Not just a seat at the table but the Chair

The making of Christian media’s Penny Mulvey

Penny Mulvey doesn’t have time to be the new chair of a major, national Christian organisation. But, she will make time.

There are three compelling reasons why Penny has decided to take on the role of chair of industry group Christian Media and Arts Australia (CMAA).

The first is God has called her to it through the voices of others.

“Initially I was reluctant, just because there’s a lot going on in my life, like this job that I currently hold,” Penny, who is also Chief Communications Officer at Bible Society Australia, admits to Eternity.

“But three different people on the CMAA board spoke to me in three different, totally out-of-the-blue conversations, telling me they thought I should run for chair. I decided by the third person, it was probably time I listened to them.”

Penny has been a member of the CMAA board for seven years and takes over as chair from Phil Edwards, who served in the role for 12 years. Penny is the first female in the job – which is the second reason why she is prepared to tackle the additional responsibility.

“I’ve spent a lot of my time trying to encourage women to step up. And I’ve spent a lot of time asking organisations: ‘Why haven’t you got women on the board? Why haven’t you got women on the platform?’

“So, when you do have the platform offered to you, as females, we do need to take it.”

The third, very good reason why Penny has stepped into this role is not only because she is supremely qualified for it. She also has an enduring passion for Christian media and the arts, and their vital place in Australian society.

Breaking news

Penny has spent more than 30 years in Christian media, after first cutting her teeth in mainstream radio and television. Most recently, she spent eight years as Director of Communications and Media Services for the Uniting Church in Victoria and Tasmania, before joining Bible Society Australia in September, 2018.

“I really wanted to work in radio – that was my passion,” Penny reflects on why she went into media. “That’s particularly weird because I come from a medical family. My parents were reasonably supportive. I think my father thought I was crazy, but they didn’t try and stop me.

“So, I went and did an arts degree, majoring in Communications at Macquarie University [in Sydney]. Six weeks after finishing – I think I was probably the first in my cohort to get a job – I’d moved to Canberra to work as a trainee journalist at the local AM radio station there, 2CA.”

“I had a terrifying boss,” she recalls about her first on-air job, “but I learned a heck of a lot because she wouldn’t put up with any nonsense. I was starting at 4am for the first breakfast shift and I was doing weekend news reads. It was a small station, so you had to do everything, which was wonderful. You had to learn how to write, conduct interviews and how to edit those interviews. You also had to make sure that you knew how to run the machinery.”

Penny will never forget one of the tough lessons she learned in this job. When working a Sunday shift, she failed to click a button while trying to read the news on-air.

“So, we had dead air, which of course in Radio Land is the ‘World’s Worst Thing,’ Penny recalls. “I was taken off air for a month so that I wouldn’t do that again. I learned my lesson!”

“… He was also wanting to make sure I knew my place. So you had to have a pretty steely backbone.” – Penny Mulvey

After staying in Canberra “long enough to fall in love with” her now husband Peter, Penny (and later Peter) moved to Melbourne to work at one of Australia’s first FM radio stations, EON-FM, now called Triple M Melbourne. After a couple of years (plus a year in the newsroom at Melbourne’s 3AW), she moved to Channel 10 to work as an on-the-road journalist. She moved on to become a late-night news producer and the weekend Chief of Staff.

Penny describes these experiences as “marvelous”, despite the ‘boys’ club’ mentality that pervaded the industry. In the secular media world which Penny – and other women – have often found to be brutal and misogynistic, she had to develop “a very thick hide”.

“My boss at EON, who was delightful, had a favourite model for The Sun – the Page Three model in a bikini,” she remembers about the outdated tradition of daily newspapers featuring a scantily clad woman on the third page. “And the bikini model was put up every day.

“Every day it was cut out of the paper and put up in the newsroom, one on top of the next. And there were some terrible male jokes that were just absolutely shocking …

“The first cameraman I had [at Channel 10] was an old-school Latvian guy. I was only young, and he loved letting the journalists know what their place was. So he’d say, ‘Women, you should be barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. Go back to where you belong!'” Penny laughs, adding, “He was joking, but he was also wanting to make sure I knew my place. So you had to have a pretty steely backbone.”

When Penny fell pregnant with the first of her three children at age 25, her career in secular media came to an end.

“They weren’t prepared for me to work part-time, and I wasn’t prepared to work full-time. It wasn’t in the days where flexibility was a guarantee for people. So can I just say,” she adds, “be encouraged that we have come along a little bit in women’s rights and opportunities since then.”

A new direction, under God

While Penny thought her media career was over, God had other plans.

“God just opens doors,” she says. “I got this phone call out of the blue from World Vision [Australia], asking me if I could do some work for them. And so I started working for them just as a casual. Then, again out of the blue, they rang me and said, ‘Do you own a passport?'”

So, Penny found herself in Mozambique in the middle of a ten-year civil war, accompanied by lead singer of Crowded House Neil Finn, World Vision’s then CEO Philip Hunt and cameraman Greg Lowe.

“It was a life-changing, remarkable opportunity and a privilege to be able to tell those stories.” – Penny Mulvey

“It was unbelievably dangerous. We flew everywhere with an MAF (Mission Aviation Fellowship) pilot, this crazy American, because all the roads were dug up and mined and people couldn’t leave their areas.”

“It was terrible. So many people were displaced. I met families in emergency feeding camps that we had set up, and these people had nothing. They were skin and bone because they’d been living in the bush for months and months.

“I had never seen anything like it, and that trip changed my life.”

Penny continued to work as a casual for World Vision for several years, while at the same time studying a Masters of Development Studies and raising her children.

She then worked for AngliCORD (Anglican Overseas Aid). “I was employed to take on their first AusAID-funded project to help an organisation supporting child-headed households in Rwanda,” she recalls.

“When I went to Rwanda [three years after the genocide], I met the most extraordinary people – people who’d lost their loved ones and who were just serving their country …

“It was a life-changing, remarkable opportunity and a privilege to be able to tell those stories, but it was also hard to come back to life in Australia where we had children in private school. Trying to have a foot in both camps is really difficult.”

Being positive in the media

The impact of these experiences led Penny to “work in the not-for-profit Christian space ever since”. She went back into media, but this time for the international mission organisation Trans World Radio (TWR).

For five years Penny produced and presented a weekly 30-minute radio program for women called Women of Hope for TWR. In partnership with a friend and under the business name of Positive Media, she then broadcast Women Today on community radio. The program was a free gift to the radio stations so, to make some income, Positive Media was also a media production and training company.

After leaving her “on-air” roles, Penny joined the board of Light Melbourne Inc for ten years, including four years as chair.

“I’m still a member of Light,” says Penny, “It’s fantastic to see the way that this tiny little seed has grown … People give very generously to keep it on air, and it changes people’s lives and gives them hope in moments of darkness.”

‘This is why I believe in what we’re doing: We bring something that is different and that’s why people do tune in and listen.’ – Penny Mulvey

It is this ‘X factor’ – the ability to give hope – that first convinced Penny just how important Christian media is.

“I actually wasn’t convinced about Christian radio when I first came out of commercial radio,” she admits. “I thought all community radio was Mickey Mouse – even though if you listen to Christian radio, it’s incredibly professional.

“So I’d been doing all this work and just having fun with it. But then we were on air just after 9/11 happened …

“I couldn’t, obviously, go to air with whatever I’d pre-recorded, so I had to go in and do it live. We [were interviewing] various people like archbishops or bishops, and many of them just didn’t know what to say.

“And so I said, ‘Well, couldn’t you just pray for us?’ And they said, ‘Yes, we can pray.’

“It was at that moment I realised that even if the person never listened to Christian radio until something like this happened, where a moment of crisis occurred, they knew there was somewhere they could go for comfort, for hope, for something that commercial radio and the ABC are never going to produce.

“Whenever I’d go and give an inspirational talk [to those in Christian media], I’d tell that story and say, ‘This is why we’re here. This is why I believe in what we’re doing. We bring something that is different and that’s why people do tune in and listen.”

The next season

As chair of CMAA, Penny plans to focus (among other things) on three priorities. Firstly, “to represent all aspects of the Australian and New Zealand worlds which we inhabit. That means having men and women, people of various nationalities, Aboriginal peoples – trying to represent all the different cultures that we’re talking into as much as we can.”

Secondly, to create a “comfortable and inviting home for Christian creatives around Australia.”

“Christian creatives who have the ‘ultimate job’ when you think about it, to be creating for the Creator.” – Penny Mulvey

“It’s not an easy thing because, by the very nature of what they do, they’re often solo workers. And so to be able to draw them in and find a place where they feel that they belong is what we’d really like to do at CMAA,” says Penny.

She adds: “I just love creatives! I’ve got a family of creative children, and I suppose I’m a creative as well …”

“I think they do incredible things. So I’d love to be able to try and encourage and support Christian creatives who have the ‘ultimate job’ when you think about it, to be creating for the Creator.”

Finally, and perhaps most importantly for Penny, is her mission to encourage women in Christian media and the arts.

“In Christian radio and in so many other places, we need to be raising up women. We need to be deliberate, intentional. We need to have women on air. We need to make sure women are in management. We need to make sure that women have opportunities to become the CEO, that women are content directors. Because in the end, in Christian radio, [as audience research has shown] the key person that they’re talking to is a woman in her thirties. So if we’re talking to a woman who is in her thirties, why are the content directors mostly men?

“So we need to be really deliberate about giving the same opportunities to women, because if we’re not deliberate, it doesn’t happen.”