April 9, 2020
People & Places

Ali Clarke: “I’m just not that confident”

She’s married to AFLW coach Matthew Clarke, has three beautiful children and has built a successful radio career over the past 20 years. So, why does Ali Clarke feel like an imposter?

Ali and Matthew relax in the open plan living area. Ali says Matthew, who is coach of the Adelaide Crows AFLW team, is  “one of the most easy going, glass-half-full kind of people, whereas I’m glass-half-empty, so we work well together.”

The couple’s children Madeline, Eloise and Samuel get active on the trampoline in the enormous back yard.

When ABC announcer Ali Clarke broke down in tears live on air last year, it provided a rare insight into the sometimes raw and brutal nature of breakfast radio.

Ali had just seen a text message from a listener following an interview she’d done with a local politician.

“In the studio, I have a screen that connects me to the outside world, including a text screen that just scrolls live, so you see all the listener comments and it can be quite confronting,”Ali explains.

“Some days when maybe the kids might have been up sick and in bed with you, or you’re just more tired than usual, you may not be able to handle it.

“That particular day stories were falling over, so we went into an interview that I wasn’t as prepared for as I should have been. I knew already that I didn’t do as good a job as I wanted.

“A few texts came through that called me on it, but one in particular was in a really unkind way. It said, ‘do you guys ever do any research or put any work into what you do?’ But normally I really do. I do a lot of prep and I like to be as prepared as possible.”

When Ali’s co-host David Bevan entered the studio for his regular segment and was “really nice”, Ali says she lost it, her emotions bubbling to the surface. While she wishes it never happened, Ali admits the incident changed the way listeners interact via text.

“Now I’m getting less of those, ‘why don’t you just go home and look after your kids?’ comments. It’s changed the conversation a bit, in a good way.

“Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t about the criticism, I’m up to be critiqued, you’re the taxpayer and I’m yours, but when it becomes personal, that’s when it’s hard to take.”

The public breakdown was even more unusual given that, by then, Ali had more than 15 years of commercial radio experience under her belt. She was accustomed to the pressures and public scrutiny that come with the gig. But making the leap from fluffy, commercial radio schtick to the serious, news-heavy role at the ABC was challenging. Ali admits she felt some uncertainty and self-doubt about accepting the role in 2017. Replacing the highly respected and ratings-bonanza brekkie team of Matt Abraham and David Bevan, who had held the mantle since 2011, also weighed heavily.

Art works and photos add warmth and interest to the huge entry hall of Ali and Matthew’s home. Built in 1849, the dwelling was originally a Sunday School but the couple has extensively renovated and transformed it into a gorgeous family home.

Firstly, Ali needed to consider what the high-pressured role meant for her young family. Ali is married to former Crows player, now coach of the Crows AFLW team Matthew Clarke, and the high-profile couple has three children, Eloise, 10, Samuel, 8 and Madeline, 4.

“Number one, I had to decide what this opportunity looked like for my family and number two, I was stepping into the show of the number one duo in town. You’d be an idiot on a hiding to nothing to take that,” Ali says.

“I also make no secret that politics is not my strength, I was petrified about that before I started. That’s why it is great to have David Bevan as part of the team now because what he doesn’t know about politics isn’t worth knowing.

“He and ABC management reassured me about this and said, ‘make this your own show. This can be whatever you want it to be’. But having said that there was such incredible heritage that Matt and Dave had brought up, so it was a very steep learning curve and I’ve still got lots to learn.”

During the past two years in the role, Ali has held her own in the ratings ranks, with plenty of wins over her main rivals. There have been losses, though, including in the final survey of 2019.

“Everyone likes to win and it stinks when the paper writes up you’re a loser,” Ali says. “Make no mistake, we are very competitive at the ABC, but at the same time I’ve been through so many ratings periods, I just know when we’ve done great radio or not. I have the best producers in Luke Franklin and Eliza Kirsch, they are the engine room.”

Originally from Queensland, Ali moved to Adelaide in 2000, following her then-boyfriend Matt, who had been traded to play for the Crows. The couple met in 1998 when Matt was studying a veterinary science degree at University of Queensland, where Ali was doing an arts degree.

On arrival in Adelaide she knew no one and began working as a swimming instructor before finding her way into radio in 2001. She ended up in the promotions department at Austereo through a friend, and it wasn’t long before management recognised her easy way with people and her gift of the gab. In 2003, Ali was offered an on-air position on MIX 102.3 alongside Kym Dillon and Chris Dzelde.  “Kym, Ali and Dzelde” became a winning formula, and Ali suddenly found herself an Adelaide media celebrity.

“I don’t know why I said yes to the job really,” she says. “I think about it now and I never wanted to be on radio. I had never thought of it as a possibility.

“In those early days, I was a nightmare to work with because I was so nervous and as a ‘control enthusiast’, I felt completely out of control. I was working with two guys who knew exactly what they were doing and were so good at it, but we didn’t have producers back then. So, during the songs we would answer phones and then we’d get off air and organise everything for the next show.”

Ali, a keen photographer, took these shots of the kids in their pool. The photos hang above the handy utility area, which includes a blackboard, lots of shelf space and drawers to keep the daily mess tidy.

The trio dominated the ratings for more than five years and there was much media hype when they defected to Triple M in 2008, before disbanding in 2010. Ali then joined another Triple M breakfast team with Warren Tredrea, Dale Lewis and Jon Blake before being sacked in 2013. It was her first real taste of the cut-throat nature of the business.

“I had a year left on my contract, and they said, ‘don’t come back’,” she says. “They went with ‘we are going in a ‘different direction’. It was massive.

“I actually put to them, ‘what have I done wrong?’ and they said, ‘nothing, you’re a great team player, we are just going in a different direction’. It’s the nature of the beast with commercial radio.”

To add to the stress, Ali was pregnant with her third child during this difficult time but, heartbreakingly, she lost the baby. She and Matt have always been open about needing IVF to create their family.

“We were unlucky to have to use IVF but how lucky were we that we got three amazing kids out of it,” Ali says. “Don’t get me wrong, IVF sucked but one of the things we noticed when we were doing it was that no one spoke about it. Not until you got pregnant and then friends would say, ‘we’ve done IVF too’.

“I think it’s because you are dealing with a lot of stuff yourself and trying to muddle through. I think the expectation you put on your own body, on your relationship and what you are hoping for every single cycle, you don’t want to necessarily drag other people along for that.”

Ali says she loves that kids keep you honest and bring a new perspective to life, and she has especially loved watching Matt embrace his role as a dad.

“When they were babies, Matt would be up with me helping with the feeds and he would walk with Eloise on his shoulder singing the football songs, in alphabetical order, until she fell asleep,” she says. “He’s just one of the most easy going, glass-half-full kind of people, whereas I’m glass-half-empty, so we work well together.”

The couple moved into their converted church home six years ago, which was partially renovated. Built in 1849, it used to be a Sunday school for children at the Christ Church opposite. While they were excavating the back yard, Ali and Matt discovered small glass milk bottles in the dirt, used by the Sunday school students. They are now on display with other precious items in the rustic kitchen cupboards, which were picked up from a salvage yard. The property also includes the former stables, where the Sunday school kids used to tie up their horses.

Today, this is a fun-filled home where history has been embraced amid modern family life. There’s an eclectic mix of art works, a baby grand piano, lots of framed family photos and colourful kids’ drawings stuck up on the wall. Outside is a pool, lots of lawn and three rickety chicken sheds that Matt built.

Ali with Eloise and Samuel at the baby grand piano in the second living area at the front of the home.
The kids with their beloved chickens, which are housed in chook sheds built by Matthew.

“I love that we’ve been able to bring this place back to life,” Ali says. “I also just love having our house as an open house. I went to boarding school and going home with all my mates of an afternoon wasn’t an option. I wanted to create the environment where the kids always felt safe and happy to come back here and bring their friends. Our house is a centre for that. It means it’s messy and crazy and loud and that’s okay.”

Besides loving the space, there was another reason Matt and Ali loved this property. The former stables have been converted into a self-contained unit where Ali’s intellectually disabled brother Nick will eventually live. He is currently still living in Queensland with Ali’s parents Rod and Mary Carle.

“We have some really interesting years coming up,” Ali says. “Mum and Dad are both over 70 and we’re working on the future for Nick who is 37. He will end up down here with us and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

“A lot of people talk about disability as a burden. I’m not the one living that but I understand it, I have an absolute understanding of that life and what carers go through and the amount of work they do, and yet they are crying out for more support.

“It’s been tough for our family at times. It is a hard road, coping with Nick’s health problems. Mum and Dad work so hard, and we’re lucky they can look after him and he has a sister in me who can also look after him. Some people don’t have that and their carers are getting older, not knowing what will happen to their children.”

Through their experiences with Nick, Ali says her children “don’t blink” at anybody’s differences, something of which she is extremely proud.

“They don’t find it confronting or shocking, they are like, ‘that person is different like Uncle Nick’,” she says. “I love that.”

Ali says she’s also mindful of the incredible influence Matt’s work has had on the kids. He coached the Crows AFLW team to a grand final win last year, and he is a devoted mentor to the all-female team.

“It has been incredible,” Ali says. “I’ve never been more proud of him, although I’m more nervous now than I was when he was a player. It turns out I’m not very good as a coach’s wife.

“Matt just wants success for those women because they work so hard and are just such good people. They’re balancing work, then they go to training, it’s demanding.

The kitchen features rustic cupboards, which were found in a salvage yard. They contain glass milk bottles that were used by the Sunday school children back in the 1800s. The relics were unearthed in the excavation process of the back yard.
Ali and Matthew pictured with the children and dog Bean in front of the self-contained unit in the back yard. The couple has always been open about their IVF experience. “We were unlucky to have to use IVF but how lucky were we that we got three amazing kids out of it,” Ali says.

“Everybody talks about how important it is for little girls to see the female players, but I tell you, it is just as important for my son. He has no concept that girls shouldn’t be playing footy. I love what it’s done for our family.”

From the outside looking in, Ali appears to have mastered it all – marriage, kids, career, friendships, but she readily admits she battles ongoing self-doubt and “imposter syndrome”, as she calls it.

“I’m just not that confident,” she says. “I think it comes across that I am, but I’m just not. It’s my issue and at 44 years of age, it’s something that’s not going to change in a hurry.

“You can think, ‘is this the time I’m going to get found out?’ It’s ridiculous really but I think a lot of us, both men and women, think like this. I hope I can make sure my kids don’t have it.”

Ali has signed another year-long contract with the ABC, so that means more early nights and 4am rises.

“What will be interesting is when I go to bed before the kids,” she says. “At the moment I get to put them to bed, but that will change when they’re a bit older. I don’t want to think about that too much just yet. We take things day at a time around here.” 

 

This story first appeared in the February 2020 issue of SALIFE magazine.

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