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Alex Sloan – now we interview her…

Emma Macdonald

Many Canberrans are mourning what feels like the loss of a dear friend.

For more than a decade, Alex Sloan has been having gentle, funny, tear-jerking and always-entertaining conversations which waft into living rooms, offices and cars across ABC Radio Canberra airwaves.

Her last official duty was last week’s Australia Day broadcast. And her voice and laugh are missed.

We turn the tables on Alex and sit her down for a long chat. We take a look at her outstanding career, and bring you the exciting news that Alex will be joining us here at HerCanberra as a columnist on issues she holds dear to her heart.

Alex, how did this brilliant career get started?

In the beginning there was only the ABC.  I grew up on a farm in country Victoria and the ABC dominated our lives.

It’s a lifeline for people in the country.  For our farming family, there were market reports of calf sales, wool prices, river heights.  The brown Bakelite radio would blare through the weekday lunch, which really was the main meal which would include farm workers and shearers.  There would be silence for the news and then great sport over Blue Hills with bets taken on whether character Fleur’s pregnancy took two years instead of the usual nine months. I particularly remember our beloved long-time helper Bob Barr listening quietly to a news report in the 1960s about the development of the contraceptive pill.  Bob was the last of 13 children; when the item finished he quietly looked up from his chops and mash and said “glad it wasn’t in my parents’ day”.

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Alex grew up in rural Victoria where ABC radio was a lifeline.

As time went on my Mum turned the dial to Radio National.  She never looked back.  She listened to programs on books and writing, programs such as “Offspring” now morphed into Life Matters, The Coming Out Show. At the time, it was considered something of a revolution: a show made by women, talking about the issues that mattered to women.  “Your mother’s listening to the Whinging Woman’s show again,” would be the comment from my father.  As I said before, ABC radio is a lifeline in the bush. And a job on radio is all I really ever wanted to do.  It took me a while to get there but I did.

Tell us about the journey…

First I enjoyed multiple gap years after dropping out of Melbourne University.  I worked in publishing, mainly clerical jobs.  I then went back to university in Perth at what is now Curtin University.  It had the most fantastic broad Arts Degree.  I enrolled in Rural Journalism and did do subjects such as Animal Science, Agronomy, Farm Management, but the core units of Literature, Language and Culture were a knockout.  We studied the Bible, Koran, Marx, Freud, and popular culture.  We had lecturers such as John Fiske and Graham Turner, and the lecture theatres were packed.  Tim Winton went there.  In fact one of my journalism assignments was to interview Tim at his house in Perth as he was a vocal opponent of The America’s Cup and its impact on the character of Fremantle.

I made the decision I needed to travel before focusing on a job at the ABC so I applied to be an Australian Volunteer Abroad.  I remember my pitch to the interviewer saying “Look the time’s right, I’m a poor student and before I get obsessed with possessions like owning an electric can opener, I want to work in a developing country!”

It was agreed, the electric can-opener purchase should be suspended and for the next two years I spent time as a teacher and farm manager in a remote provincial government High School in Papua New Guinea. One of the most important experiences of my life.

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Alex enjoying a dip with students from Brahman High School, Madang Province, PNG.

I reluctantly returned home clutching a black pine spear made for me by one of my Simbu students, a bilum over my shoulder, bare feet, no money but with a broadened mind (and feet).  One of my PNG students said “Miss Sloan it’s time you went home and asked your family to find a man to marry you”.

I applied for a job with ABC Rural, but it took months for the interview to take place.  It was a phone interview and when I said I’d just spent two years volunteering in PNG education the response from one of the blokes on the panel was “what an idiotic thing to do”.  I ploughed on eventually until there was a question about Bougainville and my answer possibly went in a different direction to what the questioner was expecting but I was offered a job.

That job was presenting The Country Hour statewide in Tasmania based in beautiful Hobart.  I couldn’t believe my luck – I packed my scant possessions into my car and drove onto the Spirit of Tasmania.

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Alex interviewing some free-range pigs on King Island in 1990.

What were you like when you eventually hit the airwaves?

Pretty damn green.  I distinctly remember saying with great seriousness: “And now to raspberries….”.  There was a huge pause.

As it turned out I was the third Alex in a row to be employed by ABC Rural in Tasmania, following Alexandra Kirk and Alexandra de Blas.  We all had very different styles.  Alex Kirk was a real terrier, in fact I was told many of the farmers in Tasmania had travelled to Melbourne for media training in order to be able to handle Alex’s questions.  Alexandra de Blas was based in Launceston and again a great journalist, known for her penchant for poetry on the early morning rural report. She once filled in for me presenting the Statewide program and inadvertently said the “F” word.  All the farmers were determined it was me and rang saying “we heard you let one go! Made my day”.  As much as I protested it wasn’t me, my reputation was set.

How has your style changed over time?

ABC Rural is very much the same as being trained in current affairs radio, that is AM, The World Today and PM.  It’s serious journalism, objective, balanced, news-breaking.  Some of our greatest journalists started in ABC Rural: Andrew Olle, Paul Lockyer, Philip Williams, Sally Sara, Zoe Daniel and Pip Courtney.

I always loved colour and humour and quickly gained a reputation for feature stories. Still, taking off the current affairs straightjacket to present an ABC local radio program is quite a challenge.  I always say to new presenters it takes about a year to be yourself on air.  From being trained to not have an opinion you are expected to put yourself out there.  It’s quite a transition.

In the end, I think the audience just wants you to be fair and balanced but also authentic, be yourself, warts and all.

How did things progress for you?

Pretty quickly.  I had a great start in Tasmania, encouraged by my boss Bart Kirby.  I was awarded a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade North East Asia travel scholarship.  These were offered following the suggestion of Ross Garnaut that more journalists should spend time in North Asia to gain a better cultural understanding, and of course, with an eye to trade.

I travelled to Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong and sent back daily reports and prepared longer feature interviews. This reporting was noticed by the Australian Meat and Livestock Corporation who then offered me a trip to the US – ostensibly to report on trade issues.  I did that in spades but this was also an election year in the US – the Democrats’ Bill Clinton versus the Republicans’ Bob Dole.  I travelled to Bob Dole’s hometown of Russell Kansas (not far from Dodge City) and managed to get a face-to-face interview with him.  His minder couldn’t believe he was giving me the time of day.  I then discovered my tape recorder had been on pause and I asked him to do it again.  To his minder’s absolutely bewilderment, eye-rolling, (was that froth at the corner of his mouth?), Bob Dole did the interview again and with even more punch.

I then moved from ABC Rural to work as a producer/reporter on the RN Breakfast program presented by Peter Thompson.

When it came to make a key career decision it was the fantastic Sue Spencer, the respected former Executive Producer of Four Corners, then in senior management at Radio National who asked me a key question.

I had been offered the chance to come and present on ABC Canberra or continue on RN Breakfast and perhaps pursue a dream to become a foreign correspondent.  Sue asked me, “Do you want to get married and have kids?”.  Who asks that question of a 30-something woman?  When I said yes, Sue continued: “look it’s not impossible, but it will be a hell of a lot harder”.  It was one of those questions that should be asked but all too often isn’t.  I thank Sue to this day.  I came to Canberra, fell in love with the city and my future husband.

What are your strengths?

My ability to spot a good story, to hold a connection with the people I interview.  And a love of my job.

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Alex in the Ord River, Kimberley, on a journalism student tour in 1985.

What were your weaknesses?

In this political town, I didn’t really want to cover federal politics exclusively. I wasn’t hungry, interested or talented enough to make it my focus. I did work briefly with the astounding Fran Kelly when she was the Canberra Correspondent for Radio National Breakfast, based in Parliament House. I learnt a huge amount from her, but realised I would never be as good as she is.  I was happier at the other end of town, talking about books, sport, Garema Place, Canberra planning, Chief Minister talkback, gardening, Mount Ainslie, and about the community I live in.  Let me say I’ve very glad we have the Fran Kellys of this world.

Name three of your most stand-out interviews?  Who were they with?  What happened?  Why does it stand out for you?

He was a talkback caller, so I don’t know his name.  But the conversation deepened when he talked about being the ageing parent of a now adult son with a disability.  My caller talked about the way friends drop away because they can’t cope, not being able to celebrate birthdays and special occasions like other families because of lack of respite care, of the deep concern about what happens when he and his wife die and the son lives on.  I’ve never forgotten it.  Not for a moment did the caller want pity, he was just matter of fact stating the course of his family’s life and asking for some understanding.

Rosie Batty.  It wasn’t even a year since her beloved son Luke had been so brutally murdered by his father when Rosie was named Australian of the Year.  As part of my role presenting the Australia of the Year National Broadcast for ABC Radio I had a scheduled 30-minute interview with Rosie.  This came at a really stressful time for her and I was the last person who wanted to cause her any more pain.  It was one of the moments where as women we both regrouped, I threw away my interview notes and questions, we hugged and we did the interview looking each other straight in the eyes not worrying about schedules and prepared questions but having a conversation about one of the worst things that can happen to a person.  I will never forget it.

Major General John Cantwell.  I had just finished John’s memoir Exit Wounds the night before.  In fact, my daughter heard my open sobs as she came in the front door. “What’s wrong Mum?”  I read her this from John’s book:

“The two dead men lie on stainless steel examination tables.  Despite the heat outside, in here it is cool and quiet…..

….identification complete they begin to zip up the white bags – like sleeping bags – in which the soldiers rest.  On impulse, I stop them “I’d like say goodbye, if I may,” I say.

‘Of course sir’.  Both step back.

I reach to a nearby shelf and extract a blue surgical glove from a box, pulling it onto my right hand.  I take a slow breath and step close to each man, placing my hand on his shoulder in turn.  The chill of their bodies reaches my heart.  Looking down at each soldier, I say how sorry I am they have been claimed by war, thank them for their sacrifice and tell them they are on their way home.  It feels perfectly natural to be speaking aloud to the dead.  After a moment of contemplation, I say “Goodbye Jacob”, then I pause and say “Goodbye Darren”.

It’s a description of war that will stay with me forever.   I’m afraid when I went to welcome General Cantwell into the studio I was completely unprofessional, bursting into tears and hugging him.  I said “General Cantwell, the only thing that’s going to get us through this interview without tears is the scorpion story (for the ‘Scorpion Story” you need to read his book)”.  He was kind enough to say it was one of the interviews he liked most.  We made it dry-eyed through the interview, only breaking slightly when I read that passage.  I think John Cantwell did a huge thing, being such a high-ranking military professional openly talking about PTSD.  It was a privilege and an honour to talk with him.

What are some of the most harrowing parts of being on-air? 

To see anyone in pain is hard, and I certainly did not want to be the cause of any more.  I remember interviewing a man who was at Port Arthur and had looked Martin Bryant in the eyes and had only escaped because the killer was reloading his gun.  He had flown back to the Canberra that day and came into the studio the next morning.  As he was telling me this story I could see him go into shock, he started to freeze and panic.  I wrapped up the interview pretty quickly.  I was told-off afterwards for “letting him get away” but I saw the look in his eyes and I knew it was time to stop.

Like most broadcasters I’ve had some pretty bad days.  You kick yourself later for not being better-briefed and prepared, particularly with politicians.  I blame myself for the ones that got away.

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One of several of Alex’s official headshots.

How do you cope with difficult subject matter?  If someone is emotional on air, how do you keep it together?  What happens if you can’t?

I always check if the person is okay.  There have been times when the person being interviewed has cried or become emotional and my response was always there is no shame in emotions, this from me – one of the most emotional people around.  With General Cantwell we talked before going on air and we knew we would both laugh and cry but we were in it together.  With highly emotional interviews I never looked for the “gotcha” moment.

There have been some pretty emotional moments with politicians when my job was to hold them to account.  Again, I always tried to be fair and straight down the line.  I can think of interviews with Chief Ministers Kate Carnell, Jon Stanhope, Katy Gallagher and Andrew Barr that involved pretty big emotions, from the personal to anger, but I think if you checked with all of them, they would say I was fair.

Have you ever found it difficult to put a happy voice on – if personally, you are not feeling happy?

Many times. I probably didn’t disguise it very well.  Like most of us,I’ve experienced personal pain and sorrow, but the show must go on and I had a duty to my listeners and my team.

What sort of feedback have your received from listeners?

All sorts.  After 27 years on radio, complaints?  There were a few.   If I was wrong I would correct the record.  Some listeners just don’t like you and that’s just the way of the world.  I wasn’t going to apologise for being me, and I certainly wasn’t going to apologise for being a woman.

I also received some of the kindest most generous feedback imaginable, some went straight to the pool room.  The memories of the lovely posies of spring’s first sweet peas from the Croker family will always be treasured.

The send-off I got from the Canberra community when I retired from ABC Canberra made the decision so much easier and also confirmed I’d got the timing right.  Thanks Canberra.

Do you get recognised on the street?

In the past few years I have been.  I always said I didn’t want to do TV because I wanted to be able to go to the shops in my daggy old clothes and not be caught slurping down an ice-cream.  For years I got away with it, not anymore.  Just the other day I was buying my veggies at Ainslie IGA and an older woman also buying beans asked “do I know you?”, “I don’t think so” was my reply.  “Ah yes” she said, “you’re that Alex Sloan”.  “Not any more, I’ve retired.” “So you have” she replied.   We both chuckled and got on with the shopping.

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Image: Martin Ollman

Describe your journey to motherhood?

I always wanted to be a mother.  I thought I would be a young mother in my twenties who had four children.  I just didn’t meet the right man and so got on with working.

Finally I met Rob in my mid-30s and within a short space of time I was pretty clear I wanted to have a child.  It was one of those tough conversations at the start of a relationship, but I was glad I was honest and straightforward about it.

How did you combine a child and work?

With the advice of good friends and a great boss.

The great boss was the former Director of ABC Canberra Elizabeth (Liz) McGrath. When I went on maternity leave having presented the Drive program for five years, Liz gave me a letter, putting in writing the choice to return to presenting Drive.

When the time approached, Liz again contacted me asking if I wanted to present Drive or present and produce ABC Canberra Weekends, which included the gardening program.  Lots of people asked why would I want to present gardening when I had 10 years of journalism behind me.  Another wise friend, Marion Frith asked another pretty direct question “How many children are you having, and how much time do you want to spend with her?”

So answering that question, weekends won hands down.  I kept a full-time job, worked Wednesday through to Sunday, had Monday and Tuesday with Zoe and Rob looked after her on the weekends.  It meant only three days of daycare, which Zoe enjoyed, and she also got lots of time with both her parents either one-on-one or together.  We were lucky and again I thank Liz and Marion.

But in another plus, presenting weekends meant I got to work with the wonderful Mark Carmody on gardening and that was one of the great joys of my broadcasting career.

It hasn’t all been plain sailing juggling motherhood and working.  Presenting a three-hour morning program for eight years came at a cost.  The reading was huge, sometimes three books a week, and the job also required you to be across current affairs pretty comprehensively – from early AM to Lateline at night.  Being a presenter on ABC Radio Canberra also requires you to do lots of community engagement and sometimes I let that get out of whack.  It was tiring and relentless at times.  Great job though.

How hard is to watch your daughter grow up and go her own way?

She is one of the main reasons I wanted to retire.  She is in Year 12, it’s her turn.  I have all the usual parental fears about driving, drugs, assault, lack of respect, future employment.  But she is a really smart, strong, assertive, funny beautiful young woman and it is the joy of my life to be her mother.

Having lived and breathed ABC Radio, where do you feel it’s going?  Do you have concerns?

I hope onwards and upwards.  I had a wonderful career at the ABC, I feel lucky and grateful.  I hope the ABC continues to be the independent public broadcaster that is vital to Australians.

Former Managing Director Mark Scott said once that Australia is very different to American in part due to the ABC – the ABC is part of what makes Australia Australian.

The ABC is a marvellous public good: funded for the benefit of all, available to be used by Australians everywhere.

The ABC should not be chasing ratings.  Sarah Ferguson’s Four Corners program on the live cattle trade to Indonesia was one of the lowest-rating programs but was awarded the Gold Walkely for outstanding journalism.  Tell the important stories and let others worry about what’s popular.  Report what needs to be heard, not what people want to hear.

In a recent opinion piece, outgoing BBC Director Helen Boaden, who is also retiring, called for “slow” news to accompany the fast 24-hour media cycle.  That we journalists take time to understand and explain. She also said this:

Last month, the European Broadcasting Union published a survey that suggested that countries with popular, well-funded public service broadcasters encounter less extremism and corruption. Its report says: “In countries where public service media funding is higher there tends to be more press freedom” and where they have a higher market share “there also tends to be a higher voter turnout”.

The EBU argues that “a strong and well-funded public service media is not only about providing people with news, documentaries and entertainment – it’s also about contributing to democracy”. Questioning politicians, freely but fairly, is a vital part of the body politic.

What led you to consider retiring?

I just knew it was time to go.  Time for fresh voices.  I was tired and it is time to focus on my family, smell the roses, cook delicious food.

What do you love about Canberra?

The lovely designer Alex Freeman of Polka Luka puts it beautifully.  “There’s an ease and flow about Canberra you don’t get in other cities”.  I love the air, the mountains, I love the contrary population from the “loons” to the “Nobel Laureates”.  I remember one time presenting ABC Gardening with Mark Carmody during the drought and there had been a terrible dust storm dumping precious top soil on Canberra.  Mark and I mused on the question of just how much soil had blown in.  Within minutes we had a caller, no doubt CSIRO, who had done a calculation according to soil measured on his backyard tabletop.

Again, discussing history and politics in East Timor, caller on “line one” just happens to be a former Ambassador to East Timor.  Canberra I love you.

Slider image: Martin Ollman

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Emma Macdonald

Emma Macdonald has been writing about Canberra and its people for more than 20 years, winning numerous awards for her journalism - including a Walkley or two - along the way. Canberra born and bred, she’s fiercely loyal to the city, tribally inner-north, and relieved the rest of the country is finally recognising Canberra’s cool and creative credentials. More about the Author

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