Susie Ferguson: Steady under fire

By Karl du Fresne In Entertainment

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Photo/Hagen Hopkins

Susie Ferguson is a new co-host of Radio New Zealand National’s Morning Report, which she will present with Guyon Espiner from April 2nd.

You’ve filled in on Morning Report in the past, but your listeners don’t know much about you. Tell us about yourself.

I came to New Zealand about four and a half years ago. I grew up in Edinburgh but left when I was 18 and went down south, initially to do a drama course, then went on to the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, where I did a degree, and stayed in London for my postgrad diploma in broadcast journalism.

You originally aspired to be a theatre director. What changed your mind?

[Laughs.] I suppose I didn’t want to suffer for my art. It suddenly dawned on me in my third year that, oh my God, how am I ever going to make any money? Not that it’s all about money, but …

You went into journalism for the money?

No, but I had a road to Damascus experience. I had a very talented friend who was doing a one-woman show that I stage-managed at the end of my third year at drama school. She was working with a fantastic director who was 10 years older than me. She [the director] was absolutely brilliant; just watching her in rehearsal was wonderful. But after 10 years she was still only being paid expenses. She was waitressing just to make ends meet. And I thought, I’m not sure I want to do that; I’m not sure that’s what my life looks like.

I had another moment a few weeks later when I was working at a gap-year fair – promoting things for school leavers to do before going on to university – and I ended up sitting at lunch next to a careers adviser who said to me, “What do you like about theatre and drama?” And I talked about elements of performance, voice work, story-telling. She said, “Have you thought about broadcast journalism?” And I hadn’t. So I did the postgrad course and that’s where it all started.

The performance aspect of broadcast journalism was part of the appeal?

Absolutely, yes. I never wanted to be an actor – I’m not that good an actor. But I’m quite a reasonable performer on stage when it’s not about taking on a character.

Were there things you learnt in drama school that have been useful as a journalist?

Oh, things like constructing narratives, storytelling; how to tell a good story with impact. There’s a lot of crossover, though there’s obviously one large difference. Journalism is about the facts; theatre isn’t.

What brought you to New Zealand?

My father’s a third-generation New Zealander, but his family left New Zealand in 1947, when he was still a child, and went to St Andrew’s in Scotland, where my grandfather had been offered the chair in philosophy at St Andrew’s University.

When my grandfather died eight years ago, he left me a small amount of money. I wanted to do something worthwhile with it, so I came here with my then boyfriend, now husband.

I had a very strange sensation of travelling to the other side of the world and coming home. It was partly the friendliness and openness, but also the little things – like walking into a cafe and seeing melting moments for sale.

You had relatives here?

Yes, there are branches of the family over both islands. When I came here I suddenly realised that here was a whole country doing things that I had always assumed were just things my granny did – the food she made, the songs she sang, all that kind of stuff. It was a lovely sensation. On the trip back to Auckland Airport my partner and I thought, what would happen if we just didn’t get on the plane? Which obviously we couldn’t do, but that was the moment when the idea was planted.

At the time, we were thinking of leaving London, wondering what to do next. I was reporting from war and disaster zones for the British Forces broadcasting service and really enjoyed it, but I didn’t want to go on doing it forever. So we thought we’d give it a go. That’s how we ended up here.

You have children?

Yes, one who was six months old when we arrived here in 2009 and another who’s now 16 months old.

What will you bring to Morning Report?

People say to me that I’m not afraid of asking hard questions. I don’t know about that – I just ask questions I want the answers to, and I’m reasonably insistent about trying to get them.

You’ve described this as your dream job. Not just a PR phrase?

Not at all. I think this is the best gig in town.

Have you had a chance to get acquainted with your new co-presenter?

Yes, Guyon [Espiner] has been down in Wellington, so we’ve been able to get to know each other and talk about where we’d like to take the programme.

Isn’t it likely to be rather dull after working in places like Afghanistan and Iraq?

That was five years ago – it seems like another lifetime. Life changes, life moves on. But I wouldn’t say it’s dull. Three hours of live radio every morning – that’s not dull.

Was it useful experience, reporting from war zones?

You get to be good under pressure.

Ever feel your life was on the line?

There were a few moments. Someone once said to me that war is 95% waiting around and 5% shitting yourself, and that’s a reasonably accurate summation.

People talk about the good cop/bad cop dynamic on Morning Report. Will we see a return to that approach?

I don’t know. The good cop/bad cop thing seems a little old-hat. The bottom line is that whatever you’re doing, it’s got to be fair.

Can we expect changes?

Yes. If you listen on April 2, you’ll hear what some of them are. It will immediately sound different, but hopefully not offputtingly so for the listeners.

For our complete story on the changes at Radio New Zealand, including a profile of Geoff Robinson and interviews with new hosts Guyon Espiner and Wallace Chapman, read this week’s Listener feature story: All change at the stationSubscriber contentIcon definitionSubscriber content

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