Your radio program Conversations with Richard Fidler has seen you connect with an extraordinary bunch of people. While of course you would value every guest, have there been any particular interviews that have really moved you?
Absolutely. I think there are certain stories that have really struck me, and stayed with me. One of the thoughts that has occurred to me as a result, is that the happiest people I know – and by happiest, I mean people who seem to be happy in their own skin and have a degree of contentment – are funnily enough those who have given their lives to a degree of service. Sometimes people are very, very successful and still feel restless and not quite content, but someone who’s been a carer for example, who would have a hell of a lot to complain about in terms of the way they may or may not be supported by the society at large, by and large don’t go to bed wondering what good they do in the world …
Do you see your role as a service?
Yes, very much so. I feel that I’m here for the listeners of the program. ‘What’s in it for the listener’ is the thing we’re always asking ourselves. I always have a dread of being boring – maybe that’s from my comedy background – and I’ve always tried to avoid that feeling of having a closed conversation where two people are talking and the listener is just someone who’s overhearing it. I always try to make the listeners feel like they’re sitting around the table, very, very close on this conversation.
You’ve said in the past that the lower-profile guests can sometimes be the most surprising because they’re often still processing their experience, even as the interview is going to air. You’re sharing such an intimate moment with that person, does it ever feel overwhelming?
Sometimes. I suppose I want to be as respectful of those moments as I can, in terms of giving it plenty of space to work itself out. Sometimes people are just figuring their way through life – a lot of the guests we’ve had on are everyday people and sometimes it’s that process of my producers ringing them up beforehand and doing a long pre-interview with them that helps them collect their thoughts and see some kind of shape to their lives and see connections. I always try to make the guest feel like they’re in a place where they can do that and explore a difficult and dangerous idea. When those sorts of moments happen, I like to step back and create a lot of space for that to unfold. It’s really lovely when it happens. I can always tell when it’s happening too – I can see it in the guest’s face. The really lovely moment is when I can see they’re remembering something really important and it’s playing before their eyes like a movie and they’re just narrating what they’re seeing in the present tense … In those moments, I try to sit really, really still and become almost invisible, because the worst thing I can do is disrupt that. Those are really lovely moments; I really enjoy that.
You have a wonderful ability to listen and a genuine curiosity in people, were you always this way? What was Richard Fidler like as a child?
Curious, yes! I read a hell of a lot – I was very bookish and nerdy and not sporty at all. I now have a son who’s sporty as well as curious, and that throws me a little bit! I was always a very curious kid and I think being curious is a really nice thing – I like to think I can ‘infect’ my listeners with my own curiosity. But I only ever have guests on who I’m genuinely curious about. In the past, I’ve had guests who I wasn’t that curious about and I can fake it for about ten minutes, but after that you can really hear it – instead of sounding bored, I sound really hyper because I’m trying to get myself worked up. That’s no slur on the guest at all, that’s entirely my fault. Listening back, I feel so wracked with shame. So now I won’t do it unless I’m really genuinely curious – that’s the motor I rely on to make the whole thing move along and be delightful for an hour. Without that, it’s just horrible.
Well an hour is a very long time …
I know! You can really hear it too, it’s terrible. I almost can’t bear to listen to it. Most of the time, I just want to make an interview I can bear to listen to again. If an interview has gone really well, when I go home that night I’ll play it for my wife and kids as we’re having dinner. But if I’ve had an off day, I just feel terrible. I really want to do everything I possibly can to do justice to the guests and I really want the listener to get something out of it. I just hate it when I fail.
And what do you think that curious, bookish child would think of the adult you are today – would he be proud?
Well as a kid, I went to a Lisa Simpson-type school for brainy kids and we all used to pretend we had our own radio stations and we’d make cassettes of our radio shows – it was really just introducing our favourite bands and holding the recorder up to the stereo. So I think I’d be pleased that I’m in radio now. I’ve never really had a clear ambition about what I wanted to do; I’ve always walked backwards into everything I’ve done, so I suppose that young boy would be pleased that he had a job! That would be a real plus. “Oh, you found gainful employment! Great!”
So after you graduated from that brainy school, you headed to the Australian National University and formed musical comedy group the Doug Anthony All Stars with Tim Ferguson and Paul McDermott. What can you tell us about that time in your life?
Well I was living in Canberra – I get a bit irritated by people who bad-mouth it and say it’s boring, because the lesson in Canberra was that you make your own fun. When I was there in the early 1980s, it was a really dynamic place; it had a thriving punk music scene and really good theatre and comedy. It was full of students and misfits trying to make their own fun and that meant you found your own stage, so sometimes that was in a crappy nightclub, sometimes it was in a Scout hall and sometimes it was in the middle of Civic. So we started a busking group and it evolved into this beast that then dominated our lives for ten years. I think we’ve always tried to keep true to that DIY punk idea of being anti-apathy – that kind of galvanised the idea that you don’t sit around and complain, you do or make something. Throw it out there and see if anything sticks.
Is that a mindset you’ve passed on to your children?
I’m trying to! But it’s really hard when we’re near screens and everything’s conspiring to make them passive consumers rather than going out and making stuff.
And what about vice versa, what is one of the most important lessons you’ve learnt about life from your children?
I’m not so sure I believe in life lessons. You know when Seinfeld got started, Larry David said the two dictums of the show were ‘no hugs’ and ‘no life lessons’. But I think for anyone who has kids, it changes you forever and always. I think there’s nothing better in the world than having kids and being able to step inside their beautiful minds – their own childlike powers of observation and wonder, and the freshness and newness of it all is just fantastic.
You joined ABC Radio in 2005 and began hosting Conversations in 2006 – what is it about radio that you love?
Oh radio is a beautiful medium, I enjoy it so much. There’s something really pure about it. I was just talking about this the other night actually – I was in Canberra for an ABC event and I was talking with Leigh Sales about the difference between a radio and a TV interview. I was citing an example of one of my favourite interviews I’ve ever seen her do, which was with John Laws. They cut live to Laws’ living room and he’s sitting there drinking a glass of Wild Turkey with Leigh – that was a great TV interview, because TV just floods you all at once with a whole lot of different visual impressions. That was a great example – unless you saw it, it’s hard to appreciate it. TV sort of blares at you from across the room, but radio seems to come from the centre of your head, so it’s a more didactic medium and it’s much more linear, and that means it’s better for narrative as one thing follows from another and another. There’s also a kind of intimacy that’s impossible to achieve in another medium. If you put your guest in the right frame of mind, they can talk in a really beautiful way – a way they wouldn’t be able to do on TV. There’s also the business of stepping into a TV studio and having all these things pointed at you – it’s not going to be as good for everyday people because there’s a feeling of being scrutinised that comes from TV that will make shy people not quite themselves. So radio can be really gorgeous like that and I also think you can compress so many more thoughts and complicated ideas into an hour of radio than you can with TV. In radio, you can make something incredibly rich in an hour but not feel overburdened by it.
Another beautiful thing about radio is the convenience of the podcast – a format that has proven incredibly popular for your listeners.
Yes the arrival of podcasting has changed the way I do the whole show. I think Conversations is the most downloaded program in Australia now – it doesn’t show that on the iTunes charts because only about a quarter of our downloads come from iTunes and the rest come through different platforms, like the ABC Radio app. We get about a million downloads a month of the show. A million hours!
You originally inherited the radio program and then tweaked the format, what can you tell us about that?
Yes I changed the format quite a lot, but the things I inherited, which I’m very grateful for, are the long-form nature of it and the focus on everyday people. I’d always wanted to do a program like that with a focus on people you’d never heard of, who have seen and done amazing things. Having that ethic behind it meant that it’s very democratic; I’ve had powerful and famous people, but they all get the same entry, their story is no more privileged than those of people you’ve never heard of before.
Is there anyone you would really love to chat to – do you have a to-interview list in the back of your mind?
To be honest, it’s always the next person who comes along with an amazing story to tell that I’m curious about. Even as a kid I was like that, my dad was a great regaler of anecdotes around the table, he was a brilliant raconteur, so there’s always been part of me, from my childhood, that when I hear a really good story being told, it just makes me want to wag my tail and really enjoy it.
And finally, how do you personally define the idea of ‘success’?
I think to live a good life. I’ve succeeded and failed at so many different things; if you’re trying lots of different things then you’re going to fail, and the point is to pick yourself up afterwards and walk away from the burning horror of it all, absorb the lessons of defeat and come back again if you want to … Here I am, I’ve just sworn off life lessons and now I’m giving you one! But I don’t see it in terms of ‘success’ and ‘failure’ – you can really batter your own psyche and bring a cloud on the people around you with that kind of mindset. I suppose my attitude to success is ‘we’ll see’!