Zan Rowe opens up on her time with triple j and the longevity of radio

How do I even introduce Zan Rowe to those who aren’t familiar with her (how!?), where do I begin? She has been a friend to many over her years at triple j, introducing so many amazing artists to so many people, guiding us to new areas in our musical tastes, and helping everyone start the day right on Mornings with Zan. Meeting Zan Rowe was a dream and at Face The Music, I was lucky enough to have a chat with her.

She’d just come from her morning broadcast (via an emergency recovery dumpling session, understandable after the MMW Music Safari), and she couldn’t move for running into friends from the music industry. To call her an icon wouldn’t be unreasonable…

So you’ve been in the music industry for nearly two decades; spanning three radio stations. Can you give us a quick run through of how you got to where you are now?

I started out as a volunteer as SRA which became SYN FM, and then I was volunteering and also worked at Triple R. I volunteered there in a number of different roles, and then I got the Monday Drive show and then I worked there part time for about a year and a half. From Triple R I went to triple j, and that was my first full-time radio gig.

And still there today. Mornings with Zan, it’s a staple.

It’s been a long time show – almost ten years now, which is kind of crazy. It’s a long time.

You have absolutely been around radio for a long time – the thing with radio is that it’s always relevant. It’s always dictating what’s happening in Australian music – what keeps it so relevant?

The conversations around radio and threats to radio have been around for years and years, and I guess the latest one is whenever new technology comes up people are like, ‘This is going to be the death of radio’. Things like streaming services, and algorithms, smart playlists and stuff like that is the latest threat.

I think that for me, what I see with my listeners and what I feel as a listener myself, is that radio is the most intimate medium. You have a relationship with the people that you’re listening to, far more than anyone that you watch on television. I can’t think of anyone that I watch on television that I think, ‘Oh, they’re my friend’, or I trust them, and they’re going to take me somewhere, whereas I feel that with so many different radio presenters. For me to then hear that back from my listeners is incredible, because this is exactly how I feel about radio, and now I’m that person to someone else.

People will often come up to me and say, for example, ‘You’re the reason I found out about Cloud Nothings and they’re one of my favourite bands of the last five years’. That relationship [is] like a great older brother, or sister, or friend, who just recommends stuff to you and because you trust them and trust their taste … you’ll go with them on that journey. I think that’s the power of radio, and the relevance of radio that will never go. An algorithm can’t reflect that. An algorithm can’t take you to a place that you never thought you wanted to go until you were there.

One of my greatest joys is when I can introduce music to someone who never would have explored that genre or that artist, and I get these incredible texts in of people saying, ‘You know I wasn’t sure about this Zan, but you’ve won me over’ – a begrudging new fan. That’s the best – radio will always be really powerful at that and the people who are behind the mic sharing that – the skill of that and the trust that you have with your audience has a lot of power.

Zan with Nik Kaloper and Hayley Mary of The Jezabels | ABC
Zan with Nik Kaloper and Hayley Mary of The Jezabels | ABC

I’m not going to lie, you definitely feel like someone I’ve known for years, you definitely shaped my taste in music. Most people know your name, and as you said, you’re trusted- your taste in music is so important. What counts as good and bad to you influences so much. How did you come into that?

I certainly didn’t wake up one day and sort of think, dictator style, ‘I want to influence people’s thoughts or change their minds about things that they never thought they would change their minds about’ [Laughs]. I think that, you know, the whole reason, the heart of why I got into radio is because I really love sharing what I’m into. Whether it’s books I’ve read, or podcasts I’ve listened to… of course, music is central to that.

You know, before I got into radio I was always a huge music fan. I went to gigs every weekend, I kind of spent the whole of Year 12 seeing punk gigs at the Arthouse (which no longer exists), and going to Britpop nights at Dream nightclub on Queensberry Street – which also probably doesn’t exist. It was the old Hellfire club on Sundays and Britpop night on Saturdays, so it was an interesting venue. There were some very funny dungeons you’d sort of stumble into while you were dancing to “I Am The Walrus” and stuff like that, which was funny.

Once I got into radio, I realised there’s a certain kind of indulgence in radio, but there’s also a great joy in being able to share what I’m so excited about with so many people. I think that most people who enjoy what I do realise that I’m not bullshitting, every song isn’t great. There’s songs on the triple j playlist that I love and some of them I’m like, ‘Eh, it’s not really my thing’. I’m not gonna diss those, because they’re someone else’s thing.

You can hear when I’m trying to introduce something new and people can hear, I guess, that passion and that engagement and you know, that’s attractive. I find it attractive when people are passionate about things; I can understand why people see that in the way that I present. It’s not false, so, I’m not [trying to be] an ‘influencer’. Which is a horrible term that I hate. [Laughs]

Trendsetter? That’s a horrible term as well].

Or a ‘tastemaker’… but there’s no other word. They’re all awful words but there’s no other word for it. I think it comes from a place of just being really passionate and sharing what I love. Like everybody does – I found this and I want to share this, for no other reason than I think it’s cool and you should check it out. There’s no monetary gain for me on any of that.

Zan with Jess Kent | ABC
Zan with Jess Kent | ABC

Exactly, music isn’t really about monetary gain – I mean, the starving muso isn’t a made-up stereotype; people are there, and sharing their music, because they love it. I guess you come across so many bands who are up and coming, and you play a role in launching them, getting their music out there and heard. So what’s your checklist, when you’re on triple j unearthed, for example, and you’re hearing new music?

I listen to music in a professional way, thinking about how it’s going to work on radio, how it’s going to work on my show – there’s certain songs where I’ll be like, ‘That’s killer, but it’s so 3am Saturday night vibes’ [laughs]. It might not work in the mornings. I still get a gut feeling when I listen to something that I love and I listen to a lot of music. We’re getting sent a lot of music, searching through Unearthed, getting recommendations from people in the office, and musical friends who work outside of triple j – it’s a huge community.

I very much get a gut feeling when I hear music; I don’t have any musical ability myself, so I’m not listening and thinking ‘Oh, that’s a cool time signature’ – I hear it, but I’m not dissecting it in a technical way. I’m just having an emotional reaction to it, or I’m tapping my foot or I’m thinking, ‘Oh god, that’s a clever lyric,’ or I’m thinking, ‘That’s a sick drop’, ‘That’s a beautiful melody’- it’s a real gut feeling. There’s no rhyme or reason.

I’ve also got really broad music tastes – I certainly am drawn to some genres more than other genres, but I really do love everything, and I listen to everything. I guess it’s more about what I would rule out than what I would…

And what would you rule out?

There’s certain songs that just won’t work for triple j because they’re huge, commercial radio songs and that’s not why we exist. Or you know, they’re offensive, they’ve got indefensible lyrics, or just sound terrible. [laughs] It’s hard, because there’s a lot of people making music and there’s more music than ever coming to us at triple j and going out into the world, because everyone can do it so much easier now. I think that there’s some people who are probably putting out stuff before they’re ready to put it out, which is kind of tough, I think.

People just want to share, yeah. And there’s been no criticism as a barrier before you can get your music out there. Because there’s so many platforms to do it on – chuck up your own soundcloud and share it around, and send it in to triple j because your mum said it was good.

I do actually get parents texting me as well about their kids’ music, which is really cute. I mean, that’s a part of why triple j Unearthed works on so many levels. There’s plenty of amazing discoveries on unearthed where it’s like, ‘Woah, I can’t believe this is a 17 year old producer’. But for every one of those, there’s ten bands that are super green and are just putting their stuff up there because triple j is a platform where users and triple j presenters can give constructive feedback, and I try to do that.

I’m not just reviewing stuff that I love – you find something that you can give them feedback about and bands really love that because it’s really hard when you’re starting out. All you know is all you know. Your perspective is really your own reality – it certainly helps to have someone else’s viewpoint. I’m certainly not saying that I’m the be all and end all of feedback.

No – giving feedback is all a part of it. Nurturing the next generation, I guess. Speaking of, who are your top three up-and-comers to watch in Australian music?

I am really floored by Sampa The Great. She’s just started making music in the past couple of years and she’s just got this stage presence and delivery and such an amazing sound. Like, how do you just arrive with that?! The things that are dominating Unearthed in particular – there’s just so many young women making amazing music and having incredible confidence – moreso than any other time that I can remember.

I really love Alex Lahey, I just think that she’s incredible. I mean, she’s a great character but she also writes these really witty songs and is a killer performer. I found out last night actually that the one instrument she can play really well, that she’s trained in, is the saxophone. That’s her first main instrument!? [Laughs]

Waiting for a sax solo to appear in one of her songs.

[Laughs] Yeah, so Alex, Sampa, and Tash Sultana –  who just won the Unearthed Artist of the Year. She’s just a freak and she’s also self-taught herself ten instruments.

Started as a busker and now she’s touring over the world – women are taking over music.

The future is female.

Tune in to Mornings with Zan on triple j weekdays from 9am – 12pm. Check her out on the triple j website HERE.