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SYN alumni, Ti Butler, is a radio presenter and producer, most recently with JOY 94.9FM’s The Sound of Now. They’ve been on air across Victoria with the ACE Radio Network, for which they were nominated for Best Music Presenter at the 2018 Australian Commercial Radio Awards. Previously, they were the Talent Development Lead at Radio Training Institute in Melbourne, where they worked to develop the next generation of radio and digital media talent.

This blog asks Ti how their time at SYN and beyond prepared them for the world of radio.

When did you start at SYN? What did you do while you were here?

I started at SYN in 2005, and I think I currently hold the record for longest time spent at SYN – ten and a half years? I did so much at SYN. I hosted SYN TV before it was 1700, worked as a SYN Trainer, became the disembodied voice of doom when we shut the station down to protest community radio not getting access to [the] digital spectrum… presented a segment from a thrill ride at Moomba [Festival], live-commentated the SYN Awards… there was a lot!

I think the shows I’m most proud of were idolthreat, the podcast we did about the TV show The X Factor; my work on Get Cereal, which was so much fun; and On The Run, where we basically banned ourselves from the studio and did the whole show out on the streets around Melbourne each week.

How did your experience at SYN help you find work on the ACE Radio Network?

I think the thing that helped prepare me best for finding work at ACE Radio was being able to try so many different things at SYN. It meant I’d developed my own presenting style there rather than having to experiment on the job. Having that time to build up my skills, learn, and “crash the bumper car” meant I was in an incredible position, when the opportunity arose, to hit the ground running. 

What were some of the main challenges you faced while breaking into commercial radio? How did you overcome them?

I think they’ve changed in recent years. Initially, my biggest challenge was showing that my skills had progressed beyond a community radio level, because commercial [radio] is very much a big step up in terms of professionalism and work ethic. At first, I really wasn’t ready for that, and the best way to overcome that challenge is to show them you can do the work.

More recently, as I’ve started transitioning, the main obstacle has been stations struggling to commit to the idea of putting a trans person on air, out of concern for how the presenter might be treated by the listening community. (Potential future employers: I went and got myself a big girl spine, I’ll be fine, I promise!)

And of course, most recently, COVID-19 has caused huge problems for our industry, because companies can no longer afford to run radio ads, and as a result radio networks have less money to spend on hiring and retaining talent.

You also worked as the Talent Development Lead at Radio Training Institute – How did your experience at SYN prepare you for this role?

So I got offered that role a few months after graduating from RTI, and honestly, it was the combination of graduating with excellent grades paired with years of working as a SYN Trainer that got me across the line. Being a trainer at SYN meant learning how to quickly get to the heart of a good idea and provide suggestions for the execution of the idea, as well as [providing] feedback on how to improve each break after it’s been done. Learning how to very quickly work out where people were at and how we could improve their show or segment was critical, and that’s not necessarily a radio skill, it’s an interpersonal skill that could work in any career field. I know I picked that up specifically from SYN, and I’m so glad I did!

You’ve done a lot at JOY 94.9, notably hosting Six at Six, and now The Sound of Now. What does community radio mean to you?

Hah, well the clue is in the name! It’s about the community. I think the really special thing about JOY is, LGBTQIA+ people are not necessarily one giant community. Cisgender gay men have a very different experience to cisgender gay women, and it’s different again for bi people, and for trans people, and people with intersex variations have a whole world of different life experiences. That’s not to mention all the different subcultures out there, and all the ways that those identities could intersect for people! So there are actually many smaller communities that make up the wider LGBTQIA+ community, and what’s so special about JOY is that there’s a very conscious effort to bring those communities together. So it means I get to feel connected to the community, which has been more important than ever during the pandemic. 

What makes for good content, and how do you find the best stuff for radio?

Okay, so the big three are always the most important: one, local, two, topical, and three, personal. If a break isn’t at least one of those things — relevant to your local community or the station’s listenership, about something happening right now or about something relevant to your show’s topic, or something you have a personal connection to that brings listeners into your world — then what you’re talking about probably doesn’t matter, and you’re better off shutting up and playing a song. If you can hit two of those three pillars in the one segment, you’re flying. If you can hit all three at once, you’re heading into magic territory. 

As for how I find content to talk about, creativity is largely just the ability to connect different ideas together like Lego blocks, and so the more “idea Lego blocks” you have, the better. Anyone can read a fun fact about an artist they found off Google or in the artist notes, but what can you add to that to create something new? Soak in as many experiences as you can, pay attention to as many details about the day and what’s happening in the world as possible, and then you can use those later to add to your breaks.

If you were walking into the studio (pre-COVID-19) and saw a busker on the corner of Swanston and Bourke singing Dance Monkey, that could be the start of a perfect break: it’s local, it’s topical, and you have a personal connection to it. So you talk about how you saw this busker on the way in to the studio today, and then connect that to Tones’ story — so the break becomes about how it’s cool that it’s come full circle for her, because Tones got her start as a busker, and now buskers are singing her songs. You’ve got this cool angle that nobody can Google because it’s coming from your personal collection of Lego blocks. So: collect lots of “idea Lego blocks”.

What’s been your favourite work (paid or unpaid) that you’ve done since leaving SYN?

My favourite paid work would probably be working at Radio Training Institute, and getting to be around emerging radio presenters who were coming from lots of different life experiences and constantly throwing creative ideas around. The presenters were so passionate about what they were doing, they all had the work ethic to make it happen… it was actually really inspiring for me!

Unpaid: earlier this year I got to fly to Sydney to co-host JOY 94.9’s coverage of the 2020 Sydney Mardi Gras. It was my first time at Mardi Gras, and I got to see the whole thing from a rooftop near Hyde Park and commentate on the parade. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to fully describe the feeling of walking along Oxford Street in the afternoon before the broadcast and truly feeling pride, y’know? There were smiles on every face, nobody was ashamed of who they are, the city felt electric. We did the broadcast, and the whole team — on air team, producers, technicians, reporters, photographers, audio producers, everyone — absolutely smashed it, start to finish. I’m so proud of us, and of that broadcast, and of what we achieved. 

What skills would you say are essential for young media makers to have in 2020?

I think the most important skill you can learn is the ability to reflect the market you’re broadcasting to, whether that’s a big city like Melbourne, a small regional town, or even the nation. If some big news story happens, even if it feels weird to talk about, it’s almost weirder if you *don’t* acknowledge it. Remember when Coronavirus hit, and there were some shows that tried to carry on as though nothing had changed? It comes across as disingenuous and artificial. 

Reflecting the city doesn’t even need to mean going to extra effort, it just needs to be you holding a mirror up to the city and saying, “Oi, look, that’s you!” You don’t have to follow the footy, but you can talk about seeing people wearing their scarves to the office. 

And of course, everyone should be working on their “soft skills”, like problem solving, creative thinking, empathy, kindness, storytelling, connecting with people, being resourceful; that emotional intelligence beyond the technical skills. We can teach anyone how to panel, but it’s harder to teach people how to not be a terrible person.

Who are some young radio people you follow and/or admire?

Aimee Craig just gets it. She has that sunny disposition, she brings the energy and the fun, and she puts the time in with the research. She also knows how to produce herself up a bit on air. She knows just how to hold back a key piece of information until she can drop it for maximum comedic or dramatic effect, or she’ll create the exact right amount of conflict or drama in a moment to really hook a listener in.

We’ve also got this presenter at JOY, Shiralee, from Youth In Control. She came through a training group at JOY that I led, and she’s got such a natural and confident delivery; there’s a real thoughtfulness and warmth to the way she presents. That whole Youth In Control team have been working really hard throughout the pandemic, actually.

Maddy Rowe up in Townsville going out across the Hit Network is so great to listen to — you just instantly want to be her best friend. Jacob Edward became the first non-binary presenter to appear on BBC Radio 1 over the new year break, and they’re just so natural and funny and warm on air! Seeing how Gemma Maddox up on Hit 104.7 has grown over the last few years has been really exciting, and she’s about to enter another huge period of personal and professional growth too. And of course, music presenters like Bridget Hustwaite, and Bree Steele, and Nic Kelly, who really care about the music they’re playing, and who talk about the music and not just around it!


You can keep up with Ti and their work on LinkedIn, Twitter and their website.