Being a radio reporter
A freelance radio reporter, most recently with the BBC, explains her work and offers tips on getting into radio.
What does a radio reporter do?
Radio reporters are similar in many ways to other reporters, insofar as they cover news stories. This means keeping a news diary and building up a network of contacts in your "patch", whether that be your local area, your country, or internationally. For radio specifically, what one is interested in is good sound, in the same way that television reporters are specifically concerned with good pictures. You are, therefore, looking for sound that illustrates your story, whether this takes the form of recorded interviews, live audio feeds from news conferences, sound effects, and so on. This can bring an otherwise dull radio piece to life. Your job as a radio reporter is partly to make the listener feel as though they are on the scene with you, as events unfold.
The other point to make about radio is that it can be an instantaneous media. You can make a live broadcast from anywhere in the world nowadays, using technology like satellite phones (which give studio-standard quality of sound no matter where you are, as long as there's a satellite you can bounce your signal off). With this in mind, your hourly news reports can be updated in ways that television and newspapers find more difficult. Newspapers have to wait until the next day; television has to wait for more good pictures to come in.
What's the best thing about working as a radio reporter?
The immediacy of the medium is one of the things that many radio reporters find enjoyable. Radio is also built on the principle of speech; you're having a conversation with the listener, and that makes it a very personal medium.
What's the worst or hardest thing about the job?The worst thing about the job is that you really can't go into a lot of detail about a story. It's not like newspaper journalism, where a reader can re-read a story to make sure they've understood it fully. Radio is heard once, and once only, before it disappears into outer space. So you have to be concise, succinct and leave out a lot of detail that can give a print story depth. For that reason, analysis of current affairs is not easy on radio. Facts and figures have to be spread sparely through a story, or you will lose the listener's concentration.
One is also held hostage to technology; you may have a great recording on your minidisc, but if you drop it or bump it, you can lose everything. A wayward source of magnetism can wipe a tape clean. A live feed can drop out in the middle of a broadcast. Factors like these can make radio very stressful to work in.
What skills and personality traits do you need to be a successful radio reporter?
You need to develop strong interviewing skills to make it in radio. You need to be able to put a subject at ease, because if they're nervous, you can hear it in their voice. You need to be able to respond quickly with follow-up questions or comments, so that your recorded conversation sounds like a conversation, and not like an interview. You need to keep your questions short.
In terms of technical skills, you need to be comfortable with editing equipment - whether that's digital editing or quarter inch tape, and you need to have an ear for good sound. A well-crafted radio programme can sound wonderful; a badly crafted one, where little thought or skill has gone into creative editing or interviewing, is boring to listen to. You also need strong script-writing skills.
What kind of voice do you need?
You would be surprised at the kinds of voices that make it onto the radio. In these days of encouragement for regional and international accents, the goalposts have shifted quite a way from where they used to be. You need to develop the ability not to say "Um", not to pause, and to speak in short sentences which make sense. That's a skill you can practice and learn. You need to speak clearly, and you should also practice reading smoothly aloud, so that you don't stumble when you're on air. Above all, you need to sound as though you know what you're talking about. Make a recording of yourself and ask yourself, do I sound authoritative? Nervous? Unsure? Convinced? Pleasant and friendly?
How did you get into the industry?
I started out by volunteering at a student radio station at my university. It's a great way to learn the basics, because you wind up doing everything, from coming up with story ideas to interviewing, editing and studio-producing. I did that for two years, two evenings a week. Then I spent a year working at a public radio station in the USA on a gap year as a volunteer. I moved to Britain eight years ago, and offered freelance packages to the BBC. I did that for a couple of years, before taking time away from radio to work on a newspaper for a year. Then I applied for a job with the BBC World Service and was successful.
How would you advise people to prepare themselves for a career in radio journalism?
Be prepared to do a LOT of unpaid work experience, with a view to building up SKILLS. Don't let yourself be exploited, but try to accumulate as many skills as possible. That way, when you do apply for full-time jobs, you won't be going in at the very bottom and having to compete to climb up the ladder. The better your skills are before you join a news organisation like the BBC, the higher up the ladder you'll go in, and the less low-paid hard slog you'll have to do when you get there. Try to avoid paying for training, by doing "training" as a volunteer.
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