Richard Wilkins: Music and the man

Being in a band was just fantastic: Richard Wilkins at Cafe Sydney, Circular Quay | Photo: Graham Jepson

Interviewing the man who's interviewed everyone, from Michael Jackson and Madonna to Prince and Pink.

This article is from the July 2013 issue of INTHEBLACK magazine

What does a television entertainment reporter have to do with the world of business and finance, you may ask. Let’s start with resilience, professionalism and ethics. Now throw in great networking skills, respect and the ability to deal with setbacks and adapt to a changing marketplace.

Meet Richard Wilkins, a 25-year veteran of Australian commercial television and one of the best team players around.

Wilkins’ story starts in New Zealand, where the boy of a professional family was torn between pursuing a career as a teacher and providing for his young family, or becoming a musician.

He did a bit of both – but in the end, the music won.

The former front man of rock band Wilde and Reckless became arguably Australia’s best-known showbiz commentator.

Along the way, he enjoyed a priceless education in the entertainment and music industry and played a highly visible role in its evolution.

From the early days spent learning how to write television scripts and edit footage for a music video show “nobody watched”, Wilkins displayed a dogged desire to pursue the career he truly wanted.

Indeed, he was the man with the mike – in precisely the right place at the right time – when the perfect role came up.

Former CPA Australia chief executive Alex Malley caught up with Wilkins, who stands “6 foot 3 with hair and heels” and has interviewed everyone from Madonna to Prince and Michael Jackson to Pink.

Malley: Richard, you were born in New Zealand and your father worked 30 years for BP. You’re coming up to 26 years in television. It seems that you two aren’t that different: You both pick a career and stick with it.

Wilkins: I’m enormously proud to be his son, but it seems so old school what he was doing and I’m doing the same thing. My dad was one of the four people who started BP, British Petroleum, in New Zealand, they were real pioneers.

I was brought up in a fairly austere, fairly conservative family. We’re all professionals. My grandfather, who was at Gallipoli, was a very successful dentist; he counted Sir Edmund Hilary as one of his patients. He liked to claim he had the first set of dentures to the top of Mount Everest. And he had various prime ministers and dignitaries who he counted among his patients.

We also had doctors and opticians in the family and right from a young age I was conditioned to think that I was going to be a lawyer, which I would have loved to have been – and would still love to do, actually.

Wilkins backstage with daughter Rebecca and Michael Jackson in Sydney in 1996

Wilkins backstage with daughter Rebecca and Michael Jackson in

Sydney in 1996

Malley: Up to the age of seven you were in the school choir and playing violin – you got a scholarship.

Wilkins: I started playing the violin when I was seven and singing in choirs. We moved from Auckland to Wellington when I was 10 and I went to a lovely prep school there. I was leader of the school orchestra, first violinist, solo choirboy and all that stuff. And then of course the strains of The Beatles came along and I couldn’t wait to ditch the violin. All I wanted to do was play in a rock ’n’ roll band.

Malley: That set the passion. But not long after school you met a girl and you both, without necessarily any plans, had a child?

Wilkins: There were no plans at all, but this 16-year-old schoolgirl succumbed to my charms – it was pretty slim pickings at the time, I think – and she announced a couple of months later that she was with child.

I did what I thought was the honourable thing and said “Well, we better get married, then” – to howls of dissent from family and friends. Adam was born, and he has Down Syndrome, so that set the path for an interesting and colourful life as a dad.

By that time I’d dropped out of university and started working at an abattoir to pay my way. I ended up going to teacher’s college. I would have loved to just follow my heart and become a musician, but right from the beginning I was always told you had to have something to fall back on.

When I was at teacher’s college I had a band going. It was an interesting period where I was mixing getting an education with a little bit of entrepreneurial activity. I had a number of irons in the fire and was waiting to see which one heated up and which one burned me. Adam’s mum and I parted ways around this time.

Malley: You have a resilient character. After that you came to Australia with a band that didn’t necessarily meet the market that you’d hoped.

Wilkins: We had some great nights, though! Some nights it was always a struggle and other nights you just opened your mouth and it poured out. Being in a band was just fantastic. Travelling around with a bunch of friends, making music, entertaining people.

Writing songs, creating something out of nothing, is amazingly satisfying. Those couple of years really gave me an insight into the business. I saw the business for what it was and appreciate enormously what it takes to do it.

Malley: It clearly appears that it gave you the strength and the resilience to do all the hard work to get to the point you’re at now.

With Run DMC for an MTV appearance in 1987

With Run DMC for an MTV appearance in 1987

Wilkins: When the band ultimately fell to bits I got a job as the promotions guy at Today FM, which was the new FM station in Sydney. I talked myself into that job, I figured I could do it and I did do it. Having a regular pay cheque was a bit of a novelty.

On another music video gig I used to do six nights a week for about six months, three hours a night, live to air with no one watching at all, but I loved it. It felt like what I wanted to do, it felt natural.

I notched up a lot of flying hours. It was fate, really, at the end of the day, because six months in I heard this MTV thing was launching in Australia. So I’d unwittingly done my apprenticeship learning to feel comfortable in front of a camera.

Malley: That’s a huge message for young people: you were preparing, you didn’t know what for, but you were doing what you loved and all of a sudden it’s in front of you with MTV launching in Australia.

Wilkins: A million people could have told me not to do it and I would still have done it. I’d prepared and a chance was sitting there waiting, and boom!

I knew what MTV was, but they hadn’t launched here or said who was going to sit in front of the camera and I made that my mission.I tracked people down, found out who it was, some bloke on Channel 9, and I got myself an audition. They made me write a script and deliver it to camera, which I’d been doing in the wilderness for six months.

I just knew I was going to get that job. It was the perfect job for me, it was a mix of everything I’d done, even the radio stuff – the marketing, the promos, the advertising, the sponsorships, all that including the music background and my love of television. I was very unsurprised when they called me and said I had the job, when every DJ and every actor in the country wanted a piece of that show.

Working for Channel 9 was like the ground floor of this big skyscraper and I was just thrilled to have a pass in the front door. I figured if I did it right and made the most of the opportunity, it could lay the platform for a career in television.

Malley: It is amazing what you can achieve when you back yourself…

Wilkins: Yes it is, and success feeds on success. I’m not suggesting for a second it’s been a smooth run. I’ve had endless doors slammed in my face – and for one reason or another, almost always without exception, it turned out that it wouldn’t have been right for me. They’re the bosses and they just might be right.

You need to be hungry and enthusiastic and passionate. You can’t ever lose that.

Malley: Tell me about the importance of a team to your success. How important is it to surround yourself with good people?

Wilkins: It’s paramount. Us on-camera mobs get far more of the credit or the blame than we really deserve. We’ve got terrific management at Nine and it’s a company that leads from the top. At the Today show we’ve got a new executive producer [EP]. Our last EP, Tom Malone, is now at 60 Minutes.

Tom’s a brilliant guy, probably the best people person I’ve ever met – he’s incredible. Neil Breen, who used to be at The Sunday Telegraph [in Sydney] is our new EP and he’s a great leader also.

"Surround yourself with positive people ... and it brings out the best in you. Don’t let the turkeys get you down." — Richard Wilkins

He’s got new ideas and brings a new and different energy to the show. It’s a terrific bunch of people and we all know that the sum is greater than the parts. We’re very supportive of each other.

I want to be the best at what I do and I really aspire to do a great job all the time.

Malley: How do you deal with setbacks?

Wilkins: It’s good to be honest with yourself about what happens as sometimes you try to gloss things over and pretend it didn’t happen. But I think you do need to go, “Damn it, I really wanted that job.”

If you believe in what you’re all about, then you need to believe it wasn’t meant to be.

I’ve always figured there are some things you can control and some you can’t and there’s no point in worrying about the things you can’t.

Stuff happens, but you deal with it. If doors slam in your face, provided you’re confident you gave it your best shot, there’s no point in getting bent out of shape.

Surround yourself with positive people. I find it so energising working with smart people, with people at the top of their game. Deal with good, decent people and it brings out the best in you.

Don’t let the turkeys get you down. Be a good person and money and success are by‑products of knowing your product, believing in your product and loving your product.

Wilkins with CPA Australia chief executive Alex Malley | Photo: Graham Jepson

Wilkins with CPA Australia chief executive Alex Malley

Photo: Graham Jepson

How the industry has changed

"The world seems smaller and smaller by the day. Movies used to be made in Hollywood and you used to have to go to some very expensive recording studio somewhere for three months to make music. It’s so different now.

You have records being made in kids’ bedrooms and uploaded on to YouTube. You have acts like PSY breaking out of South Korea and becoming the most-played video in YouTube history.

You’ve got shows like The Voice and Australia’s Got Talent that are changing the way [musicians make their mark] – you used to have to put your band together and play gigs all around the country and try to get a record deal. Now the rules are completely different."

The Prince of integrity

“I’d been trying to get a Prince interview for years, he’s a genius. He doesn’t really do interviews, wisely, and he should never do another one. That whole mystique thing works for him.

So I was sitting in this tiny little room with Prince and the New Power Generation [his band] – the whole lot of them – and it was a ghastly interview. I started off talking to the others, then threw a couple at Prince – he gave just ‘yes’, ‘no’ answers

Finally, after about 10 minutes, he said, ‘Can we just take a pause in this interview? Come with me, Richard.’ We went to his dressing room and he said, ‘I’m so terrible at this, I’m reminded why I don’t do interviews’ and he just started talking about stuff, including why he’d split from his record label, why he once had ‘slave’ written on his face and why he changed his name to the symbol. I was fascinated and we were chatting away about Jehovah’s Witnesses, his life and relationships – the whole nine yards.

When we walked out of his dressing room I realised I still had my mike on and the whole conversation was on tape. The sound recordist presented me with a copy at the end of the day.

I kept it, but I couldn’t use it. It would have been selling him out and, yeah, I would have got some headlines and got a good run in the music press around the world, but I wouldn’t have slept well. My integrity would have been out the window.”

This article is from the July 2013 issue of INTHEBLACK magazine

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