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The third lockdown

Memories of five years ago popped up on Facebook. I was on holiday in Tenerife at the time. On previous days I’ve also been reminded of times at the theatre seeing shows or eating a lovely meal in a restaurant. All of which seem a world away in lockdown, while staying at home.

View of the front garden.

The view has been dusted with snow in a winter wonderland. Part of me thankful actually – that I don’t have to attempt to walk or drive anywhere on the icy, slippery ground! Having an open fire makes everything all the more cosy during the cold weather too. Toasted marshmallows, a bonus.

It may feel like Groundhog Day but the reasons why everyone needs to stay at home are just as stark, arguably even more so, with new variants of the virus able to spread more than when the Covid-19 was novel.

In my circle of friends, I’m hearing of more of loved ones who have died after contracting the virus. There are those who do recover too but, taking people I know personally as a straw sample, the virus seems incredibly prevalent. The number of deaths in the UK is nearing 100,000. Each person is so much more than a statistic, leaving behind heartbroken family and friends. My thoughts are with everyone affected.

Watching the series of reports by Clive Myrie on BBC News this week gave an eye-opening insight of what it’s like for the NHS workers on the frontline of the pandemic. It’s an emotional watch but important to report on the reality of what’s happening. Exemplary journalism, showing the hard work of these key workers.

There’s a lot of information to process daily. During tough times, like these, there’s general consensus that it’s sometimes good to switch off the news and take a break. Of course, for journalists, this is impossible. It’s good to see a new platform has started recently called Newsbreak, set up by Tom Hourigan. It urges journalists and people involved in the media industry to take a break from the news:

Over the past 10 months, I’ve become much better at this sort of self care. After work, I try to do something completely different. Watch a film or TV show to get lost in, I find sitcoms particularly good for this. Play a computer game or read a book, anything really. I’m not that skilled at cooking or baking (I wish I was!) but can understand why that’s become a popular lockdown pastime, because it’s great to focus on something completely different.

While working from home, I usually don’t have weekend shifts. I keep an eye on major developments but use this time to disconnect. Push notifications that pop up on phones and tablets can be distracting, so I switch my phone off and don’t look at social media. It means I’m relatively hard to get hold of for a day or two, but it feels liberating. Another tip is to take annual leave when you can. It doesn’t matter that we can’t go on holiday, a break from the intensity of what we’re going through is important.

I’m hoping it won’t be too long before I can get the vaccine. As someone with underlying health conditions, it’ll give me a bit more of my life back. I expect restrictions will continue to be around for a while yet but it’d be a step back closer to normality at least.

At work (from home), I’ve continued on the shift of late producer of Mike Zeller at Breakfast for BBC Radio Cumbria. A great mix of all the latest news and fun features of what’s happening around the county. One of the guests I set up for the programme recently was Dr Mark Toshner, who was involved in the clinical trials for the Oxford / AstraZeneca vaccine. He gave an extended interview on the programme, which was an informative and insightful listen. You can hear a snippet of it here:

I’m glad to say that my website has been successfully updated and can now be accessed through www.katybooth.com If you missed my review of last year that’s available here. I’ll continue to update this blog throughout 2021, perhaps not as regularly as I did last year when experiences of the pandemic were new. It’s a way to document these strange times at least. Cathartic to write about and, I hope, interesting for you to read too.

Take care and stay safe x

View of the back garden.

Review of the year: 2020

Covid-19 has dominated the headlines this year and will continue in 2021. Mostly unrelated to the pandemic, it has been been a year where much-loved friends and family have passed. Like everyone, social contact has been limited, unless it’s taken place over a screen. There has been a lot of sadness, that’s for sure. It doesn’t need dwelling on, which is why I thought I’d make this review a look back at things to be grateful for.

JANUARY – MARCH

Life continued relatively normally up until March, although the virus was starting to spread more widely. At work I was out and about, reporting on stories. Then, the week before lockdown, I achieved a long-held dream which was to studio produce the breakfast programme.

A holiday of a lifetime had been planned for April to visit New York City to watch a Broadway show and see the sights. It wasn’t to be this year but I’m glad to have took the plunge to book something I had wanted to do for so long. The plans will hopefully not go to waste, when life gets a bit more normal and holidays can resume.

STAYING AT HOME

I started working from home on 19 March 2020, shortly before Prime Minister Boris Johnson asked the nation to do the same, during the first lockdown. Underlying health conditions mean I’m classed as clinically vulnerable to coronavirus. As restrictive as staying at home for such an extensive period may seem there are advantages.

Not having to commute to work gave me extra time in each day. It’s been lovely to spend this with my fiancé, who has been shielding with me. When we both worked together in Blackburn we were able to take our lunch breaks together and it’s been nice to do this again, usually with our cat sitting on one of our knees!

In a busy life it’s all too easy to overlook some of the simple things that bring joy. I’d never paid too much attention to the changing of the seasons before. Noticing the plentiful flora and fauna around us and the way it transforms and continues – despite what nature throws at it – became a metaphor for the year. This enhanced awareness of the world around us is something I hope to take with me beyond 2020.

TECHNOLOGY

One of the best things I did at the start of the first lockdown was to set my parents up on an iPad. Something we won’t look back on because it’s been a great way to communicate. I normally visit my family in Manchester a lot and vice versa. To have this contact restricted has been difficult. Video calling on FaceTime has helped massively to feel a sense of connection, for which I’m grateful.

Using Zoom and Microsoft Teams has kept me connected to colleagues too. I was delighted to give a talk to journalism students at my former university, UCLan, remotely using this technology. Video conferencing also enabled me to be involved in BBC’s England’s Diversity Action Group. Connecting people and ideas across the north. I’m passionate about diversity, inclusion and equality and am glad I can be involved in this important area, alongside my job as a journalist.

This blog was updated more than I expected, as a way to document and diary my time, particularly as I was shielding. It’s been cathartic to do this and I hope one day I can look back on these posts when Covid-19 is a distant memory. This year has allowed me time to expand the pages on this website and very soon the content will all be able to be accessed by visiting www.katybooth.com.

A DREAM COME TRUE

In this challenging year, for so many reasons, a career ambition of mine was realised…

I’ve had such a varied career in broadcasting and journalism which has given me valuable experience. For the majority of time, this has either been as a freelancer or via fixed term contracts. I’m at a point in my life where I want to settle, which is something I can now do thanks to becoming a permanent member of BBC staff on a continuing contract. I’m delighted this can be in Cumbria – part of a talented team at a fantastic radio station.

The positive reactions to my posts on social media about this step in my career have been phenomenal. Thank you to everyone who has got in touch with kind comments It’s been nice to share such a joyous moment with so many people.

AND FINALLY…

2020 has taught me not to take anything for granted – to take a day at a time. My thoughts are with everyone who has lost loved ones to Covid-19 or other causes. Just because the date changes doesn’t mean the problems of the pandemic will go away. We all need to be as vigilant as ever. However, a new year brings new hope. I wish you health and happiness in 2021. Stay safe.

Happy new year sign
Happy New Year!

Working from Home

I was delighted to be invited to speak to journalism students at my former university, UCLan in Preston, about how I work from home for BBC Radio Cumbria. Also, how the broadcast industry has adapted to the changes we’ve seen this year, because of the coronavirus pandemic.

I’ve been working from a back room in my house for more than seven months due to underlying health conditions. In keeping with the topic of the talk, it was delivered via video call to the students who were watching in their own homes on Microsoft Teams. An enjoyable session with about 40 people watching, who asked excellent questions at the end. Some of the salient points of the discussion are included here.

ADVANTAGES:

As a key worker, it’s a privilege to continue to contribute to the radio station throughout the pandemic in an important role. There’s a wide range of things you can do in the broadcasting industry, while working from home. I mostly produce items for the breakfast programme but can also record and edit reports as well as broadcast live, using specialised apps and software.

Here’s political correspondent, Paul Rowley, doing exactly that on BBC Radio Cumbria. Even with disruptions, it turned out to be a memorable moment and Tweet!

Without a commute of over an hour each day, I have a lot more time. I’m able to read for pleasure a lot more than I used to. There’s also more time to spend with family and pets… Even if my cat does seem to know when I’m on an important phone call because that’s exactly when she’ll meow for Dreamies! For parents, arrangements can be flexible to allow for childcare and appointments.

Technology has increased our connectivity; people from across the organisation can connect in an instant with the likes of Zoom. That’s something I do weekly for a diversity and inclusion steering group that I’m part of. I’ve had training sessions, without the need to travel or meet face-to-face, and even taken part in a Pilates session during a lunch break.

DISADVANTAGES:

One of the main aspects I miss is the social side of going to work. Those ‘water cooler moments’ where you get to know colleagues personally in the little chats in the kitchen or corridor. Bouncing ideas around with others and having a banter in the office is great… it’s not quite the same over email! Our weekly team Zoom call to catch up with each other is something I look forward to.

The amount of screen time has, understandably, increased. Usually face-to-face meetings provide a break from this, but not so on a video call. It can be tempting to avoid taking breaks and just plough through but it’s actually even more important to do so when working from home, to prevent eye strain. Try to move around, rather than stay completely sedentary, too.

It can be difficult to ‘switch off’ from work when there’s no commute to provide a mental break and a chance to assimilate all that’s happened. My tip is to try to have a separate workspace that you can leave at the end of the day. If you only have something like a dining table to work off don’t sit in the same place to eat as well. If you use a laptop, pack that away once you’ve finished using it.

When the computer is only in the next room it can be tempting to “just do a little bit more” work – something I have been guilty of on occasion! Set boundaries so that you will only work the same amount of hours as you would, if you were physically in the office.

THE FUTURE?

Our ability to work from home will probably be with us, long after this pandemic. It would be a shame not to take the positives of what has been learnt to become more effective in future. Without the need for as much travelling, it gives us more productive time in the day – and it’s better for the environment too. Our homes are now the equivalent of district offices.

As broadcasters and journalists working in the media, being adaptable is what we do. It’s how the industry has developed into what it is today and we shouldn’t fight this. We’re currently in a period of great change at the moment anyway, but the possibilities of what can be achieved when we put our minds to it are still limitless.

A recent example of how working from home has become a ‘new normal’ was evident in how the latest episode of Strictly Come Dancing was broadcast. Showbiz reporter, Betty Redondo, Tweeted that it was actually directed by crew members from home. You wouldn’t have known any different while watching the show live on Saturday night either:

Finally, you can claim tax relief of £6.00 a week for job expenses, while working from home. More information is available HERE.

Dealing with breaking news

This week the front and back pages of newspapers have been filled with news of Liverpool Football Club being crowned Premier League champions. However, in what seems like an eternity ago – but was actually just a week beforehand – I was getting some other sport breaking news to air. In what is a big story in my patch of Cumbria, Barrow AFC were promoted to the English Football League for the first time in 48 years.

Many followers of current affairs will be familiar with “breaking news” as a banner on news channels or smartphone push notifications to describe anything new or developments to an existing story. That’s one take which somewhat dilutes the term, I think. The kind I’ll be discussing in this blog post is the sort that, as a radio producer, makes you completely rethink a programme and turn items in a running order around.

Breaking news is the bread and butter of journalism; it’s something to be enthusiastic about, rather than panic. These are often times when we produce some of the audience’s most memorable moments of our output. Often, but not always, it will happen at unexpected moments – at the end of a shift, when you have made plans after work, for example. The news of Barrow’s promotion certainly wasn’t unexpected but happened right at the end of my shift.

Due to the nature of breakfast programmes on BBC local radio, which are broadcast from very early in the morning, there’s an afternoon producer who takes over looking after the programme from the morning producer when their shift finishes. The role includes reacting to the day’s developments as well as setting up content throughout the afternoon and into the evening. The role of ‘late prod’ is on a rota for the news team at BBC Radio Cumbria and I’ve been doing my most recent stint for the last month, while working from home.

It was 19:00 on Thursday, 18 June. I’d just subscribed to a Sky Sports day pass so I could watch my team, Manchester City, play their first game after the season break, due to the coronavirus pandemic. I’d finished setting up the next morning’s breakfast programme and was out of the loop while I’d sat down to have tea. The call from a colleague followed to inform me the announcement had been made – Barrow has been promoted.

It was not a surprise; due to the nature of this year, the non-league season wasn’t able to be completed. Therefore, the final standings were decided by a vote of all clubs in the league. When the season was suspended, Barrow were top of the league and became champions. Ironically, 48 years earlier the team had actually been voted out of the English Football League, as was the protocol at the time. The Bluebirds hadn’t even finished bottom of the league that season either. It’s reported the decision was made due to where the town is located and how long it could take some away teams to travel to the Holker Street ground.

I logged back onto the computer in my home office, that I had only five minutes earlier shut down, and began moving items around the running order. Previously, a plan had been devised on how the breakfast programme the day after any possible promotion should sound. It was a case of implementing that and ringing round some guests that had already been set up to ask if they wouldn’t mind being put on hold. All were very understanding of the circumstances.

A lot of liaising was done with my colleagues in the south of the county to set up certain pieces and deliver kit to the commentator, so he could appear live outside the Holker Street ground in the morning. Then guests that had been set up in advance had to be confirmed. Once all that was in place, I allowed myself a 45 minute break to at least be able to watch the second half of the football match that I had initially intended to. After that, I finished writing cues and drafting questions. The whole four-hour programme had to be re-worked and I finished putting everything in place in the early hours of the morning.

The advantage of working from home is that at least I didn’t have a commute to contend with after I’d finished and just went straight to bed. It’s part of the job to be flexible and hearing the programme go out live the next day makes it all worthwhile – the jubilation in the fans’ voices and the elation of those who work at the club. It’s always nice to play a part in such a celebratory programme. I believe it showcases the importance and value of local radio to be at the heart of communities like that, reflecting what matters to the people who live there. It wasn’t the first time I’d dealt with breaking news during my career and it, almost certainly, won’t be the last.

Boris Johnson: The day I met the future Prime Minister

The day I interviewed Boris Johnson was back in January 2015. Mr Johnson was Mayor of London and had been invited to speak to Conservative party members at the Alma Inn in Laneshaw Bridge, by the MP for Pendle Andrew Stephenson. Back then, I was a reporter for the commercial radio station 2BR.

The schedule for interviews on that shift was tight, in order to fit as much into the day as possible. I had been speaking to an interviewee in Chorley previously and had to travel the length of the M65 motorway and get through the often congested town centre of Colne in rush hour, in order to get there on time. Not an easy task but, luckily, I arrived before Mr Johnson (I can’t recall if he was late or not) and made my way through the pub to the media area.

Interviewing politicians is all part of the day job, of course. During my career, I’ve had chance to grill other high profile members of parliament in person such as Ed Miliband, William Hague and Jack Straw. There was quite a buzz in the venue for this one though, whether that would have been the case for members of the public rather than just party members – who knows?

Boris Johnson arrived and the interviews began with the various news outlets – TV, print and radio represented. Rather than a pool, we conducted these one by one and each reporter was given a chunk of time to ask questions. For me, this is preferable to the “round robin” style of interview because you can tailor your piece accordingly and it wasn’t limited to a set amount of questions.

There was only one snag; 2BR was last on the list and I could overhear some of my questions being asked by my fellow media colleagues. Before my turn, I figured out ways I could re-word certain relevant topics so the answers wouldn’t seem rehearsed at best and at worse that I was covering old ground. As a former journalist himself, Boris Johnson wasn’t perturbed nor did he start to lag after the long line of questioners. He spoke to me as if I was the first person at the event he’d met.

The perceived “north / south divide” perhaps predictably, but nevertheless importantly, featured in my line of questioning. Something which is still at the forefront of people’s minds. Even now, as we try to decipher what the future of the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ may be.

It became clear, very quickly, that Mr Johnson couldn’t be specific with the details. Preferring instead to defer to his Conservative colleagues to relay various bits of information. He did so with aplomb, in keeping with his charismatic character.

Understandable for a Mayor of London on an appearance up north, maybe? But a trend others have noted as his political profile has risen. Here’s a recent example from an interview during the Conservative leadership campaign with the BBC’s Andrew Neil:

Speeches took place after an obligatory photocall. Guess what? Pulling a pint behind the bar! That is where my brief meeting with our future Prime Minister ends. Many others have their experiences: I was interested to read broadcaster Jeremy Vine’s ‘Boris Johnson Story’, as documented in The Spectator blog. (Incidentally, that was the inspiration for this blog post.)

They say a week’s a long time in politics and four and a half years ago the word Brexit hadn’t even entered parlance. The political agenda is very different now. Regardless of all the interviews, jokes and blunders – what happens next in Boris Johnson’s premiership will be the story the British public remember the most.

Boris Johnson – Gov.uk (Open Government Licence v3.0)

Writing for radio

In this multi-platform age, we’re becoming less defined by titles. I specialise in ‘broadcast journalism’ yet the job description is becoming much wider, as the industry adapts to the world we live in.

When I left my job in commercial radio it was advertised again as a post for a “multimedia journalist”. Also, due to a recent change in terms and conditions, my role at the Beeb is now simply called “journalist”.

The job is arguably more varied than ever. My role may now mainly be a producer but I’m also a news reader and reporter. There’s maintaining the online presence too, particularly social media.

Variety is the spice of life but what is the lifeblood of a journalist? Writing is everything.

When I enrolled to study journalism, I was told I’d be taught how to write. “Well, I already know that”, I naively assumed. I already had a degree in English, dabbled in fiction writing and was even maintaining this blog. I was wrong.

You don’t need to be a modern day Shakespeare in order to succeed but there are a few habits to unlearn. Most academic writing is too mellifluous for journalistic purposes, with sentences that have enough subordinate clauses to lead you down the garden path and back again, a bit like this one, if you get my drift. Imagine how difficult it’d be to read that last sentence aloud?

Here’s my 10 top tips for writing for radio:

    Get to the point as quickly as possible.
    Be concise.
    You’re writing to be heard not read, so write sentences as you would say them.
    Read aloud to get the hang of it.
    Use contractions. In everyday speech you probably wouldn’t say ‘could not’ instead of ‘couldn’t’, so write that way.
    This extends to punctuation. Normal rules about grammar don’t apply because the commas, full stops and hyphens in your literary toolbox help give sense. Many times you’ll place these in a sentence to indicate a pause, allow for breath, or effect.
    Keep vocabulary simple. Use words you’d actually say. Many times I’ve changed a word in a perfectly good script because it’s not a term I’d normally use.
    Pay attention to the station style. Commercial radio news is very different to BBC. If you’re on work experience make the effort to listen to the output. This sounds obvious but you’d be amazed how many don’t.
    Be creative. A blank script is a bank canvas and just because this list is a general rule of thumb it doesn’t mean you can’t put your own stamp on things.
    Have fun! Your enthusiasm will shine out of the speakers.

Writing can make a difference between a great, good or mediocre piece. Think about social media; a well written, snappy tweet is more likely to go viral than one that’s wordy and all over the place.

The more chatty the better. The art of writing for radio is making it sound like you’re not actually reading. It’s a craft that takes skill. Skill develops through practise. Even over the archives of this blog, you can hopefully see how my writing has improved with time and experience.

We never stop learning – enjoy!

Are journalists public enemy number one?

Interview

There are some professions that set eyes rolling when you mention them: traffic wardens, tax inspectors… journalists?? Yes, in my experience, all of the above apply.When people ask me what my job is – I’m proud to say I’m a journalist! Now I’ve finished  my training, I’ve been working in broadcast newsrooms across the North West. It’s been a learning curve to see the general reactions when I’m out on the road roving reporting.

I love the variety of my job – everyday is different! However, I’ve noticed a pattern that often emerges; I could be chatting to an interviewee as normal, but as soon as my recording equipment is switched on their whole demeanor changes. Some will become tense, sweat beads start forming on their brow and they become fidgety. Now, to a journalist, this gives off non-verbal signals that something’s not right.

When this sort of anxious reaction happens, I get the feeling a lot of people think I’m there to catch them out – but there’s no trick questions on my list. ‘Reporter’, does what it says on the tin; we want to report on what is happening for the story we are covering. Of course, I will ask interviewees challenging questions, when necessary – but if interviewees have nothing to hide then they have nothing to worry about, surely?

Maybe I’m over analysing, because I’m so comfortable in front of microphones and cameras. Sometimes, I need to take a reality check and realise that not everybody is like me. These could be nervous reactions from people who are not used to media attention. It doesn’t explain press officers who become incredibly controlling though. In fact, that just makes me want to find out even more what they might be trying to hide…

It would seem some people are sceptical of us, rather than the other way around. Recently, I had been questioning someone about facts and figures – quite a routine interview. This was a very hot day and I hadn’t been drinking enough water. Sod’s law being what it is, I started having a coughing fit during the interview. I was behind the camera and managed to muffle any kind of noise; no one watching would have known any different – but I must have been pulling some funny faces! The guy accused me of “trying to put him off”. I would never knowingly do that. It just shows how defensive some people can be.

I think events leading to the Leveson inquiry hasn’t helped the image of journalism – but it’s important to remember that inquiry was about print journalism NOT broadcast. The mediums are different; firstly, we are regulated by the Ofcom code. Secondly, there is no agenda; there’s not a weighted political bias in broadcast journalism. We have to report stories objectively, fully attributing quotes.

Attribution is easy to do on radio and TV because you will see or hear the person saying it or it will be quoted directly. Misrepresentation is unethical and it’s hard for broadcast journalists to misrepresent someone – because proof of what was said will be on a recording.

Journalists are searching for the truth, by asking the questions that the public want – and deserve – to know the answers to. We investigate and we we hold people in positions of authority to account. Just think what might be going on in the world without journalists? Having said that, not every interview I do needs to be an interrogation… if the interviewee has nothing to hide.

Broadcast journalists are not to the enemy. In fact, maybe any interviewee who thinks we are should try looking in the mirror?