Niki Ellis | On being interviewed for Radio National: dealing with a bright Spark


On being interviewed for Radio National: dealing with a bright Spark

09 Jun 2016, Posted by Professor Niki Ellis in Inside OHS articles

Scott Spark emailed me in January when I was holidaying at the beach and asked me if I would agree to be interviewed for a new series he was doing for Radio National (RN) on work. Sounds interesting I thought, but not worth sacrificing good holiday time for, so I declined. Scott was happy to wait for my return.

In early February he sent me an email saying he was editing material on health and safety and thought there was an interesting tension between the effort industry was making to cut costs and its apparent willingness to spend increasing amounts of money on wellness. I was pretty impressed with that observation. He sent me a list of questions he was trying to answer.

These included:

  • More workplaces are spending money on improvements to ‘wellness’ – where does this fit into work health and safety?;
  • We live in an age of cost-cutting, which often means workers must do more with less. Then, on the other hand, you have this investment in ‘wellness’ of employees… things like plants, more natural light, standing desks, optional yoga classes. But do these things make up for the increased workloads?;
  • Whose responsibility is it to ensure our health and safety at work?;
  • What obligation do employees have to arrive at work in prime health? (I wonder if there’s a degree of intrusion here for some people… where it’s viewed as ‘unsafe’ if you come to work tired, sick, overweight, for instance?);
  • To what extent is health and safety determined by whoever’s in charge?;
  • When we go for a job, should we be asking a potential employer about their health and safety record?;
  • And what about employers… is there anything they can look for in a potential employee that might help make their workplace healthier and safer?; and
  • What would you say is the top thing we could do to improve health and safety at work?

To my mind Spark had really got to the heart of the transition workplace health and safety is going through. I asked for a brief chat on the phone before the interview to confirm the scope of the conversation.  Whilst happy to do this, he cut the conversation off as he was worried we were straying too far into the interview itself, and he wanted it to be fresh.

On the day of the interview, February 10, he was in Sydney and I was in the ABC’s Southbank studio. Despite him emailing them when I arrived nobody knew what I had arrived for. I figured Spark would be the one most anxious to sort this out as he had an hour of studio time booked, so I emailed him to let him know I was there and waited to be claimed.

Eventually I was. I was led through a maze of corridors with signs and names familiar to a RN listener like myself and introduced to Tony who operated the equipment on the other side of the glass from me. He settled me into my small room, more of a booth, with a glass of water, headphones and a microphone.

As always, I had worked out a set of talking points including facts and figures and some case studies, jotted down onto the index cards I prefer to use as aide memoirs.

I recalled the first time I had done a radio interview under the guidance of the new PR officer at the Tasmanian Department of Health.

Why prepare less for an interview than you would a lecture?

“How much time would you spend preparing to give a talk?” he had asked me. “Many hours” was the honest answer.  “How big is the audience when you are speaking face to face?” he then asked. One hundred, may be more, often less, was my reply.

“So why would you prepare any less for a radio interview which will reach tens of thousands, probably hundreds of thousands?”

That good advice, given thirty-four years ago, came from the man who was to become my husband. There were other things I liked about him, but I have to say having a free PR consultant on tap for the decades our marriage lasted hasn’t hurt my career!

We did a sound check. My performance voice is quite loud, I know. The director on the ABC television show ‘Stressbuster’ told me that, and the staff I have worked with in various organisations tell me I yell whenever I am on a teleconference.

I still cringe at the thought of the lunchtime address I gave at World Health Organisation headquarters in Manila where apparently I was so loud I almost damaged ear drums.

I think it might be genetic. As children my brother and I would often laugh about my Father who would answer the phone at home in his normal speaking voice, “25623 Frank Ellis speaking”, but if the call was for him he would immediately ramp it up to a sonic level, “WELL HELLO RON, HOW ARE YOU?”.

I didn’t feel nervous, as in a full blown ‘butterflies in the stomach’ feeling.

More of an arousal, a tension. And then Spark was on the line, and we had begun.

We talked for an hour. It was a proper conversation. He meandered along through some of the questions he had sent me, but also bounced off my answers.

I felt I was not being very clear on some points about the new ways of thinking emerging in workplace health and safety, where responsibility is shared.

I kept going, sometimes covering the same territory, trying to find a better way of saying it, knowing he would just pull out the best bits.

At the end he asked me a few questions about my own career, and when I told him how I got into occupational and public health he laughed and said “That is going straight in unedited.

The first tears for the show”, a reference to me describing myself crying in the 3E toilets at the Royal Hobart Hospital and realising clinical medicine was not for me.

‘Embarrassment leave’ potential

I always feel terrible after a radio or television interview. I am convinced I have made a fool of myself. In my first job in public health in Tasmania, I was the departmental spokesperson on HIV/AIDs. Early on I did an interview on the 7.30 Report, defending a video we had made for young people.

Afterwards I asked my boss if the public service had ‘Embarrassment Leave’.

That interview all those decades ago was fine, more than fine, but then, as now, I can never tell.

Spark said he would let me know when it was going to air, but he expected it to be in March sometime. On Sunday, March 27, I had this text exchange with a close friend, Caroline who is married to David.

C:  D is convinced you are on a RN teaser for a show about work, is he right?

Me: (Suddenly remembering the interview until then forgotten) Could be. I did an interview about a month ago

C: I lose bet then, it’s the way you say girlie apparently that is a dead giveaway

Me:  Golly, why am I saying girlie????? A worry

C:  You are mimicking/quoting a bloke. Don’t worry.

I look it up and find that three episodes of the series WorkLife have been posted, but not the one with me in it.

Don’t neglect the health benefits of work

Kevin Jones finds the episode before I do and emails it to me.  Neither of us had realised that each other had been interviewed, but we are both happy with the way it has turned out.

Except the title: ‘WorkLife:  Why is work making us sick’.

I tweet the link on Monday April 4, saying: “Good job Scott Spark @RadioNational on capturing modern WHS. Terrible title though, neglects health benefits of work.”

I am writing this now, five hours after I sent that tweet. I have just received an email from Scott Spark thanking me.

Advocacy is an important part of our work as WHS practitioners; if you get the chance to communicate about the benefits of investment in improving health and wellbeing, take it.

Think about your audience, hone your messages, and then come up with ways to illustrate these with examples from your experience. And be prepared to occasionally have to take Embarrassment Leave.



First published in Thomson Reuters Inside OHS, 08 June 2016

Inside OHS Editor: Stephanie D’Souza; (02) 8587 7684; Stephanie.D’