For someone as down-to-earth, natural and modest as Rafael Epstein, it’s interesting to hear about the letter that launched his journalism career. Riffing on the first paragraph of the Italo Calvino novel If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, in 1994 Epstein’s wife drafted the covering letter to attach to Epstein’s job application.
“My letter said ‘Sit down, relax, tell the others to go away; you are about to read the letter that launches Rafael Epstein’s great career. Twenty years from now you will be able to tell them you started (this) …’ Tremendously arrogant. Did it in colour type. You gotta get noticed.”
It worked. Epstein, straight out of university, won a cadetship at the ABC in Sydney. Eighteen years later here he is, sitting at his favourite St Kilda East café, talking about how he came to be the host of Drive on 774 and re-version the influential slot to reflect his obsession with news.
Epstein, who took over from Lindy Burns this year, has shaped Drive to reflect his passion for news. “It did cover the main news of the day in the past,” he says, “but I took the view that if it’s going to be me then it’s going to be my passion, and I’m a real news addict.”
Epstein has done wonders for the show. He takes no nonsense from his interviewees, refusing to be cowed by their aggression or failure to address his questions; he brings a news journalist’s steel to his presentation – but always with a sense of humour, too. And he’s introduced some very effective new segments, such as new music presented by Zan Rowe of Triple J, and Fight Club, an illuminating debate between the two sides of politics (unlike the current federal parliament). It’s a good mix.
“The idea that I’m a custodian I take very seriously,” he says. “Where I kick myself is the question I didn’t ask, or the nuance I haven’t picked up or the detail I haven’t hammered home … What I really want to do, the big mountain to climb, is to really bring home to people more detail, more context and more of a killer question.”
Epstein grew up in Carlton, the son of Dr Joe Epstein – “an over-achiever in emergency medicine … You walk into an emergency [facility] basically anywhere in the country and say your name’s Epstein they’ll say ‘Is Joe Epstein your father?’ – and Jan Epstein, who worked as a journalist at The Jewish News before moving into movie reviewing and documentary making.
At school Rafael did science and maths “because they were easy and you had to think less and do less homework”. By year 9 or 10 “I’d do my homework
in class, and in HSC I studied on the tram on the way home”.
This meant he could devote time to his passions: movie posters, comic books and pinball. “I spent the last four years at school working in the local supermarket/deli purely so I could buy movie posters,” he says. Whatever money he had left he spent on comics and pinball: “Marvel Comics – X-Men, Daredevil, Wolverine – all the comics that have come back into fashion now. All of those were huge cultural moments for me.”
He sought rare movie posters. “My father helped me create aluminium racks on the walls. My bedroom was covered – even on the roof – with posters, original lobby release posters for The Right Stuff, Platoon, A Clockwork Orange, and the original Star Wars. Sometimes he’d hook into a rarity, which he did with one Star Wars poster; down the bottom it says ‘Coming Soon: Revenge of the Jedi’, which is a collectors’ item because of course film was later changed to Return of the Jedi. Because Jedi can’t feel revenge; that’s giving in to anger.”
At school he hated sport. “I was the only boy in my school who didn’t play sport.” He was more interested in arcade games, and on weekends he would head into the arcade game centres on Russell Street.
“I spent all of the money I earned on arcade games,” he says. “We’d go out on weekends and I remember spending $50 or $60 in an evening, which actually took a long time. Heavily into pinball as well.”
Whip-smart and curious, Epstein filled out a careers survey while studying at Melbourne University. “The woman said ‘I think you should be a journalist, you fit the profile’.
“I do remember at the age of 13 [I thought] I’d like to be a journalist, barrister or movie director. I did a work placement for a week with (barrister) Robert Richter on a murder trial in year 10, which I found really interesting. My parents constantly discouraged me from doing law because they thought I wouldn’t like it.”
He wrote for the Melbourne University newspaper Farrago, Australia-Israel Review magazine and did volunteer stints on radio Triple R. Then, in 1995, he “fell into a cadetship at the ABC”. “I couldn’t swear to the figures but 1000 applications; two jobs.”
For 15 years Epstein pursued his passion for news and current-affairs broadcasting, working for the ABC programs AM, PM and The World Today. He loved news and current-affairs broadcasting, “so much so that my wife called it my mistress”.
He covered some of the biggest stories of the times – the Thredbo landslide, the East Timor vote for independence, the 2000 Olympics, the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, the 2005 London bombings. He has won two Walkley awards for journalism, one (with The Age’s Nick McKenzie) for reports on the links between police and Melbourne’s underworld wars, and one for his coverage of the failings of the Australian Federal Police after they arrested Mohammed Hanif, the Indian-born doctor charged over his connections to the failed bombings in London and Glasgow in 2007.
“I’ve covered horrible stories, the worst of which was an earthquake in Pakistan where tens of thousands of people died.”
He covered the Black Saturday bushfires in 2009 and got into trouble after deliberately entering an area he knew to be restricted by the coroner. “I apologised and paid a fine, which was passed to Strathewen Primary School,” he says.
Reflecting on the incident now, Epstein says it was “actually incredibly anxiety-inducing”.
“The potential for that sort of scrutiny I found very very scary,” he says. “I was continually thinking about having to walk past cameras and go into court, doing the ‘perp walk’. I’m not sure why I found that so intimidating. It was a horrible experience. Lasted a year.
“Of course I regretted it. We’d all done it, dozens of us had done it. Someone had reported for the AM program, (on the ABC) for a week from the middle of Kinglake. I had conversations with police every day that I’d been up there, ‘What are you doing here?’, ‘Came round a road block’, ‘Oh yeah, you know, be careful, be considerate, don’t go onto anyone’s land unless you’re invited.’
“So I’d done that again and again and again. This time was different because the coroner had changed the legal situations around the roadblocks. So do I regret doing it? I do. It certainly upset some people, and that’s the last thing I ever intended with my journalism.”
Epstein spent two years at The Age working with Nick McKenzie and Richard Baker on the investigative unit until December last year. “I loved it a lot,” he says. “I’d done 15 years of news and current-affairs broadcasting, so it was a good shift.”
But a tough one. “It’s really hard. Finding your own story. It was the first time in my life I was looking for stories totally on my own, developing contacts, developing stories … spotting the cracks in the main story that nobody else could spot was really hard.
“I was working next to prolific story-getters – a lot of pressure. In some ways it’s the most high-pressure job in the paper because you’ve got to pull out a corker … well you’ve got to pull out a good one every month and a corker each year and that’s really hard.”
Epstein knows the role was a privilege. “Investigative units are more rare than they used to be. I felt a huge responsibility to be in one of those rare pockets of journalism left over where I was given complete autonomy. No one ever said ‘Where’s a story?’.”
Does he miss being on the road? “A little. I am very conscious of the artificial nature of the environment (as presenter). I love being on big stories. Now I do the big story in another way.”
Former ABC colleague Jill Meagher’s death was devastating within the ABC. “Jill worked two or three metres way,” Epstein says. “I didn’t know her well. Spoke to her every day.”
When he returned from a week’s holiday his colleagues were shattered. “People fell into my arms weeping, people who I’ve never touched before,” he says. “People I’ve never had a personal conversation with before. I’ve never hugged that many people in my workplace, ever, in 18 years of professional life.”
Epstein is married and has two boys aged 10 and eight. The boys have been into dad’s work, even interviewing Jeff Kinney, the author of the best-selling books Diary of a Wimpy Kid. “They loved it,” he says.
They are used to having a famous dad. Young Raf got a taste of it when he was small. “I lived in England for three years, between three and six (years old) and dad went on TV for a debate and we took a picture. ‘Oh my God, someone we know is on the television’.
“I don’t think it’s all that novel (for my children) that I’m on the radio. My sons have asked me a few times this year ‘Are you famous?’. I tell them I’m well known but I’m not nearly as well known as Lady Gaga. Last time I checked she had 22 million followers. Obama is only on two or three million and I’m on about 2500.
“I want them to have some idea (about current affairs). They might get a bit bored. I take them through why the page-three story is on page three … They would have heard about the mining tax and carbon pricing, Tony Abbott, Julia Gillard; we have those conversations.”
Epstein and his wife meditate five or six mornings from 5.45 for half an hour. I asked what he gets out of this. “Stability, peace of mind and a bit of a data dump … I know that if I don’t do it the brain moves too quickly and I can’t find that bit of serenity of silence during the day … If I don’t do it my brain spins out of control. The thoughts take over. In our lives we move so quickly and think so fast and don’t feel deeply enough.”
Epstein keeps fit cycling to work every day. Living in Sydney, his passion was ocean swimming. “Harder to do here. Still one of the greatest pleasures of my life.”
Is he ever worried about sharks? “A little bit, but that’s why it’s fun. It’s very human to fear dark, deep water but embracing that fear every time is tremendous. My idea of a perfect day used to be lead story on AM, swim across the bay and a good meal. And I think if I could achieve that, that’s perfection.”
Now, as presenter, pulling the show together, he has different dreams. And, if quality is the measure, they seem to be coming true.