“Between the years 1987-1989 I think I applied for something like 140 jobs and hardly ever got an interview.”
This week BCOMS’ Nigel Wallace had the pleasure of meeting former BBC TV executive, Tanya Motie, who spoke about her determination to become a journalist and working for the BBC.
Tanya has over 25 years of experience in broadcasting and is a respected equality campaigner.
She has worked for a range of BBC departments in different roles – including BBC World Service, Radio 4, BBC News, CBBC, Children’s Independent Commissioning and finally as Channel Exec for BBC One and Three.
Born and bred in Shepherds Bush and with BBC Television Centre literally at her doorstep, it seemed that Tanya had always been destined for a career in the media industry – and from a very early age she had set her sights on working for the corporation.
“For me Television Centre was this incredible place. It was just this amazing palace of a place. I was always completely fascinated by the BBC. My mum was a cleaner there and she used to work for people who were scriptwriters or people who would come up with questions for quizzes. So the whole thing just seemed so magical to me.”
At what point did it become clear that a career in the media was the path you wanted to pursue?
“I seriously thought about working for the BBC from the age of 12 or 13. I used to listen to the World at One and I thought I really wanted to be a journalist and producing the World at One seemed like such a great thing to do. I set my target and there was never any doubt in my mind that I was going to do it. Everything that I did, all my O Levels (GCSEs), A Levels and going to University were centered on that.
“The big thing was I used to write to absolutely everybody, trying to get work experience in the holidays. I’d try and blag my way up to London, sleep on people’s floors to go and watch some of the programmes going out. I remember writing to all these different producers asking for advice, doing articles for local newspapers, reviews of bands, etc. to get as much experience as possible.”
Tanya went on to complete a combined honours degree in West African & Cultural Studies at Birmingham University. Whilst studying, the aspiring journalist ran the student television station. With all of this experience Tanya thought that she would then just go straight into a job at the BBC, unfortunately that wasn’t the case in point at all.
“That was really disappointing; the realisation that I had finished my degree, I was qualified, I had got all this experience and I had a portfolio of material to show people and yet I couldn’t get a job. Between the years 1987-1989 I think I applied for something like 140 jobs and hardly ever got an interview.
“I used the fact that I had a degree in West African studies and I got in contact with BBC World Service to see if I could do work experience at the African Service. Whilst working in the African Service I suddenly realised that there were bits and pieces I could do – a bit of research, the odd interview – and everything that I did that got on air, I got paid for. So gradually I then built a portfolio of paid work starting off with the African Service, then onto the Caribbean Service and that’s how it all started.”
For two years Tanya managed to scrape a living in London working as a freelancer for different outlets in radio until her breakthrough moment finally arrived when she landed her first contract with the BBC.
“My original dream was to be a war correspondent and to work for the World at One. But then I developed rheumatoid arthritis and I wasn’t able run let alone wear a flak jacket so the idea of becoming a war correspondent faded away. But I realised then that being a producer would be a really good way to still have an impact on covering the stories that I felt were important.”
Tanya achieved her dream; she ended up working in Newsgathering and was out in the field doing all sorts of things whilst travelling to countries including Ethiopia, Eritrea, China and lots of other places around Europe. The experiences in news enabled her to find her niche, and she decided to embark on a new journey in BBC Children’s television.
“I made the move from a fairly senior role in BBC News to a fairly junior one in Children’s. So I had to take a pay cut, as well as grade cut, to become a trainee AP. But again, that was fantastic because it was really interesting, stimulating and I learnt a whole new skill set. I quickly became a producer and director in BBC Children’s, which is where I ended up doing fantastic programmes from Blue Peter and Football Fever to Xchange.”
Tanya would go on to establish herself as a highly respected BBC Television Exec. Today she is part of the pioneering production company Gilbey Films.
“Gilbey Films is a production company that is completely focused on disability, founded by my husband, Andy Gilbert, a Paralympic medal winner. I act as an advisor.
“The whole idea of Gilbey Films is as a disabled couple we often go to places that say they’re accessible but when you actually get there, they’re not. It’s very difficult when somebody says somewhere is accessible, but if you can see what the access looks like then you will know whether it’s a place for you.
“Gilbey Films is all about making short promo marketing films that businesses can put on their websites to show disabled people what the place is actually like. At the moment Andy has made access films for places like the Houses of Parliament, London Zoo and Whitechapel Gallery.
“The exciting thing about Gilbey Films is that, as two people who have worked in the media for the BBC, we have a lot of experience regarding what it’s like for disabled people trying to get ahead in the broadcasting world. So we can also offer advice and knowledge to those trying to get into the industry and also those looking for more diverse applicants for positions. Gilbey Films gives up and coming disabled talent – on and off screen – valuable experience.”
You’re on the BBC diversity group. Can you tell us about this?
“It’s a very good group of people. The BBC Director General, Tony Hall, is very committed to changing the culture of the BBC and to make it a much more diverse organisation that reflects the audience it seeks to serve.
“What we do as an advisory group is meet every three months; Tony has ideas, thoughts and strategies that he wants to get our opinions on. We listen to what he has to say and give our thoughts. We keep an eye on the output, what is happening in the organization and we can send him different ideas and suggestions.
“The important thing is that we have our own independent voices in there, so we’re not just one body of people that share one view. We all have different views, expertise and slightly different things that we know a lot about. I know it’s been effective as there have been quite a lot of things that we’ve been able to change or tweak and I’m very pleased to be part of it.”
Ade Adepitan is one of the few black and disabled people in the sports media. What advice would you pass on to someone who is disabled and wants to follow yourself and Ade into the industry?
“There are lots of different things about Ade’s story that are really important. Firstly, he is incredibly driven and he knows that there are things he wants to achieve in life – he goes out there and does it! As a Paralympian you have to be driven. But what he has been very clever at doing is focusing on the things he knows about and knowing the things he’s passionate about.
“He is very passionate about sport, communicating, making a difference and understanding the world around him – travel is really important to him too.
“If you look at those strands, it’s therefore not surprising where he’s finding incredible success – being a sports presenter and making fantastic documentaries about really difficult subjects in really difficult places.
“People often come up with these stupid things about disability and say we couldn’t get a presenter to do this because of the practicalities. Anytime anyone says that I just refer back to Ade. There he is in northern Nigeria or up Kilimanjaro and he goes and gets the job done. In those situations usually he’s there just with one camera / director and they work things out together.
“He has got what most disabled people have; we know how we need to do things and how to get things done. Everybody seems to have an opinion on disabled people’s abilities. Instead it’s about letting the disabled person decide what they can or can’t do, and how to get over whatever the particular barriers may be.”
If you could pick a highlight of your 25 years career what would it be and why?
“I think it was working on a show called Xchange. This was one where there was a massive team of about 80 odd people. It was the hardest work ever because we had such limited resources but everyone worked incredibly hard. It was also the most diverse team ever – there were people who lacked in experience and others who were very experienced – and we all pulled together as one great team and had so much fun.
“We were making 10 hours of TV a week and there was such a lot of intense work going on. We were coming up with ideas all the time, things like Messy Brekky, Name that Poo, Snot Me, etc. We were getting children on from all over the country. Some of the most creative things came out of that programme. What I love about it is that so many people in the industry went through Xchange, so many people used to work on the show.”
What advice would you give to the next generation aspiring to reach your level as a TV executive?
“Firstly, you need to really understand yourself, what makes you tick and what your skill set is – what your core strengths are. That’s really important to know.
“Secondly, work on putting your portfolio together. Be really persistent and have lots of lateral thinking around how you can make your CV better and what articles you can write for different publications. It doesn’t matter how much you get paid for these things it’s just about you learning your craft. It’s also about getting pieces published and content on air as well – places like YouTube – so people can really see that you’re determined and that you’ve got a range of skills.
“Lastly seek advice and if someone kindly agrees to see you for a chat, always treat it like an interview. Prepare for it, find out about them, what they do, their career progress etc. Also be clear about what information you are after and make sure you get across your potential. Take a CV and have examples of your work to hand. It shows you are professional and it shows them respect. Top tip – there’s no such thing as ‘just a chat’!”