Off Air

Heading-SFWWhats happens when on-air talents step away from the spotlight? Are they doomed to a boring life of obscurity or do they have greater control of their career? In a feature that first appeared in Encore, Megan Reynolds investigates.

When Mindy Thomas resigned her post as a radio announcer to become a behind-the-scenes producer, it was her friends that experienced the greatest fallout via her Facebook page.

“When you’re on air, you’re constantly walking around thinking, ‘oh, I just stubbed my toe. How can I use that on my show?’ When I became a producer, I had no outlet for those witty anecdotes and so I turned to Facebook,” says Thomas, now the producer of WSFM’s Jonesy and Amanda breakfast show.

Posting descriptive Facebook updates gave her the little ‘on-air’ breaks she missed when she left her presenting job on a breakfast program in Alice Springs and took up a full-time producing role in Adelaide. “If you’re going to make that move you want to be sure you’re ready for it,” she says. “I am sure people who have that passion for being on air would miss it a lot. Some of my friends who have gone off air say it is really weird for the first few weeks because they don’t know what to do with themselves, they’re used to talking so much.”

Brian ‘Spoonman’ Carlton has a natural ‘gift of the gab’, and admits he prefers to be on the mic than behind the scenes although that was where he was when he started out as a control room operator at 2UE in 1984. The way he communicated with others, and always argued his case, was noticed by radio boss John Brennan who gave him his own show from midnight to dawn.

“I was 27 years old, had dreadlocks, earrings and a penchant for wearing singlets. I was the antithesis of what you would consider an adult talk announcer to be,” says Carlton. But he was a natural on air and broke the station’s record for the most number of calls to one show in one night.

“I honestly don’t know how I did it,” he says. “I was just me, and I was talking about stuff that was going on that I found interesting. Other people clearly agreed, and they rang in.” He went on to become the ‘Spoonman’ when hired to host the first FM radio late-night talk show on Triple M in 2005.

As the Spoonman, Carlton, now executive producer of 2UE’s Drive show with Jason Morrison, and host of Sunday night talk show ‘The Stir’, was free to talk about anything from relationships to sex, drugs and rock and roll. But when fellow former radio announcer Guy Dobson started out, there was not the same freedom for announcers. It was only by making the move behind the scenes that the now-chief content officer at Southern Cross Austereo gained influence over the liberalisation of radio.

“Back in the 1980s it wasn’t the most salubrious of times for creating great radio. Things were a bit haphazard,” he says. Dobson started out on air although he lost his first job presenting midnight to dawn on the University of Queensland student-run station 4ZZZ because his taste in music was too commercial, he says. Then when he went abroad and tried out for roles in Canada and the UK, he was turned down because of his Australian accent. Instead he got a job as production manager at Viking FM in Hull in the north of England where he realised he had more control behind the scenes. The first thing he did was put himself on the air. “After a while I thought, ‘well the program director’s got all the power. You can do whatever you want. Why am I persisting with all this on-air lark? I’ll just be the boss’,” he says.

Now Dobson oversees production of content for assets across metro, regional, digital radio, TV, social media and online, plus new and existing international projects. “If you want to help facilitate change then you have got to be part of it,” he says.

“And the good news is that I can put myself on the air anywhere in Australia at any time and I choose not to. I can tell you that there are a lot of people that are very happy for that. There are listeners that are extremely happy about that,” he quips. Today Dobson has no desire to be on air. “I was never one for the spotlight, even when I was on air,” he says. “The next time I will be on the air will be when I’m retiring and I find a nice little low-paying job playing a little late-night jazz and R’n’B.”

WSFM’s Thomas also feels more comfortable behind the scenes. “When you’re in a small country town you become kind of well known among the locals,” she says of her presenting days.

“At first it was great. It’s good for your ego having people come up to you and talk to you. But after a while I realised I wasn’t really cut out for it because I became a little bit more shy.” The final straw came for Thomas when someone knocked on the cubicle door while she was in the toilet at a local pub asking if she was “Mindy from the radio”. She realised she had had enough.

“I remember thinking, ‘I don’t think this is for me’,” she says.


Mary Kostakidis, the face of SBS’s prime-time World News for nearly 30 years, says she felt so awkward about being in the spotlight when she started her first on-camera role presenting the weekend news, she took down the large promotional picture of herself from the wall and turned it to face the other way.

The head of news and current affairs called her into his office with concerns someone was trying to sabotage her.

“He said: ‘Someone keeps taking your picture down, and I’m going to find out who,’ and I was horrified, because it was me,” she says. “I couldn’t face walking past myself all the time. It took a while for me not to feel awkward, uncomfortable with the repercussions of being in the spotlight.”

Although she eventually came to terms with her public profile, when she left SBS, Kostakidis found it liberating. “There were no longer any constraints on what I could do, say or write,” she says. And although Kostakidis “felt crushed” by her departure from the multicultural broadcaster, believed to be the result of a dispute over the network heading in a more commercial direction, the ex-host now enjoys working outside of the studio on matters of social justice and the arts. “It was a great privilege to present a prime-time national world news bulletin and I obviously enjoyed aspects of it, but the job was studio based, and my professional life since then has brought me in contact with people and that has been extremely fulfilling and enjoyable,” she says.


For FremantleMedia’s creative director Jason Stephens, moving behind the scenes felt like the natural thing to do.

As part of comedy troupe The D Generation from 1989 to 1994 he wrote, produced, directed and starred in a number of radio programs and the cult ABC comedy series The Late Show. But Stephens says he simply wasn’t driven enough to fight for the spotlight. “Anybody who is a performer should be doing it because they couldn’t imagine doing anything else,” he says.

“I was never that driven and I kind of knew that from the start. In this business, it’s important to know your limitations. As an actor in Australia, it’s a small market and it’s tough out there. There just aren’t that many opportunities.”

Southern Cross Austereo’s Dobson also realised early on there was little longevity in simply being ‘talent’. “You sort of grow up and go, ‘there’s going to be 10 per cent of people who try out on air that are going to have a lot of money and have a really long, ever-evolving career, and the rest are going to have a nice life, never rock the boat, and sort of sit there in blissful oblivion’. But that didn’t really float my boat, I wanted to do something better than that,” he says.

By not being in the spotlight, Dobson, Thomas, Stephens and Carlton are able to make the light shine brighter for others. “I’m lucky to know what it’s like on the other side of the camera,” Stephens says. “It has made me a better producer because I can understand how vulnerable actors are and what they are going through in a way that I would not have been able to if I had not been in front of the camera.”

Similarly, Thomas says her presenting experience has given her a better understanding of the increasing pressures presenters are under every day and Carlton’s on-air experience means he is able to anticipate the announcer’s needs, and bring out the best in them.

“When you’re an announcer it can get a little lonely,” he says. “So if they say something funny and you react to it, it puts a smile on their face and makes the next segment better than the last one.”

Although he feels most at home in front of the microphone, Carlton would rather step back and produce someone else’s show than leave radio altogether.

“The fun thing about radio is radio,” he says. “It’s quite hard to explain what being on the air hosting your own show is like. It’s not an ego thing, per se, but it gets in your blood. It’s just lots of fun.”

But forget about being bored behind the scenes. Dobson says there is as much drama, if not more, off air as there is in front of the microphone. “The good thing about radio is that it’s a 24-hour live operation, like it or not. So you’re like this juggernaut running out of control everyday. You’ve got to find content to fill the gaps, so there’s never a dull moment,” he says.

In terms of returning to the air, it’s a case of never say never according to WSFM’s Thomas. “Maybe in 10 years time,” she says. “But right now I’m really happy producing. I like researching and coming up with the guests. When you want to get someone on air and there’s a chase, you get them and there’s an adrenaline rush. It sounds really radio geeky, but when the interview goes well it’s my favorite part of the job.”

When he looks back at clips of The Late Show, Stephens remembers how much fun he had, but says he genuinely doesn’t miss the spotlight. And by moving into production he has been able to carve out a much more rewarding and sustainable career.

“I miss the adrenaline rush sometimes, but you get that in producing as well,” he says. “Every day presents a new challenge and every show presents a new challenge. When you think you know it all, something else comes out of the box which you haven’t dealt with before, so that makes it exciting and interesting. You’re always learning. So it’s still fun, it’s just a different type of fun. A more grown up sense of fun.”

Encore Issue 15

This story first appeared in the weekly edition of Encore available for iPad and Android tablets. Visit encore.com.au for a preview of the app or click below to download.


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