Interview - Debbie Kruger

Interview: Debbie Kruger, Public Relations Wiz, Journalist, Broadcaster & Author: 12th July 2003

Media Man Australia interviews once of Australia's most knowledgeable, and experienced music industry and public relations figures, Debbie Kruger.

What's your background?

It's been pretty diverse. As a teenager I was a devoted music fan and concert-goer but at university fell in love with theatre and the serious "Arts". I dropped out of a Communications degree course deciding that I didn't want to be a journalist, opting instead for a general BA. I also got myself an MA in Theatre Studies. But it turned out the best way I could be a part of the arts industry in Australia was to write about it, so I got into journalism to be a part of an industry rather than to be a journalist. It just happened that I could write well. Brief abridged resume, then: First job was in 1985-86 as membership officer at the Australian Writers Guild where I got to work with people like David Williamson, then moved into freelance journalism, then to staff writer with Variety newspaper in Sydney and London, then to more freelance journalism. Moved to Byron Bay in early '90s and started my own PR business doing work for arts organisations in the Byron/Lismore region and then the Biennial International Music Festival in Brisbane and the Brisbane International Film Festival. Also presented a radio show, "Debbie Does Breakfast," on the local Byron station, BAY FM, on and off for six years. Went to live in Los Angeles in the late '90s to immerse myself in the music scene there, then went back to Byron for a while and then in 2000 came back to Sydney to work with the Australasian Performing Right Association (APRA) as its Manager of Communications and Public Affairs while still dabbling in freelance journalism and a bit of freelance PR on the side. Left APRA in the first quarter of 2003 and am now writing a book.

What are the highlights of your career?

There have been lots of highlights so far. On the journalistic side, my biggest achievement was spending a day with one of the artists I most admire, Linda Ronstadt, at her home in Tucson, Arizona in 1998. I interviewed her for a story in The Australian. I turned up with five pages of typed questions and she answered everything. It was probably the most complete experience I have ever had meeting and interviewing an artist. Second only to that was sitting down with the two chief songwriters in the group Chicago, Robert Lamm and James Pankow, in LA in 1999 and interviewing them for a couple of American magazines. The guys were so impressed with my knowledge and understanding of their work that Lamm actually suggested I write a book about the group. It didn't happen, but that's another story…

On the PR side there have been two highlights. The first was working with Chanticleer, a group of choral singers from San Francisco, on the Biennial International Festival of Music in Brisbane in 1997. I created something of a publicity blitz for them in a very short period of time and bonded with the group on a personal level. A few of them are still very dear friends of mine and I see them whenever I am in California. The second and biggest highlight was doing the publicity on the APRA Music Awards in 2001 when we announced the Ten Best Australian Songs as part of APRA's 75th anniversary celebrations. It was the biggest PR campaign I've ever done - although I had no idea it was going to turn out so big when I started. It just captured the imagination of music lovers all over the country and although it was no surprise when "Friday on My Mind" was announced as the number one song, it was a lot of fun watching the media whip themselves into a frenzy trying to guess what all ten songs might be. Working with all the songwriters on the list was a terrific experience, too.

What are you best well known for?

That depends who you talk to. In the music industry in Australia I'm known mainly for my PR work. Although I think of myself more as a PR whiz than a journalist these days, other people still think of me primarily as a writer. In Byron Bay I'm Debbie who did breakfast on radio for several years. My dog knows me best as the one who feeds and walks her every day.

How did you get your break?

I've had different breaks at different times in my career, but the first was in 1985 when Wayne Harrison at the Sydney Theatre Company commissioned me to write some program notes for an STC production of Moliere's The Misanthrope. It was the first time I got paid to display my extensive knowledge of something. Much later on in my career when rock music and Los Angeles were all I cared about, hooking up with legendary photographer Henry Diltz was a huge break as he introduced me to a lot of people and helped me get closer to the experience of LA that I wanted.

How did the 2SM gig come about?

I didn't work for 2SM - I just listened to it avidly from 1975 to 1983 and documented that period lovingly on my website.

When and why did 2SM "lose the plot"?

Ahh, well… Some time in 1979 when all the top jocks started jumping ship, and then in 1980 when they got rid of Barry Chapman. But the advent of FM radio really sealed its fate, because 2SM had always been about the music and then these new stations came along playing the music in stereo. End of story, really.

What media outlets did you most enjoy working for, and why?

I haven't worked on staff for that many outlets as most of my work has been freelance, but I guess my three years writing for Variety in Sydney were the most enjoyable of my journalism career. It was the high-flying '80s and I was writing about the television and radio industries at a time when media ownership rules were changing and the main players were changing. Interviewing Skase, Lowy et al was interesting to say the least. At the time I was really into theatre and the arts, so the most enjoyable part of being Variety's Sydney correspondent was covering the live theatre beat. In those pre-internet days, I was the only Australian theatre reviewer writing about Australian theatre for an international readership. The opening nights were fantastic - the most memorable being the first night of Les Miserable in 1987 - and it was a great social life for a single girl in her twenties. I then spent a year working for Variety in its London bureau but that was a less enjoyable experience. The new editor, Peter Bart, was one of the least pleasant people I ever worked for.

What motivates you?

I have to be creatively stimulated in my work. When I'm not, I am miserable.

What aspects of the media and entertainment business do you like the most, and why?

Dealing with the media and working with artists. In my PR guise I love giving the media a great story and seeing them run with it (eg Ten Best Australian Songs) and earning their respect for dealing in a professional way while having fun with them. And whether I'm doing an interview as a writer or handling an artist with my PR hat on, I really enjoy making a connection with that artist and, in the best instances, getting a real buzz from their passion for their artistry.

What do you prefer to write about and why?

Music. Especially songwriters. It's just what turns me on the most at this stage of my life.

What do you like about interviewing people?

Making a connection. Spending time in the company of someone creative. Hearing them tell their story. Hopefully finding out something that nobody knew before. Occasionally making a new friend. I interviewed Nicole Kidman in 1986 when she was only 18 and although I was five years older we became very close friends for some years. I went to her wedding in Telluride. All because of an interview I did with her.

How did you make a positive difference to the often questioned public relations industry?

I've never really seen myself as being a part of the "pubic relations industry." I've been a part of the entertainment industry with PR as my best talent. So I don't think I've made a difference to the PR industry but hopefully I've done some valuable things to enhance the entertainment industry along the way.

What are your current projects?

I'm spending most of my time at the moment writing a book about Australian songwriters, for publication in late 2004.

Who are or were your mentors?

My first mentor was Wayne Harrison, who was first the Dramaturg and then the Director of the Sydney Theatre Company. He recognised my talents and burning ambition to work on the literary side of theatre and gave me my first paid work in the arts, and he is still a great friend, although our interests have diverged, with him running around the world producing and directing plays, and me being focused on music. Justin Fleming, a playwright and author whom I befriended at my first job with the Australian Writers Guild has been a long-time friend and mentor. At the moment my greatest mentor is probably Paul Zollo, a journalist and author in Los Angeles, from whom I have learned a great deal about interviewing songwriters and who I'm very proud to call a friend.

Who have been your biggest supporters?

My mother, my high school friends, and people like Justin Fleming and Paul Zollo. At the moment I have a great deal of support from music media heavyweights like Christie Eliezer of Billboard magazine and Phil Tripp from Immedia!, who really give a shit about what I am doing.

What style of music do you prefer and why?

I love rock and pop music, and my greatest affection is for classic rock, especially where strong harmonies are involved. American music from the 1960s and 1970s is my big love, but I enjoy a lot of contemporary artists from America and Australia - I just have to dig through a lot of current crap to find something good.

What are your favourite songs and bands of all time?

Favourite song is "Desperado" written by Don Henley and Glenn Frey, as performed by the Eagles. After that there are too many to name.

My favourite band is Chicago, whose early albums were incredibly groundbreaking and cutting edge. After them comes the Eagles, and then in no particular order are Heart, Queen, Bee Gees, Little River Band, Doobie Brothers, Crosby Stills & Nash (& Young), Beach Boys, Sherbet, Cold Chisel and Venice (a contemporary group from LA). Solo artists I admire include Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, Eddi Reader, and dozens more.

What do you find most admirable about Doug Mulray? (I am a big fan also, having recently interviewed Doug, in what many people are calling my best telephone interview to date).

Uncle Doug was doing stuff on radio in the 1980s that was so audacious and so clever that one couldn't help but admire him. He is incredibly smart and so many people in the media just aren't as smart as they ought to be. It's often a thankless task to be really smart in a country that still prides itself on a "football, meat pies" mentality, where foot-in-the-door current affairs rates so highly, and breakfast radio now consists of morons making moronic jokes.

Do you know why Jon English never received the accolades many think he deserved?

No, I have no idea. I don't think he was underrated in his heyday, but I do think he is underrated in retrospect. He seems to get left out when nostalgia programs and tours are put together. I think his performance as Judas in the original Australian production of Jesus Christ Superstar still goes down as among the greatest performances in Australian musical theatre history.

Does the Australian Rock industry deserve its tough reputation, and it that a good thing?

I didn't know it had a "tough" reputation, but it is a very male-dominated industry where pub rock rules, so that really explains it all. There aren't too many women in powerful positions in the industry. A good book to read is Stuart Coupe's The Promoters, which just focuses on the area of concert promoting but serves as a pretty accurate indicator of what you're talking about.

What is the largest audience that you ever performed to, and in what fashion?

Probably my journalism work, writing for Variety, which is read all over the world, or for major newspapers in Australia.

What's your view on once legendary Australian bands playing the RSL club circuit in NSW?

I think the "Long Way To The Top" tour proved that there is a huge market for baby-boomer-aged bands and artists, and if the media would get off its high horse and acknowledge that it is perfectly okay for older bands to still be performing and recording, then they could probably play larger venues and sell tickets. "LWTTT" gave the baby boomers permission to go and see the old bands in a big venue, but usually the media don't allow that to happen through their derisive attitudes. Radio is especially to blame. Many of the great artists from the '60s, '70s and '80s are writing and recording great work, but radio won't play it. James Reyne, for example, put out an album a couple of years ago that was really inspired. But when he did the rounds of all the radio stations for interviews, all they would play was "Errol" and "Reckless." It understandably drove him mad.

How much influence did Glenn Wheatley have on John Farnham's career, and in what way?

That's a whole story of its own and not for me to tell it, but yes, of course Wheatley had a huge influence on Farnham's career. He mortgaged his house to fund the making of the Whispering Jack album. Enough said.

What are your thoughts on the contribution made by Glenn A Baker?

Glenn A is a guru. He's the guy everyone always goes to for an opinion on anything musical in Australia, and he is also a phenomenal self-promoter, so it's easy to knock him - in that tall poppy Australian way of not liking people who get too good at something and aren't modest about it. Modesty is a highly overrated quality. I say all power to him. Glenn's been very good to me and supportive of my work in recent years.

What "big stars" have helped you in your career?

I don't think any stars have helped me as such, except indirectly by inspiring me and enabling me to do great work.

What did you most enjoy about traveling abroad?

Being somewhere else and feeling like I was a part of the fabric of another place. My cultural heart resides in Los Angeles so the times I've been there, either as a resident or as a visitor, have been glorious. What I enjoy most about being there is that I can freely relish music that is still thriving no matter how old it is, whereas in Australia, where I am so far away from it, my tastes are disparaged by people who think that the latest grungy band from wherever is all that matters. In America there is room for everyone with all tastes and I appreciate that. Apart from that, the shopping is so much better when you're overseas!

What is a little known fact about you?

I'm very open about myself and have a very extensive website so there aren't really any secrets. Nothing I want to share here, anyway.


Editors note: An amazing, entertaining and educational interview, by a great talent in the Australian entertainment, public relations and music industry! Can't wait to read her book.


Debbie Kruger official website

Bay FM

The Basement official website (Doug Mulray's brainchild)

Ian MacRae Radio School

Australian Performing Rights Association

2PRFM: A history of Sydney commercial radio in the 1980s

Milesago APRA 75th Birthday Bash

Long Way To The Top: ABC website tribute