Naturally, Sarah Harris …
Once told to "sound like Jana" and terrified of live crosses, Sarah Harris is now comfortable in her own skin.
In the case of Sarah Harris, former Nine News all-rounder turned anchor of Studio 10, you’d have to wonder if her former employers made the most of her talents.
Since resigning from Nine to take up the co-presenting role on TEN, Harris has enjoyed positive press and was singled out by TEN News boss Peter Meakin as an “inspired” choice.
“It’s a bit weird because I had promised myself I was going to avoid reading the bad and the good stuff. Because you can get tied up in that, especially when you are launching a new show up against two very entrenched shows,” says Harris.
“But I was alerted to things by friends, and got texts asking ‘Have you read the SMH?’
“I sent (Peter Meakin) a text to say ‘Would you mind if I cut that out and put it in my Resume?’ He laughed and said it was fine!”
Crikey even suggested Harris has “an appealing Katie Couric-like demeanour.”
“It was a massive compliment, because I love her.”
Yet Harris had been at the Nine Network for 12 years juggling everything from hosting Weekend Today, Mornings, doing news reporting and Updates. She covered Royal Weddings, Olympics, a Gallipoli memorial and natural disasters.
After such a long time with Nine making the move to TEN was not easy. Harris says enforced ‘gardening leave’ in the interim was perfect for getting a little perspective.
“I resigned with 4 weeks notice and they said ‘You can sit at home and serve that out.’ It was very good for me to be out of the game for a month. I made a big point not to watch television,” she explains.
“I (decided) to be a ‘regular human’ away from TV for the first time in my life and I think it was good for me.
“(TV) is something that I love but it shouldn’t be my life.”
But she acknowledges her on-the-job training at Nine, which began in Brisbane, has been invaluable.
“The benefit of being the jack-of-all-trades was that you learn everything, and that’s set me in good stead,” she says.
“I had some amazing opportunities at Nine, but my career went sideways, up, back, and you just kind of ride it out to see where it goes and where it leads. It was a pretty good adventure that took me all over the world.”
Harris actually got a taste for news as a teenager on work experience. Her plans to pursue a legal career were detoured by a work experience placement at Seven News in Brisbane.
“It was the week that Michael Hutchence was being buried. Being in the newsroom feeling the buzz and immediacy of everything that was going on, I knew what I wanted to do. But I had wanted to be a lawyer originally. Or a playwright,” she recalls.
“It was a phenomenal week and it changed my life.
“The following week they gave me a job recording the news on the weekend, making cups of coffee, for $12 bucks an hour. During grade 11 and 12 it was a lot more than the $5 bucks I was getting at McDonald’s.”
She spent 8 years with Nine News before moving to Sydney, only to be told to change her presentation style. Years of emulating the dulcet tones of an industry icon were about to be discarded, in the ultimate discovery of self.
“All the girls were told ‘You’ve got to sound like Jana.’ It’s what they used to say. You certainly know your place in a newsroom full of blokes. You want to be the chick that the blokes get on with and have the same opportunities. You don’t want to be a princess. So you try to ‘bloke’ yourself up a bit,” she admits.
“When I got to Sydney I had a voice coach at Nine and she was brilliant. ‘Why are you talking like this?’ she asked. ‘Just speak normally.’ And it was like something had flicked in my head, because I had been very sing-songy, rhythmic and pushed the voice deep. But once you are yourself, it just comes easily.”
Harris admits it took her some time to get past nerves, but being natural is now paying dividends.
“I’ve been in this industry since I was 16. But up until the age of about 27 I had paralysing fear and stage fright. I would do live crosses and I was terrified. When I first got the Today show gig back in 2003 I hadn’t done live crosses before and I would work myself up into such a state that I would vomit.
“It would take me hours to write a script, because I would go over every line over and again.
“But one day it just clicked. (Now) when you’re speaking to the camera you just enjoy it. You’re not thinking about people on the other side or how many people are watching.”
On Studio 10, Harris is the ‘bus driver’ who introduces each segment and facilitates conversations with Ita Buttrose, Jessica Rowe, Joe Hildebrand and guests. She multitasks via a laptop, her phone with Twitter, and an earpiece to the director, keeping the show on track with its rundown of social and news topics.
“I basically set the stories up, but sometimes I have an opinion if it’s something that’s important to me,” she says.
“It’s kind of everything I want to do. I go to the meetings in the morning, I haven’t fallen into the trap of being ‘host who doesn’t contribute’ and it’s great to be in there helping Rob (McKnight) shape the show.
“News is what I love and writing is what I love. So I get to do 3.5 hrs of TV, when you include Perth, with awesome people like Ita, Joe and Jess. It’s the perfect mix of things after a long time of doing bits and pieces.”
But while the feedback for Studio 10 has enjoyed a new vibe, its ratings are still modest, frequently hovering around the 50,000 mark.
“I don’t think TEN underestimated just how rusted-on morning viewers are. It’s such a habit to change,” Harris concedes.
“Especially at that time of the morning, people need to get to know you. You’re in their lounge room so they need to have a little bit of insight into you. So that takes time.”
Harris will take a month off in July to marry her partner and enjoy a European holiday. ‘Big Red,’ as she calls him, works in IT but shares her passion for news.
“He’s always suggesting stories which is so cute. But he keeps me so grounded, and he’s very much of the opinion that the world is very much bigger than TV. And that’s been good for me.
“But I add a bit of sparkle and drama to his life too!”
The wedding will cap off a personal and professional period in her life that has been very satisfying and is seemingly light years away from the terror of those live crosses.
“Now I can’t be anyone but myself,” says a relaxed Harris.
“If you like me, great. If you don’t, that’s life.”
Studio 10 airs 8:30am weekdays on TEN.