Have you ever been so perfectly qualified to do a job that you almost expect not to get it?
I’ve just had a ‘better luck next time’ email from the BBC, who were not looking for a replacement anchor for Newsnight, or a new Director General.
They were looking for someone to be one of three people on-call with a key to open-up their local remote radio studio in the town where I live. How hard can that be?
Such a person would get a call a few hours in advance, whenever the programme producers needed to interview a long-distance guest on the news; greet the guest, provide hospitality and security, persuade them to switch off their phone, switch the microphone on, sit them in front of the mic, check they were hearing the right programme feed, make sure there was a line open to the control room 100 miles away, etc. (There was also a very occasional need to sit them instead in front of a TV camera, for which you needed to understand tricky terms like pan and tilt.) Full training was to be provided.
So, you had to live nearby, be available at odd times, be comfortable around not very technical broadcast equipment, have a hospitable manner even at six o’clock in the morning, be tactful and not let them smoke in the building – know when to call out the fire service – understand things about health and safety, maybe speak a bit of their strange language and be good in an emergency.
I sent them selected highlights from my CV.
Now semi-retired and looking for part-time work to keep me busy, but not too busy, I had spent nine years back-when, working in UK radio as an announcer, news writer, senior editor and producer – including nine months with a BBC local radio station on the breakfast shift, before I foolishly went off to a senior job in the commercial sector – often using self-operated technology. I had interviewd politicians, authors, business leaders and showbiz personalities. I have a degree-level qualification in Film & TV, plus a few more years’ offline production experience, so I am, or used to be, thoroughly familiar with the milieu, as they say. Apart from writing this and walking little Hunzi I have little else to occupy me for most of the year. And I live six minutes from the studio.
What then makes me possibly uniquely qualified among candidates to open a studio and greet guests, is that I have also spent seven years recently as a licensee, managing a £100-a-night guest house: booking, receiving and looking after guests, feeding and watering them, giving tours (it was an important historic house), hosting large wedding parties, business meetings and WI teas, maintaining a legal ‘duty of care’ obligation, writing management reports and being profit-responsible. And a while before, I’d owned my own small media business employing ten people (including women and even two French citizens) and was a member of the Institute of Directors, and the CBI, demonstrating massive levels of responsibility, inclusivity and acumen all -round.
All this was on my CV. Nowadays, I am semi-retired, but still fit and active. The questions I was asked at the interview, which seemed relaxed and informal, were all of the: ‘Can you think of any situations in which you have had to make decisions?’ variety, which are actually quite difficult to answer when you’ve done all the things I’ve done over 40 years. You’re tempted to answer, well, duh, what do you think? I’ve anchored election programmes… (Actually I started with, ‘well, I’ve been driving a car since I was 17…’)
‘Describe your attitude to diversity’ – so you’re going to confess to a prejudice against UKIP, black people generally and Muslims worst of all? I already have a part-time job at the University, where I work among people of all ages from all over the world. I’ve worked as the only man in all-women business environments. Of course I’m bloody diverse! But are they? I didn’t dare ask the question, how prejudiced were they going to be against the idea of an upper-middle-class, late-middle-aged, English-born, public-school educated, ex-BBC, able-bodied, heterosexual, white male agnostic holding a position of such power in the Welsh broadcast media? Surely, we are in the minority?
‘We are obviously looking for someone reliable. Can you give examples of how you might previously have demonstrated reliability?’ was the real doozer. Were these questions thought-up by a primary-school administrator? Sure, I had reliably delivered news bulletins on the hour for nine years! I’d managed a news operation with six journalists reporting to me, outputting 18 hours of news and current affairs shows a week! I’d been an exam invigilator for six years and never missed an exam. I’ve worked with a local drama group for the past five years and never missed a rehearsal. I last took a day off sick to undergo surgery in 2006… I used to reliably forget to pick up my kids from the nursery after work…
As glib answer followed seemingly spurious question, I began to imagine I was missing the point somewhere. These people were professionals, in the business themselves. They knew I knew the job, it’s not rocket-science, they must have known the answers to all their scripted questions lay self-evidently in my CV and that the only point in asking them was to hear me answer them. Was I perhaps being a tad overconfident?
Then they sprang the trap.
I was led into the airless, windowless corner-cupboard that was the remote studio, and an A4-sized card of instructions was thrust into my hand. The test was to take the studio for a drive through a procedure I had not gone through for more than 30 years, in a strange environment. I had gotten less than halfway through reading how to set up the studio and which buttons I needed to press, and when to press them, before my interrogators came in and told me to start.
Everything went fine at first, despite the fact that the labelling on the buttons had worn off, forcing me to peer at them myopically, phoning Andrew in Master Control, getting the code to fire-up the line, until the stage where I had to dial-up the ISDN line itself, and one of the digits would not punch in.
Without having time to see properly how to clear the system, I tried three or four times, hoping not to show I was getting flustered. I could not see the LED display properly and had no idea why it would not connect. My brain was telling me, basically, that the system had been designed in the 1970s, which is typical of BBC Engineering policy where stuff trickles down to the regions; and could be a lot simplified with a little technology.
Why was a ‘9’ prefix necessary, for instance, when it could just be incorporated into the number? All the numbers had an obligatory ‘9’ prefix. Where else would you want to dial out to, other than a ‘9’? Why were there 25 different lines, when one would do, maybe with a couple spare? Why were we still even using ISDN when there was 100Mb fiber Broadband network available locally? Why hadn’t they shown me first, where the directory was, that you referred to when the engineer in the control room gave you the code to tell you which line to dial? Why did you need a code anyway? Why could the line not simply be activated from the control room at the other end, rather than from here?
‘Here’, said my interrogator, ‘let me have a go…’ It was basically game over, and I had lost. You try being 65, I thought, furiously, with the wrong reading glasses, and not see a better way of doing things while you’re fumbling with, basically, an antiquated system you’re going to be trained to use anyway. Had I been shown what to do even once, I would have known forever. I’m not stupid. But this was about your reaction to dealing with an emergency, and I’ve slowed down over the years, and I think too much.
Instead, hoping they’d understand sympathetically that people learn through their mistakes, I stupidly told them the story of how, many years ago, I’d once screwed-up a news opt-out doing just this exact same operation while working at the BBC in London….
So many stories. So many screw-ups.