7 Oct 2022

From a 'turbo-charged' war story to evasive politicians: Susie Ferguson reflects on pivotal role

10:13 am on 7 October 2022
RNZ's Susie Ferguson proudly wears the ginger badge.

Every day is a live performance for listeners, Susie Ferguson says. Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

Radio still provides an incredible ability to connect with listeners, Morning Report presenter Susie Ferguson says.

After eight-and-a-half years, today is her last day on air. She then plans to work on longer forms of journalism for RNZ.

Ferguson, who was born and grew up in Scotland, trained in drama - a background that serves her well in radio.

So how does she sound alert and vibrant so early in the day? She says she has been up for a couple of hours by the time Morning Report starts and while some days it's harder to get going "that's all part of the performance. You hear the pips and the theme and off you go.

"I love that about it. I really love live broadcasting, interacting with a live audience, you never know what's coming next."

She is struck by the breadth of opinion coming into the programme, mainly via text, especially over the last four years. She remarks how contentious some topics have been, citing Donald Trump, vaccinations and 1080 while many listeners offer contributions that are witty and clever.

"You see a whole run of feedback which is fantastic. It's great to know people are listening, people are engaged."

On the negative side there continues to be some "distasteful" opinions on the use of te reo and occasions where people are "straight up rude".

Asked to nominate her most memorable interview, she recalls one that gave her goosebumps when she spoke to a Syrian doctor during the civil war in his country.

It started off as a normal interview but "he spoke so movingly about what it was like in his country and how he was going to cope with his children.

"I was quite floored by it and I found it quite hard."

The doctor was "a voice of tragedy", she says, and his story seemed "turbo-charged" as it unfolded.

"People were horrified and riveted at the same time."

It is a fine example of the power of radio because as a presenter she is engaging with listeners in an intimate environment - in their bathrooms, their cars or on their headphones during a commute.

"It's an extraordinary power and pull that radio has in that way ... radio has this intimate power that it can exert."

RNZ Morning Report host and journalist Susie Ferguson wearing headphones and looking off to the right as she is interviewed by Reverend Frank Ritchie for the podcast re_covering

Susie Ferguson Photo: Josh Couch

Pinning down politicians

Regarding politicians and how hard they can be to pin down she says it has become more common for them to stick to their practice lines during interviews.

"Our job as journalists and presenters on Morning Report is to challenge them. It's not a party political broadcast, it's a conversation ... when a politician doesn't address the question that does the listener a disservice..."

She compares these exchanges to a game, saying she doesn't mind "uncomfortable conversations". She likes to "probe and explore issues... I like to get answers".

The tension can be palpable as the politician tries to run the clock down during an interview that may be as short as three minutes.

"Two different worlds collide in real time," she says.

Some listeners complain if she interrupts in her bid to get straight answers, and Ferguson says she has noticed people have less tolerance for a woman interrupting than a man.

Some encounters can unravel leading former National leader Simon Bridges to invent the phrase "getting Susied" - referring to one interview where a politician came off second best.

"I find it quite funny. Thank you, Simon," she says.

Bridges is one of "a load of politicians" she has had "a lot of run-ins" with over the years, however, when the two crossed paths at a Press Gallery party recently they had a pleasant conversation about his family.

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Susie Ferguson with co-presenter Corin Dann. Photo: RNZ

Mosque terror attack 'confronting'

Ferguson has been open about being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. At the age of just 25, she became a war correspondent in Iraq, following that up with assignments in Afghanistan and Sierra Leone. She was on the ground in the days after the devastating Kashmir earthquake and the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004.

While able to handle the demands of this dangerous work, she has struggled with the pressures of "normal" life.

The Christchurch mosque attack is among the major events that have occurred on her Morning Report watch and she found it challenging.

Hosting the programme in the city in the days after the massacre was "confronting", she says, and an extraordinary time for the nation.

The Kaikōura earthquake is another vivid experience. She recalls driving through the Mt Victoria tunnel, along the waterfront and streets littered with glass and thinking it wasn't a good idea. She was on her way to the RNZ studios in Wellington to host an all-night programme with Vicki McKay as listeners all over the country shared their thoughts.

Ferguson says her eight years on Morning Report have been an amazing time with a lot of laughs along the way.

"Having some fun days is good to prioritise both at work and in your personal life.

"Even when things haven't gone so well, I wouldn't change it for anything."

However, she has never thought of it as a job for life, and with "a bunch of things" going on in her life, including her struggles with perimenopause that means disrupted sleep, she is confident it is the right time to go.

She is excited about moving into doing more podcasts, documentaries and longer-form interviews on other programmes and the chance to explore issues more fully and have longer conversations with people.

"Stories usually have many layers… It will give me more time and give me the ability to delve a bit deeper."

She will also be leaving very early starts behind and is looking forward to putting her two children to bed - a baby and a pre-schooler when she started in the role - "instead of the other way round". She is also taking up singing lessons.

And her advice for the person who steps into her shoes?

"Try and have fun with it. There is a team of people who are fantastic to work with and considering you are getting up at a ridiculous hour you need some zingy and interesting people around you. ...Just enjoy it and make it your own."

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