Sports broadcasters: meet the top female Kiwi presenters bringing the stories of Rio home
Among the media entourage attending the Olympic Games in Rio this month are four of New Zealand’s top women sports broadcasters – before departing for Brazil they spoke to Suzanne McFadden about what it’s like to be a woman working in a male dominated fie
MICHELLE PICKLES Sports reporter and presenter for TV3’s Newshub
Michelle Pickles remembers it as the finest live moment in her television career: when newly-crowned world rowing champion Eric Murray sprayed her with Champagne during a live cross on 3 News. How did Michelle – with wet hair and wine-drenched clothes – collect herself to continue delivering the news?
“While it wasn’t ideal, it turned out all right – the Champagne didn’t get into the camera,” the 49-year-old sports all-rounder laughs. “But it was an amazing moment.”
Michelle could relate to the euphoria of Murray and his rowing partner Hamish Bond. She’s also worn the silver fern, competing at five world roller-skating championships before her onscreen career began. At the age of four, Michelle strapped on her first pair of skates and cruised to the shops; at five she competed in her first national championships, and skated at her first world championships at 16.
After retiring at 21, she spent five years overseas – much of that in Canada, where she met her Kiwi husband, engineer Trevor Swan. There she realised she needed a new aspiration.
With her childhood dream of becoming a nurse foiled by a fear of blood, she was determined to get a degree. “I loved watching the TV news – the whole concept of pictures telling a story.” So she did a communications degree back in Auckland.
Graduating at 30, she worked on community newspapers before breaking into television, doing the graveyard shift in the TVNZ newsroom. “It was a very tough gig – overnights on my own for nine months,” says Michelle, who then progressed to producing, working on almost every TVNZ news show.
She got her break as a reporter on ONE News Sport. “Working in sport is a bit more fun. The stories are usually a little more uplifting.” Although she worked alongside female sports newsreaders Bernadine Oliver Kerby and April Ieremia, she was still in the minority. “When I started, I felt I had to work very hard to be a credible sports journalist because I was a female. I felt I had to prove myself a bit more than the men.”
Her 2002 Christmas present was a new job presenting the sports news at TV3. The role has taken her around the world, covering two summer and one winter Olympics, three Commonwealth Games, two Rugby World Cups, an America’s Cup and three world rowing championships. “I feel very privileged doing what I’ve done.” SHE’S ALSO BECOME an adept organiser and planner – producing TV3’s Rugby World Cup coverage last year. In Rio, she will report, present and co-produce the Olympic coverage with Mike McRoberts.
The overseas assignments are exhausting, but she’s grateful for her husband’s unwavering support. Off screen, she shares Trevor’s love of American muscle cars, and is working on restoring her own bright red 1959 El Camino.
Michelle hasn’t forgotten her roots, and proudly champions the little guy. “I have a special affinity with sports that don’t get the publicity they deserve. Those athletes have worked just as hard to get there.” Spoken like a true roller-skating champion.
“I FELT I HAD TO WORK VERY HARD TO BE A CREDIBLE SPORTS JOURNALIST BECAUSE I WAS A FEMALE.”
MELODIE ROBINSON Sports broadcaster for SKY TV.
Thrown in at the deep end at the start of her sports broadcasting career, Melodie Robinson could have let herself sink.
Planted straight on the sideline of a super rugby match in her first assignment at SKY Sport, the former New Zealand women’s rugby star made a faux pas in her commentary. By Monday morning, radio talkback callers were demanding her head. Her crime? Getting the ‘quick throw-ins’ rule wrong.
“People were asking, ‘Why is there a woman talking about rugby?’ It was awful,” Melodie recalls. “I wasn’t ready for it.”
Fortunately, the two-time Rugby World Cup winner was made of sterner stuff. Thirteen years on, she’s established as a versatile presenter, reporter and commentator on a whole gamut of sports.
She took an invaluable lesson from that first night on the sideline: “It’s tough when most sports have a male-dominated audience, so I know I have to prepare twice as much as anyone else. I’m not some sexy bimbo. I write, communicate, analyse and deliver. My philosophy has become ‘Don’t get oversensitive when you get criticised’. The only time it’s a problem is when you get judged for what you look like. It’s horrible when they criticise you for your hair.”
But Melodie grew up learning to take the knocks – as a tomboy, then a rugby flanker… and a Miss Canterbury pageant winner. The girl who’d always wanted to be a vet was seduced by rugby after “falling in love” with All Blacks captain David Kirk while watching the 1987 Rugby World Cup. It wasn’t until she was at Otago University studying physical education that she finally played the game. “I turned up to trial with 60 other girls, and I heard one of them say, ‘Which one is Miss Canterbury? I want to smash her.’ I didn’t own up.”
Melodie trained with All Blacks Josh Kronfeld and Marc
Ellis, and went on to play 18 tests for the Black Ferns.
While doing a university assignment on women’s sport she discovered the meagre percentage of media coverage given to female athletes, and resolved to right that wrong as a journalist.
After graduating from journalism school in Wellington, her first job was reporting politics for Mana News Radio. With a weekday job, she could keep playing rugby, but retired from the field when she started in sports broadcasting at SKY. WHILE MELODIE, NOW 43, is thrilled to be heading to the Rio Olympics, she will miss her family – her husband, former professional golfer Marcus Wheelhouse, and sons Jenson, six, and Freddie, five. “I don’t enjoy the travel as much any more.” If she’s live presenting a rugby or netball match away from Auckland, she catches the first flight home – especially now she’s coaching Jenson’s under-eights rugby team.
Sport isn’t the entire sum of Melodie – she’s also working towards her Master’s degree in Business Administration at the University of Auckland.
She sees the gender balance in sports media improving. “We were the first country to give a woman a role on the sidelines of rugby. I think that says something.”
KIMBERLEE DOWNS ONE News sports reporter.
If Kimberlee Downs could turn back time a fraction, she’d berate her 18-year-old self for being “such an idiot”.
A promising hockey player, the teenager was too “terrified” to consider a career in sports reporting, in case it stifled her love of sport. Nevertheless, it lured her in, and at 25 the
ONE News reporter is already recognised as one of the country’s top journalists in the sports field.
“I never have a day when I don’t love my job. I’ll cover a one-day cricket international and can’t believe I am watching cricket and getting paid for it,” Kimberlee admits.
Her role model has been Toni Street, a fellow product of New Plymouth. Having played hockey with Toni’s younger sister, Kimberlee recalls being in awe watching Toni reporting sport on ONE News. “Mum and I would say, ‘How does that happen to a girl from Taranaki?’ It seemed so out of reach!”
Like many young girls, Kimberlee had a succession of career aspirations before a love of storytelling convinced her to be a journalist. After winning a TVNZ diversity scholarship to study journalism at the Auckland University of Technology, she started on the assignments desk at ONE News, where she was absorbed in news journalism. “I was very much about ideals, sticking up for the disenfranchised. But opportunities to work in sport just naturally crept in,” she says.
Sport is in her blood. Kimberlee’s great-grandfather, Chan Sheen Chong, emigrated from China to New Zealand in 1894, and played club cricket and rugby in Taranaki. Her own endeavours were influenced by her older brother. “I wanted to do everything he did.” So she took up cricket and basketball, but excelled at hockey, representing Taranaki at age-group level.
Kimberlee moved to the sports desk for the 6pm news in 2012 and last year she won television journalist of the year at the Sir Terry McLean National Sports Journalism Awards. SHE WILL REPORT on triathlon and hockey in Rio – a coveted opportunity she knows she won’t take for granted.
While her career highlight so far has been covering the
2014 Cricket World Cup, it was also the scene of an awkward moment, when a foreign correspondent mistook her for a press conference transcriber. “I actually took it as a good sign that I was too shocked to reply. I guess it speaks for the rarity of the situation,” she says. “You’re often only one of three women in a room with 70 men, but I’ve never felt excluded because of it. I’m very lucky that incredible women have blazed a trail ahead of me.” Reporters and presenters like
Jane Dent, April Ieremia, Bernadine Oliver-Kerby, Jenny-May Coffin and the late Cathy Campbell.
“I’m very aware of what female sports journalists have had to go through, and I feel I have a responsibility not to mess it up for the future,” she says. “I’m aware of that potential extra scrutiny if you are a female talking about sport. Every now and then you get feedback which is well-intentioned: ‘You know so much about sport… for a girl.’ But there still needs to be an attitude and culture shift.”
“I NEVER HAVE A DAY WHEN I DON’T LOVE MY JOB. I’LL COVER A ONE-DAY CRICKET INTERNATIONAL AND CAN’T BELIEVE I AM WATCHING CRICKET AND GETTING PAID FOR IT.”
RIKKI SWANNELL Sports editor of Radio Sport.
Rikki Swannell insists on one rule before walking into a men’s changing room – no nudity.
“As a 23-year-old girl covering the Kiwi league tour of the UK, I always made sure the guys had to wear undies or a towel if I was going to interview them in the dressing room afterwards,” says Rikki, now 35, and the sports editor of Radio Sport. “Teams are very comfortable with each other, the changing room is a team space and you sometimes get one or two athletes who try to be cool. But thankfully, I’ve never had an issue.”
In fact, Rikki has had nothing but respect from male athletes in her 13-year career in radio and television, as well as support from her colleagues in a male-dominated field. And now she’s scoring her own goal – lifting the profile of Kiwi sportswomen and creating a new ‘community’ for women who enjoy watching and playing sport.
Rikki is one of those women. Growing up in Wellington and Tauranga in a sports-mad family, she was always playing volleyball, netball or hockey. Her heart was set on becoming a “performer” – a writer, a Broadway actress or a TV host. “I did drama and debating – one of those really annoying kids who never shut up,” she says.
In 2001, at the New Zealand Broadcasting School in Christchurch, Rikki focused on a career in television, but discovered a thirst for radio. “I loved the fast pace of it.”
As a rookie radio reporter, she admits feeling nervous at rugby press conferences – surrounded by the macho veterans of the sporting media. “Unfortunately, there were few women to learn from. But I got wonderful advice from guys like Murray Deaker and Andrew Saville,” she says.
After a stint freelancing in London, Rikki returned to Auckland and eventually became the sports editor of Radio Sport and Newstalk ZB in 2010. As well as managing a team of sports journos, she fills the roles of reporter, writer, newsreader, commentator, host and discussion panellist. COVERING LIVE SPORTS events is her passion. Rio will be Rikki’s second Olympics in an impressive resume that includes netball, cricket and rugby World Cups, tennis at Wimbledon and the Australian Open, and two Commonwealth Games. She is also a familiar face on television, commentating on netball and tennis for SKY Sport.
She doesn’t feel under pressure to prove herself in what is generally a man’s domain. “But I’m acutely aware that my errors are magnified because I’m a woman,” she says.
She’s revelling in her latest project, She’s Got Game –a new online show with The New Zealand Herald’s chief sports reporter Dana Johannsen, celebrating the country’s top sportswomen.
“For years, Dana and I talked about creating opportunities for our female athletes. They’re world beaters who deserve the same coverage as their male counterparts,” she says. “Women are interested in sport, but they don’t necessarily want to debate and have rabid discussions about it. We want to create a community where women don’t have to fight for column inches and TV minutes.”
“I ALWAYS MADE SURE THE GUYS HAD TO WEAR UNDIES OR A TOWEL IF I INTERVIEWED THEM IN THE DRESSING ROOM.”