustainability is a huge part of the challenge for independent media. How to maintain your output, your enthusiasm, your investment when all too often you’re working for free, or very little. As Emma Race mentioned in last Wednesday’s episode, there are some similarities between the challenges faced by independent media and the women of the AFLW.

“We’re not doing pre-seasons, and we’re not having to do time trials, which is good,” Lucy said. “But, you know, we are all trying to fit in something alongside other jobs. We do need to be able to financially support ourselves and to support what we’re doing. It is a passion project. But it is really important to us that we’re able to pay people who do work for us, because if we all keep working for no money, then it’s just, it’s not viable. We need to find ways to make it sustainable.

“We really do think that being independent gives us that opportunity to be sustainable, both financially and also creatively because we are 10 women with very strong opinions. And that is a beautiful thing. And sometimes it’s a thing that is difficult for other people to know what to do with.”

The Outer Sanctum have built a committed and dedicated community, they’ve broken important stories and led necessary conversations. At their core is a deep love for the game of Aussie rules, a sincere dedication to equality and enduring and real friendships. While there are still plenty of challenges ahead, Lucy is optimistic about where things are headed. She points out that over the last six years, the community in and around and covering women’s sport and women in sport has grown.

“What I just absolutely love is that I feel like we’re part of this collective now that is bigger than all of us individually. And what we’re doing is we’re reimagining the sports media landscape, we’re making it work for us, and we’re making it work for our audience and it’s really powerful.”

You can find The Outer Sanctum on your preferred podcast listening platform including Spotify, Soundcloud, Stitcher and Apple Podcasts and follow The Outer Sanctum on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

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