Fiona Pepper, ABC Radio features producer

Fiona Pepper. Photo Rebecca Johansen.
“Your safety is more important than a story and I think sometimes that can get lost with deadlines.” Fiona Pepper, features producer for the ABC, speaks to Rebecca Johansen.

How did you first get into radio?

I initially studied as an actor, and for five to six years, I was living and working in Sydney, around Australia and the states. I was in my late 20s when I thought I needed something with more structure then what acting was offering. I could see parallels between acting and reading scripts, with radio storytelling, so I got into community radio. I started out at FBi radio in Sydney where I started making radio documentaries and doing a weekly panel show on a Saturday morning.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

Go regional. When I started at Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS) in Sydney, all our lecturers said to go regional, whether you’re interested in commercial or public radio. A lot of people said, ‘Nah, I’m just going to stay in metro’. But for those of us who went regional, we got such a good foundation of skills. You’re being pushed, you’re out on the road, recording packages, and you must do everything. I was hesitant at first but there’s also a lot of respect within organisations, that you’ve done your time, you’ve been out to the regions and you’re willing to do so. By doing that your career has a much quicker trajectory.

A few years ago radio seemed to be a very male dominated industry. Have you seen a change over the past few years?

I’ve only worked in radio for three years, and I think what we hear is a lot of male voices, but I predominantly work with women. I think it’s very different between commercial and public radio. The ABC has a strong charter in terms of balance and equality, and obviously there’s more work to be done, but I think when it comes to equality, it’s not a huge thing. Behind the scenes, there’s a lot of women.

I believe age is a big thing. I work at Radio National, and it feels like the average age is changing, and it’s getting younger. When I started it was around 60, but it feels like it’s getting younger every year.

What’s the hardest story you’ve had to produce so far?

I recently did a story about Afghan interpreters, working with the Australian Defence Force during the Afghanistan war. I travelled up to Newcastle to interview a veteran, an Australian army veteran, and an Afghan interpreter who received a resettlement visa in Australia. It was hard. I ended up not using one of the men I interviewed, because he crossed a personal and professional line I wasn’t comfortable with.

I think female journalists are vulnerable, and it’s a vulnerability that you don’t necessarily think about. You jump in a car, you head out and you interview someone on a random farm, and you’ve got no phone reception. Ninety-nine percent of the time it’s totally fine and you have a good rapport with them, but doing that story, I thought, ‘there’s an edge’. It’s not something that’s often discussed, because I don’t think male journalists have to consider that, whereas women do. There’s stuff that can go wrong, and you’re vulnerable, because you’re in their space.

How do you keep yourself inspired to find stories?

That’s my job, I have to. I think you’re always looking for stuff and I don’t know if you’re cut out or not interested enough, if you’re not looking all the time. You find stories in the most unusual places, or from unusual conversations you’ve had with friends. If you haven’t got your antenna out, then you’re missing out on opportunities. It’s not like you’re always on the clock, you can stop working and just leave a note to yourself, saying that this could be something interesting to look into.
Do you get nervous when you talk to people?

Sometimes, not really, but it depends on the subject matter. Sometimes you can be diving into some personal stuff, but I learnt very early on that you must make people comfortable, because if you’re a bit awkward or uncomfortable, the situation doesn’t work. You’ve got to be the one in control, and in command. It’s your job, and if you’re a bit coy and unsure of yourself, then your talent is going to feel that way. They should be nervous, not you, because they’re the ones being asked the questions.

What advice would you give someone who wants to get into the industry?

Figure out where you want to go, if it’s commercial or public radio, because it’s two very different things. When I studied at AFTRS there were two different streams of people in my class and it was as if we were on different planets. The content is so different. So, once you’ve established which stream you want to go down, just make the kind of radio that you like. Community radio is such an amazing platform, so many people I know who work at the ABC have come up through that. You need to be able to talk about all types of experiences you’ve had, and when you’ve just graduated from school it’s hard. You don’t want to keep referring to an assignment you did at university, you want it to be something professional.