Niav Owens tuned to right frequency in sports radio career

RISING STAR: Niav Owens has established an accomplished media career since starting at 1233 ABC in 2007.
RISING STAR: Niav Owens has established an accomplished media career since starting at 1233 ABC in 2007.

EVERYONE who lived in Newcastle and the Hunter Valley during the 2007 Pasha Bulker Storm knows where they were when they heard that the 40,000-tonne Panamanian carrier had ran aground on Nobby’s Beach.

In the proceeding days, as flood waters ravaged the region, thousands of Novocastrians tuned into 1233 ABC Newcastle radio for rolling coverage of the disaster.

At the time Morpeth girl Niav Owens was a 20-year-old administration assistant at 1233, and was studying a combined Communications and Law degree at the University of Newcastle.

It was all hands on deck at the ABC as the east coast low hammered down and Owens was called on to file field reports from Morpeth, which was under threat from the swollen Hunter River.

The experience left a lasting impression on Owens and crystallised her passion for radio.

“That was my first real experience of the power of radio and the community that is built around radio and around the ABC, and that was while I was working on the reception desk as well,” Owens says.

Newcastle 1233 ABC would later win a Walkley Award for Best Use Of Media for their emergency Pasha Bulker coverage and Owens’ media career gathered steam.

I think it’s such a genuine medium and gives you such a lovely connection with your audience and it’s so versatile.

Niav Owens

Fast forward 11 years and Owens has long left the flood waters behind and swapped it for the sporting stadiums of Australia to become a media all-rounder on radio and television. 

These days the 31-year-old is based in Sydney and hosts ABC Grandstand’s Sunday NRL coverage, while also doubling as a reporter for Fox Sports News.

This year Owens also launched a communication training business for athletes, Media Goals, with ABC presenter Scott Rollinson.

Niav Owens TV show reel

All the while juggling life as a mother with her two-year-old daughter, Cara.

Despite her multiple work projects, radio remains her true passion.

“I absolutely love radio, I think it’s such a genuine medium and gives you such a lovely connection with your audience and it’s so versatile,” Owens says.

“All you need is your phone and you can head out to a game and record things.

“If you’re on the sideline you’ve just got your radio mike and it gives you the ability to go into different areas and immediate coverage that television can’t have.

“Television is such a beast and has so many different requirements, so it takes an army to get anything to air, whereas radio has that immediacy which I really like.”

Even the most cynical person would struggle not to be captivated by Owens’ enthusiasm for sport. She’s bubbly, thoughtful, passionate and engaging on and off air when talking about the various codes.

STARTING OUT: Niav Owens during her university days in 2008.

STARTING OUT: Niav Owens during her university days in 2008.

Friends of Owens say she can “talk your ear off” about a number of sports.

Growing up in Morpeth, Owens was sports mad. She played practically everything available. Tennis, cricket, soccer and volley ball as “the more sport you played the less you had to go to school.”

Tennis was her main calling and she represented NSW at the Primary Schools Sports Association level.

But her future rested with covering sport, rather than hitting forehand winners at Melbourne Park. When 1233 ABC visited Maitland Grossmann High School a 16-year-old Owens expressed interest in a work experience stint.

HOST: Niav Owens and Steve Waugh at the Steve Waugh Medal this year.

HOST: Niav Owens and Steve Waugh at the Steve Waugh Medal this year.

“I just thought what they did sounded awesome and a lot of fun and I had yarn with them afterwards and I went in and did some work experience with Craig Hamilton out at the cricket,” she says.

“The NSW Blues were playing at No.1 Sportsground when I went in for the week. I literally went out to the cricket every day and Hamo did his crosses into the radio and I just thought this is some way to make a living.”

Several years later when Owens returned to 1233 as an employee she reunited with Hamilton to help produce his weekend sports show and do sideline crosses at Newcastle Knights home games.

The big break came in 2012 when Owens was selected for the ABC TV’s 12-month female broadcasting internship.

“A lot of the female sports broadcasters you see on the TV or radio now came through that internship,” Owens says.

“One female was selected each year and I got that in 2012 and did that for 12 months and absolutely loved it and got to cover lots of different sports and the Paralympics and W-League and the Shute Shield rugby in Sydney.

“It really started me down the track of focusing on sport, and ever since sport has been my main focus.”

The days of sports broadcasting being a boys club are over.

Presenters like Kelli Underwood, Mel McLaughlin, Yvonne Sampson, Lucy Zelić and Erin Molan have become some of the most recognisable personalities in the sports media over the past decade.

“There’s certainly more female broadcasters these days, it’s not rare anymore, which is awesome,” Owens says. 

“We’re just going to continue to see that growth.

“I love the fact that it’s not common to be the only female at a press conference or you’re the only female sports broadcaster in a team. 

“That’s a really great thing that we’re getting more used to hearing female voices talking about sport and even calling sport.

“That’s the next bastion that female broadcasters have to tackle.”

However, elements of sexism continue to linger in the sports media. 

McLaughlin was famously involved in an awkward interview with Chris Gayle during the Big Bash League in 2016 when the West Indian batsman invited her out for a drink live on air and commented on her eyes before saying “don’t blush baby.”

Recently Zelić has copped abuse on social media about her appearance for daring to pronounce foreign names correctly during SBS coverage of the FIFA World Cup. 

However, Owens says she’s never had to endure any sexism from either athletes or sports fans.

“I’ve always found athletes and people to be super respectful, to be honest, and really listen to what you say and give you that opportunity, and if you’re contributing, to treat you with respect,” she says.

Some of the broadcasters who have had the biggest influence on Owens’ career are women. 

They include her former 1233 colleague Simone Thurtell and veteran journalists Debbie Spillane and Tracey Holmes.

“When I was young I used to listen to them on weekends on Grandstand and I thought that they just had such an awesome job and were such great broadcasters and storytellers,” she says.

“They were people I really admired and enjoyed listening to and they were real trail-blazers in terms of female sports broadcasters.”

Owens is perhaps a trail-blazer herself for young Hunter girls hoping to crack the competitive sports broadcasting market? 

But ever the modest country girl, it’s a question the normally talkative Owens is less comfortable in answering.

“I think the player is the story, I’m just the conduit which they can tell their story to the audience,” she says.

“Hopefully young girls these days see such a breath of opportunities and they realise they can achieve and set their minds on whatever their passion is about.”