Becoming a successful broadcast journalist can be difficult if you do not know how to navigate the industry. BBC Africa broadcast journalist and producer, Hannah Ajala, 25, based in London, reveals how to start your dynamic career working in TV and Radio strong.
The seed of the idea to become a journalist was planted in Hannah Ajala’s mind when she was 15 years old and her English teacher noticed her enthusiasm for storytelling.
“I searched the word journalist on Wikipedia. It sounded amazing; someone who gets paid to tell different types of stories. I printed that definition and put it on my wall and kept it there for years.
“I liked watching the news. I already knew who my favourite journalists were at that age. I was genuinely interested in learning more about being a journalist.
Hannah saw the richness of distinctive cultures, world views and backgrounds, both in the UK and abroad and felt that she could never stop travelling, learning and sharing what she found.
In 2011, while in her first year of an undergraduate Social & Cultural Studies degree at Goldsmiths, University of London, Hannah started a blog. She used that online platform as a medium to gather and share her thoughts on her two favourite topics: journalism and travel.
After watching every documentary on Channel 4, Hannah was convinced that documentaries would be her main way to share stories. Also during her first year at university, she set about planning, researching and preparing to produce her first documentary.
The documentary was on homelessness in London and was made after Hannah spoke to a homeless man she passed regularly on her way to her part time job. She says, “He would be reading these really cool, intellectual books like Charles Dickens or Karl Marx.
“He told me he lived with his wife who unfortunately passed away to cancer. All their possessions were in her name so after a while he ended up on the streets.
“A week after meeting him, I came across local articles that police in and around East London were going to start seizing possessions of homeless people as an act of cleaning the streets.
I thought that was an invasion of human rights so decided that would be the foundation of my documentary.”
When Hannah started planning to make this documentary, she did not have any filming equipment: “I did not have a snazzy camera. I bought an iPad for just over £200 which was literally like my baby throughout university.
“I didn’t have enough money for a MacBook so would edit on the Macs at uni. I filmed my documentary on the iPad, my best friend followed me around everywhere filming me.”
It is vital to start working on and developing your craft from where you are right now.
There are nearly 100 Journalism, Media and Communications courses across UK universities, with thousands of young talent joining the workforce annually. The chances to succeed can be slim and tend to be even slimmer for creatives of colour.
Hannah did not wait until she had a job or internship or even finished university, to start creating the content she was passionate about making.
She says: “You need to be creating stuff even before you join an organisation because that makes you stand out from the rest. It’s the fact that you got off your ‘little lazy, millennial bum’ as the older generation tries to label us, and created something yourself.”
In the age of ever-upgrading iPhone specifications – with cameras on the same level as some DSLR cameras – content creation is accessible to all. You can film, edit and upload videos straight onto YouTube on your phone. You can create and update a blog using the WordPress app. You can record a podcast using voice memos and have audio quality almost on par with a commercial radio studio.
Hannah said: “If there’s something you’re interested in doing, it shouldn’t rack your brain, worry or stress you out. It should immediately bring a lot of joy and interest.” Because you have passion, you will create from where you are, experiment with what you have and build a bank of valuable knowledge.
Broadcast journalism in the UK is a huge industry spanning across TV, radio and online platforms. The BBC primarily dominates this market in both the production and distribution of broadcast media in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
British journalism can be seen as a white man’s game with 94% of journalists being white and 55% being male, according to a study by City University London in 2016. This then translates to only certain stories being told and others being overlooked, underrepresented and inaccurately reported on.
There have been a number of occasions where the media have been crucified by people for incorrectly ‘translating’ grime rap lyrics or London slang, situations that could easily be avoided in more diverse newsrooms.
Hannah has often found herself being the only creative of colour in the room throughout her career. One notable time was in 2014, when Hannah was half-way through her graduate traineeship at BBC Radio 2. The station went on a team away day analysing the content and work they produced in the year before.
The radio station controller at the time spoke passionately about inclusion after the station was told they were not reaching diverse audiences: “I remember him saying, ‘This is problematic. If you look around the room it is just white people.’
“I was the only black woman in the room and did not flinch because I respected that he recognised the issue.”
Hannah got her traineeship through Creative Access, a scheme which aims to increase accessibility to great opportunities in the creative industries, primarily for BAME people and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds.
Since starting in 2012, Creative Access has made a huge impact on the creative landscape in the UK. They have helped over 1000 young people obtain internships and placements, of which 84% have gone on to full time employment in the media, arts and publishing.
The following day after the BBC Radio 2 station controller’s talk, Hannah sent an email to him introducing herself and thanking him for his honesty. She was blown away by his sincerity, awareness of the lack of diversity at the station and genuine desire to change things.
“He sent me an email back commending me for getting in touch and asked if I’d like to grab a coffee with him the next week. I was like, ‘Wow! You’re the busiest and richest man in the building and you want to have coffee with me?’ I was so surprised.”
Hannah was able to spend some time with him, asking all the questions she could of someone who had been in the industry longer than she had been alive.
Proactive people are the ones who send emails and messages to follow up conversations they had at networking events. They are the ones who are remembered and called upon when exciting opportunities come up.
It may be insensitive to think of diversity and inclusion as this hip, new trend but unfortunately that is how a lot of organisations seem to see it. They are racing to hire the best young BAME talent, because of this, in order to learn how to diversify their audiences.
An example of this is the Sista Collective, a BBC Radio 5 Live podcast that was commissioned towards the end of 2018.
It was created after BBC 5 Live journalist Jessie Aru-Phillips voiced her frustration at the lack of relatable voices being heard on the radio and seen on TV. The podcast is presented by herself, Joanna Jarjue, who was a finalist on The Apprentice, Paula Akpan, the co-founder of BlackGirlFest and Anyika Onuora, a Team GB Olympic athlete.
It can be hard to progress even if you are consistently creating good work because no one is seeing it. Networking for creatives is essentially the art of making sure the right people know your name and have seen your face enough times and in significant places to vouch for you on your behalf.
Especially when you’re not there.
For ethnic minorities, this can be harder because people struggle to remember or pronounce your name or mix you up with other people. Or you are not even in those rooms in the first place to meet those people. And that is why building strong, personal and work relationships is imperative.
“A few of my favourite journalists and broadcasters are Louis Theroux, Charlene White, Naga Munchetty, Seyi Rhodes and George Alagiah.” Hannah says.
Hannah reached out to those she looked up to when starting out in the industry, wanting mentorship and guidance. Claudia-Liza Armah, who at the time worked on Sky News and BBC London News but now works at Channel 5 News, soon became one of her mentors and they are still friends years later.
“The job market is so competitive. Claudia said to me ‘Hannah, you need to be in the mindset that for every 10 jobs you apply for, only one is going to confidently reply to you with a yes or no.’ That was the mindset I was in: I’m still going to keep pushing.
“The likelihood of me getting it may not be a hundred percent, but I’m not going to let that discourage me.”
In a bid to create more accessible spaces for young Black journalists and broadcasters, Hannah created the platform We Are Black Journos in November 2018 and said in a recent article with Media Diversified: “‘It’s about who you know’ is often a common thing said within the journalism industry, but what if we don’t have an auntie, uncle or friend to help us out? How do we truly get advice and tips starting in an industry from scratch?”
The mission statement for the We Are Black Journos platform, which combines sharing opportunities for young black journalists online with networking events primarily in London,
includes: “Statistics of Black journalists in the British broadcasting industry are quite shocking, however, we do exist! It’s time to familiarise ourselves with others in the same industry, grow and learn from each other, build together and pass on that knowledge and areas of expertise to others also aspiring to join the field.”
Since her first documentary on homelessness in London, Hannah went on to create at least one documentary a year on a topic of interest. Her second documentary was on consumerism relating to sneakers in New York. Hannah’s older brother, David Ajala is an actor, most notably known for The Dark Knight and DC’s Supergirl and was living in New York at the time so accommodation during her stay was covered. You can watch this documentary here.
The third documentary was about Nigeria and was filmed during a family holiday. Hannah filmed an intimate and emotive interview with her 107-year-old grandmother – a story that was later picked up by several international publications, including Yahoo, Aybia Magazine and The British Blacklist.
The positive feedback Hannah received each time spurred her on: “I showed the docs to my family, to my friends, shared them with everyone on Twitter. And that really just boosted my confidence to want to do more. For me it was a tally of growth. It was so great to see the journey from my first documentary to now, with all the films I’ve worked on.”
Another issue young creatives can face is knowing when the right time to change jobs is. You may start to feel pangs of restlessness but are terrified about taking the next step in your career. It does not help that social media promotes highlight reels, making it seem like everyone is achieving great things in their various industries effortlessly.
“The internet has this obsession with telling people to quit their jobs as if they are putting money into people’s bank accounts. Don’t listen to that noise. Look at yourself and your own finances which is probably one of the main reasons why you’re still in that job.”
It is wise to remain in a secure role while still searching and applying for your next role. This may mean using your annual leave to go on assessment days, interviews or trial work days, but at least you know you still have a job to fall back on if it does not work out.