Exclusive Interview: Helen Razer reflects on Triple J ahead of Sounds Like Teen Spirit: Triple J at 40

triple j

No matter what you think of the station, Triple J has never been a station to shy away from being the equivalent to the rambunctious rebel that’s chewing gum in an upper-class high school, giving off too many pieces of music trivia that you care about. What it did do for many of us music lovers over 40 years is introduce amazing talent that ventured left of centre.

A major part of the station’s evolution was Helen Razer, who was either heard on breakfasts with Mikey Robbins or within the afternoons with Judith Lucy. She was kind enough to answer a few questions for us ahead of the TV special Sounds Like Teen Spirit: Triple J At 40, which will air on Monday, January 19 at 8.45pm on the ABC.

Do you think Triple J has changed a lot since its inception in the seventies, and do you think it was for better or worse?

Being a toddler at the time of the station’s inception, I feel underqualified to comment on its relative decency. And, I feel generally disinclined to talk about Things Being Better In My Day. Triple J has always been a station intended primarily for use in a very specific age range; let’s generously call it 15-30. If I liked it at present, that would be cause for concern. I’m in my forties and have no business telling young people what they might enjoy.

You’ve had some bad encounters with people in the past, what was your worst experience at Triple J?

I am not sure what you mean by “bad encounters”. Not to be a tedious femmo here but I think there is a view that any lady broadcaster with a persona that is less-than-gentle is seen as a troublemaker. On a relative media scale, I am no more a diva than anyone else and was certainly raised with a fairly servile work ethic so I was chiefly grateful to have a job and sort of stunned that it was so good. Anyone that tells you that being a broadcaster in a major shift at Triple J is anything less than a hoot is lying or deluded. It was a marvellous gig and I still can’t quite believe I was paid to bang on and play music. Bad encounters were few and far between.

There must be a good experience in there that do you remember fondly?

I remember nearly everything about Triple J fondly. As aforesaid, I was a professional brat. There is little that is not to like about such a role.

Is it a positive landscape for women in radio?

Again at the risk of being a tedious femmo, I’d have to say I abhor this question. Of course, I encountered sexism because I am a lady. But, what this experience can usefully say for other women is basically nothing. Media gives attention to working conditions in media for reasons of self-interest. I mean: who cares? Apart, of course, from the few thousands of people who make it their career, Most people will never work in media; most especially in radio which is an increasingly automated and under-financed industry under threat of relevance by the similarity engines of Spotify et al. So, if I were to tell you about My Experiences As A Woman in an industry that employs only a tiny handful of people, I am basically taking a very elite experience and trying to universalise it. It is kind of like asking “what is it like for women on corporate boards?” The answer is: who gives a rat’s arse? Questions about women and work need to be much broader, I think. And we don’t fix sexism by fixing the radio industry.

How do you deal with it?

I deal with sexism by yelling at people about it and getting sacked.

Triple J founded itself in the beginnings, as the controversial, anarchic, and progressive – is it still like that at all?

I think it’s a nostalgic myth that Triple J was founded to promote chaos and social unrest. It was founded to serve the interests of a young demographic. And, to be honest, it was probably partially founded because of the professional inclinations of a particular group of men who were bored working in regular radio and who had an unhealthy interest in the music of Dire Straits. Having said that, the seventies were a much more interesting time culturally and a much less formalised time so the radio produced at Triple J was much less formatted. The “problems” that Triple J has now are the same problems everyone encounters: an oversupply of management directives, a legitimate fear of legal action and a one-size-fits-most approach to the production of “safe” culture. One can’t blame Triple J, on which corporate influence can certainly be heard, for being a product of its times.

I find the current era of entertainment generally a bit crap. These days, a fairly shallow prick like Russell Brand is esteemed as “radical” so we can hardly expect The Youth to be engaged with anything but the factory-made version of anarchy to which they’ve become accustomed.

What does Triple J do for the female community as opposed to other media platforms?

I don’t think a gender can be called a “community”. And I don’t think it’s within the remit of Triple J to especially serve a gender. Triple J strives to do what every other part of the ABC does according to its charter which is to represent and serve all Australians. I can only hope this responsibility is upheld and that otherwise marginalised groups have their interests addressed by Triple J. But, let’s be honest about the “female community”. Its interest is served by media actually much more comprehensively than men. There are many more commercial websites, publications and television programs specifically aimed at women in Australia than they are at men. This is because women spend more—not a critique, just a statement of fact and a realistic look at where the market aims itself. So what Triple J “does” for women is to not address them as a particular demographic and it is able to give us gender neutral broadcasting because it is government funded. It gives women the same thing it gives men: music and some good on-air talent.

Do you think Triple J did or does anything for the LGBTI community?

Again, it is the work of Triple J to strive to represent and address all young people with a chiefly musical agenda. It’s been a long time since we’ve been able to say that a particular kind of music is exclusively queer; not really since house. So I don’t know how Triple J could engage more specifically with queer. Other than to do what the ABC does and constantly review what constitutes discrimination or under-representation in content. I am queer so I was always a very queer broadcaster, I guess. And I know that there are some very openly queer people who have been recently employed at the station and that is as it should be. Really, it’s just an ongoing process of adjusting broadcast and ensuring that different sensibilities and cultural experiences are represented on the floor in the station and communicated on air.

What do you think of when you contemplate Triple J has been running for 40 years?

I’m just really glad that Triple J exists and continues to exist. It makes this nation mildly better.

How do you feel about the shift in music and what is now considered indie or mainstream or something in between?

How I feel is kind of irrelevant, I think. And to be honest, I have always found rock snob assessments of what Good music is and what it isn’t to be ultimately pointless. These are class distinctions made by white tertiary educated boys from London in the 1970s and the idea that there are “better” kinds of music is just elitist pants. Further, the categories of “indie” and “corporate” rock have never really had much relevance in business terms since The Clash signed to Sony in nineteen eighty something.

What did you take from your time working there?

Apart from a small amount of superannuation, I got the opportunity to work in media for my entire adult life. I also formed a few really enduring friendships and I got to meet some extraordinary people. I had the kind of dream professional experience and, for the most part, dignity in labour I would wish for everyone.

Where do you want Triple J to be headed in the next forty years?

I would like to hear Triple J continue to engage with its young, demented demographic and continue to serve them more fully than the interests of management. I would like to hear a more genuine and rigorous engagement with Aboriginal Australians and frankly, I’d like to hear more non-English speaking background accents. I could really do without recourse to standup comedians. There is a view in radio that a comic makes a good broadcaster. Honestly, this is rarely the case. Maybe a little less Personal Brand Building and a bit more focus on the mission statement. Mostly, I hope Triple J just keeps on keeping on and that it lasts long enough through this period of tedious cultural sameness to bring us the music and talk soundtrack for an era of true chaos.

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Sounds Like Teen Spirit: Triple J At 40, will be aired on Monday, January 19 at 8.45pm on the ABC.

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