MARC FENNELL: Be what you can't see.
When researching Marc Fennell, I embraced his top five tips for interviewers and was obsessive. Social media, past interviews, Youtube, you name it - I searched it.
Being obsessive about Marc Fennell is no easy task, there’s an absolute proliferation of his work online. Fennell’s career in media kicked off at the age of 19 at SBS and has gone from strength to strength. In between working on television and radio, Fennell has produced podcasts, created extensive Year in Sound audio pieces, chaired live panel discussions, and written books. There was a point in time where busting out a whiteboard to create a visual timeline of achievements and projects to discuss with Fennell seemed logical.
I refrained, and got back to basics with Fennell to talk less about where he is now, and more about what motivated him to get there.
MEET MARC FENNELL
I grew up in Sydney with a short stint in Canberra. My mum is originally from Singapore but her ethnicity is Indian. Singapore is like a gigantic melting pot, all of my cousins are half-Indian, half-something else. Dad’s side is Irish, and the only cousins I have on that side are blonde haired and blue eyed. We get on really great, but if you sat us next to each other you’d never think we’re all related.
Growing up, mum was a school teacher and dad was a photographer. It was quite a constructive upbringing. I would spend my summer holidays either seeing movies with mum or out on photo shoots with dad, hanging around with graphic designers, or in studios.
Looking back, I realise it was very formative. Those experiences were the building blocks of my childhood. Dad was also a small business owner, and I suspect that it is quite a big part of my work ethic and why I like to have multiple jobs. I need to be busy.
Personality wise though, I think I am a lot closer to my mum who is this sort of slightly and charmingly mad Indian woman.
It’s interesting you mention work ethic, in the podcast You’ve Gotta Start Somewhere you talk about having an Asian work ethic. Were you influenced by your mum also?
MF. Definitely. I’ve been thinking about this with my own kids as well, because I am always busy, and I questioned whether it was what I wanted to be as a parent. But actually, I like modelling busy-ness that’s not busy-ness for the sake of it. Both of my parents were really hard workers, not super perfect people, but they worked their arses off.
Dad as a small business owner, and mum with her Asian work ethic approach to academia. From different angles, both of them fed in and I followed suite.
If I’m not busy I’m actually a bit uncomfortable, and the worst is when I take time off or go away. I go slightly mad and invent projects for myself. The one I invented in 2017 was a documentary that became a podcast series, which I’ve just now finished for Audible and it’s coming out in April. It was 100% the product of me sitting in the house during what was supposed to be a relaxing summer period thinking ‘Fuck, I need to come up with something!’.
Were conversations about race or culture something that came up in a family setting?
MF. Yes and no. I vividly remember being picked up from school by my dad and other parents commenting that they had no idea I was adopted. I’d said, ‘ah no, he’s my dad - he’s just white and I’m half-white and half-something else’. I would have been in maybe grade three.
As someone who is mixed an identity is a hard thing to hold onto. I went to a bunch of different schools and they broke down into pretty clear ethnic groups. There were the Asian kids, the Indian kids, the white kids...and I don’t really fit into any of these groups. I didn’t grow up in the Indian community and the common lived experience was quite different to my own. I also don’t really look like anything in particular, and my name and voice don’t give anything away. The way in which other people latched onto their ethnic identity as a part of their own was really foreign to me, and it was something I had to create for myself.
For the longest time I just pretended I didn’t have any ethnicity.
My experience is complicated by religion also. Mum was the first of her generation to convert from Hinduism to hardcore evangelical Christianity. That’s her social grouping. Mum made an active choice to move away from Hinduism and it felt so foreign to us, even though that’s a big part of where at least one side of the family comes from.
We were kind of afraid of it and viewed them as objects of mystery and confusion. I remember finding Hindu comic books in one of my cousins’ garages and being terrified of the images of three headed gods. It was an interesting clash of what is nominally my ethnicity and a religious choice that was made before I was born.
You briefly talked about having to build your own identity, when you then made the move into media were you keenly aware that you were one of the few people of colour?
MF. Definitely. To answer that question, it is worth pointing out that I ended up in media really young and the first place I worked was actually at SBS - which I think colours that experience a little bit.
It was only when I went to work for other places that I really noticed that I was the only person in the meeting room who wasn’t white. That still persists to this day largely. It manifests in really interesting ways. I sometimes feel like I am the great beneficiary of the fact that I don’t think Australian media has as much a problem with skin colour as it does with accent and predetermined narratives. Because I don’t sound like anything and I don’t really look like anything identifiable I have been afforded a lot of mobility. No one is putting a narrative over me and there is nothing standing in the way of me…
Do you feel like you’re a gateway ‘cultural’ person…?
MF. I am 100% your Get Out of Jail Free ‘Diversity’ card and I know that’s a problem. I think of the people who have succeeded in media, or have perfectly fine media careers, and we tend to have a few things in common. If you close your eyes and you hear them talk you can’t really tell the difference between Waleed Aly, Benjamin Law, Tracy Vo, Marc Fennell, or any of those people, right? Because when you close your eyes we sound like everyday Australians. There’s not space for people who have an accent, that’s something that really does need to be addressed.
The conversations around skin colour are really important, and it’s really easy for me to see a cast photo from the Bachelor and say, ‘Yep, what’s fucking missing here?!’. It’s really easy to do that, but the way we tackle diversity and look at diversity in media is more complex than just the visual. It’s also about lived experience, economics...basically the fundamental principles of intersectionality.
I also work in radio, and am aware that I sound very white passing. Every now and then I have these interesting moments where I pronounce something a bit differently and I’m so aware of it because it’s an indicator that I’m not the white person people expect to see behind the microphone.
MF. That is interesting. Toward the end of high school I tried to pretend I wasn’t anything other than white. All I wanted was to have straight hair and wear shit surf gear. I wanted to be like all the other white kids. It’s only now, as I get older, that I think no - the way I see the world is a little different and I should acknowledge it. It should be part of the person you see or hear on television and radio.
There’s cultural lived experiences that are unique to me and others that should be embraced. I’m 33 and only now am I having this thought! It says a lot about the environment in which we raise kids.
When you work abroad, is Australia’s image and your appearance something that comes up?
MF. I think the weirdest experience I’ve had was in New York City a few years back. I was having lunch and the bellboy struck up a conversation. He asked me where I am from, it turns out he was Puerto Rican, and when I told him Australia he looked at me and said, ‘Oh my god, I had no idea they let Aborigines travel’.
I sat there gobsmacked. There is a lot to unpack in that sentence alone. What does he think about Australia’s indigenous population and what has he been told? I think it was around the time the movie Australia came out, so perhaps that was his access point. It was one of those moments where I just didn’t know how to respond and I felt really dumb.
I think the way we project Australia onto the world, when compared with UK and American media, is something that bears interrogation.
You’re Creative Director of not-for-profit group the Media Diversity Australia (MDA) network, which is still in its infancy. What are you hoping to achieve with the network?
MF. The goal of MDA is a multi-pronged thing of creating mentorship opportunities, networks, and connecting talent to industry.
On a front face we’ve commissioned research to find out the state of diversity in media, which is way overdue, particularly in newsrooms. There are groups for diverse representation in a range of other areas such as disability and gender, but ethnicity was not being looked at and it was a case of us starting it.
Diversity is not a problem that can be solved with one big campaign, so it’s about doing a lot of small things and looking for opportunities. The surprising thing I’ve found is there is quite an appetite for diversity at high level management but where it falls apart is getting the talent or the pipeline of talent who come from different backgrounds who will enrich newsrooms and fresh perspectives. The pathways for people getting into those positions to get those jobs present hurdles themselves.
The biggest issues also tend to be on a middle management level. That’s something that each organisation has to deal with of their own accord and we’ve certainly made the resources available for them to do so.
One of the most useful things we’ve found, and did not expect, is open table nights where people can come and network with each other. People swap notes on good and bad experiences, and feel supported. When we started MDA we thought it would be something we’d do just to get the lay of the land, but people have found it really valuable. It’s a simple thing and no one is saying it will solve the problem writ large, but if you’re the only person of a diverse background in an office it’s fucking lonely, right? Realising there are other people in the same boat came make it feel like a less lonely experience. There is value in just knowing that other people are on that journey with you and you won’t always be the only person in the room.
You have talked to a real range of people throughout your career, such as Dr Cornel West, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Norma in Growing Up Tough. Have these experiences shaped how you see yourself in any way?
MF. The one that was probably the most challenging was Neil deGrasse Tyson, obviously a bit complicated now because of the allegations hanging over him, but at the time I didn’t know any of that. I brought up the issue of race and he was really resistant to talk about it. His approach, I think, has always been to focus on being the best astrophysicist he can be and to allow visibility to take care of itself. He questioned why I wanted to talk about it, but eventually came around to the conversation.
I think for people of an older generation that is the mentality. Just do the best fucking job you can, and people will just see it and that will be enough. I respect that position and it’s one I’ve taken most of my adult life. Only recently and in the last few years have I acknowledged that my lived experience is weird and unique, and that I should just embrace it. Probably one of the best examples of this is not something I did, but by the Feed’s Patrick Abboud. He did an interview with Rami Malek of Bohemian Rhapsody and they just started sparking off each other because they both speak Arabic. It was a unique moment that no one else could have. Millions of people watched it online. It’s such a great example of how your uniqueness gives you power if you know when to take hold of it.
For almost a decade you’ve been creating a synopsis of year called The Year in Sound. Have you noticed cumulative social or political trends overall?
MF. It feels like the world is more unstable. Thinking back to five or six years ago, the world seemed to be on a more even keel than it is now. The accepted norms don’t seem to apply as often and the world feels a bit meaner.
The level of discourse we have in public feels much more vexed and the impulse to listen to each other is much lower. You see that in recent trends like cancelling a person on Twitter.
With this environment in consideration, do you think diversity in media is something that will be achieved in the mainstream?
MF. That’s just the starting point. The makeup of Australia is constantly changing, and there is a definite lag in having the media that represents a country back to itself that actually looks like the country itself. My concern is the lag between the population of Australia and who is telling the story, that is worrying. It’s been far too long for the media to go this far without actually look at the country it talks about.
There’s no such thing as diversity being ‘done’, but right now it is so far away from the postcode of what it should be.
THE PIN. If you could give your younger self one piece of advice about being in the skin you’re in, what would it be?
MARC FENNELL. I was never that comfortable in my own skin as a young person. Certainly, one of the contributing factors there is that I couldn’t see anybody who looked like me in the media I consumed. It’s an oft repeated cliche that you can’t be what you can’t see and I guess I would say to that person that you’re not invisible, you do exist, and just because you can’t see it - it doesn’t mean you can’t be it.