In the mid 1990s, I worked as a reporter at BBC Radio Solent in Southampton. On returning to the U.K. in 2007, I visited the newsroom to find it unrecognizable. The digital revolution hadn’t just transformed the technology. Almost all the reporters were gone. I don’t mean the people I once knew and worked with. I mean the category ‘reporter.’ Where did they all go? I presumed this was due to cuts in the budget. While I was there, we had a team of around 10-12 reporters and producers who put together around five hours of local news per day, more or less, while also presenting five minutes of local and national news at the top of the hour. My next two blog posts are some recollections of my time working there. Hope you enjoy them. Here’s a short glossary to help.
Package – pre-recorded news report.
Feed – audio of clip related to a national new story (eg. Short clip of PM talking) which was recorded and played during the bulletin at the top of the hour.
Cart – cartridge on which a clip played on a loop. Re-useable after magnetizing the tape in a machine.
NEWSROOM – PART ONE
There’s a lot of one-upmanship in a local BBC newsroom. A lot of egos bashing into each other. A lot of kudos goes to the reporter who knows who the councillor for East Trent is and the name of her dog, especially if Jill Humpleston can comment on the latest flea outbreak in the region’s kennels. They like murders the best though. Murders, hopefully double murders, are the news most reporters salivate over. Young reporters would pretend they were Michael Buerk or some other big name and drop the tenor of their voice to show gravitas and self-importance. I covered a couple of double murders and, if this isn’t too morbid to admit, loved every minute of both.
The stress of the job, however, was often stratospheric. Different shifts held varying levels of responsibility. The early shift was considered the most prestigious one, the one we were supposed to crave. But have you any idea how much tension exists in a newsroom at six in the morning? It is frankly palpable. Walking in at that time of the morning is like walking into a room after two people have been arguing. In fact, since there’s someone there from television AND radio, they often have. Someone has unplugged a piece of equipment or forgotten to leave the door unlocked or some other infraction. Almost anything is enough to rise that microscopic amount necessary to spark confrontation. In this heady atmosphere you just have to open your mouth to say the wrong thing.
I remember walking into the newsroom for my morning shifts as the early reporter. They decided to set the schedule so that the early reporter arrived half an hour after the morning producer had begun work. This achieved two things. It was sufficient time to give the producer bowel-moving panic on finding that some of the pre-recorded packages had mistakes in them and it was also enough time for the producer to realise that s/he was trying to cope with enough work for three people on a good day with a following wind. S/he had to produce the morning news programme .. and get the news…and write the news…and read the news…and deal with breaking stories…and copy the feed from London that contained all the cuts for the national stories. It’s just not possible to do this without eating at least one poor reporter for breakfast.
When I first began, it was nothing short of a nightmare. I felt like the stupid clown in the circus, the one who always gets hit in the face or falls over buckets. It was so humiliating. The producer would demand that I voice this, cut that and look up all the stories that were worth anything on the wires. Call the emergency services. Call the lifeguard. Call your mother. Find some news. If there was no news, then ‘make some up before I skin you alive!’
I was always a few steps behind. The producer was already annoyed at me for not being there when s/he was. For him/her, I was two projects behind. And why couldn’t I keep up? I don’t know how many times s/he would huff and say, ‘it’s okay, I’ll do it’ and send me off to do something mundane like cleaning carts. (‘Carts’ is simply jargon for cartridges on which news clips were recorded. The whole radio world is awash with jargon. It made us feel important. )
I don’t know about you but panic induces remarkably irrational behaviour in me. The greater the pressure, the more I lose perspective. I remember one occasion when I acted like a rabbit in front of the proverbial headlights. I was working with my least favourite producer, the one whose posting to Northern Scotland to cover local agricultural policy would have been greeted with smiles all round. I had picked up on a story about a car crash with two or three fatalities that was blocking up traffic for miles. My imagination began to work. Imagine. The cars collide head-on. Metal tears, bodies are thrown about. There’s blood, sirens, people gathering to look. It was suddenly too exciting for me to resist. Never mind that traffic accidents have to be on a motorway and kill at least forty people in the fog before they register anything in the news. At the moment at which I was writing this exciting development about lost souls, I was also told to grapple with the latest unemployment figures.
Now come on, which is more exciting? So there I am, tinkering around with my traffic accident, trying to work out how to write it and the clock is moving inexorably towards the top of the hour. I could see it happening. The producer comes over and asks if the unemployment story is written and I tell him ‘not yet’, I’m dealing with the fatal traffic accident. He’s completely dismissive of the loss of life. He says something like, ‘oh just give me a couple of lines on that’. I can’t cope with his callous dismissal of bent cars and wounded people. It doesn’t register in my mind. I continue typing with moist fingers. ‘Do the unemployment story, it’s leading the news’ he says before walking away to gather up his stories.
I have approximately five minutes to write it. You have no idea what that piece of information can do to your bowel muscles, do you? It’s not funny. So I’m floundering. I have a slew of paper covered in figures sitting on the desk in front of me, five minutes and I’m struggling to control my bladder. Phones are ringing, my head is hurting, my vision is starting to blur and the producer is clearly agitated. One of the veins in his forehead is beginning to pulsate. Fortunately, one of the other producers helps me out. Bashes at the keyboard and writes the story for me. Not without the rather sniffy, “come on, you should be able to do this by now” attitude but what could I do? Explain that the traffic accident had taken on a life of its own in my head and it was to blame for my incompetence? In the end, the traffic accident didn’t even register its two lines at the end of the news. It was that unimportant.
My finest hour? Without question it was reporting from one of the polling stations during a local election. I can still remember it like it was yesterday. My one moment of glory was going to be a live interview of the three main candidates for about three minutes, then a hand-back to the studio. In the end, two parties were represented by three men, and they weren’t even the candidates, just their party managers. Or perhaps the party treasurer. See that rung on the ladder? Yup. The bottom one. I hoped to climb onto it. Eventually.
So, having been put on ‘live,’ I’m looking at the three men and I can only remember the names of two of them. Their names had been given to me just seconds before and for the life of me, I couldn’t remember the name of the guy who was shifting from foot to foot in front of me. Was it Barry? No. What about Bill? Yes, I think it’s Bill. But Bill who? While one of them was answering a question, I almost whispered to him, ‘hey, you, what’s your name?’ but I was too scared. In the end, I simply ignored him. He was like a spectator at Wimbledon, watching the microphone swish to and fro in front of him, while failing to stop under his mouth. After a couple of minutes, I gave up trying to remember his name and handed back to the studio. I expected a tirade, but fortunately, he seemed rather shy. As for me, my admiration for news presenters sky-rocketed. How many unfortunates sit in front of microphones or cameras each day, wishing that their auto-cue would go a little faster or that they could remember the name of the Councillor for East Trent?
You know the one. She’s er, you-know-who. Jill something. The one who breeds Dachsunds.