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Journalist Spotlight | Interview with Mawunyo Gbogbo, Pop Culture Journalist at the ABC

20 June, 2024

Medianet is joined by ABC Pop Culture Journalist, Mawunyo Gbogbo. Here, Mawunyo talks about the importance of representation in the media and shares her expertise and insight on what makes a compelling story.

 

Hi Mawunyo! Thanks so much for speaking with Medianet this week! You’ll be featured at Book Fair Australia this coming November in Sydney. Will you be popping by Australia’s first City of Literature (Melbourne) any time soon? 

MawunyoGbogboI’m open to any, and all, invitations. 

 

Jokes aside, as a Journalist, how has the publication of your memoir—writing that is so personal and revealing—affected you professionally? And is there a new book on the horizon?

I would say it hasn’t, really. Hip Hop & Hymns has largely fallen under the radar at my workplace and in the media generally, which is ironic given it contains scathing commentary on the state of the media in Australia today. Every journalist should read Hip Hop & Hymns, if not to be entertained, then read it because you might be in it.

There is a new book in the works. The working title is It Takes One to Know One, and it’s about a psychiatrist who is crazier than his patients. It’s a comedic work of fiction with a lot of truth bombs thrown in there. The psychiatrist has a patient who is a Black woman. Black women and girls are commonly misdiagnosed when seeking mental health care, so the novel has a serious edge to it. 

 

There’s a lot of pessimism amongst Arts Writers and Journalists, exacerbated it seems by the advent of AI. Where do you think the future of Arts Writing is headed? And what are some changes in the industry you hope to see in the future?

I would be a fool to predict the future, so I’m not going to try to. I will say, however, that those who have found great success in creative fields in the 21st century have embraced new and emerging technologies, rather than ignoring them. 

When it comes to the changes I would like to see, I believe media junkets need an overhaul. I love interviewing stars, but the junket format is unsatisfying, not just for journalists, but also for talent. Actor Lupita Nyong’o has even described press junkets as “torture”. There should be fewer, longer interviews scheduled. This will mean some outlets miss out, but it’s up to Arts journos to prove their mettle, so they keep being offered opportunities.

 

You’ve talked about how representation in the media has helped not only shape who you are, but affirmed that you were capable of achieving what others with more systemic privileges were able to. What stories and perspectives are the most important to you? How do you seek them out and has there ever been any pushback in what or how you’ve presented these narratives before? 

I clearly wasn’t talking about representation in the Australian media. There isn’t any. I don’t see myself reflected back at me when I turn on the news on any of the major networks in this country, and that’s appalling in 2024. Especially when you consider that the UN estimates that by 2050, one in four people will be African. News bosses need to wake up and employ people who look like me, or fade into irrelevance, because we will vote with our remotes.

My employer is very supportive of the work that I do. I wouldn’t say there’s been any pushback. The types of stories and perspectives that are important to me within the context of popular culture include when entertainment meets health. For example, I’ve written about Celine Dion and stiff person syndrome, Selena Gomez and lupus, Christina Applegate and multiple sclerosis. When stars speak out about their illnesses and diseases, it gives me a chance to explore these conditions, and these stories are very popular with our audience. 

I also enjoy bringing a pop culture lens to issues of national and international significance. When Tina Turner died, I contacted Domestic Violence NSW, who said her bravery paved the way for the voices we hear today. When Olivia Rodrigo pledged tour funds to support reproductive rights, I researched and wrote about abortion. I find celebrity court cases intriguing. I can often be found combing through court papers or watching live streams from the courtroom. I enjoy breaking new artists or shining a light on people who’ve been overlooked in the music industry like the Australian band No PROMISES, whose song Singing My Lines is 2024’s answer to the Kasey Chambers hit Not Pretty Enough. 

I also love speaking to authors. They often have very interesting perspectives on so many different issues. My favourite interviews so far this year have been with Holly Gramazio who wrote The Husbands, and with Yellowface author, Rebecca F. Kuang. 

 

As a Pop Culture Journalist, is Hollywood (or the US) still the foci of the arts and entertainment industry? How does one keep afloat of the happenings there? What are some challenges in navigating this geographic and temporal difference? Is there a need to almost mediate between an American culture and an Australian audience?

Yes, I would say Hollywood is still the foci of the arts and entertainment industry, and that can sometimes mean being offered interviews at unsociable hours, but I often rise to the occasion (pardon the pun). 

I have plenty of contacts who fill me in on what’s happening in the States and some stories are difficult to miss. I start the day with a morning meeting in which I’ll hear from the Audience team and the Social team about what’s trending and what the audience is interested in. That sometimes determines what story I’ll work on that day.

My role, by its very nature, is to highlight what’s hot and at the cutting edge of popular culture. It’s there in my job title. There’s plenty happening here locally too that fits that mould. 

 

Do you have any advice to young writers and journalists who are trying to get their foot in the door? 

Yes, my advice would be to work on your craft: make sure your writing is on point, that you know where to go when you want to research something. Fine-tune your interviewing skills, learn how to use a camera and do as much work experience as possible. 

When I rocked up at the ABC with my resume (and my mum), I had only just finished uni, but I had done an extensive amount of work experience already. I had interned at NBN television in Newcastle, Prime News in Orange, the Muswellbrook Chronicle and Hunter Valley News, ABC Radio Upper Hunter, The Source Magazine in New York City, and that’s just to name a few! I had even worked for the Sydney Olympic Broadcasting Organisation (SOBO) during the Olympic Games in 2000.

When I was working for Video Ezy while I was at uni, I used to write about the movies I watched, so that I could explain them to my customers (without spoilers). I had no idea how that would come to serve me later on down the track. 

I was passionate, job ready, curious, and willing to learn. And even after all that, I walked into the ABC prepared to do coffee runs if that’s what they wanted me to do. I was humble and ready to pay my dues. 

I would also advise aspiring journos to decide what they want to do early on and specialise if they can. Some of the positions I’ve held have been random, and it’s taken a long time for me to get to where I am. 

 

Finally, what makes a pitch memorable? Have you received a pitch recently that stood out, and what’s your advice when it comes to pitching content? 

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, make sure your pitches are targeted. I can’t tell you the number of pitches I get that are totally irrelevant and do nothing but fill up my already overflowing inbox. If someone is a pop culture journalist, why are you pitching a finance story to them? Know your audience. That’s the first thing. 

Secondly, make sure the subject heading and the first line of your email are clear and sell your topic, or your email may not even be opened. 

If you have a story that would make a good exclusive, cultivate your contacts in such a way that you’re able to pick up the phone and offer that exclusive to a journo. If they’re not interested, move onto the next, rather than sending the same generic email to hundreds of people. 

I’m looking forward to my upcoming interview with Michael Richards who is promoting his memoir, Entrances and Exits, and whose redemption arc I find fascinating. When his publisher pitched to me, I accepted the offer straight away. It has all the elements of an interesting story.

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