January 9, 2020
People & Places

Sonya Feldhoff: Finding her voice

Never one to seek the spotlight and talk publicly about herself, radio personality Sonya Feldhoff opens up about her 30-year media career, her struggle to have children and a recent battle with cancer. 

As she potters around her immaculately tidy home, radio personality Sonya Feldhoff shows off a tiny knitted jumpsuit with a panda on the front. She has knitted it for her first grandchild, a boy named Aston Billie, born on September 8, 2019.

“I’ve already become that ridiculous nanny who keeps knitting stuff,” she laughs. “I haven’t knitted for 20 years and I’ve just got all excited about it again.”

The baby belongs to Sonya’s stepdaughter Amelia and her partner Nick, who live in Melbourne.

Sonya has been step-mum to Amelia and brother Elliot since they were 14 and 12 years old, respectively. She married their father Mark Webb in 2008 and has always had a strong relationship with both children. 

“Although I’m not their mum, I am their family and they are mine, and I hope to be very involved with this baby,” she says. “Mark and I are very excited about it and we’re planning regular trips to Melbourne.”

Sonya, with husband Mark and dog Chase in their back yard, says she has come to terms with not having children.

The joy of a new baby is something Sonya had hoped to experience herself. While she has never spoken publicly about it before, the 52-year-old reveals she went through more than three years of draining and heartbreaking IVF procedures several years ago.

She was 36 years old when she met Mark through mutual friends who were playing matchmaker. The duo hit it off immediately, but Sonya admits she felt a pressure that “time was running out” to become a mum.

“It had never dominated my life, but I was always open to it,” she says. “I always imagined myself having children and Mark was happy to try.

“We ended up doing IVF but no one knows if it’s going to work or not. We had several failures so you keep looking to change things to improve your chances. I took a month off radio because I wondered whether the radio waves around the news desk were causing any issues. You clutch at straws about what may or may not help.”

Sonya remembers the last two attempts as the most traumatic.

“The doctors had said it was a good embryo, so when that one didn’t work that was gutting, but not as much as the last one,” she says.

Their final round of IVF was just after Sonya’s 40th birthday, using their last frozen embryo. By this stage, Mark, who runs his own plumbing business, was struggling with the strain the treatment was putting on their lives.

 “I knew it was our last try and on the morning of the embryo transfer they rang and said the embryo wasn’t viable,” she says. “I knew that was it, that was the realisation I would not be a mother. That was a horrible day, it upsets me even now. It’s a struggle for anybody who does it. In the end, Mark was sad but he had kids. It’s not the same imperative.

“I wanted to try one more time but I knew Mark was struggling and I remember thinking that he had loved me enough to try IVF, at what point did I love him enough to stop?”

It’s only now, more than 10 years down the track, that Sonya is able to talk about those painful memories, and says she now feels reconciled about not being a mother. 

Compounding the sense of loss during the couple’s battle to have a child was the loss of Mark’s mum Joy, who died suddenly from heart issues in 2004. Then, Sonya’s mother Anne passed away during the course of the couple’s IVF treatment. She had been diagnosed with cancer just 10 months prior.

“I felt like I had to do some Faustian deal with the devil,” Sonya says. “I would get one or the other, my mum or my baby. I didn’t feel like I would end up with both, but I didn’t realise I couldn’t get either.”

Also around this time, just three weeks after the couple’s last failed IVF transfer, Sonya’s best friend Nicky Davies, a radio producer for the legendary Bob Francis, also died after a battle with cancer. She was 51 years old.

“We certainly had a lot of heightened emotion,” says Sonya reflecting on those dark days. “It was a very tough time.”

Although her job is to interview people and peel back the layers of their lives, Sonya admits she is usually reluctant to talk about herself. This year marks 30 years on the airwaves for the warm, affable radio personality, who has quietly and consistently carved out her spot on the local media landscape. 

She has been a reporter, breakfast presenter, producer and newsreader and currently hosts ABC Adelaide’s afternoons program.

Never one to chase the spotlight, Sonya says it was a challenge to learn how to “give of yourself” on radio, particularly during the often-cheesy commercial radio brekkie slot, which she did with radio personality Ken Dickin in the 1990s.

Sonya with Ken Dickin, whom she says was “the most naturally gifted broadcaster she ever met”.

“I didn’t know how to talk about myself easily, I’m much more likely to do the journo thing and focus on other people,” she says. “I had to learn to give a bit of myself. Maybe that’s the reason I’m not doing breakfast now, “ she laughs.

“I think what you learn is that over the years it’s about connection. You don’t have to reveal intimate details about yourself but you do have to be real. That’s what I love the most now, making those connections with people. But it has taken me 20 years to learn that.

“The things I find that make me bond with people are normally about the bad things or stuff ups, so in a sense I don’t feel precious about it anymore because that’s where the real connections begin.”

Sonya grew up in Adelaide, the daughter of 1960s German immigrants. Dad Hermann was a crane and truck driver, while mum Anne worked in hospitality, organising events at the Pier Hotel in Glenelg and The Alpine Restaurant (now Pavillion on the Park). Sonya was the eldest of three girls and, while she has inherited her parents’ disciplined work ethic, she took a while to find her path. It was a trip back to her old primary school in 2000 that revealed a life in the media had perhaps always beckoned.

 “We dug up an old time capsule and we had written letters to ourselves and mine said I wanted to be a TV producer,” she says. “But I don’t remember ever wanting to do that. I would have been eight or nine years old.

“Somewhere around is also a cassette tape of my sisters and me pretending to do a radio show – it’s very weird but I don’t specifically remember wanting to do it.”

After leaving school, Sonya tried her hand at being a nanny and working in a friend’s restaurant, La Guillotine, in the city.

A course at the famous Vaughn Harvey Radio School in 1989 led to work experience at FIVEaa and within weeks she was offered a cadetship.

She says reporter and newsreader Jacqui Munn was a great mentor who “probably taught me more than anyone”. Within six months Sonya was reading the news with Peter Sellen during the breakfast show, which was hosted by Ken Dickin and Graham Cornes.

“My first live reading was horrifying. I didn’t think I could be more scared to be honest. I didn’t make any mistakes in my first one, it’s when you start thinking you’ve got this that you start making mistakes,” she says.

Eventually, she was offered the co-hosting brekkie role with Dickin when Cornes left to coach the Adelaide Crows. 

Dickin provided great guidance and support, and Sonya describes him as “the most naturally gifted broadcaster” she has ever met.

“While I was often focused on what I thought was the important ‘serious’ job of radio, he taught me about the importance of the sound of ‘fun’ on-air and the concept of what matters to people every day,” she says. “I was lucky to work on ‘Ken and Sonya’ with him for five years on both FIVEaa and 5DN and I still call him a dear friend.”

Resilient and professional, Sonya admits the cut-throat nature of commercial radio has left its mark, recalling the time she was retrenched while still on air. She and Dickin had been shifted to the mornings show, and the legendary duo Bazz and Pilko (Barry Ion and Tony Pilkington) had taken over the sought-after brekkie shift.

“Ken and I were rating well. I’ve never followed ratings super closely but you don’t always have to be doing badly to get sacked. It can just be that a station wants change,” she says.

“We did the show from 9-12 and in the 11am news break the program director pulled me into his office and said they wanted to make a change of direction. He told me this during the show! 

“He said there was no role for me presenting but I could go back to the newsroom. Then he said I didn’t have to go back on air and finish the show that day, but I did.

“I remember going, ‘wow, this is really cut throat’. That did hurt me at that time. They said no one knew me, and they wanted more star power. They got Leigh McClusky after that.”

Various radio roles followed and then, in 2007, Sonya made the jump from commercial radio to the ABC, producing the breakfast show for Matt Abraham and David Bevan. 

In 2010 she was offered the drive announcer’s role, which she did for two years before moving into her current position hosting afternoons.

She cites covering the Christchurch massacre this year as one of the most significant days of her career, describing the adrenalin rush of going live to air with almost nothing prepared.

“There was no time to prepare and you have to ride with it and let it happen and do your best with what is available on the day,” she says. “So, we threw out everything we had planned for that day. I feel like that’s what we’re there for, for things like bush fire days and Christchurch. That day we went to air with one interview confirmed of someone who was in a lockdown situation. Other than that we had no idea what would happen.”

Sonya credits her team of producers, including Regan Footner and Kate Bailey, with helping create such great stories.

Today, relaxing on her couch as beloved dog Chase shuffles about, Sonya looks happy and content. It is hard to believe that just 12 months ago she had a major health scare, diagnosed with bladder cancer.

“It was pretty shocking but to be honest, I was waiting for the cancer diagnosis because my dad had bowel cancer, my mother had a rare form of cancer of the gall bladder and I had done IVF, which puts you at increased risk of gynecological cancers,” she says. 

“So, the shocking bit was that it was bladder cancer and I thought, ‘how would I get that?’. I’ve never had a cigarette in my life. Neither has Mark. But my parents were big smokers, so my doctor thinks my cancer could be passive smoke-related.” 

She had the tumour removed and has been given the all clear, with regular check-ups.

Some of the radio legends Sonya has worked with during her 30 year career include (back row three from the left) the late David Hookes, Barry Ion, Bob Francis and (front row) Michael Keelan, Ken “KG” Cunningham, Tony Pilkington and Ken Dickin.

Reflecting on her staying power and the longevity of her radio career as she celebrates 30 years, Sonya is sentimental but reluctant to use the word proud.

“I have always worked, but I feel like proud is the wrong word,” she says. “A lot of people don’t know who I am, I’ve never hit the heights, but I guess I am proud that I’ve worked 30 years in this industry and I could adapt.

“I don’t need to be in the spotlight. I just love the buzz of live radio and I love being able to give people a voice. That’s really what radio is all about.” 

 

This article first appeared in the October 2019 issue of SALIFE magazine.

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