Meera Sivasothy is a general manager at BFM radio. She currently runs BFM, a position passed on to her when the founder of BFM stepped aside to pursue other ventures. The reigns were handed to her once BFM hit its 10 year mark. Her duties involve overseeing every aspect of the organisation, from revenue to operations.
Walk us through how your career has evolved from the time you graduated university.
I did accountancy at RMIT, Australia. I never practiced as an accountant because I was not interested in it. I started in investor relations, also known as financial PR for a few years. When I had my two girls, I decided to stay at home and look after them for 7 years. When I was 36, I decided to start working again but I didn’t know where I would fit in. Where do you go? Who hires you at 36?
One day as I was reading The Edge, I came across a job advertisement for a new business radio station, BFM. Initially, I didn’t believe it because the industry was filled with entertainment and music. I sent my resume in, they called me in for an air check, where you have to do a mock interview with somebody; so they assess your voice, ability to ask questions, etc.
BFM hired me in 2008 which was when it had just started up. At that time there was only the news and a morning show. I was part of the news desk so I used to edit and read the news. When the 2pm show had started up, I was asked to produce the segment. I did this for two years. When the presenter stepped down I took over as presenter in 2010. I presented the show for about 6 years. Then I took a break from BFM for 3 months because I needed it.
In that time, I found that I enjoyed presenting the health segment. So I continued to host the health show and also did regulatory work for BFM. Our regulator is the MCMC, so they listen to us and they monitor our content. BFM used to get into a lot of trouble with the previous government. So there was a lot of work to be done on the regulatory side. I took over head of operations in 2016 and then took over as GM in 2018. I have been here for 11 years. So really from the news desk, I became a producer; a presenter afterwards; went into operations and now I am the GM.
There is no harm in trying. If you get it, you get it; if you don’t, you don’t.
What did you want to be growing up?
I had an idea but my father didn’t let me do it. I wanted to be an air stewardess but my father wanted me to be a doctor, like every Indian parent wants their child to be a doctor. I said no, I’m not going to do medicine either. So I settled with accounting.
At the time I didn’t really enjoy it but when I was looking for a job I found that it was a powerful degree. It helped me get a job anywhere and the training is great. It helps you in many ways, like in understanding an organisation; working with numbers; and also understanding the Economy. Even if you don’t work as an accountant you have a background in understanding the basics, from money supply to interest rates. So I think an accounting degree is very valuable, even if you do not practice as an accountant.
Likewise, I can speak for those who are law graduates, it would seem that law graduates would also have good grounding when it comes to understanding things later on in the workplace. As I said you don’t have to work as a lawyer but it is a great start to take you off to whatever else you want to do. Economics is also great. If you are going into the sciences that is different but if you are not sure, doing some of these degrees will really get you to the next level. Most people in this organisation don’t practice the area in which they studied. They are all coming into media for the first time, trying out as producers for the first time. So most of us here don’t have prior radio experience. We come in and we learn.
What drew you towards radio and BFM?
I had a secret dream of reading the news when I was very young but that was for television. I didn’t think my face would make television. So I didn’t really bother. But a producer who heard my voice suggested that I try radio. I didn’t think much of what he said but later on, when I came across the advertisement, I remembered what he said. So that is why I decided to apply for the job. There is no harm in trying. If you get it, you get it; if you don’t, you don’t. It was by chance. Maybe it was a little bit of luck but if I didn’t take that opportunity that was staring me in the face, that advertisement, I wouldn’t be here. What I am saying is, opportunities are all around you, you need to look at it with an open mind. I never thought I would grow to love this, I was just doing it to try, I didn’t know if it was going to work. I was lucky because BFM was a startup at the time, so the founder was willing to let me slowly learn on the job. Today if I were to walk in like I did 2008 I wouldn’t stand a chance.
A glance down a BFM hallway.
Walk us through a typical day at work.
Everyday is different, everyday is made out of meetings with my senior management team or one on one meetings. Some amount of time is spent looking at the big picture, which means thinking about how to take BFM forward. It has been 11 years, how do I take it to the next level? A lot of time is spent on operational issues and regulatory work, filling in forms and submissions. A good amount of my time is spent on reading because I continue to host the health show about once or twice a week. I also do ambassadorial work, meaning now as the GM, I need to go and help the sales team to sell. So sometimes clients want to see you, so you speak to them and give them the reassurance of what BFM is and what we can offer. All of that helps because I was here from day one. It can be a combination of a lot of things because of the different portfolios I do. The typical GM role, with the addition of doing the health show. I still do the health show because I built it from scratch, it is quite successful in terms of sponsors and I enjoy it. I love the health stuff. Absolutely love it. So doing it once or twice a week is quite nice, it’s a change from the whole GM thing. Going back to what I used to do is a sort of relief, like a break.
What would you say is the biggest challenge you’ve faced?
Managing people is not an easy task, you will find that every manager has that challenge. Managing creative people is a little more difficult because creative people, they are great at what they do, but they are also very protective of what they create. So you have to manage them very, very carefully because they are sensitive. They tend to be proprietary and have a mind of their own. The culture in BFM is such, we empower people to do things on their own. I wouldn’t say it is a very difficult job, I don’t face this challenge on a daily basis but I would say managing people in general is not easy but if you take on that challenge you learn a lot of things about yourself. You have to learn to give and take and deal with all sorts of characters. Once you come to this position you have to be careful of what you want to say, how you say it and a whole load of issues. I think it teaches you how to be a better person.
Brilliant minds at work.
How much freedom in reporting has there been?
If I look at BFM in comparison to other broadcast media, we have had a little more freedom to report because we are politically independent. We don’t have political parties as our stakeholders so it is an independent station. It is easier to push boundaries a little. However, we know where the boundary is as we have learned over the years. We have sometimes hit and even passed the boundaries and get a slap on the wrist from our regulator. That was with the previous government.
With this government it is wonderful, it is relatively free. But I always tell people, you have to be mindful. It is not only about the regulators being difficult, you have to be careful of the people. You have to be careful about how you are putting out this information to the people. We live in a culture that is very diverse, minding the sensitivities of our culture, we need to be clever about it. It doesn’t mean that if you have media freedom you do anything and everything you wish, you need to be mindful of who your audience is. If you go beyond and step out of the boundary the people will take you to task, not the government. Now with social media, they will come after you. The government might not like you talking about politics but things like race and religion, you have to be very careful. Just be mindful of what culture and religion is in this country. We are an Asian society, in general, we are a little more conservative than in the West. So how you put out information is very important.
… opportunities are all around you, you need to look at it with an open mind. I never thought I would grow to love this, I was just doing it to try.
Are there plans to expand BFM’s coverage?
We have an app and you can listen to us online anywhere in the world but in terms of FM frequency, we only transmit in the Klang Valley. There were plans to expand but the previous government didn’t allow it. We have applied again, we shall see what happens.
Who is the most memorable guest you have had?
I wouldn’t say that there was just one, there have been many people who come on and are entertaining. I used to host the whole show before so it was about arts, culture, environment and politics. I wouldn’t say it was any one individual that made an impact on me, it is the 10 years of knowledge that I have gained from doing all of the shows, it is just amazing. One of the younger producers said to me, you almost have a PHD on the business of life. After a while, you can see how it is all related to one another, it was really quite an eye opener. You meet such a diverse group of people who are doing such good work in the community.
BFM is churning out all these interesting stories everyday, almost every hour, people can’t keep track of it. There is always something to learn in every one of the shows. It does not have to be just business stuff, it is everything, it is something for you to take back. For examples in the arts industry, people don’t really provide a platform for those in the arts and when they come and talk about it you can see how passionate they are about what they do. I have met environmentalists; spoken to the arts people; spoken to judges; spoken to prominent doctors from all over the world; and also to the lady who isolated the HIV virus.
Now that people know of BFM and what we do, when they have people flying in from abroad they call us. They know it is a platform for them to share and we are happy to do it. All these interesting people come along and it just grows your knowledge about what is happening in the world.
Once you come to this position you have to be careful of what you want to say, how you say it and a whole load of issues. I think it teaches you how to be a better person.
As a radio host and general manager what is the ultimate message you would like to share with your audience and coworkers?
As a radio host I would say, in general, whatever career path you take, give it your best. There is nothing in this generation that you cannot learn because of Google, everything is out there, you can learn anything and everything. If you have a degree in something, it does not mean you have to work in that line.
Always explore, like I did. I learnt, I worked for hours and hours. I would wake up at 3am for the 5am to 1pm news shift. I was 36 which meant that I was slower than the rest so I had to work extra hard to be on par with everyone on set. I think hard work, reading and researching really takes you to the extra mile. So as a radio host I learnt that nothing is impossible, if you put your mind to it you can do it but you must persevere. It was hard, it was very difficult for me. I had two kids at the time so I couldn’t just go home and rest because they were at home. So there is nothing you can’t do, if you are not willing to learn you are not going to get anywhere. Take up a challenge. If you see an opportunity before you there is no harm in trying it out if you have an interest in it.
As a GM I would say it is a challenging world out there, radio is evolving. How people consume the media is very different. My kids don’t even watch television, they consume everything on their phones or tablets. Entertainment is available at anytime you want. Radio now is very visual, not like back in the day when you don’t even know what the host looks like. So BFM has also evolved with the time. Radio is still important in this country, it is still the bulk of our revenue but digital is really going to be the future. We don’t know what it is going to look like but we know one thing for sure, if we don’t evolve we are going to be left out. We have just set up our digital team, that is the way we are going forward. I think the message as the GM is that industries are evolving, the way we work is evolving. They are already talking about jobs being taken over by robots and AI. That is going to be the challenge in the future. How we make money is going to change. That is really the challenge as a GM moving forward.
Broadcasting booth; where the magic happens.
Other than recording and speaking to the public, are there any aspects of your job that the public might not know of?
I think a lot of people don’t understand how much work goes on in the background. We have producers that help us, we ourselves read a lot. So the one thing that people don’t see is the work that goes on behind the scenes to help us come and execute. The second thing you have to realise is we are also humans, we make mistakes. There is also a certain element of performance. When we step out we become ourselves again, it is not a big change because you cannot be someone else on radio for long periods of time. For us we can’t really hide our personalities but sometimes on air and off air we are slightly different people. I am actually very shy but people wouldn’t realise it. With time you learn to go out there. There are times when I just don’t want to talk to anyone because I do so much of it at work. What I am trying to say is, we are all human beings as well. There is a difference between our work and us being ourselves.
If you could compare radio hosting with hosting a TV show, in terms of the work that goes into it, is it similar?
It is very different. We can come to work in pyjamas and no one will know. That is the one advantage of being on the radio, you don’t have to worry about how you look. Tv hosts need to look very presentable and there is some acting involved. It takes many camera crew members just to get one show out. There are the script writers, camera people and makeup artists. It is very simple here; we have a mic, a producer or two, research and we’re off with the guest.
Radio is very unique, it is a very personal medium, it connects directly to you. We are trained to speak like we are talking to one person. It is a very different field compared to television. I feel with television there is a certain distance between you as the audience and what is being shown to you. In radio we are also trained to never exclude the audience, your listener. We also don’t talk down to listeners, always remember that one person is listening to you on a very personal basis.
It doesn’t mean that if you have media freedom you do anything and everything you wish, you need to be mindful of who your audience is.
How did you feel listening to yourself on radio back then and how do you feel now?
You always never like listening to yourself. I don’t think you ever get used to it but sometimes you have no choice because you need to do airchecks to figure out how you are presenting. Only then you notice the crutch words you use. So no, it is never nice listening to yourself.
What kinds of skills and attitude are needed to succeed in your career?
As I was saying earlier, the willingness to learn and work hard. I think people nowadays just don’t want to work hard. There is no easy way out, you end up losing out. The other thing I would say is with the younger generation, which I am concerned about, is that they do not work in teams very well. They can work individually but they are not good in teams. I would say to make sure you have that skill get involved in sports, group activities and group work in school. Kids nowadays are lacking that. Some of them can’t communicate, they can’t interact.
Sticky notes for staying on top of things.
How would you describe your team’s culture?
We have a great culture but of course in the early days it was hard because the founder had to find the right group of people to work. Slowly when everything was settled, the culture started to develop. It is a very, very closely knit organisation in terms of people. Some of them who have left eventually come back because they find that they love the family like spirit more than anything else. As big as the office space is, we have a very very tight bond. You can see it when we go for company trips, it is very different from other media organisations. Everyone is empowered, we don’t have a clock-in and clock-out system. Every program is a team and every team has a team leader. The founder’s philosophy was that as long as you work well in the team, it is fine because in small teams when one person does not do the work, immediately the rest of the team will feel it. So everyone is responsible.
When people listen to you on the radio, you attract like minded people who want to come and work with you. I always tell organisations, you need to know what you stand for. When you know what you stand for, you are focused and you attract the people that you want based on that philosophy. That makes life a lot easier. People who come in are well read, worldly, they want to make a difference in the world in terms of opinion and they speak well. These people tend to apply for jobs here because that is what they share with us when they listen to us on the radio.
What can an aspiring radio host do to prepare themselves for the field?
Firstly, unfortunately with radio, you need to have a good voice. It is something you were born with. Secondly, once you have the voice and the ability to speak it depends on what medium and language you choose to pursue. If you are fluent in that language, it becomes a lot easier. Thirdly, learning, reading and hard work is important. You need the right attitude and the ability to work in teams here, if you can’t you just will not fit in. Have an open mind, the world is very different out there. That is what it takes.
… always remember that one person is listening to you on a very personal basis.