From South Africa to the UK: Whisper account director Elma Smit on a career in sports broadcasting that spans continents

At the World Rugby Awards 2019, Elma Smit with Siya Kolisi and Rassie Erasmus

Elma Smit, account director and currently providing short term cover as business development lead at independent production company, Whisper, is a producer and presenter from South Africa. Now residing in the UK, Smit is relishing getting her skin in the game as part of a team working on an assortment of high profile sports productions.

How did you first find out about TV broadcasting as a career? What was your inspiration or idea, and why sports broadcasting?

Radio was my first dream! I grew up idolising 5FM, a South African (SA) equivalent to the BBC’s Radio 1. As a teen, it was the only media platform that reflected my interests and this was why I enlisted to volunteer at a local community station, when I was still in high school. I ended up making radio shows broadcasting largely to the inmates in a nearby prison, but this was what I figured would be the first step towards becoming an iconic radio DJ.

To be fair to South African TV, we only got “telly” a full 40 years after the UK, in 1976 – due to the Apartheid government’s firm control over all media and entertainment. They even banned the Beatles!

It’s probably not surprising that TV in SA wasn’t thinking about how to capture the imaginations of teenagers or how they’d accommodate women in sports coverage, as they were only just starting to think about making content for audiences of all race groups.

So, off to uni I went, to earn my law degree and work in campus radio, of course.

“South Africa sport, and rugby particularly, has a way of bringing people together. It meaningfully showcases the power of collaboration better than anything else in society. It feels important, because if you know anything about the 1995 Rugby World Cup, you’ll know that it was a milestone moment in forging an inclusive post-Apartheid identity for the rainbow nation”

I largely paid my own way for most of university, working about four different jobs at any point. This ranged from DJ’ing in nightclubs and doing modelling, to waitressing, selling ads in the campus newspaper, hosting activations in malls and even writing for a wine magazine.

A pay TV network finally launched a local knock-off of MTV in ‘05 and thanks to my hustle in campus radio, I ended up making a small guest appearance once or twice. This led to the channel offering me the presenting role on the channel’s flagship show, two days before my final law exam. The show was basically MTV’s Total Request Live, complete with a studio audience, and live music performances each week.

I didn’t know the first thing about TV, but within the first few episodes, I was hooked. I started working as an autocue operator on other shows, picked up shifts as a stylist and even worked as music compiler in radio building playout logs, because I wanted to learn as much about production and broadcast as I could. Interestingly, the playout software (RCS) we used in TV and radio was largely the same, back then.

I did land a radio hosting gig with 5FM eventually, and I’ve always enjoyed learning from working in both radio (later, podcasting) and TV. I’ve always juggled production roles behind the scenes with other work on air, back from when I was 17 until now.

Whisper’s Elma Smit hosted the Digital daily show in South Africa

What draws you to your career in live sport?

I was never a great athlete, but communication and storytelling captured my imagination from my very earliest memories. I love the power that sport holds, how it shapes and impacts society. In South Africa you only need to look at the scale of the victory parades the Springboks enjoyed in November last year for that to become apparent.

Sport platforms and celebrates accessible people, women, and men you grew up with, who leveraged the power of the human spirit, often a deep but narrow well of talent, skill and a nous for the big moments, to skyrocket them to stardom.

That potential is dazzling. The arc of the stories we get to witness unfold is irresistible.

“Intense bursts of short term work – while offering a great thrill – really didn’t allow me to be part of a bigger project in a way that felt meaningful enough. It didn’t allow a lot of space to truly conceptualise and build something over a longer term and getting stuck in with a team. I craved the chance to be inhouse. To have some skin in the game”

It’s the only form of entertainment guaranteed to celebrate human progress. Regardless of sporting code, at the end of every season we get to reflect on how people are improving upon what was done before. We chart success against the backdrop of the sport’s heritage. We track, monitor and celebrate performance. How much more empowering can you get?

What advice would you give to other women looking to move into a role in sports broadcasting like your own?

Whenever I host something big, walk into an important presentation or significant meeting I always over-prepare, and I run the risk of getting stuck in my own head a bit. I know this, from experience.

So, these days I take a moment to imagine that sense of satisfaction at the end of a big live production where we go off air and everyone felt like we did a great job.

People congratulating one another, reflecting on the great bits, feeling like it was a job well done. Then, I hold on to that feeling, going into the room. This sets me free to really enjoy it because in my head it has already happened, and I enjoyed it.

Then, even when it doesn’t always go well, I still enjoyed doing the work, while I learned the lessons. There’s truly no benefit to functioning from a place of fear.

Everyone is just doing their best with what they have, where they are. So are you. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that anyone has some secret sauce. A special recipe that you don’t have.

Do the work, go in with a calm heart and enjoy the view, as you ride the waves.

What was your first job, how did you get it, what did it involve, and how did you feel about it?

My first foray into sport was as a student reporter at our uni newspaper covering the football team and I genuinely expected this to also be my last, but four years later SuperSport started the search for a woman to report on the Rugby World Cup and I found myself wondering if this was the next big challenge I needed.

I had made inroads in entertainment, but I craved more live TV work, and, in my opinion, live sport is the ultimate in unscripted broadcasting.

It’s worth noting that in South Africa sport, and rugby particularly, has a way of bringing people together. It meaningfully showcases the power of collaboration better than anything else in society. It feels important, because if you know anything about the 1995 Rugby World Cup, you’ll know that it was a milestone moment in forging an inclusive post-Apartheid identity for the rainbow nation.

I was nine when Nelson Mandela donned the Springbok shirt, and it made an indelible impression on me. Having the chance to contribute to how this sport was packaged and presented to audiences, to make it younger and more accessible to women, was irresistible.

I had the great honour of becoming the first woman to cover a Rugby World Cup for SuperSport in 2011, but to be honest I really wasn’t sold on the work or the decision I made, for at least a few years.

When a player was banned from that World Cup for statements he made on Twitter, I wanted to cover it, but I was told it was irrelevant. That, “no one will be on Twitter anymore, come Christmas”! I really wanted to help attract younger viewers, to encourage a more digital approach and harness user generated content.

Strong or challenging story ideas I pitched were given to men to deliver. I was limited to being the touchscreen girl, doing softer pieces.

It took working through five rugby seasons and two World Cups before I was the first woman to host a high profile weekly rugby show and SuperRugby studio coverage, a big marker at the time.

By then, I had kept on working well beyond sport and I think this served me well. I had hosted a breakfast TV show for a few years, worked on the Oscar Pistorius Trial, was the executive producer of a drive time radio show, and sharpened my skills as a writer. The latter came in handy during lockdown, when I wrote a book exploring the influencer industry.

Elma Smit on air in the studio at South Africa’s 5FM in 2011

How did you get your current job role?

When Whisper landed the contract to deliver World Rugby’s original digital contend in 2021, I delivered content to them as a freelance producer-presenter, from South Africa.

Soon after, the MD of Whisper Cymru, Carys Owens called and suggested we pitch for the Birtish & Irish Lions Tour to SA, which was set to go ahead later that year. She ended up leading a small crew in the Lions bubble and I had a small crew in the Springboks bubble, and the two of us (two women!) delivered all the rights holder, non-rights holder, commercial and documentary content from these bubbles during the tour. The all-access documentary made off the back of this tour also earned an International Emmy nomination last year.

Soon after, Whisper CCO Geoff Riding and I picked up the conversation around how I could do more of the work that had got us to this point, from the Whisper HQ in London.

I landed in London on 13 October 2021, the day after the quarantine requirements were dropped.

Why did you go for it?

Outside of the radio work I still did in SA until my departure, I had built relationships with clients and projects well beyond the shores of that broadcast market well before the move.

During lockdown I was lucky enough to be able to deliver most of my work from my study, but I knew that a move to a place like the UK would probably be a sensible shift, sooner or later. Also, my husband is a golf producer, so there’s a neat overlap in that sense; being based here doesn’t hurt his career either.

Despite making the most of the freedom of being a freelancer for over a decade, and the great insight I gained from the short bursts of time I spent working with clients, I was craving more significance. I’ll forever be grateful to the colleagues I worked with at organisations like the International Skating Union, the ICC (on the Cricket world Cup in 2019 and the U19 Cricket World Cup in 2020) and at World Rugby (Rugby World Cup 2019 and various digital remote projects in 2020).

But these intense bursts of short term work – while offering a great thrill – really didn’t allow me to be part of a bigger project in a way that felt meaningful enough. It didn’t allow a lot of space to truly conceptualise and build something over a longer term and getting stuck in with a team. I craved the chance to be inhouse. To have some skin in the game.

Elma Smit getting involved at the World Tens Series, Bermuda October 2020

What was hard about getting the job, learning the role, and keeping it?

The life-admin component of making an international move is unbelievable. I had done a lot of prep around the immigration process previously and knew that it would be a bit of a slog. But I was only able to make this leap as efficiently as I did, because my husband remained behind to sell our house, prep our four rescue cats for their journey over and do all this while seeing out his last golf season for SuperSport.

Even though we were still wearing masks, being in London gave me enough bandwidth to really figure out what made Whisper the marvel of growth that it is. Initially, it felt like I had leapt from a gravel, country road into the middle of a very busy highway. It was dizzying!

Within a few weeks, Geoff mentioned we were pitching for a tennis contract with the LTA and I put my hand up to work on it. Before I knew it, we had won this contract, and I was leading on it. A year later we were pitching for Wimbledon and by the time I celebrated a year with Whisper we had won the rights to be their production partner too.

What do you enjoy about it?

I love working with a team. I have loved the puzzle of how to try and support everyone in the teams I’ve had the pleasure of working with. I like finding ways to encourage people to bring their unique skill to the party in a way that empowers and inspires everyone else. I find the journeys of people, where they’re from and where they’re going, deeply fascinating. I have also enjoyed seeing different styles of leadership and innovation, up close. To learn from, to have the chance to challenge and to try it on for size.

I find that where I’ve managed to listen to people well enough, they’ve been very accurate at predicting where they can help us achieve this a bit like you do when you’re hosting live sports coverage. I don’t have the best ideas, far from it – a lot of the time I’m just enjoying conducting traffic and creating a platform for the true specialists to shine!

What I crave is the power of the collective. To be able to go ask other people how they’re solving similar problems, to be able to lean on colleagues for counsel, input, feedback, and inspiration. To be on side, in a winning side, is a phenomenally powerful thing.

What challenges have you faced over the course of your career?

At first, I was too young, not enough experience.

Then I was too female, not enough credibility.

Later, even, I was too South African for certain opportunities.

And so, I can go on about the reasons why things didn’t happen in certain phases of my career. But I think that disappointment is probably a universal experience.

How much of it we process and bounce back from varies from person to person. Those who risk little, fail fewer times. I’m all for risking as much as possible and putting myself all the way out there for rejection because I shouldn’t be doing any of what I’m busy with, after all!

That’s where we build resilience; off the back of those challenges and rejections, both the fair ones, and what feels like unfair ones. The only difference between me and the next person is I’m absolutely relentless. Genuinely, ask Geoff Riding!

What’s the most challenging thing about working in live sport today, or generally, and why?

I think that a lot of people are over-awed by the live element. The pressure is no different from the pressure of playing sport or that of performance art.

The technical side of it you can learn, but thriving under that pressure is both the pleasure and the pain of it. And we have more capacity for that bravery to learn when we’re younger.

I think the longer you live, the more you realise what you don’t know. I certainly think that working in live radio and TV very early on in my development taught me a sense of freedom and allowed me to enjoy it, because I could still go back to practice law the next year – that’s what I told myself at 22, anyway!

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