Apart from wanting to be a sports journalist, prominent AFL media identity Andy Maher admits that he’s ‘never had an ambition’ in his professional life. His career, which he proudly declares as ‘one happy accident after another’, began in 1986 with the weekly football magazine Inside Football. From there, Maher moved to The Age, before expanding his horizons into radio and television, where he now presents breakfast radio program Morning Glory on SEN, while also hosting soccer program Fox Sports FC and AFL show Before the Game.
Maher has seen the sports media landscape change dramatically throughout the course of his career, having witnessed the transition of the sports media from something with relatively minimal television coverage to an entrenched part of the 24-hour news cycle. Even after working in the sports industry for so long, Maher still regards what he is doing as a great privilege.
You’re one of the most recognisable faces in football media. Tell me a little about where the journey began.
I can’t even remember wanting to do something other than what I’m doing now, not necessarily radio or TV, but writing about sport. The journey started when I was 13 or 14 years old and I saw the movie The Odd Couple. Oscar Madison was one of the key characters and all he did was talk sport. From that point on, I decided that was what I wanted to do. All the things I got involved in from then on, writing for school newspapers, university newspapers and so on, was geared towards becoming a journalist. I was never a very good journalist, but I got by in the early stages.
Where were your first forays into football journalism?
I was half way through the last year of my university degree at Deakin University and I was offered a job writing movie reviews for a magazine called The Video Age, which was a part of the Fairfax Group. Fairfax also owned a few sports magazines, one of which was Inside Football, so I just badgered the editor, a guy called Tony Greenberg, until he let me write match reports for the magazine. I didn’t get paid for it, but after about six months of writing match reports I became a staff writer. That was in 1986.
In what ways has the football media changed in your 26 years in the industry?
The proliferation. The growth has been astronomical. For example, back then a paper like Inside Football was still relevant in terms of its ability to break stories. Those days are gone now. Now there are a lot accredited journalists and media outlets, there are 24-hour sports radio stations and there’s a 24-hour AFL channel on Foxtel. These things weren’t around in 1986, and even the television coverage then was minimal. The explosion of the football media, particularly in Melbourne, has been phenomenal.
The scrutiny on footballers and people involved in the football industry has obviously increased, but so to has their profile and pay. Is this scrutiny justified?
No, I don’t think it is. I can understand why it happens, because we’re a hungry society and we’re often titillated by what a famous person does nocturnally. The footballer has changed because of the growth in the media and the game. They’ve gone from being just a footballer, to now being a footballer-celebrity. Personally, I don’t like it and I think there are lines that we cross all the time in the way we cover any story, in any form of media. You can look at the Craig Thomson situation at the moment, and whether you like him or not I think some of the coverage of that story has been disgraceful. Footballers are subject to similar levels of scrutiny nowadays, and sometimes it can be great because you get to know a bit about the person, but often it’s way more than should be reported.
You started in print before you moved on to television and radio. Is there any one field you prefer over the other?
Radio, by a considerable margin as well! You don’t have to shave, you don’t have to dress well, and you don’t have to put socks on! But in all seriousness, I love the immediacy of it. If important news breaks, all you need is a phone and you can be covering it straight away. In television, you have to get a cameraman, live links, audio and so on, but in radio, if you’ve got a phone line, you can get to the news straight away. I also enjoy the interaction between the presenters and the audience. It’s a much more connected medium than the other two. Print is by far the hardest of the three mediums, and television is completely different altogether
Having such a high profile as a sports journalist opens you up to criticism from fans and even other journalists. How do you deal with this?
I think anybody who says it doesn’t affect them when they’re beginning is lying. But in saying that, you learn to develop a thick skin. More often than not, you have to realise that a lot of people would like to be doing what you’re doing. Occasionally, you get exposed to some abuse that is way beyond what is fair or reasonable, but you just learn to deal with it. If somebody said they didn’t like me early in my career in particularly colourful language, it’d take me days to get over it. Nowadays though, it’s like water off a duck’s back.
You made arguably your bravest move this year by fronting Fox Sports FC. By your own admission, you learnt about soccer during your time on the show. Was there any particular aspect of the game that surprised you?
In terms of the way I was received, nothing surprised me. I think the people at Fox Sports were hoping for someone from outside the soccer sphere to come in and open the show up to some viewers who perhaps wouldn’t have watched the show, and to provoke an emotive response from soccer fans. I’d often get critical tweets from soccer fans who dislike AFL, but I think that’s the reaction that Fox Sports were hoping for. I was however surprised by the league itself. Being a Melbourne boy, I normally just kept a watch of Melbourne Heart and Melbourne Victory, but as I started watching more of the league I realised that soccer in this country – when played well – was much better than I ever gave it credit for. Working on the show also made absolutely clear to me the importance of a viable professional competition in this country.
Having developed close relationships with figures inside the sports industry over the years, how important do you regard your off-the-record chats with them?
Off-the-record chats are the most important. They lead you to the stories. I’d probably have about twenty people who – no matter what the (AFL) story of the day is – I can call and get a solid background to the story, and I trust them and believe what they tell me. What you do with the information is up to you, and sometimes it’s impossible to do anything with it, but the information received from people you trust who are involved in the game at a more profound level than you are is invaluable.
With Channel Ten not covering the AFL, were you tempted to look elsewhere to continue being a part of match day AFL coverage?
No, not really. There was an approach from somewhere else that would’ve been attractive if all the stars aligned so to speak, but I’m very happy remaining at Channel Ten. Before The Game is a show that everybody who works on is emotionally committed to, and we all decided that if Channel Ten kept the show on, we’d all stay. It’s a show that we’re all proud of. It doesn’t take itself seriously at all, but it’s got a unique place in the football landscape.
To the outsider, it doesn’t seem like there’s a lot more that you can do. Do you have any future ambitions?
I say this with my hand on my heart: I have never had an ambition in my life. The one thing I was hoping sport would let me do one day was go to Augusta for the US Masters Golf Tournament, which I would’ve done even if I wasn’t working in the sports media. Other than wanting to be a sports writer, I’ve never had an ambition in my life. I never had an ambition to work in radio or television; I’ve just met people along the way who’ve allowed me to do what I’ve done. My working life has been one happy accident after another. I think there’s too much ambition with young guys coming through the caper today. It’s a privilege to work in this industry and I’ve always treated it as such.
Stefan Paoli is a Master of Global Communications student at La Trobe University.