Anjali Rao on Australia's media landscape

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Interview by Molly O'Brien, Marketing & Communications Specialist, Advance

Anjali Rao’s passport is not in danger of underuse. Having grown up in Hong Kong, been educated in London and now living in Australia – she knows first hand the experience of an International life. Her job doesn’t do much to keep her stationary, either: she is an international TV news anchor and broadcast journalist, host of SBS’s Dateline, and regular guest on Channel 10’s The Project. Having previously spoken about returning to Australia from time abroad, Advance caught up with Anjali to learn some more about her experiences in the global media landscape, and how the lessons she has learnt overseas translate in Australia.

Career-wise, what is the most advantageous aspect of having global experience?

The most advantageous aspect of having global experience is that it’s allowed me to weigh in on topics that I wouldn’t otherwise be informed about when it comes to my profession. As a TV anchor, you need to be able to comment on just about anything. This is particularly pertinent when considering I was working for CNN – a global network. Without the first-hand knowledge of international countries – you can’t really carry a conversation about global affairs.

Having global experience has also allowed me to connect with people of different cultures and societies – which are imperative to be successful at my job – but also a personal passion of mine. I’ve been travelling since I was four years old – my mum being from Bendigo, my dad being from Bangalore. I was born and based in Hong Kong, but grew up in England. It makes for a very international life!

As a TV anchor, are you allowed to express your opinion, or are you going off a script?

It really depends on which program you work for. CNN is neither skewed left nor right – it’s unbiased and straight down the middle in terms of opinion. Not every network is like this – some are heavily leaning one way, and it’s important to be able to assimilate yourself into that culture. That’s something that works for CNN – but not necessarily ratings-generating anymore. Viewers want and strong ideas, and to be able to occasionally yell at the TV screen!

There was a lot of studying involved for CNN. Studying for “work” was like doing a University subject each week, but not in subjects that I actually elected to do. As an anchor, you’re presenting to a very global audience and you need to be very careful about what you say, but you also have to think on your feet. You’re talking about topics that are breaking news that no one has heard of, and are expected to come up with relevant/intelligent questions!

Did you always want to be a TV anchor, or was it something that happened organically?

My mum started off as a journalist. She moved from Bendigo to London in search of fame, and on the way stopped off in Hong Kong, met a man 24 years her senior, got married, and never made it back to Bendigo or became that famous journalist. My big dream when I was young was to become a roller skating waitress – but unfortunately, that wasn’t really an option because there were no diners where I was living. Shame, really. The next big thing I wanted to do was act – but eventually, I decided to compromise and become a TV journalist instead, which in many ways is a similar profession. It’s all about adopting a different personality as a TV journalist, as soon as the camera is switched on.

What is the most challenging aspect of your job?

Definitely breaking news – you never know what’s going to pop up! When I moved to Australia, I have been lucky that I have had a lot of opportunities. One of them being a host on The Project – which I love, but in many ways it’s the hardest thing I’ve done because of all the moving parts. You have to be serious, funny and poignant, all in perfect timing. It’s a lot of fun, and I’m lucky I got my sense of humour from my parents. The serious news journalist thing was great, but it wasn’t really where my heart was.

What is the key differentiation between the media industry overseas and in Australia?

They are so different! Australia chooses not to really represent the actual social demographic of the country. If you’re perceived as “different” in Australia, you go into the “different” box, which is not good for getting jobs. If your accent is not a traditional “Australian” one (which mine is not), you will not be cast in a lot of things. I often get told I am a “risk” at castings because of my background, which is hard to hear when I’ve had over 220 million homes across the world watch me on air every day and not have a problem with it. It’s a bit of a difficult topic, this one.

Does Australia have a diversification problem?

As far as representation on mainstream TV – yes. Without SBS we’d be in a much worse position. I have been very fortunate working with Channel 10 who have been excellent to me. Working on The Project is a dream, a fantastic gig to get.

In terms of Australians that have spent time abroad and are looking to ingratiate themselves back into Australian society, I think that it can be really hard. Not just in the media industry – but across the board. I’ve known people in finance and medicine that have had trouble with work when returning from living overseas. Some companies do not look upon global experience as favourable because they might be “at odds” with Australian culture after spending time overseas, which is a really big shame.

What measures do you think Australia needs to take to remain innovative and globally competitive?

I really think they need to start embracing the rest of the world. We are living in an increasingly globalised society, and it’s important to recognise that you can protect a national society while also being inclusive of everyone. As far as TV is concerned – Australia has some really great programming, and I’m saying that from the perspective of a viewer. We have a fantastic output across a number of categories – many concepts of which were started in Australia that have transcended to the rest of the world. Our national mindset is different to a lot of other countries. We have a quirk factor here!

You’ve interviewed some prolific people throughout your career – including people such as Bill Clinton, the Dalai Lama and Karl Largerfeld. Has there been a specific career standout for you?  

There have been so many! I’ve been very fortunate. It’s hard to go past the Dali Lama. He invited me to his palace in Dharamshala, which was just incredible. Everyone adores him! I got on incredibly well with Gwyneth Paltrow – she’s actually so down to earth, despite popular opinion. I also really liked Rhianna. She was so fantastic. My interview with her was after the Chris Brown nightmare, and the only other person who has interviewed her at the time was Oprah.

The most terrifying? Karl Largerfeld! He didn’t take off his glasses the whole time – all I could see was myself!

The media landscape is one that is forever changing. What advice would you give to young professionals looking to break into the industry?

I would suggest to not pigeonhole yourself with the undergraduate degree you are taking, and to diversify your skillset. It may sound tough – but most people in media that’s in a position to hire you will laugh at you if a degree is your only strength. In most cases, that’s not what you need, not least because the media landscape is changing so much. What is valued – as far as TV networks are concerned – is bringing something else to journalism like law of psychology. A new dimension.

If you could interview anyone – dead or alive – who would it be?

Somebody who had been a dictator! The cult and personality that surrounds dictators – I’m so fascinated about. Kim Jong-II would be up there. And apparently he never switched off CNN either. I’m so fascinated that people completely believed all his ludicrous lies.

The other person would be River Phoenix. As a 14 year old at boarding school, I wrote to him every day for two years… I never heard back. He had an incredibly interesting life. Living ultra clean lifestyle on the outside – being a role model to millions, but was a completely different person on the inside – a drug addict. He would be a compelling character.

Where is your favourite city you’ve lived in, and why?

Without a doubt – Hong Kong! It’s my home – I spent 35 years there, born and bred – I just love it. To travel – my favourite city I think to go to is New York City. There’s just that vibe about it that is so energising and vibrant. Even the weirdos are compelling and have something to say. What more could you want?