The BBC Women in Radio event was not at all what I expected. I had read about the BBC’s commitment to increasing the number of female voices on local radio, and I was hugely excited to have won one of the twenty external places available for the day. I anticipated an interesting, informative and probably inspirational day, where I would meet some people and learn a little more about what it’s like to work in radio.
I know I was not alone in finding my expectations blown sky high barely half an hour into the day. We were welcomed with the announcement that we were the top 5% of applicants, and that all of us had the potential to be radio presenters. We were told that this day was far more than simply tokenism: it was a genuine search for new talent, and if we were prepared to play our part in shaping our futures, the BBC was prepared to help us.
We began by hearing from two successful female presenters: BBC Radio Somerset’s Emma Britton, and Women’s Hour Jane Garvey, who admitted to spending most of her childhood perfecting her radio voice. Emma fell into presenting by accident: she was invited onto local radio to promote her business, became a regular contributor, and then got a job as a Broadcasting Assistant. Then, she said, ‘the thing that never happens, happened: the presenter was sick.’ Emma stepped in, and she has never looked back.
Jane shared her career highlights with her trademark wit and clarity. She bemoaned the lack of women in radio (‘particularly on Radio Two – my personal bugbear’), but felt she had never been sidelined because of her gender. ‘In fact,’ she said, ‘I probably got promoted precisely because I was a women. We shouldn’t forget that side of things.’
When asked what single piece of advice they would give a new presenter, both women said the same: put your audience first. ‘Before you open your mouth,’ Jane said, ‘ask yourself if this is going to interest your listeners. If it isn’t, don’t say it.’
The delegates were split into three groups of ten, to move round the three workshops during the course of the day. Various senior members of staff were with us all day, quietly observing and making themselves available for questions.
My group began with a ‘speed-dating’ exercise which gave us ten minutes with a variety of BBC experts. We spoke with Human Resources Business Partners, presenters, producers and editors, and although my head was reeling by the end, I had a notebook stuffed with scribbled notes, and a host of contacts.
Next up was interviewing, which was probably my favourite part of the day. My only experience of formal interview training was on my CID course as a rookie detective, and I was surprised to see how similar it was. Open questions and active listening are key, but Jane Kinghorn (an experienced broadcaster who now trains BBC journalists) also emphasised the need to find the questions which ‘unlock’ the stories: the questions other people might not ask. Everyone has a story, she told us: our job is to find it.
A networking lunch brought us together with more BBC staff from around the country, and then we were onto our third workshop, which for my group was a studio session to record a review of the newspapers. Our presenter Frances Finn skilfully linked the stories we had each pulled out from the papers, and lead us in a discussion about each one. The programme was swiftly turned around so we could take a CD home with us in order to evaluate our performance.
The final segment of the day was a talk from Helen Boaden, Director of Radio, and David Holdsworth, Controller BBC English Regions, both of whom had been with us for the whole day. Helen has an impressive BBC CV, and remains passionate about the connection radio offers the listener. ‘Radio is a collective experience,’ she said, ‘but an incredibly personal one. Chris Evans is so popular because each of his 15 million listeners feel as though he is speaking just to them.’
We closed the day with a discussion about our next steps. David explained that the editors of our local BBC Radio stations had been given our details and were expecting us to contact them in the next 12 weeks. It was a very tangible and practical takeaway from the day, and I doubt there was a single person in the room who wasn’t already planning that meeting in their mind.
I was blown away by the energy and drive I saw from the rest of the delegates, and by the commitment and generosity of the speakers. I don’t know yet what I’ll be doing with the opportunity I’ve been given, but I do know I’ll be making the most of it.
There are two more BBC Women in Radio days planned for spring 2014, so if this has whetted your appetite, why not apply? You’ll need a CV, an idea for a local radio programme, and a short audio clip. Don’t worry about complicated editing software: I recorded mine on my phone. Here it is…
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