Leading one of the world's largest TEDx programs comes naturally to Fenella—a self confessed nerd with a passion for research & podcasts.
A familiar face (and voice) from her time in television & radio, Fenella shares how she has created a life filled with family, learning and creativity by continuously breaking out of her bubble and seeking different perspectives that challenge her world view.
I started at PLC Sydney in Year 2 and graduated in 1993. In Year 12, I wanted to be an actor and a singer because I enjoyed drama and music. I’d already been accepted into a music course before my HSC had even started, a new contemporary music course at Western Sydney University.
I ended up doing Communications at UTS after significant pressure from my parents to do Law, to which I went “No—just because you can doesn’t mean you should”. The compromise was Communications, which was pass-fail at the time.
I don’t remember having a clear plan before leaving school, contrary to being told that I needed to. I didn’t know what I wanted to do at school, specifically, but the idea that I wanted to do something in the creative industries was certainly on the cards. It's funny because as we now know, not having a plan is actually a great plan in many ways. Getting a broad education can lead to interesting kinds of pathways and then multiple futures of work.
I still don’t know what I’m going to do with my life. Again, I think there’s positivity in that, especially if you’re built and shaped like that. At university, I felt that I wasn't learning much because I wasn’t getting graded on anything, so I went and volunteered at the community radio station that’s attached to the university called 2SER. That’s where I really got an education; I learnt how to make radio, communicate, edit, manage and produce people, and I did it all voluntarily. I decided to give up the journalism part of my course because the practical skills I picked up at 2SER were so much more valuable to me. I was doing current affair stories, breakfast programs, music selection; the whole thing.
Later I got a job at the Community Broadcasting Association, and I was an executive assistant working three days a week. At the same time, I kept doing radio, and I ended up getting a gig at Triple J at the age of 21. I happened to be in the right place at the right time, but most importantly I’d worked hard and set myself up for it through the volunteer work by always putting my hand up, taking criticism on board, paying attention and learning. I ended up doing graveyard and other fill-in shifts at Triple J for a couple of years before they gave me a job.
I’d love for this question to be confined to just the day time but actually it’s often day and night. COVID has been interesting, but it hasn’t been a massive shift in terms of what I do. It has mainly just been difficult because I’m not able to go out and meet people at events or recordings. Instead, it's all at home.
I’m the Head of Curation at TEDxSydney, and I curate a team of volunteers to work with speakers specifically in the curatorial team to help those speakers get ready to deliver a TEDx Talk. TEDxSydney is one of the gold standard events on the global TEDx stage. It's very prestigious for many speakers to be there and the audience is always super awesome and keen. My day involves rehearsing and buoying speakers so that they feel satisfied, happy and looked after. I get them on Zoom to do their rehearsals and work closely with each speaker on the content of their talks.
As a member of the leadership team, it's about making, working, creating and coming up with the decisions that will make this new event work. Because it’s such a big event, there are a lot of moving parts and specific details to work out. It requires an epic amount of creative thinking, a lot of faith, and hard work from lots of people to realise it.
Covering all things arts, television, radio, music, design and my work at TEDxSydney means I need to know about a lot of different subjects. I spend my whole day just reading up on everything. I don’t know everything [laughs] but I’m aware. For example, if I’m talking to a speaker about their speciality, I’m still able to follow and suggest the inclusion of information, ideas or sources that they may have missed. It’s making sure that we tick those boxes of credibility.
In my curatorial team, there are people who have unique skill sets that I lean on. One of my team members is fantastic when it comes to business and leadership but also has excellent knowledge of film. Another member of my team specialises in History and was a radio producer. For me, I’m more across technology, science and design.
I’m an avid podcast listener—I listen to everything. I subscribe to a mountain of science and technology podcasts which is where I get a lot of information. I also listen to Rachel Maddow every day and Politico: Democracy Now because I’m very interested in the upcoming US election. At the same time, I also make myself listen to some of the horrible shock jocks from the States just to make sure that I hear other points of view. It is challenging though because their content isn’t based on any kind of form of fact.
I follow certain people on Twitter who often link to great articles and content. I avoid things like Facebook—I am on them, but I don’t think of them as sources of information. Other than that, I read and subscribe to lots of newspapers and magazines.
Getting on the phone and chatting with people is also important to me. We forget that not everything is on Google and that if you want to get great ideas and really learn, then you can ring someone up and get their feedback as an expert. As a journalist, that’s the old school way of doing it. Or you go to a library and look for books that have been published, referenced and sourced. That’s how I keep across information—you’ve got to be a nerd. Embrace your nerd!
I don’t think I’ve made many mistakes, from a career point of view, but everything that I’ve done has been a lesson. I’ve been very, very fortunate. Sure, I’ve made day to day mistakes and errors—I’ve accidentally sworn once on air [laughs]. I don’t think anything in my career has been a misstep; it all is a means to an end.
My skill set is so broad, and yet it's all connected, and it makes me very flexible at work. I can go and do a half-hour live TV program if I need to because I’ve worked really hard on that in the past. I know how to host an MC event for 5000 people or just ten people. I did a voiceover recently for someone, and they said “Oh you sound a bit Radio National”, and I said “Oh—I do!”, so they were helping me to move around, and be a bit more malleable there. I try to listen and adjust.
I think I’ve travelled too much. I think a lot of people are used to only doing face to face, but if COVID has taught us anything, it's that we shouldn’t be doing that anymore. We should save some money and look after the environment.
When I was 18 or 19, I moved out of home and got a job. I felt like I couldn’t live at home because I knew I was gay and I wasn’t able to tell my parents. My parents would have supported me but I just felt that I couldn’t ask them, so I worked through my final years of university to pay for rent. It meant that I stopped going to many of the day classes with other private school kids like me—instead, I was going with the mature age students who were doing night classes because they were also working.
My world view changed after that, and that was important. It gets back to what I was saying before about getting out of our bubble, acknowledging who we are, where we come from and our privilege but also trying to find ways to interrogate that privilege and to escape it.
I’d like to think that I’ve always been kind and had good values. I’d also like to think that I represent my parents—who were great people—properly in this world. For me, it's about living an ethical life. Other than making some missteps along the way I would like to think that I’ve led an ethical life, one where respect for others, acknowledgement of country, acknowledgement of where we come from and who we are is a part of life.
You’re going to be ok, don’t worry too much. Your parents will come around to it, you will find love, and you will have a family—all of these things worked out for me. I would tell myself not to be afraid to realise that your urban tribe is extremely important—your friends are your family, and that’s the same if you’re straight, gay or otherwise. You don’t have to live up to the expectations of other people, the only person you have to answer to ultimately is yourself. I haven’t been asked about my HSC mark ever. It’s been completely irrelevant. It's life and work experience skills that matter.
It's given me a lifelong dislike of black watch tartan—although I do secretly kind of like it [laughs]. I think it’s taught me that when you are given that kind of education when you’re afforded the time and access to all those opportunities, you have been given many advantages. When you leave school, you have been given so much already. You have to acknowledge that, and you have to try to give back as much as you can in whatever way you can. It’s essential to recognise that your access has allowed you to have a spot in the race to be at the top of the playing field that a lot of other people who are just as smart, clever and creative as you probably haven’t been given.
Check your entitlement every single moment—I do it every single day, and I know that the fortune that it’s given me has been immense. You need to be very aware of it and do what you can to level the playing field in every other aspect of your life.
Back to access; I loved sport and music. I spent a career doing music and radio. Specifically, my educational grounding at PLC Sydney helped with The Sound Lab that I did at Triple J, in terms of critical musical theory. The knowledge from my singing teacher at school has been great, and I’ve been able to use that throughout my career. I still have that pitch; I can still sometimes hear a song and know the note because I was taught properly. I’m thankful for that.
My History and the English teachers were amazing and so important for me. The teachers, especially in the Humanities, who allowed creative thought and expressive thinking, were great. When I was in school, I didn’t like the rote learning approach, so I didn’t apply myself to the maths and science subjects.
Funnily enough, I now love thinking and reading about maths and science. Open your brain up to all the possibilities. Even if you hated a subject at school, you would be surprised what you find interesting later on in life.
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Follow Fenella @fenellak