As I stood on the stage of Wembley Arena last week, impersonating Boris Johnson in rehearsals for the BBC EU referendum debate, it struck me just how many unexpected experiences I’ve had during my year as a trainee Broadcast Journalist. Here I was under the hot studio lights, on a massive Starship Enterprise-style set, being cross-examined by the real David Dimbleby with the Head of BBC News James Harding sat in the front row looking on intently.
As the rehearsal ended and the stand-in debaters were ordered off the stage, a sound man approached me to help remove my head-set mic. As he did, he winked and whispered: “So, you’ll be the next Prime Minister, then?” I laughed and quickly replied. “Oh no. I just want to be a journalist.” Because unlike the sound man, I wasn’t being paid for my BoJo impression. I was on placement.
Because when you sign-up to part with £9,000 and enrol on a post-grad journalism course, there’s an unwritten rule that you use whatever spare time you have to work for media outlets for free. Some call it ‘work experience’, others ‘work placements’, the unhappy or begrudging ‘unpaid internships’. But whatever the label, the principles are fairly universal:
- You send hundreds of desperate, pleading emails to anyone in a senior position of a media outlet that you can think of and beg them to allow you to work for their team.
- If you’re lucky enough to get a reply, you agree a mutually beneficial time and pencil in a week – or two – of experience.
- You turn up and agree to do whatever they require of you.
- You work your bloody socks off and invariably get ill or injured during, and either way are totally knackered by the end of it.
The voice of the people
A far cry from the Wembley Arena stage, my first work placements of the year were in commercial radio newsrooms. Over the Christmas break I spent just under a month working at two of Britain’s biggest radio groups: Bauer (owners of Magic, Absolute, Kiss) and Global (LBC, Capital, Heart, Classic FM, Radio X and Smooth).
A lot of my time was spent getting ‘vox pops’. Listen carefully and you’ll find that almost every second commercial radio news bulletin contains a soundbite of a ‘normal person’ giving their (invariably strong and, sometimes distasteful) views. The jargon ‘vox pop’ is from the Latin ‘Vox populi’, or ‘voice of the people’.
In fairness, it’s a fairly good task to give the journalism student. It gets you out of the office, where invariably there isn’t a desk for you so you’re perched awkwardly in the corner trying to look both busy, yet approachable. However, it sounds a lot easier than it is.
My first vox pop was on new research about the cost of Christmas shopping. So I picked up a sound recorder and headed onto Oxford Street. Where I soon discovered that trying to get Londoners to stop in the street is a very tough task. You quickly resemble a desperate charity worker or satellite TV salesman and people just don’t want to know. Smokers stood in office doorways soon become your best friends. Their love of the death sticks mean they’re cornered and can’t escape. A little bit of charm and they’re quickly giving you their best ‘gobby man on the street’ impression.
Royal fanfare on the bongos
You often hear that one of the privileges of being a journalist is being able to meet some amazing people. And the work experience boy isn’t immune to such privileges. In fact, staff cuts in many newsrooms mean that you’re more likely to be sent out on an interesting job than many of the full-time journalists tied to their desks.
That was just my luck, when Bauer sent me to cover a visit by the Duchess of Cambridge to a primary school in north London. I was the official ‘royal rota’ radio reporter, which allowed me unrestricted access to HRH. I gave my name to the policeman on the school gate and was through the cordon, leaving the tabloid paparazzi in my wake.
In the purposes of full disclosure, I am a bit of a closet royalist, so was always likely to enjoy such an task. But what struck while I watched her elegantly play a bongo drum was not Kate herself – although she’s just as beautiful and angelic as you’d imagine – but the affect she had on the children. They seemed genuinely in awe of her and kid after kid told me how they’d never forget the day.
Away from the glamour though, some of the most inspiring people I’ve met have not been royals or celebrities but those with amazing and, at times, tragic personal experiences. The mother of a young man killed by a drunk driver, the transgender person mistreated by their GP, the families of the victims of the Hillsborough disaster, the suicidal man turned mental health campaigner. Meeting these people reminded me of why I wanted to go into journalism.
Breaking news: 24/7
In Spring 2016, I was back in placement mode once again, this time ditching the radio microphone for the TV camera as I visited the newsrooms of BBC Breakfast and Sky News.
Being able to work a night shift in the Beeb’s Salford HQ was a demanding experience. Sadly, my body clock hadn’t allowed me to sleep beforehand so I arrived at 9pm, having been awake for 12 hours and knowing that I wasn’t going to see a bed again until 10am the next day. But the sheer enjoyment of being there and getting stuck-in kept me awake and alert. I also got my first experience of writing a script for a major TV programme, which actually got used. Seeing Bill Turnbull and Louise Minchin reading my words was very scary. Had I made a silly mistake? Was it utter shit? Was it even in English? But it seemed to go unnoticed. Which I judged a success.
After Breakfast I went to Sky News during a busy fortnight for major news stories; including the Hillsborough verdicts, President Obama’s visit to the UK, The Queens’s 90th Birthday, and the death of Prince. The pace was relentless but energising. I felt like a marathon runner who ends a race exhausted but suddenly wanting to do it all over again. My guests, scripts, pictures, and even voice (for a translation) made it on the air and were seen by millions. I even managed to accompany one of Sky’s political correspondents to a UKIP rally, which was eye-opening to say the least!
Unlike Boris, I’m not out of a job
Whereas the real Boris Johnson has failed in his lifelong ambition to be Prime Minister, my bid to break into journalism seems to have paid off. Because, while the referendum campaign turned out to be the job interview from hell for Boris, my placements ended up being a great opportunity for me. After a year spent pretending to be a journalist, I’m lucky enough to be starting a proper job back in one of the newsrooms that I visited on placement. And I couldn’t be happier. Even if a tiny part of me will miss the excitement, variety and, at times, bizarre experiences of work placements. KB