“Congratulations! We are pleased to inform you that you have been selected to attend our Women in Radio Day at BBC Broadcasting House, London on Thursday 20th March.”
This is the email I received on Valentine’s Day whilst eating my breakfast in Miami Beach! You can read about the events leading up to to getting this email in my previous blog post. I ended that article with the words:
“It would be an understatement to say I was thrilled – this was perhaps an opportunity for a different career path, something I could develop alongside singing, maybe combining lots of things I loved with life experience. It was an open ended opportunity to do something……I just didn’t quite know what.”
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The big day of the Women In Radio London Event had arrived. We had been emailed a schedule for the day’s events and even temporary BBC WiFi log in details. I’d done my best to prepare for the day. I had re-read the blogs of two participants on the Manchester and Birmingham Events. I’d written down questions I wanted to ask in a shiny new pad bought especially for the day, read the newspapers and listened to local radio non stop – that wasn’t so hard as I am a regular listener. I’d googled the event speakers so I knew their backgrounds and what they looked like and followed and tweeted those who were on Twitter – including Sara David, the Managing Editor of my local station, Radio Sussex, to ask if she’d be attending.
In our application we’d had to state our local stations in order of preference. I live in Hove, so Sussex was my first choice – Surrey and Kent were the other two, although they’re both quite far away. Unfortunately there’s not a local pirate radio station in the sea at the end of my road so this cuts off 50% of geographical possibilities. By the time I actually set off for London I was ridiculously nervous.
I can sing in front of thousands of people but this was the great unknown and so far outside my comfort zone that it was off the horizon.
We had to be at BBC Broadcasting House in Portland Place by 8.30 am. I didn’t want to risk the trains being up the spout and decided to go up the night before to stay overnight with an actor friend. He was keen to watch the new comedy programme made by the makers of Twenty Twelve called W1A.
It was set in exactly the same building I was to spend the next day in and cleverly satirized BBC bureaucracy and the jargon surrounding broadcasting. It was the perfect thing to watch to stop me taking it all too seriously.
I set off on the tube and jostled with all the tired commuters. I’d spent some time thinking what to wear – smart but not too smart, casual but not scruffy. I felt like I was starting a new school and felt equally as nervous. I got there half an hour early and sat down for a coffee and croissant and tried to think up more questions. I’d read the paper on the way in, as I knew one of the tasks was to do a newspaper review. There was a story on lung cancer and women – not much fun but unfortunately a combination of my recent specialist subjects so I wondered if I should pick that. (See my previous blog). NO! – I was determined to find a lighter subject.
As I walked up to the reception, I thought of last night’s episode of W1A and chuckled to myself. There were people dressed in black wearing earpieces and microphone headsets with clipboards. (for those of you who saw W1A, I was dying to ask if they were interns – on reflection though, they were far too efficient). A young man checked me off the list and I noticed that I had been assigned Radio Kent – my third choice. I had to fight off an enormous wave of childish disappointment. Fortunately in the cafe earlier, Sara David had replied to my tweet saying she would be there and looked forward to meeting me. All the scared-looking women were given security pass and we all signed a waiver to allow the BBC to film and take photos throughout the day. The good news was that I was in the blue group. This put me in my ideal order for the workshops and it’s also my favourite colour – surely a good omen?
Group Blue’s agenda was Interviewing, Newspaper Review and finally ‘Speed Dating’. (A friend once told me that he would never do speed dating as it was just an excuse for 50 people to reject you within an hour). Today’s Speed Dating was when we could ask lots of important people our searching and intelligent questions. I hadn’t really pinned down exactly what I wanted to ask, so I figured that it would give me some time to formulate some better questions than the ones I had written in my special pad. (Correct stationary is always a cover for nerves).
Despite my advanced age and experience, I was still (like most women here it turned out) terrified of failing or getting it wrong. To be honest, I didn’t know exactly what we were here for. I knew we were probably being observed and certainly recorded during the review section – but to what end it wasn’t really clear. I’m one of those people who likes to have the rules clear in my head before I play a game, so all of the unknowns were really doing my head in.
I grabbed a glass of water (I daren’t have any more caffeine) and started to chat to some of the other women there. It was a real mixture of ages – me, definitely being at the upper end, but I was by no means alone in that. Everyone was very friendly and confessed to being just as scared as me. We were given a pack with a new reporter’s pad in it (bugger!), sat down and were welcomed by Wendy Pilmer, our host for the day (trainer extraordinaire and also it turns out a talented garden designer). Everything kicked off with a montage of our submitted audio clips superimposed onto upbeat music. Everyone sounded great – one girl had even recorded hers whilst running in her park – a brilliant idea! Wendy then congratulated us all and told us that we had been selected from over 1000 applicants and urged us to enjoy the day and seize every opportunity that was offered to us.
Jane Garvey from Woman’s hour and Anna King from Radio Gloucestershire then took to the stage and talked about their careers and also took questions. Their self-effacing attitudes gave me heart. They told us the shocking fact that when they started, they weren’t allowed to play two female singers in a row. Somebody asked about the current climate of social media and had they had problems with internet trolls – Anna said ‘bugger them’ – but went on to tell us that not everybody would like what you had to say, but it was important to be yourself and you had to have an opinion on local radio to provoke discussion – the trick was to try to maintain a balance during that discussion.
I asked Jane Garvey how much of her own opinion would she allow into her interviews on Woman’s Hour and did she have to be very careful about that. She laughed and declared “I can’t tell you how careful I TRY to be” but went on to tell us candidly about a recent interview. She felt she’d made a mistake when she had unintentionally implied she couldn’t understand the world of the woman she was interviewing because of her own life situation – inadvertently setting herself and women like her apart from the interviewee. Jane confessed that she’d really regretted that. I asked if she’d had to apologize on air. Strangely, she said, nobody had complained, so the producers felt if they made a big apology, it would draw too much attention to a point they didn’t want to perpetuate. I was left thinking that her integrity, and the fact she still cared so much was the key to her success as a journalist.
We were then taken off by our very own Blue Stage Manager to the workshop on interviewing.
Jane Kingham taught us about open and closed questioning and how to use ‘active listening’. She gave us lots of good examples of good and bad interviews. One very funny one was when a 5 live presenter had tried to interview a young lad about being selected to train with a big football team. Because he didn’t give the lad time to answer, used far too adult language and mostly suggested the reply to every question, the boy was reduced to monosyllabic answers. We were put into groups of four where we practiced interviewing each other and the other two checked how well we were using the skills we had learned.
At the end of our session, Jane played us a recording of Eddie Mair interviewing the twin brother of David Rathband. He was the policeman who was blinded by gunman Raoul Moat and later, tragically committed suicide. The tender way that Eddie asked intelligent questions and gave the grieving man space to express himself was both a salutary lesson in good interviewing technique and a moving interview that reduced me to tears.
I felt this session set me up for the whole day and challenged me to try and take the time to actively listen to all the people I would meet during the day. Not to jump in with my own comments and questions before I’d understood what they were actually saying.
The sessions were interspersed with coffee and a lunch buffet where we were encouraged to make a bee line to the radio presenters and BBC employees. I managed to meet Sara and found out she was part of the Speed dating event so I could just try and get to know her and find out what she did and save specific questions for later.
Then came the Paper Review. This took part in the Radio 3 ‘In Tune’ studio where I’d recently sung in a live broadcast segment with vocal group Alamire. We were split into two groups and had to choose a news story to discuss with four other participants. The mock programme was overseen by BBC Nottingham presenter Frances Finn. Apart from choosing your story you had to work as a team to get a balance of fun and serious stuff. I chose a story about accelerated degree courses where you can take a degree in two years instead of three. Interestingly this was available immediately after World War 2. I wanted to ask the question, if you went back to college now could you do it in a shorter time and learn more because you were more motivated? Producer Chris Ledgard told us that the first group were so careful not to butt in that there was a danger that the discussion wasn’t lively enough and he encouraged us all to be brave and pitch in. The difficulty was to make sure you contributed, but didn’t talk over the others, especially as all the equipment meant I couldn’t see everybody around the table. We then went into the control room to watch the other team, which was equally as fascinating as you could hear the producer giving Frances time cues in her headphones. We also got an inkling of the skill she used to link all the points from each contributor within the allotted time.
After a networking lunch (head exploding by then!) was the Speed Dating. I had a great chat with presenter Anna King about how she chose and influenced the content for her shows. We were given a really helpful booklet by the HR department representatives, optimistically entitled “Planning for a successful career” with advice on CV writing and loads of useful content and contacts. One thing that was becoming very apparent was for youngsters starting out in the business, it was a good idea to just go and get any job at the BBC – answering phones or sweeping up. Anything – just get your foot in the door. This way you could be on hand to volunteer, make yourself indispensible, learn how to do things and more importantly have access to BBC positions that were only internally advertised.
As I was feeling overwhelmed by possibilities and seeing no obvious path, I hoped the man in charge of training would give me a nice course I could go on. (Clinging to practical steps you see). He sensed my panic and told me not to underestimate the power of being selected to go on this Women In Radio event. This, apparently was my ticket to make people notice me – or at the very least, to agree to sit down with me for a coffee. I was still wondering if I’d missed the boat and I was too old to consider such a big change of direction. To be honest, taking a job on minimum wages just didn’t seem a possible or sensible option for me.
Right at the end, last but certainly not least, I met Sadi Nine from Radio Essex. Wow – what an inspiring woman! She asked me why I was there and I meeped on about hitting my big birthday and spending the last year caring for two dying friends and feeling I needed to grab onto life and be brave. She told me that in the last year she had breast cancer, a mastectomy and was undergoing chemotherapy whilst carrying on with her Radio Show – I’m sure she won’t mind me sharing this, as I asked her if she talks about it on her show. She told me that she jokes on air about ‘Wendy the Wig” which she wears after losing her own hair. Sadi firmly told me that age meant nothing – it was all about your attitude to life and also reassured me that radio needed strong mature women. “Women in their 50s don’t want to listen to some young thing who’s not experienced everything that life can throw at them.”
THAT told me!
The day ended with Helen Boaden, the Director of Radio and David Holdsworth, the Controller of BBC English Regions. This was more of a general question session about the future of Radio. Helen told us that she’d recently visited a school where she’d asked how many children had listened to a particular band on Radio 1. Only a third had. When asked who had seen the same band on Radio One’s YouTube channel, most children put their hand up. Children nowadays never listen to an actual ‘radio’ in the way that we do. Her conclusion was that radio has to grow and adapt to survive.
After a final photo in front of Lord Reith and a very welcome glass of wine, I left the BBC with a CD of my newspaper review show and the email address off the Editor of Radio Kent who is ‘expecting to hear from me within the next 12 weeks’. I also had safely in my handbag Sara David’s card, who encouraged me to call her to meet up.
On the train home my head was spinning with more questions than answers, but I felt privileged and grateful to have been included in this inspiring day with our select group of 30 talented women.
Watch this space……
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