“When one door closes another one opens.” This is how radio presenter and author Mary-Lou Stephens describes her career. From making music to 18 years and counting in radio, Mary-Lou wanted to find if she could also add ‘author’ to her impressive career. The answer was yes and today TBS chats with Mary-Lou about boys clubs, being brave and how meditation saved her career and helped her find a husband.
Can you tell TBS briefly about how you got into radio.
It was never my intention to get into radio. I’d done a small stint on community radio just for fun when I was about 19 but never thought about it again. My intention was to become a famous singer/songwriter. I played in bands, got distracted by three years of acting school, then went back to playing in bands. I loved it but never really got anywhere. All my time, energy and money went into trying to make a go of it in the music business. When my last band broke up I was devastated. I was in my mid-thirties and knew I couldn’t continue slogging it out anymore. But what could I do? Acting school and making music hardly qualified me for a steady job.
I’d been interviewed a few times by Chris Wisbey, the ABC Tasmania Weekends Presenter. Through a series of events I was in Hobart for a week and he and I went out for lunch together. I was in a bit of despair about my future and had no idea what I was going to do. He looked at me and said “You want to be in radio.” It was a lightbulb moment. Literally. I said to him, “Yes I do, but I didn’t know it until this very moment. How did you know?” “Because I know you,” he said. “And I know radio. It’s a perfect fit.” He was right.
After that all the pieces fell into place. Back in Sydney Simon Marnie asked me to be part of the fledgling FBi radio station. He also helped me through the audition process for AFTRS. After AFTRS my first job was at 2TM in Tamworth where I learnt a lot. Then I was headhunted for Mix when they were launching in Townsville where I learnt even more. Then on to my dream job with the ABC – which turned into a nightmare, hence my first book Sex, Drugs and Meditation.
You’re a big advocate for meditation. How important is mediation or taking time out for yourself when you work in the media?
There are so many studies highlighting the benefits of meditation it’s incredible. But for me I did it just to survive. I was working insane hours in Townsville. I was the Assistant Program Director, Music Director and Breakfast Co-Host, which involved having to do a lot of promotions outside of work. I’d go home exhausted every day, cry in the shower and eat ice cream. I was told meditation would help and I grabbed onto it like the drowning woman I was.
Meditation does help but if you’re expecting quick results, and don’t we all, then you’ll be disappointed. Meditation changes things slowly but in my experience it changes everything for the better. Sitting quietly in a room alone has been the source of my greatest creativity and my greatest healing. Even 10 minutes a day has been shown to reap benefits.
I credit meditation with helping me find my dream job. And when that dream job turned into a nightmare I turned to meditation again with greater intent. It worked.
It’s hard to find time when you’re working in the media. When I started meditating I was already getting up at 3.30 am every day. I started getting up at 3 am instead. That’s how much it meant to me. If you think you’re too busy or, like many people, think you can’t meditate, I’m going to recommend this blog I wrote for The Huffington Post – So You Think You Can’t Meditate: Try Joyful Resting
What’s been some of the challenges you have faced whilst working in radio?
Oh, how much time have I got? FBi was fabulous, AFTRS was wonderful, but being out in the real world was a shock sometimes. From self-important announcers to intimidating managers to abusive callers. I learnt so much at Mix because I was responsible for so much. Every time there was a tweak, or an entire format change, I was the one who had to implement all the changes. I thought things would be a little easier at the ABC but we were restructured, which was the biggest challenge of all, and once again I was responsible for overseeing the changes that needed to happen.
Do you think radio is a ‘boys club?’ If so, how can women get more involved?
In commercial radio, yes but it’s changing. At the ABC, no, not at all. I went from being in the music world to being in radio so I was used to being in a male dominated area. I was determined to be a Music Director because that’s where my background and passion was. It didn’t take me long. And it didn’t take me long to realise why my band never got played on commercial radio! I think women make great MDs.
It depends on what you want to do. If you’ve studied journalism or communications the ABC might be for you. Mind you I’ve never studied either of those. There are a lot of opportunities in regional areas within the ABC and it’s not unusual to have a lot more women than men in a workplace.
AFTRS is a great place to help you get your foot in the door. If you want to get into commercial radio I would highly recommend getting your chops up in community radio and then applying. It never felt like a boys’ club when I was there.
Your book Sex, Drugs and Meditation is a really brave tell all story of your life – what made you want to write it? Were you scared you would lose friends or what people would think of you writing a book like this?
When I used to read self-help books I would always skip through the theory, ignore all the practicalities and head straight for the case studies. I love a good story and that’s what those personal tales of transformation are. When it became clear to me that my entire life had changed because of meditation I wondered if people might be interested in my case study, in my tale of transformation.
It took me a long time to write the book, with a break in the middle to write a novel. The reason I stopped was because I had some interest early on but was told to make the book work I had to be really, really honest. That scared me and I stopped. It wasn’t until years later and after much more meditation that I gained the detachment and compassion to write the book that Sex, Drugs and Meditation needed to be.
When I was offered a deal by a publishing company I really had to weigh up what might happen. I might have lost my job – I wasn’t sure whether the ABC would want an ex-heroin user on air. I might have lost my friends – there’s a lot in the book that they didn’t know about me. And I might have lost my family – there are a few skeletons in the book. As it was, none of that happened and those who love me loved me even more when they read it.
Can you tell TBS about your new book How To Stay Married.
My first book Sex, Drugs and Meditation tells the story of how meditation changed my life, saved my job and helped me find a husband. How To Stay Married, is the truth behind the happy ending. After we’d been married for about seven years, The Hubby and I went for a trip around the world and only took cabin luggage with us. My friends were amazed and some of them suggested I write a book about it. I didn’t think a book on how to pack light would be all that gripping but when I realised our trip was a modern day parable about learning to travel light in life, love and relationships I knew it was worth writing. How to Stay Married takes you around the world; from the glitter and glare of Las Vegas to the sub-zero temperatures of the French Alps and the tropical heat of Thailand, all with cabin luggage only.
How to Stay Married isn’t your regular ‘how-to’ book, but it is about creating the kind of relationship you want. It’s the story of a marriage; a journey from fear, resentment and financial devastation, to a place of love, joy and trust. And yes, meditation played a big part.
Do you think women especially need to be more brave and share their stories on air? Any advice on how they should do this?
In interviews the facts about my past life and drug use have been discussed of course but it’s not something that I would bring up on my own radio program. I think there are boundaries that need to be put in place to protect yourself and to keep your audience feeling safe. But remember, I work for the ABC. It would be different in commercial radio. But once again, you need to know how much you’re willing to share and how much you need to keep private. Writing a book about my past is a lot different to talking to my listeners about it.
However there are some things that I have shared that took great bravery. I thought I would become a pariah. Instead women related with such strength and emotion and gratitude it gave me courage to do the same thing in future. That’s the thing about bravery, you can never be sure of the outcome.
If anyone in media is looking at following in your footsteps and thinking of writing a book, any advice?
My writing journey started with writing a weekly newspaper column. I went from there to short stories and then a novel. I’ve done many writing classes and I’m about to do a writing masterclass in Adelaide. Plus I’m reading books on screenwriting at the moment because I’ve been approached by a production company to turn Sex, Drugs and Meditation into a TV series. So my advice is to learn about writing, read a lot and write a lot, join a writers’ group for support and feedback. Writing is a long journey if you’re going to do it well, with many drafts and many edits.
My early drafts of Sex, Drugs and Meditation were quite flippant, more Bridget Jones’s Dairy than the book it is today. It didn’t work. Once I was able to be really honest the manuscript buzzed with incredible energy and developed a life of its own.
If you’re writing a memoir I suggest following Barbara Turner-Vesselago’s advice. She wrote a book called Writing With our a Parachute: The Art of Freefall. One of her precepts is the ten year rule – any autobiographical material needs to be at least ten years old. Once your material has had time to compost it’s much richer and more fertile.
Photo by Megan Slade Courtesy of The Courier Mail