Michael Cathcart, ABC Radio National Books and Arts presenter

Michael Cathcart
"I now try to ask at least one hard question every interview, and if I can work towards it sensitively and honestly, it’s usually the highlight of the interview." ABC Radio National Books and Arts presenter Michael Cathcart tells Thomas Cunningham about his time on radio.    

Michael Cathcart has worked at the ABC since the year 2000. He has presented such shows as Arts Today, The Radio National Quiz, Bush Telegraph, and is now the co-Presenter of Books & Arts, on Radio National.

Your Radio National bio said that you have listened to the station for as far back as you can remember, was it always your goal to eventually work there?

No, no. I think there was a part of me, when I was a little child, that thought radio might be where I went, but I didn’t do anything to advance that. I started my working life as a historian at Melbourne University, and then one day I got a call from Radio National inviting me to host The Art Show. They had heard me being interviewed as a guest and decided I would be a good host. Completely out of the blue, I was handed the job.

What have been some of your biggest highlights during your time at Radio National?

The biggest highlight is just being on air everyday, because you come in every morning and you press this button that says “ON AIR”, and all of a sudden you are broadcasting to the whole of Australia, and with the Internet now, the whole world. I also get to be on a radio station I have listened to my whole life. I started listening in 1974 and never stopped. There are big names as well. I have interviewed Salman Rushdie three times, which was a highlight, but you get as big a rush out of talking to a local theatre group who are rehearsing their play. It’s just the daily contact with people who are making great stuff.

Have you found anything particularly difficult about the job or the stories that you’ve encountered?

The hardest thing is the hours, just doing it every single day. Because you can’t have an ordinary day, everyday must be excellent. So that demand that every day you be fresh and alert and excellent can be challenging, which is a good thing, but it is the biggest challenge to keep it going.

Reporters now seem to have to wear many different hats in the workplace, which seems to have increased stress and pressure, particularly when there are stringent deadlines. Have you experienced this in working with the arts, and how do you combat it?

I see it all around me at the ABC. When I started, radio producers produced radio, now they have to upload audio to the website and write stories based on the radio shows. There is no allowance made for time, and in the end something’s got to give. I have gone down to working four days a week. I was working seven, to be honest. Effectively that has meant taking a pay cut, because they want more, but nobody counts the extra work as more.

Are there any qualities you see as essential to reporting on the Arts, as opposed to News or the Sports?

I think that all journalism is about making a judgement. Sometimes a story requires you to be hard edged or detached as a reporter. That is the style of journalism that is most often emphasised. But, there is actually another side to journalism that requires you to be humane, empathic and very emotionally engaged. That is a side I don’t think is heard or taught about often. In the arts you are more often on that side of journalism. You are engaging with artists in a way that enables you to say, I think this is a brilliant book, and I want to discuss it with you because it is your responses that make for a great interview.

Is there anything that you have learnt from your time reporting that you wish you knew when you were starting out?

The best piece of advice I was ever given, was given to me by Ramona Koval, who was the host of the Book Show when I started out on radio. She said to me one day, you are trying to protect your guests aren’t you? You don’t want them to make a fool of themselves on radio…to be a great journalist you need to stop worrying about that. As a journalist you must ask the hard question and let the interviewee decide whether they will answer. I now try to ask at least one hard question every interview, and if I can work towards it sensitively and honestly, it’s usually the highlight of the interview.