For Jess Davidson, a career behind the microphone happened accidentally – and it all started in North Otago. Oamaru Mail editor Rebecca Ryan catches up with the former television and radio host and asks about her new venture – Smile and Pod.
Ask Jess Davidson where she is from and she will proudly respond “Kurow”.
The former television and radio host has fond memories of growing up in the Hakataramea Valley. Her talent for public speaking was first discovered when she was a pupil at Kurow Area School and she got her first job in radio in Oamaru.
“North Otago, Oamaru – it’s the place I found myself, I guess you could say, for better or worse,” Davidson said.
These days, Davidson is living in Rangiora, near Christchurch, with her 6-year-old son, Quinn, and has launched her own podcast – Smile and Pod – to inspire people to follow their dreams by hearing the stories of successful New Zealanders.
Her life, in her words, had been strange and definitely not planned.
“It’s one I’ve fallen into at each stage, but I guess that’s how life works, really”, she said.
Davidson moved to the Hakataramea Valley with her family when she was young. Her parents were dairy farmers and lived somewhat of a nomadic lifestyle, but settled in the Kurow area for most of her childhood.
After leaving school, she had several different part-time jobs to make ends meet, including stable work at the Oamaru Racecourse, telemarketing and cleaning at Radio Waitaki.
A career behind the microphone happened accidentally.
When she was cleaning the Radio Waitaki studio one day, she was asked to voice a radio advertisement.
“It was just out of the blue and they needed a new voice,” she said.
Her talent was noticed and she fell into a career in broadcasting, moving on to work in radio in Timaru, Taupo and Christchurch.
“It was kind of a fortuitous thing that happened – and I never had any hankering to get into radio, but it was just such a cool experience,” she said.
While working for The Radio Network in Christchurch, Davidson was training horses as a hobby.
An interest in harness racing had been sparked at age 13, while living in Kurow, when she was given a yearling and some old harness gear from her grandfather.
“I literally used to work it in the paddock, just go round and round in the paddock before I went to school,” she said.
So when she saw a job come up in the Harness Racing New Zealand marketing department, she jumped at the opportunity.
“I knew that I somehow always wanted to be involved, but being a driver is certainly not the easiest way of life, so I was just fortunate that it ended up . . . being I could do marketing and media and promote it,” she said.
That led to a job at Trackside in Wellington as a television and radio host and producer.
It was not a direction she had planned to go in and being on live national TV in front of a male-dominated audience was a steep learning curve and an “eye-opening experience for a young female”.
After 10 years at Trackside, she was drawn back to the South and Harness Racing New Zealand, this time as the organisation’s ownership and marketing co-ordinator.
It was a role she was passionate about and she enjoyed promoting the harness racing industry in mainstream media and trying to get new blood into horse ownership.
During that time, she started the Smile and Pod podcast. The idea came to her as she got sick of listening to the same music on her 45-minute commute to Harness Racing New Zealand each day and turned her attention to podcasts.
She bought some recording gear and started firing off emails to contacts who she thought would be interesting to interview, including Jason Gunn, Nathan Wallace, Antonia Prebble and Verity Johnston.
“I was surprised that they started going when can I do it?’,” she said.
The podcast, which she records and edits herself, started as a passion project, which she hoped would inspire and encourage people to follow their passion and make what they love their life.
It has now become her full-time job and next month she will celebrate a year since she the first episode was released.
Davidson has faced several challenges in her own life and career, and said she had enjoyed deep diving into other people’s journeys and helping listeners find inspiration from their stories of challenges, passion and success.
“If I get to go and talk to someone and have the privilege of hearing what they’ve gone through, that makes me feel good about what I’m doing,” she said.
In lockdown, she launched a series of shorter, daily podcasts – starting with comedian Urzila Carlson.
“I talk to people about how they are dealing with [lockdown], what they’re doing, how they’re feeling mentally, and maybe some tips around getting through,” she said.
Naming the podcast had been one of the biggest challenges – Smile and Pod was a nod to her career at Trackside.
“Being a female in the racing industry you had to smile and nod quite a lot.
“We’ve all got to smile and nod to get through life sometimes and it was just a play on words, but it also fitted in because we’re trying to inspire people to break out and not just sit back and be a wallflower any more, to take a chance.”
Apart from selling the odd advertisement, she does not make any money from the podcast, so she also does consultancy work and has an audio recording service to bring in some income.
And she still has a hand in the harness racing industry.
“I breed them and I’ve had a little bit of success,” she said.
“But it’s more about the process of breeding it and seeing it grow and going through the emotional rollercoaster that comes with these bloody animals.
“There’s something about it – I don’t think you’ll ever get out of it.”