I prefer a broader view of the world. And I prefer to get my news via podcasts, which are convenient and concentrated. So in my hunt for both, I came across the BBC Global News Podcast five years ago, and have been downloading every edition since. They are concise, comprehensive and combine international field reporting with expert commentary, incisive questions from the presenter and – importantly – an amusing story in each episode that reminds listeners the world isn’t entirely bleak.
Jackie Leonard is the presenter of Global News, which is one of the BBC’s longest-running and most popular podcasts, drawing close to 1 million listeners a week. The majority of listeners are located in the UK, India, Nigeria and the U.S. but there are also listeners in Bangladesh, China, Ethiopia and, thankfully, Australia. The half-hour of content is drawn from The Newsroom, BBC’s live news show, selecting items for a deeper dive or added perspective into the day’s top stories. (Editor’s note: A U.S. analog might be The Daily, which is the 30-minute podcast that explores select news from The New York Times, although The Daily only focuses on one story a day. NPR’s All Things Considered is also similar, although it airs over a longer time slot.)
Leonard joined the BBC in 1994 on a three-month trial and was kept on. She worked as a producer and reader for several of BBC’s domestic channels. In 2000, she joined the BBC World Service, presenting Newsdesk, then World Briefing, before becoming a producer and host of The Newsroom. The Global News Podcast launched in 2007, and Leonard has since played a fundamental role in shaping the podcast into an internationally respected source of news and insight, with the help of editor Karen Martin, who joined the team in 2015 and whom Leonard calls a “very good boss.”
After five years as an appreciative fan, I reached out to Leonard to find out more about the hows and whys of her job. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Can you walk me through a day of preparing for the podcast, choosing the stories that will run, briefing the host, lining up the audio and ensuring all the stories can be covered within the timeframe allowed?
I focus mainly on the live programs, which go out at 19:00GMT and in the winter months at 22:00GMT. I also, at the same time, spin the Global News Pod plate, if you like, alongside the other producer doing the Global News Podcast. He or she will not just be listening to the program I’m doing, which is The Newsroom. That producer will also be drawing from Newshour, Newsday, Focus on Africa and World Business Report. And if any reporter has churned up something themselves and wants to flag it up, they’ll be in touch with the producer as well. Then, we’ll have a conversation about what needs to go in The Newsroom, which goes out at 22:00GMT.
Then we record the Global News Podcast around midnight. It’s different from live news. With the live news, you’re reacting to stuff as it happens. With the Global News Podcast, you’ll have the most up-to-date coverage of breaking stories and continuing stories, but there will also be the stories that we feel are done and dusted and packaged up, and the most compelling stuff of the past 12 hours.
The Newsroom and Global News Podcast are therefore a tandem thing, happening at the same time.
Where do you source stories for The Newsroom?
During the week, the Newsroom program goes out at 11:00GMT, 1:00GMT, 19:00GMT, 22:00GMT, 2:00GMT and 5:00GMT. So, you are constantly preparing the next one. There aren’t any breaks. You finish the show, you grab a cup of tea, and you start working on the next one. Obviously, there’s breaking news going on, and a lot of the decisions about which stories are covered depend on who we can get. We’re lucky in terms of having language services; we’re wildly lucky to have that resource. We have 20-something languages we broadcast in, though it used to be more. We have offices in Tigre, Ethiopia, all over the place. When the wheels come off on a situation, we have people who know what they’re talking about, who know the region and haven’t just been parachuted in after the story has begun.
Your 300,000 downloads a day demonstrate much how people want to engage with the news despite all we hear about mistrust and disengagement. What makes it work for you?
Over the years, it became apparent that people who are listening to a podcast are not listening to it in the same way they listen to radio. They’re choosing when to engage with the news and they’re concentrating on it.
I used to listen to it at the beginning and the end of the day. There was a period when there were three Global News Podcasts a day, and when that stopped I began to save the two shows and listen to both at the end of the day.
That’s interesting. We experimented with three a day, which was pointed at the American market, because it would mean the extra one was coming out at breakfast time in the US. It became a bit relentless, though.
With constant world news and events breaking, how do you choose one story over another to report on within the half hour allowed for Global News Podcast?
We are very lucky to have bureaus all over the world. Sometimes, producers and reporters from the bureaus and language services will report in to the news desk that they’ve been following a story that’s of interest to their listeners but now is developing into a big thing, so we know we need to get across it. The other brilliant resource we have is BBC Monitoring, which listens to different media in languages across the world, and social media across the world. When things are starting to kick off to be of interest outside the borders of those countries, we have people who can flag those stories. Sometimes, it comes down to how much clarity you’ve got on a story so that you’re not just muddying the waters.
For aspiring journalists who want to work for a global news service, what advice would you give? What skills are essential to global news producers and reporters?
What is vital now might not be in 10 years. I am endlessly surprised by the number of my peers who aren’t even on social media. I’ve long suggested people shouldn’t do media studies because you end up being an expert on the media but knowing bugger all about the world. Being tech-savvy and able to do everything yourself is important now in a way that it wasn’t when I joined the BBC. Digital natives who are always ready to learn the next thing, who aren’t phased by new technology — that willingness to adapt is really useful. I would also suggest being curious, having language skills, being fascinated by business, medicine, economics, politics, history, arts and gaming — if you have a broad curiosity but also an area of expertise, that’s very useful.
Are these skills the same as those required for reporting news for a domestic audience?
To report and select news for a global audience, you need to be able to step outside assumptions that you have about what people already know because there isn’t necessarily a shared knowledge on cultural aspects. You may need to spell certain things out, explain to people why certain news stories are of relevance to certain people in certain areas. People have different living standards, social mores and expectations; you can’t make assumptions that people will agree with the values and ideas that are common in your country.
Did you study journalism?
No, I studied English and politics. I didn’t know what I was going to do when I finished university, but I had no money to do postgrad studies. I showed up at a local radio station in Leicester, which told me they weren’t hiring but I could do some work for the experience. So I did a couple of days of work experience and learned the combination to get in the door by looking over someone’s shoulder. I just kept turning up and eventually, they gave me some on-air work. They liked how I sounded and started paying me to do freelance pieces. The local BBC station heard me and offered me some freelance shifts, which was enough incentive for the station I worked for to offer me a staff job.
One of the biggest problems journalism has at the moment is that it’s largely made up of middle class people. I could do work experience because I was also working in a pub in the evening and I had the safety net of knowing that, at worst, I could go home to my parents.
When I joined the BBC in 1994, I did a three-month trial period then I was staff. Staff jobs now are the Holy Grail. It’s much more common now for people to be on rolling three-month contracts, which is not just the BBC but most media outlets now. But you can’t live on experience; you can’t pay rent with exposure. I think that’s one of the biggest challenges of the moment — to increase the breadth and representation of people coming in.
When you are working in global news and there’s so much injustice, devastation, war and poverty to report on, how do you emotionally support yourself and your team to ensure it does not become exhausting or depressing to the point of burnout?
There are stories that have inevitably been very hard. The Ariana Grande concert explosion was so hard to report on because it was close to home; the people who were attacked were the ages of my nieces. You could become used to war and destruction and become hardened to it, but even then something cuts through it.
The BBC does provide help to reporters who have worked in very difficult situations and may be suffering from PTSD. On a daily basis, with just lots and lots of stories, there is a dark sense of humour in many a newsroom. So, a sense of humour and camaraderie are essential. We’re a tight-knit team and if someone is out of sorts, we’ll notice and check in on them. Karen Martin, our editor, is marvelous. When she joined in 2015, she offered us a breath of fresh air. She wanted to relaunch the Global News Podcast, to make it more tightly packaged product than it had been. When you have a good boss, it makes a world of difference.
The Global News Podcast always includes humorous stories; it isn’t purely just the hard-hitting news. Why?
There needs to be light and shade. If you have a program which is relentlessly about man’s inhumanity to man, catastrophe and disaster, it becomes overwhelming and people glaze over. Human experience is not all grim and relentlessly dark.
Cat Woods is a freelance journalist based in Melbourne, Australia. She writes on music, arts, design, women’s wellbeing and fitness.