Ex-BBC Journalist Shares Her Top Tips

Sue Cook

Sue Cook is a former BBC journalist who worked on many of the broadcaster’s flagship programmes

by @amitacjoshi 

“I was shy as a child and felt maybe I would find a job where I could prove myself without having to speak volumes.”

These were the words of Sue Cook, former BBC broadcaster, as she addressed a hall of aspiring journalists at Brunel University.

It was strange to think anyone who’d had a career behind the mic and then in front of the camera could be so shy. And what a career it has been.

Headhunted by the BBC after working at Capital Radio, Sue’s talent took her from presenting Radio 4’s You and Yours to TV’s Breakfast Time, Children in Need and Crimewatch – to name a few.

“When I was younger, girls were trained to be wives” she reminisced. “As the elder sibling, I thought it was unfair that my brothers didn’t have to do all of those chores.

“I saw my mum trapped at home with three kids while my dad worked in London. She’d ask for money if she needed anything.

“That early experience made me think to myself I don’t want to be trapped, or depend on anyone for money.”

Where it all began was Sue’s passion for words and languages, which led to an interest in being a columnist and writer.

“You get a shock when you realise you can’t just walk into your dream job” she smiled.

After exploring lots of potential roles, she took the closest she could find – sorting through filing cabinets at Reader’s Digest. From there, she became a researcher, a “boring, tedious job” from which she was eventually fired because she was never any good at it.

It wasn’t until she spotted an ad for a new commercial radio station coming to London – Capital Radio – that her luck began to chance.

In a time where commercial radio had only begun to take off in the UK, the opportunity seemed intriguing to a young Sue. She took her CV to what was then quite literally a building site and applied.

She was successful – and soon she was put on air for the first time, handling one of the first call-ins of UK radio.

“We became known as cuddly capital because our call-ins were so interactive, I guess because there were a lot of lonely people in the city,” she said.

Being a part of the first call-ins wasn’t the only ‘first’ Sue witnessed as she progressed.

As consumerism rose, new radio strands included a daily ‘price bulletin’ to keep listeners informed on the latest costs of everyday items.

Soon, Sue had become a part of this rising trend, calling London street markets at 6am to find out the latest and delivering it to those who tuned in.

“I even took on DJ’ing because I loved finding new music and was interested in pop culture,” said Sue.

“Yes, I was nervous and my first time on air was terrifying and I was shaking, but the team were all incredibly supportive.

“I fought shyness through university but soon enough you’ve got to force yourself into situations which terrify you.

“It is incredibly exciting if something’s still only at the ground level, like Capital was at the time.”

From Capital Sue was headhunted by the BBC, securing a role at Radio 4’s You and Yours.

“I was optimistic” she laughed, “I just had this idea that I liked the sound of it, so I’d go for it. And if anyone was ever on holiday, I would step in, which is always a great way to find your way in.”

After her time with Radio 4, her career turned to television. Here, Sue attributed the relaxed, on air persona to “her sense of fun”.

“When you’re on TV, the shyness steps aside because you have a role to play and you play the part.

“It helps that those around you feel confident in you – and having a clear script and direction gives you confidence too.”

She described her first time on the newly formed daytime and breakfast TV as one of the most exciting, enjoyable times of her career.

What would she say to aspiring journalists?

“I learned what it was like having a boring job and wouldn’t miss that experience for the world. I wanted to be admired for my work and have a good reputation.

“Try and find a different way in to everyone else, almost a back door, worm your way in and hold your line.”

Want to blog for Journograds? Or have you already written a post you think our audience would like? Get in touch by emailing the editor, or dropping us a line via Twitter @JournoGrads

My Life As A Blind Journalist

Nicola Cockburn

Nicola Cockburn presenting a show for Insight Radio

Nicola Cockburn, who was born with no sight, explains what life is like as a totally blind journalist and shares some of her experiences in overcoming the challenges it poses… 

I’ve wanted to be a journalist for most of my life. I had work placements on all of the local newspapers in my home town and really enjoyed interviewing people on various subjects.

In 2006 I was commissioned to write a feature for North Wales Living magazine to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Guide Dogs For The Blind Association. I’m a guide dog owner so this was a fantastic opportunity for me.

I received £60 for the article and I decided to apply for a trainee reporter job on my local paper. I was asked to attend an interview.

Everything was going well until the editor said: “Of course you realise that anybody who employs you is going to have problems because of your disability.”

I was so shocked I had to ask him to repeat what he’d said. I informed him that unless he expected me to go and fight on the frontline in Afghanistan or perform open heart surgery then it wouldn’t be a problem.

He had no idea what I was capable of. I’ve skydived; scuba dived with sharks and completed a 190 mile walk. But, as all my family and friends know, the best thing anyone can do to spur me into action is to tell me I can’t do something.

Around the same time, a community radio station was starting up in my local area, so I asked them if they wanted anyone to read the news. I’d been working there for three weeks when I was given the chance to present my own show.

I was there for 18 months. I then left to take up a position at RNIB Cymru as an admin and publicity assistant.

While looking on the internet one day, I found a company which sends volunteers abroad for a variety of different work placements. One of them was working for a Christian radio station in Perth, Western Australia.

The biggest difference I found working in Australia was the attitude to my disability. In Britain employers often see what disabled people can’t do. In Perth, I found the opposite. The people I worked with saw what I could do.

In fact, when I asked my boss if he had any questions about my visual impairment he said: “Don’t worry about that. The staff working here are far more impaired because of the Aussie rules teams they support!”

When I returned home I applied for the broadcast journalism course at Cardiff University and gained a place. The tutors were fantastic. The biggest challenge was getting to grips with how TV reports are made. Each picture has to stay on the screen for a certain amount of time and the words have to be written to make sure they last as long as the picture does.

Also, my Father passed away in the first term which was absolutely devastating. I had to resit an exam but in January this year I found out I’d passed.

I’m originally from North Wales and although I’d completed a work placement as part of my course at the BBC in Bangor, I couldn’t find work in North Wales.

In April this year I decided to move to Cardiff to look for work. I found two jobs within a month, working for the Cardiff Institute For The Blind and Insight Radio.

Insight Radio is the RNIB’s radio station specialising in stories and features for blind and visually impaired people. I present shows and put packages together as well as attending events.

I’ve always wanted to work for the BBC and after applying for three jobs, and having interviews for all of them, I’ve finally got a place on the production talent pool.

This means that as and when there’s work in Cardiff for researchers or runners, the BBC contacts people who specialise in those subjects.

My advice to anyone who wants to be a journalist but feels they’re held back by their disability is to not let anyone tell you what you can’t do.

Focus on what you can, get heaps of experience and don’t be afraid of failure. I’ve proved to everyone that if you want something enough you’ll make it happen.

Are you a journalist with a disability? We would love to hear from you about your experiences in the industry. Get in touch with us on Twitter @JournoGrads or on our Facebook page

Making Your Job Application Stand Out

John Fernandez

BBC Guernsey’s John Fernandez – not afraid to get his feet wet for a story

When applying to roles it’s not good enough to simply tick all the boxes in the job description, as the BBC’s John Fernandez explains…

linchpin of the journalistic art is creativity. Whilst in some jobs you can come in to the office and expect to be given a to-do list of tasks to complete in a set way, in journalism it’s different.

You’re expected to come in with fresh ideas and a new perspective on how to do old tasks. You need to be able to offer suggestions as to how to get your audience engaged by making your content completely different to what the competition is doing.

So why, when you’re applying to a job where the employer is looking for an inventive, imaginative thinker, are you making yourself sound as dull as turgid McDonald’s dishwater? Why are you TELLING the employer you are creative? Why not SHOW them?

For example, say you are applying to a job at a website that has a unique style – a way of writing and producing content which makes them clearly distinguishable from the rest. You want a job there and you definitely want to show them you’re the ingenious, idea-driven person they’re looking for.

Sending them a cover letter telling them how creative you are is going to do as much good as sending them a clay possum you made in year nine art class (part of its foot has fallen off now as well, so it’s even less impressive). No, instead of sending them poorly crafted pottery, grab their attention by writing something that THEY would cover, in their style.

It sounds simple, but if you’re unemployed, down in the dumps and firing off job applications from behind your laptop like rounds from a sweaty, juddering machine gun, you often lean towards a formulaic approach. I know what it’s like during those caffeine-fueled  job application sessions – you send a slightly altered CV and cover letter to each employer, hoping it will somehow get you noticed.

Perhaps it will, but if you showcase your resourcefulness and your ability to think out of the box in your application, you’re far more likely to be that candidate from a hundred faceless applicants who they remember and think “Yeah, they’ll do” or, more hopefully, “Wow, they are f***ing amazing, how can they not work for us already?”

We’ve all heard examples of weird and wonderful people doing wacky things to get noticed by employers. Billboard man, for example, or the guy who bought a Google ad to get hired by Google, or even the creator of this interactive CV. And then there’s the man who made a resume look like a search page to get a web development job.

Why not be one of those people, who hooks a potential employer with an incisive display of creativity? Journalists are meant to be creative by their nature. So why do you think you’re going to entice your future bosses with a systematic, rigid cover letter and CV? Be decisive, do something edgy and different.

Pitch a story and an imaginative way of treating it, hire a billboard, do something crazy! The employer wants somebody who is fully qualified and ticks all the boxes – but they also want someone who, from day one, can make their audience excited about their product.

Have you ever done something crazy to get an employer’s attention? And has it worked? Get in touch with us on Twitter @Journograds, or post a comment below!

Journalism In Africa: A Graduate’s Guide

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden captured Malawi life through her blogs and photography – pic: Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden is back from a six-week trip to Malawi, where she was writing for the Irish Times. Here’s her insight into working overseas…

I was fortunate enough to receive the Simon Cumbers Student Media Award for Print Journalism 2013. The fund was set up in honour of BBC cameraman Simon Cumbers, who was killed in Saudi Arabia in 2004.

It’s run by Irish Aid and aims to promote better coverage of development issues by the Irish media. Winning applicants receive funding to travel to a developing country and research a specific project, along with the chance to have their story published in a national media outlet.

I wanted to examine the lives of women under the leadership of Malawi’s first female president, Dr. Joyce Banda. When I applied I knew very little about Malawi.

Surrounded by the chaos that is associated with a lot of Africa, it’s a quiet country doesn’t make the news very often. When I told most people I was going, they’d only heard of it through its association with Madonna.

Though I was given funding, I organised everything else myself. In doing so I learnt a few things that would be valuable for someone travelling alone anywhere in search of a story. Here is some of my advice:

Utilise social media

When I found out I was going to Malawi I posted it on my Facebook account. Lots of people feel uncomfortable about broadcasting what they’re up to online, but you’d be surprised by the amount of unexpected acquaintances who will get in touch to help you.

The same goes for Twitter. I had barely used Twitter before I started planning the trip. By following local journalists, academics and politicians I learnt a lot about the country before I travelled there, and again lots of people got in touch with advice.

Contact your contacts

If people give you contacts before you go, don’t feel that you need to have specific questions ready before you get in touch with them.

Knowing so little about what to expect, I sent most people an email simply stating what I was planning on doing, and asking whether they had any advice or suggestions for me.

Plan, but allow for plans falling through

For example, in Malawi there’s a thing called ‘Malawi time’ – which means that people are likely to be late for things and there’s not much you can do about it.

Schedule meetings for early in the morning, so if they don’t work out you can do something else with your day. If you’re travelling to a developing country also be aware that it can be hard to contact people and to plan things before you arrive.

Get in touch with NGOs

They’re used to visitors, and are great for supplying you with stories or answering any other questions, whether they’re about the current political situation or the best place to buy groceries.

Talk to locals

Some of the most interesting things I discovered when I was in Malawi came from conversations with the people who worked in the market, the police, local politicians and local journalists.

If someone offers to show you around and you trust them, accept their offer. That’s how I ended up on a tour of a therapeutic food factory, dancing the olimba in a tiny village up a mountain, and going to dinner with a Department of Finance official.

Stay for as long as you can

One of the things that Malawians complained about was Westerners (journalists, NGOs, researchers) arriving with a preconceived notion of what to expect, and not staying long enough to challenge those preconceptions.

Obviously everyone’s under time and financial constraints, but if you have a chance to stay an extra day or an extra week, take advantage of it.

You can find out more about Sally’s time in Malawi by reading her blog and checking out her photos. You can also follow her on Twitter @sallyhayd. If you want to share your own experiences, get in touch with us @Journograds

Journalism CV Tips From A BBC Reporter

John Fernandez 2

BBC Guernsey journalist John Fernandez

Drawing on his own experiences, journalism graduate and BBC broadcaster John Fernandez offers his top five dos and dont’s of CV writing….

Most of us exit our secondary school, sixth form or college with a CV that resembles the template shown to us by our careers adviser.

We knock the bugger together, slap on some garish WordArt (that’s still a thing right?), hand it in before the deadline and manage to escape without some kind of detention or fail mark.

We think to ourselves, “it’s yonks before I’m actually going to have to show this to a real employer” – followed by the more hopeful “and when I do they’re going to be ever so impressed by the fact that I got my 25m swimming badge in year four.”

Then when we see our first dream job, we fire off those CVs with all the hope in the world. And we end up getting nowhere. Why? Because pawing through pages of irrelevant information is not something that recruiting managers have time for.

Stand out

It may be a clichéd comment, but the following stands true: the person looking through applications will give your CV nought but a cursory glance (perhaps while they scoff down a pasty, or trawl through their countless e-mails). That is why it is so important that you are able to STAND OUT from the crowd in around 30 seconds.

A sure fire way of not doing this is by sending the same CV with which you’ve already irritated twenty other companies, crammed full of buzzwords and phrases like ‘superb time management skills’, ‘astute interpersonal communication abilities’ (right, so you can talk) and ‘team player’ (so you play nice with others, have a gold star).

Avoid formulaic phrases and instead show employers examples of how you have been this ‘team player’ that you claim to be. If you’ve told the employer you are a creative mind, bursting with ideas, then show some creativity in how you pitch yourself to them.

Tailor it

Crucially you must fit your CV to the job. If you’re applying to a position as an editorial assistant at a football magazine, it is unlikely that your one month stint at HMV as a seasonal temp is going to do anything to help your cause.

By including that detail you use up valuable space and, more importantly, eat into that 30 seconds in which you have to make an impact.

Ensure everything is relevant – so if you do need to include things like temp jobs then make sure you relate them to the role that you are applying to. Tell them how your experience at HMV, when you were alphabetising thousands of DVDs, increased your attention to detail.


Perhaps most important when applying to journalism roles is the ability to demonstrate a bit of artistic licence and flair.

Don’t be afraid to push the boat out. Surprise the poor person sitting in his or her office as they rifle through twenty CVs a minute, dashing hopes and dreams with every crumple and toss in to the waste paper bin.

We have all heard those stories of somebody who has been a bit avant-garde or a bit edgy and landed that dream job – the man who wore a sandwich board to advertise himself to potential employers, the person who attached a tea bag to their CV with their demo tape and told the HR Manager to enjoy a cuppa while they listened, another who wrote a song about why they should be employed, recorded it then sent it in.

It worked out for most of them and they were just pushing the boat out and being a bit creative. As a journalist, that can often be your raison d’être!

Make the employer think, this person gets what we are about, they understand the company, they’d obviously be an asset and they’re already bringing new ideas to the table.

Oh, and do it all on a sheet of A4. No pressure…

Top five journalism CV don’ts (in my experience)

  1. Include your date of birth – you’re almost inviting discrimination. Equal opportunities or not.
  2. List your education from pre-school. I’m sure tiddly-tots day care was great, but now you’re 21 (and nobody gives a s#*t).
  3. Use any more than two typefaces. Emboldening, italicising and mixing it all up just look a mess.
  4. Lie. You WILL get found out.
  5. Go over two sides of A4 – ideally shorten it to one.

Top five journalism CV dos (in my experience)

  1. Make your CV a PDF. It’ll get rid of any of those horrible green wiggly, fragment missing lines and make your document look far tidier.
  2. Include two references, who you know will be available and are likely to sing your praises (FOR GOD’S SAKE, DON’T PUT YOUR DAD).
  4. Get editors, tutors careers advisors who you TRUST and who know the industry to look over it. Then take their advice on board – it’s easy nodding along, it’s another thing making changes that matter.
  5. Check, check and check again!

Do you agree with John’s tips? Post a comment below if you have opinions to share! Follow us on Twitter @Journograds and ‘like’ us on Facebook to stay up to date with job postings and reminders of application closing dates

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