Where has the time gone? 30 Years as a freelance.

Posted on 3rd April 2019

In April 1994 I left the staff of the BBC to go freelance. I didn't know where it would end up, or have too much in the way of long term plans.

The impetus to leave the security of the Beeb was an interview I had with Andy Cairns, the sports editor at Sky News. I went for a reporters job, didn't get it, but was told that there was a whole summers worth of freelance work available if I was interested. I was.

So it came to pass that in April 1994 I left the BBC, ostensibly to freelance at Sky. It went well at Sky News, Andy was a terrific boss who taught me a great deal about television, particularly his mantras about sport being about emotions, and his insistence on avoiding lazy clichéd language. There was even a document which contained a long list of sayings that were banned on air. Andy was very fair to me, a rookie to tv sports news, and even now he is right up there in terms of being one of the best people I have ever worked for, along with Mike Straw on the local radio desk at BBC Sport. When something wasn't up to Andy’s demanding standards I would be told in no uncertain terms, then advised how to make it better, and then be bought a cup of tea to show that it was not personal. You were expected to learn.

Within a few months I was back at Radio 5, doing at first some production work, and then on-air presentation of sports bulletins. To be on air on national radio was what I really wanted to do, and the fact I hadn't been able, for whatever reason, to get a full time job on network radio was a large factor behind my decision to quit the BBC as a staff member.

Soon I got a few breaks. Radio 1 wanted to introduce a dedicated sports segment to their breakfast news bulletins, and I was offered the post, on a job share basis, with Clare Balding. At about the same time I stopped working for Sky News as Sky Sports offered me work on the first series of Soccer AM, on Goals on Sunday, and on a new programme, Ladbrokes Soccer News, which was the forerunner of the Sky Sports News Channel, as well as doing round-up voiceovers on their coverage of the Football League. I also was offered lots of commentary work on a new national radio service, which I gladly accepted. This was the testing for what is now known as 5 Live Sports Extra, and I did many commentaries as this new service was rigorously tested before launch.

In 1997 I became the football commentator for Meridian TV in the south of England, and that led to working on Italian football for Channel 4, which I also started commentating on for ESPN Star Sports in Asia. Frequently I would do a game live to air for ESPN Star on a Saturday night, and then record the same match again on a Monday for a delayed transmission in the middle of the night on 4. Freelancer heaven!

It was a busy period, and something had to give, so in 2000 I stopped working for Sky, but left on very amicable terms, which is always something that is of benefit in the long term.

ITV Digital came next. It was a good time, for a short time. I did live matches for regional ITV, but when the sports channel closed and ITV lost the Premier League contract I was quietly told that the Goal Rush, a programme on ITV2 which I worked on, was probably going to end in a few months. So in 2003 I got in touch with the editor of Final Score on BBC1 to ask if they might be interested in using me. The timing was good, several of their regulars had moved on that summer, and I was in.

During  this time I was also working on British Eurosport's coverage of Serie A from Italy, doing live commentaries and also presenting the Monday highlights programme. Then I heard that Match of the Day would be sending a commentator to every Premier League match when they took over the highlights deal in 2004. I sent a tape in, and on holiday in Italy that summer I took the call that would change my working life forever.

Would I like to join the roster of commentators for Match of the Day? It took about a nano-second to say yes. Twenty years later I am still with the programme, and very honoured to be associated with such an iconic show.

As a freelance you have to build up a portfolio of clients, who use you on a regular basis. I’m very fortunate that when rights to particular leagues or events change I have been able to switch to the new broadcasters, so over the years I have worked for Eurosport, Bravo, Setanta, ESPN and since 2013 for BT Sport/TNT Sports covering European domestic leagues.

My other main clients are Host Broadcast Services, who provide the TV service from FIFA Events all over the world. I have been fortunate to work in many different countries at World Cups, Women’s World Cups, Under 20 and Under 17 World Cups, the Club World Cup, and the Copa America. It’s a real privilege to travel the globe, meet and work with new people, and be at the biggest sports events on the planet. 

But it’s not only meeting new people at these events. In a wonderful twist, some of the people that were starting out in junior roles at various companies when I first went freelance now hold senior positions, so for example the director I worked with at the 2018 World Cup used to be an assistant producer on the Football League coverage at Sky back in 1996.

I won’t be freelance for another thirty years, after all I’d still be working at the age of 90 (!) if that was to happen, so I’ve diversified a little bit. I do some lecturing at Plymouth Marjon University and other academic institutions to sports journalism and broadcasting students, and do media training alongside some good friends through http://www.johnrodermediatraining.com 

The one major bit of advice that I hope the students take in is that being a nice person goes a long way in life. Be a good team player, sports broadcasting isn’t about the person in front of camera or on the microphone, it’s a collective effort in which each person is as important as another. It takes some time to build a good reputation for yourself, it’s easy to destroy if you become big headed just because you’re the one who is heard/seen on the TV. 

Of course you need a bit of luck and people who give you a chance, and that’s certainly been the case for me. To everyone I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with over the last thirty years, and to those who have employed me, and continue to do so, thank you. It’s been a blast, which will hopefully continue for many years to come.

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