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Mad about radio
by Akshita Nanda

Headphones on, hands on the console, eyes scanning four screens of music tracks and audio controls, Maddy Barber belts out the chorus of Cruise by Florida George. She is ready to wrap up another morning show for radio station Kiss92 FM.

"I got my windows down and the radio up," she sings along with the track on air, segueing smoothly into her final patter and cueing in co-hosts Jason Johnson and Arnold Gay.

After 19 years in radio and media, the 40-year-old DJ has good reason to be loud and proud of it.

She is assistant programme director of Kiss92, which means her stamp is on its playlist. Her girl-next-door charm and relatable on-air persona are among the reasons why the SPH UnionWorks station has listeners tuning in longer than other English-language stations here.

According to the latest Nielsen Radio Diary Survey, listeners have Kiss92 on for nine hours 39 minutes in total every week, 90 minutes more than Gold90.5FM, the second-ranked English-language station.

Kiss92, which targets women aged 30 to 50, has also more than doubled its outreach since it launched in September 2012, pulling in 485,000 listeners a week. This is the third highest outreach for English-language stations in Singapore, below 621,000 for Class95 and 539,000 for Gold90.5FM.

Something about Barber's assertive, talkative nature strikes a chord, even if she does bully shy callers on air, urging them to speak up, while her co-hosts squirm at her self-proclaimed "not-so- encouraging tone".

She has come a long way from the greenhorn 20something who landed a job at MediaCorp's 98.7FM in the mid-1990s and it has not been easy.

Married since 2005 to IT consultant Wez Barber, 36, with whom she has an eight-year-old daughter, Alicia, she juggled career with being a single mother for 10 years. She declines to talk about the father of her 17-year-old daughter Elizabeth.

A former colleague remembers that Barber never let the pressure at home or work get to her, even as she waddled around the office, several months pregnant and wearing a batik print muu-muu.

Ms Corinne Ng, 40, who founded online Asian designer boutique, started out as a copywriter at MediaCorp and often worked with Barber.

"She's gone through many challenges in her personal life and her career, but never would you see her feeling depressed about it," she says. "That kind of tenacity is inspiring."

The New Paper writer and current co-host Johnson, 46, teases Barber in the studio about her loud voice and tendency to belt out soul anthems such as Let It Go from Disney film Frozen. Later, however, he takes this reporter aside to say how much he owes his colleague. Barber had interviewed him as a guest in the past and 17 months ago, roped him in for Maddy, Jason & Arnold In The Morning.

"I was just hunkered down, writing till the day I die, but she has brought me out of my shell, given me this career opportunity, given me a new lease on life," he says. "She's been very encouraging and just taken me up to another level with her."

Kiss92 DJ John Klass has worked on and off with Barber since they co-hosted a morning show for 98.7FM in 1996 and says: "With Maddy, what you hear and what you see is what you get. It's been like that since day one and it's really refreshing that she's still like that today. She's honest, she's bubbly, she means well."

Her passion for her work and easy-going personality allow listeners and colleagues to gloss over the verbal goofs and gaffes which have lessened but not disappeared over the years. She might trip over words - "Irresponsive? Unresponsive?" - and on occasion gets the names or titles of her guests wrong.

Ms Ng wrote ad copy for Barber to speak on air back in MediaCorp and says: "She got it wrong nine times out of 10, but it's okay, I just got a guy to edit it out."

"Maddy gets it wrong more often than anyone," Johnson says in a separate interview at the Kiss92 studio. "Yesterday she was trying to say something and we had no idea what it was."

"That's when we'll look at each other and go: 'Huh?'," adds co-host Gay, 46, while the woman they call their "erratic commander" leans back in her chair, laughing.

"You come to a certain age when you say: 'It doesn't matter whether I'm pronouncing these words wrongly, I'm just going to say this,'," she declares. "When you have fun, your listeners have fun."

She takes the teasing in good spirit. "When you work together as closely as we do, it's like a marriage. I wake up with them, not my husband."

The early bird gets up at 4am, hosts the show from 6 to 10am and is in bed by 9pm most days. She accepts the erratic schedule as part of the job of a "jock" (short for disc jockey).

"I always wanted to be a DJ on radio. Always," she says. "I love music."

Off the air, she listens to old-school jazz from Ella Fitzgerald and Miles Davis, easy tunes from Tony Bennett and 1920s dance music from Shanghai. She was brought up on Elvis Presley and The Beatles thanks to her father, Mr Moses Tan, a school-teacher turned corporate employee, who is also an avid amateur guitar player.

Born Medalina Tan in November 1973, she was named after a Norwegian container ship belonging to the company her father had just begun working for. The name has evolved over the years into "Medaline", "Madeline", "Meddie" and now "Maddy".

Mr Tan, now 68, still books function rooms so the family can sing together and is clearly proud of the older of his two girls. The younger daughter works in a bank and he also has a son, who runs his own design firm.

"She's quite bubbly. The only time she stops talking is when she's sleeping," he says of Barber.

When she was in primary school at CHIJ Toa Payoh, where her mother Teresa taught Chinese, her father enrolled her in the Peter Low Choir, helmed by the well-known church musician of the same name. One year, she sang with the choir for the late Pope John Paul II in Rome, which delighted her Catholic parents.

But she was no meek and mild schoolgirl, both parents agree.

Mrs Tan calls her "determined". Mr Tan says: "She's very rebellious. If you tell her to do A, she'll do B."

He recalls offering to find her a holiday job at the bank he worked for when she was in Victoria Junior College doing theatre studies. "She said: 'Banking is boring'. She walked into Hard Rock Cafe and they hired her immediately.

"She's very brave," he adds.

Barber describes herself as "like my dad, a go-getter and domineering" but she is also a softie at heart. Her teenage independent streak led her to attend Indooroopilly State High in Brisbane, Australia, hoping to enter the University of Queensland afterwards. However, she missed her family so much that she returned home and did a general diploma at Ngee Ann Polytechnic instead.

At age 19, a family friend, who ran a modelling agency, asked her to emcee some of the shows. "Every time I did this, people would come up to me and say: 'You're good, really good voice', so I felt I might be cut out for radio."

Two years later, fresh out of poly, she answered an audition call and was hired for 98.7FM. "I faked my personality so much, they hired me," she says with a laugh. "Did you hear how much I sucked in the beginning?"

There were plenty of "dead-air" minutes as she shuffled CDs around the changer - "I'm the only woman in the world who can't multi-task," she says - but what got her hauled over the coals was changing the playlist.

Instead of the scheduled soft pop mix approved by the programme director as suitable for the 6am hour, she played Song 2 by Blur, a high-energy piece which begins with a head-banging drum solo and heart-stoppingly loud "Woohoo!".

"I played it because I thought my boss wasn't around. He was."

The lowest point came when she was pregnant with her first daughter and was put on "float shift", so she had no regular gig of her own. "One jock even said: 'You don't have your own show, what's the point?' I said: 'It's okay, I'm new.'"

Things began looking up a bit as she was seconded to work on the morning show with Klass. He was a veteran then, with six years at radio station Rediffusion. He took Barber under his wing, giving her tips on how to present herself both on and off the air.

Since that time, she has enjoyed working in a team as much as, if not more than, working alone.

"You can be relatively good on your own but when you find the right partner, you go from mediocre to great," she says.

In 1997, she was offered the role of Mei, the girl next door, in director Glen Goei's movie homage to disco, Forever Fever. She left radio to take the role and also appeared in Channel 5 teen drama Spin in 1999.

Next came a year-long job in Mumbai as a radio consultant and then around eight years in Bangkok, first as a programme director for Virgin Radio for five years and then a real-estate broker.

Moving to Thailand was a deliberate decision to take more responsibility for parenting Elizabeth. Her parents had been helping out with childcare and Barber felt this should change.

"At some point, I looked at her and thought: 'She's turning into my parents' kid.' I couldn't afford to live on my own here, so the only way was to look for a company that would post me overseas."

In Thailand, she met her husband Wez on an Internet forum for expats.

"It was so hard to meet people otherwise. I was a single mum, I didn't go out partying much."

At their condo in the east, Mr Barber, a permanent resident originally from Yorkshire, toasts sandwiches for lunch and says his wife dated him under false pretences. "I was into rock climbing, she faked interest in rock climbing. She was very clever, we didn't go rock climbing until the fourth date. I haven't been climbing since."

It is clearly a running joke between them, with his dry humour trumping her squealing denials. He still proposed within six months and they were married in 2005.

In 2009, they returned to Singapore so the children could be enrolled in local schools. Klass recommended her for a gig at Hot FM91.3 and she switched over to Kiss92 when it started.

Her favourite simile is "a DJ is like fine wine, you get better as you age" and she banks on building relationships rather than wowing listeners with shock stunts. "Radio is a lot more than just going there and talking. You have to be interesting and relatable. You need to be able to convey the message," she says.

"My parents gave me a lot of attention so being the centre of attention is something I seek," she says with a laugh. "At the same time, it's the Asian upbringing, you're never comfortable in the limelight. So radio suits me because you're isolated in a safe space, but everyone who hears you, whoever is listening to you, you're the centre of their attention."

She regrets nothing that she has said on air but she does sometimes wish she had more time to explain herself. She got flak from callers for saying once that she was not a feminist, when what she wanted to say was that the word feminist to her now denotes bitter, man-hating women rather than those who fight for gender equality.

"Sometimes you really don't have the time to clarify what you have to say and then people really hear what they want to hear. Something very simple: my name is Maddy but people hear 'Mandy'."

Yet there are golden moments when the message gets across loud and clear. "Nobody wants to hear a DJ go 'me, me, me' all the time but I had quite a few single mums who said they were moved by something I said about the journey of finding love again. One came up to me at a meet-and-greet and said: 'Your story made me feel there is hope for me' and she had tears in her eyes.

"These are the things that make me know my job is worth doing because every day I give a bit of myself."

Maddy, Jason And Arnold In The Morning airs on Kiss92 FM from 6 to 10am.

My life so far

"You have very inarticulate callers, which doesn't work on radio. If you're going to be on air, you've got to be interesting.

They just need some rah-rah-ing so I give them encouragement in my not-so-encouraging tone: 'What's there to be nervous about? Be happy, you're on radio.' When we put down the phone, they text in to say: 'I'm so sorry, I was so shocked I got through, I couldn't say anything.' They actually text in to apologise about being unresponsive. (laughs)"
Barber on dealing with listeners who call in

"Start at the bottom. It's not the easiest industry to get into. At the bottom is not fun. You do a lot of c*** shifts working on weekends, putting up with co-hosts you don't like and you're the sidekick."
Tips for wannabe DJs

"You have to learn not to be upset when people laugh at you. You can be goofy with fellow jocks, can laugh at them. You dish it out all the time on air, how can you not take it?"
On dealing with criticism

This article was published on April 7 in The Straits Times.

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