Sami Shah is an award-winning writer, broadcaster and comedian. Sami has written numerous columns for national and international publications and was announced as a co-host of Breakfast on ABC Radio Melbourne in December 2017, replacing Red Symons. He tackles global and social justice issues in his writing and on stage, using thought-provoking analysis and acerbic wit.
His autobiography ‘I, Migrant’ was nominated for the NSW Premier’s Literary Award, WA Premier Literary Award and the Russell Prize for Humour Writing. He has also written a novel, ‘Fire Boy’, and a non-fiction book called ‘The Islamic Republic of Australia’. His Twitter handle is @samishah.
You joined ABC as a Breakfast show presenter late last year, what is your new job like?
It’s one of the most exciting and simultaneously frightening things I’ve done in a while. I’m co-hosting on a show where the audience had a decades-long relationship with the previous host. And I’m doing it all with an immigrant’s accent and newcomer’s perspective. The best advice I’ve been given is to rely on my own work experience and training, and to just have respect for the judgement of the people who thought I’m right for the job.
With that out of the way, I’ve mostly been focusing on getting my body-clock realigned and focusing on content for the show. It helps that ABC Radio Melbourne is staffed with the best in the business! Every morning we try to find the news stories that will be the right blend of informative and entertaining for audiences in that peculiar early time-slot, and then match those with a sensibility that gives them the appropriate respect.
What aspects of working in broadcast media do you enjoy the most?
Radio, to me, more than television even, is a medium I have great respect for. It allows for the same long-form analysis that the best of print offers, while also having space for conversation, and yet has the immediacy of television and social media combined. That’s why it’s held up so well in the face of all the developments (like podcasting) that keep sounding false death knells. There’s also the high editorial standard that a place like ABC Local Radio adheres to, one that’s becoming a rarity in the world of broadcast journalism and talk radio. What makes it even more exciting for me is how easily you can create new content in new ways. Grab a mic, learn basic editing, reinvent the medium, create a new storytelling format, or just convey a personal story. The audiences are forgiving and indulgent in ways that few other mediums allow.
What is the biggest challenge of moving into a new round or topic area?
Research time. Often you just have a few minutes to get your head around a new topic before the specialist on it is introduced. In those situations, it’s best not to attempt to show off a greater level of insight than you actually possess. Just go for the Who, What, Where, When, Why questions, and let the audience come along on the journey with you. I’m a research junkie so I try to stay as informed on as many topics as I can think of, and unless they’re sport related (a subject I couldn’t care about even if you tortured me) I can manage a basic level of knowledge on most things. The rest is about trying to ask the right questions for the audience and myself to learn from.
What attracted you to journalism initially?
I always just respected the role of a journalist in society. In Pakistan, where I’m from, some of the most vital characters in the public sphere have been journalists. They’ve exposed corruption, highlighted societal woes, and generally inspired conversation where there wasn’t any before. Early forays into journalism showed me I could make a living with my words, which was a joy to learn, and then working in news gave me a greater understanding of social ills and the challenges that we all encounter daily. Find the source of those, holding people to account for them, and then conveying that information on to others, for me that’s a high calling indeed. Of course most of the time it’s trying garlic milkshakes at the garlic festival, but I persevere.
For a press release to stand out to you, what does it have to contain?
Clarity. Does it make sense? A lot of press releases cram too much information and far too much hyperbole without any actual detail. This is especially a problem with press releases related to the Arts. Make it simple, make it direct, and stop trying to show off your creative writing skills. I don’t have the time to read a badly written attempt at magical realism. Also, design. There have been major advances in lay-outing font selection, and just general colour theory. If it looks like every other press release I get, it’s going to fade into the background. Make it visually exciting. The eyes are easily bored, so put some effort into this. Invest in a good template or a great graphic designer. It’ll pay off.