You just need to be ready when opportunity comes knocking, in Max Foster's experience.
I feel very lucky to be able to say I love my job. When others dread returning to work after a break, I get excited. When my day overruns, it’s usually because I have taken something extra on voluntarily and I am keen to finish it up. Home life takes priority and I make sure I get the balance right but I am not one of those who resents my employer for sucking the life out of me. In fact, I feel grateful to be able to do what I do.
A friend asked me about my career choice recently for a book he’s writing premised on the fact that he made the wrong choice years ago and lived to regret it. I've also been mentoring a bit and this is the advice I would give to anyone setting out on a career or looking to pastures new, then I will explain by telling my own story.
· Forget about 'finding your passion,' nurture an interest that’s already there and see where it takes you.
· Be open to opportunities you haven’t considered before but only take them if they add meaning to your work.
· Have ambitions but reset every so often to keep them relevant.
· Be resilient. If you don’t get the job you want, keep trying. It’s probably fate that you didn't get it anyway.
· Contacts - use them, especially if you’ve earned them.
· Specialise, it makes you useful ... and interesting.
· Challenge yourself. If you cope once, you know you will cope again but try to experiment away from the limelight.
If I track my own career choice back, I would probably have to return to my teens and the endless school holidays I spent in the village I was brought up in, in the idyllic English countryside. We were surrounded by rolling fields, animals and, well, that was about it.
It was great fun whilst I was younger and when my mother and elder brothers were around but by the age 15 they were out working, my mother even doing night-shifts at a local factory to keep up with my school fees.
My only escape was the scraps of work I managed to pick up locally - hay-baling, fuel pump attendant, cleaner at the local pub. A lady called Hilda who I cleaned with had been doing the job for 50 years or so and when we got our weekly pay packets, she would put the loose change in the slot machine by the bar. I never asked her why she did it but my assumption was that she was hoping for her ticket out of there.
When I hit 16, my eldest brother liberated me with a scooter, opening up a whole new world of opportunity in the local town. The hotel took me on as a waiter and I worked lunch and dinner with a break in between which was useless because it didn't give me enough time to get home and back. I relished the independence work gave me though, financially and socially. The holidays went by quickly and I felt I had achieved something at the end of them. The main lesson I learned was from the people I worked with though. They were happy enough but, without exception, they were doing it just for the money and would happily trade it in to do nothing. Some admired my grit and on more than one occasion I was taken aside and advised to go to university and get a ‘proper job.’ That resonated and I committed to finding a career that didn’t just pay but interested me too.
Back at school I spent hours in the careers library researching my options. I toyed with being a zookeeper, a stockbroker and pestered my parents to take to see zoos and the stock exchange to see what life would be like working there. I eventually found my vocation though at home, watching TV.
I lay my cards on the table whilst chatting to a friend called Georgina by the school entrance which was one of the hang-outs. I knew she wouldn’t judge me. We had been in the same class but she missed a year of school after a heart operation nearly killed her. She returned in a wheelchair but with the type of resilience and get-up-and-go I imagine you only get from facing death in the way she did.
She asked me what I wanted to do when I left school. I told her I wanted to be a children’s TV presenter and she told me I should just ‘go for it.’ By articulating it, the dream almost starting coming real. Georgina had happened to have done work experience at the local radio station, BBC Wiltshire Sound, and said I should start there.
I wrote to the station and, weeks later, they replied with a rejection letter. I aimed lower, to Hospital Radio Swindon and they not only offered me work experience but my own show. It was one of those fateful moments that only present themselves to you if you seek them out. Instead of making tea at the BBC and watching other people do the job, I was doing the job already, and I was pretty good at it though I did manage to prompt the station's first ever formal complaint by inviting in a group of school friends to laugh at my jokes who found it funnier to swear live on air and watch my reaction.
My abiding memory of those shows though was being in the studio on my own, having a conversation with something lying in a hospital bed, bored, worried and looking for some escape. I kept things upbeat for them and played uplifting music and I still today imagine I am broadcasting to one person today. It defines the tone of my shows, makes them more conversational and helps me cope with the idea that I am now broadcasting to a global audience instead of a couple of wards.
I loved the intimacy of radio. It was my confessional. As a shy teenager I was able to speak freely to people I didn't know because I couldn't see them.
Soon enough, I wanted a real job in the business so I wrote back to Wiltshire Sound and every other station hoping that I would break through having had my own show now but they still didn’t want me.
Dear Mr Foster,
Thank you for your recent letter in connection with the above. The BBC receives many similar requests, unfortunately demand far outweighs supply. Therefore we can only offer a limited number of placements in any one department, generally for one or two weeks.
However, I have circulated your details to make your interests known. You will only be contacted if some positive advice/assistance can be given.
- BBC Wiltshire Sound, 14th August 1991
Thank you for your application for the Young Broadcaster Bursary. I am afraid I have to tell you that you have not been selected as the successful candidate. The standards were very high so do not be despondent. If I could give you one tip it would be – slow down and smile more!
- GWR, Swindon, 13th June 1990
Dear Mr. Foster,
Thank you for your recent letter regarding employment at 2CR. Alas, no we just do not have any vacancies and I don’t really see the position changing in the foreseeable future.
Thank you for your interest and best wishes for the future.
- 2CR, Bournemouth, 15th April 1991
I have all those letters are in a box at home and I hadn’t read them since, until I decided to write this piece. Each left a wound but there was a drive within me not to give up and, looking back, I think it was the fear of returning to the boredom of the school holidays in my village.
I researched the background of as many radio and TV presenters I could think of and realised most had been to college so I decided to do the same. I considered a media degree but thankfully went for economics which was my best subject at school, though I later swapped for business. Media degrees are no use to anyone unless you want to be a media correspondent. Of far more use in a newsroom is a specialism. Politics, medicine, technology, defence … these are types of stories we cover every day and that’s where we need expertise.
Whilst at Cardiff University, I continued writing letters to radio stations asking for work, paid or otherwise and eventually BBC Children’s Radio Programmes in London responded by inviting me in for a couple of two-week spells in the holidays. I had to pinch myself walking in to Broadcasting House. I still have the temporary pass I was given tucked away with those rejection letters at home.
I spent my time making tea but also learning how shows are put together and seeing who did what. If they had offered me a job, I would have taken it but instead they put me in touch with a producer at the BBC in Cardiff who agreed to meet me and ended up offering me freelance reporting shifts which I did between lectures. This was my first taste of how important contacts are in building a career. Would I have got the role in Cardiff if I hadn’t been referred by London?
I was assigned to an entertainment show called ‘Rave’ which was simulcast on Radio Wales and Radio 5. It was a big break and it was paid. The presenter was the wonderful Rob Brydon who I was too nervous to speak to but I was watched him like a hawk/stalker to see how he did it. He prepared every minute of airtime but once he was in the studio he made it sound like it was all off-the-cuff. I contributed 3-4 minute recorded pieces to the show and they would take me weeks to research and put together. I interviewed a friend who had been to a party and taken a horse tranquilizer called Ketamine. He described in horrendous detail how it felt as if his limbs were drifting away from his body and he warned listeners never to try it. I also went to a hardware shop rumoured to be riddled with poltergeist. Customers had reported seeing things spontaneously fly from the shelves and I spoke to several regulars who told eerily similar accounts and it was a big talking point in that community so I went with it and the piece got a great response.
Then I discovered a goldmine of stories at the Student Union in Cardiff which was one of the main music venues in Wales at the time. I used my student credentials to get in to the gigs and my BBC credentials to get in to the green room. I got a series of exclusive interviews with the likes of Sister Sledge, which were gratefully received by the BBC and gave me the type of behind-the-scenes access that still excites me about the job today.
My defining scoop came when I was least expecting it, as it often the case. I was at lunch with my friend Louise and her parents at a hotel restaurant in Cardiff. She was working on the student newspaper at the time. The actor Anthony Hopkins walked in with his wife and Louise and I both had the same idea, to ask him for an interview. We didn’t want to interrupt his lunch so we left a note for him at reception. Months later, this letter landed on the stinky doormat in my student digs:
10 June 1993
The Park Hotel,
Dear Max and Louise,
Thank you for your letter.
Yes I will be able to give you an interview. But not just now. I will be coming to Cardiff from about 22 Feb to make a film in the Rhondda and I will be staying at this hotel.
So you could contact me then and we’ll fix something up.
I had to read it a few times before I took it in. He was one of the biggest names in Hollywood at that time, still hot from his blockbuster performance as Hannibal Lector in The Silence of the Lambs and everyone wanted to know if he was going to do a sequel.
When I was actually sitting down with him at the dining table in his hotel suite, I asked him if he would do a follow-up and he gave a firm, 'No.' Film buffs will note that he did but it was enough at the time for my interview to be picked up across the BBC and in the papers. That was when I realised what it meant to break news and I decided that it was journalism more than entertainment that I wanted to pursue.
Getting in to news was a whole new challenge though. I got some experience at the commercial radio station in Cardiff, Red Dragon, but BBC newsroom was much bigger and they wouldn't take me on without a postgraduate diploma in broadcast journalism. So, I applied to all the reputable courses and only got in to one of them, Highbury College in Portsmouth, which made my decision easy. Looking back, I was terrible at being interviewed which was ironic considering I was able to interview people myself. It’s just a conversation but I treated them like an exam and I think I just came across as characterless.
Postgraduate diplomas differed from media degrees in that they were vocational and taught you the useful practical skills you needed to work in radio – how to put a bulletin together, edit, choose a headline, that sort of thing. I thrived and remember one tutor explaining what news was and it’s as good a definition as I have ever heard. He drew a squiggly line on the white board and said news was the ups and downs– the ‘things that don’t happen every day.’
One day after returning home from to my flat from college, I turned on the TV and there was a car chase on a freeway in Los Angeles. The police were in pursuit of O.J. Simpson, an American sports star, suspected in the murder of his ex-wife and her friend. That wasn’t ‘something that happened every day’ and neither was the open-ended live coverage I saw unfold on the news networks. I watched for hours and I wasn’t the only one. 95 million viewers tuned in, just in the US let alone around the world. For someone brought up on evening newscasts which told me what to think, I felt more engaged in a story than ever before. I didn’t know what was going to happen next and that didn’t end with the car chase. Simpson’s entire trial was covered live in all its salacious detail and at times I felt almost dirty watching it but I couldn’t tear myself away either.
I was desperate to get my teeth into some real stories report live to real people and as part of the college course we were expected to apply for work placements in local radio so I made my third and final stab at BBC Wiltshire Sound and this time they took me. In fact they liked me so much they kept me on for two years. My job consisted of hurtling around the countryside covering everything from local elections to ploughing competitions. I took whatever shifts were going and loved every minute, though I did come close to burning out at one point looking back. It was a great place to learn though because I was allowed to make mistakes, thanks to our historically low listening figures - at the time they officially registered at zero.
One day I arrived in the newsroom and was sent straight back out again with a press release and told to go to a hospital at the other end of the county do a live report. There were guests waiting in the car park I was told and I had to get there quickly. I set off in the radio car without reading the press release and arrived at the hospital just in time. I was barely out of the car though when I heard the presenter introducing me. I don't know what he was thinking but I my instinct was to look for the guests and run towards them like a madman. Before I got the, I was live on air and found myself describing the scene around me. ‘You join me the hospital car park in Devizes on a clear and sunny day…’ I filled enough time to reach the guests and in a moment of genius I said, ‘And joining me this morning are …’ and I pointed the microphone at a baffled looking lady who duly gave me her name and position and now I knew who she was. I did the same with the people standing next to her. Then I came back to the lady and asked, ‘And why we are here today?’ She explained that they had new development plans for the hospital now I knew what we were talking about too and was able to continue the conversation.
These days I would have at the confidence to just hand back to the studio when I knew I wasn't ready but the experience did mean I had confronted and overcome every reporter's recurring nightmare which is to find yourself live on air with nothing to say. In fact I was told it was one of my best interviews and that was because I was forced to listen to the answers and develop them which is how the best interviews work, rather than working your way through a list of pre-set questions.
I loved my time in local radio but after a couple of years, I was ready for some bigger stories and an actual audience so I applied to stations in busier news patches, without any luck. Then I saw an advert a notch above my station but it felt right because it allowed me to use my business degree. It was a Business Reporter opening at the hallowed BBC World Service in London. I applied and, to my delight, I got an interview and even better - I nailed it. I knew what I was talking about and it came across as convincing.
You can imagine my disappointment when I received yet another rejection letter. Something in me wouldn’t let it go though and I called the editor who had interviewed me who confirmed I did well but that another candidate had the edge with her language skills. I asked if he could offer me freelance shifts in which case, I would pack in my local radio job and move to London. He said he would call me back and when he did he said he had convinced human resources department to create a second position for me. I was off to the ‘Big Smoke!’
Walking in to the reception of Bush House in central London was a defining moment for me. It was a world away from the leafy country lanes of Wiltshire. Established in the 1930s as ‘The Empire Service,’ the network served the British colonies and the cavernous, marbled entrance echoed back to that bygone era.
Bush House was actually four buildings connected by a disorientating warren of corridors and staircases. One minute you would be walking through what felt like a dusty old Oxford college with producers tapping quietly away at their keyboards then you would turn in to all the atmosphere of an African souk with people shouting and the radio blaring out. That’s because the World Service isn’t one radio station, it’s a multiplicity of language services and cultures. It was the sort of place you could never fit into because there wasn’t a 'Bush House type'. We were all misfits and that was what made it so appealing. It’s merged now with the main BBC newsroom in a flashy building next to Broadcasting House and has lost some, not all, of its identity.
I took my place in the Business Unit sitting next to the legendary Roger White who, like Rob Brydon in Cardiff, made it all look so easy. He would spend all day reading then go into the studio with a couple of notes and ad lib his way through the interviews. It’s a technique I finally mastered years later. You’re essentially banking the research in your mind that you can draw on it for your questions without being locked in to that set pattern of questions.
I was in my mid-twenties and as the office junior, I was usually relegated to night shifts but fate again played its part again when a huge story landed on my lap. It was 1997 and the Asian financial markets were in free-fall. Every night, when I came in, a different economy would be teetering on the edge of collapse. Was I an expert in Asia? No, but I did know about markets and it was essentially the same story every time. International money being pulled out in a fit of fear. I remember one producer bursting from the main newsroom and declaring ‘the dong is down!’ ‘No problem,’ I said. ‘I will write something up.’ Once he’d gone, I scrambled to identify what a ‘dong’ was and enough, it was a currency and it belonged to Vietnam.
To get information, I had to ring up a lonely soul sitting in the ‘cuttings library’ where newspaper stories were methodically filed for research purposes. There was no Google, social media or even email to speak of at the time. We received feedback instead in the form of letters. Our address was brilliantly simple - ‘Bush House, London,’ and we would get sack-loads of post every day from all corners of the globe. Listeners would explain what they liked and what they didn’t and it wasn’t the knee-jerk, emotionally-charged criticism we get today via social media. People had taken the time to compose their thoughts, write them down in long form and send it in. I miss that.
It wasn’t until 1999 that I realised the power of the internet when I received this press release:
‘13 October 1999. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, 1999, to Professor Robert A. Mundell, Columbia University, New York, USA for his analysis of monetary and fiscal policy under different exchange rate regimes and his analysis of optimum currency areas...’
I, of course, wanted an interview with Professor Mundell. I looked him up in an online New York phone directory and went down the list of 'Mundells’ and his wife eventually answered the phone but informed me he was away, travelling. 'Where,' I asked. ‘London,’ she replied. I ventured to ask where he was staying and she named the hotel which happened to be a minute's walk from Bush House.
I grabbed a tape recorder and set off to find the professor. The hotel receptionist called his room and said he was happy to see me. I went up, knocked on his door and he opened it still wearing his dressing gown and in a state of shock having just been informed himself about the award, the most distinguished prize by far in economics. He agreed to an interview and we just perched on the side of his bed and got on with it. You could argue that scoop was luck but it’s a good example of how you make your own.
As I worked my way up the ladder in the Business Unit, I graduated to more day shifts and became a regular on the flagship, Newshour. I tried to be cool about it but it was very high-profile and I knew that if I made a mistake it could be terminal for my career. Veteran reporters Sally Hardcastle and Lyse Doucet took me in and gave me the reassurance I needed to cope with my bouts of self-doubt. That’s as close as I ever really got to being mentored.
Even more daunting was the network editorial meeting where the editors of all the language services, specialist units and programmes came together to set the news agenda for the day - every editor, that is, apart from mine who for some reason preferred to send one of his team. I was half the age of anyone else in the room and with a fraction of the experience. My stories were also weak in comparison. A potential shift in interest rates didn’t really cut it against a frontline report from a middle-east conflict. I decided to start coming in to the office earlier and preparing by pitches to the meeting and once it had started, I would weigh in with business angles to other stories that were mentioned. Gradually I built my credibility and the table started coming to me for guidance instead of ignoring me. Expertise is important in any line of work, not just because it’s useful but because it gives you character and builds trust.
I had a wonderful two years at Bush House and could have stayed longer but an attachment came up in the television newsroom and everyone told me to apply so I did, knowing I could return if it didn't work out. It was another world away from Bush House, all shiny glass and open plan. The corridors were wide and full of famous faces and I would catch myself saying hello to people before realising they didn't have a clue who I was.
One of my early frustrations with TV was that I couldn’t just say what I wanted any more. I needed pictures to go with anything I out out on air. I came up with all sorts of creative solutions to the problem. I would use case studies to personalise the narrative. I remember a lady in the English midlands who had built up £100,000 in debt on credit cards. All she had to show for it was a house full of those ornaments you see advertised in newspaper pull-outs. I interviewed her at home. The curtains were all drawn and she clearly wasn’t happy but wanted to tell her story so others didn’t fall in to the same trap. Her bravery was commendable and I am sure she did make a difference by raising awareness of how easy it is to lose control of your finances.
If I couldn’t find a case study, I would go live and revert to some televisual gymnastics, bouncing around the location to create a sense of jeopardy which was sure to keep the audience on the edge of their seats. They love the idea that you might trip up at any time and when it actually happens, it can endear you even more to them, as long as you recover. I never got much feedback for my antics from superiors but figured out that if I didn’t hear anything then I was doing OK. I remember approaching one editor who told me in no uncertain terms, ‘I am not going to tell you you’re good Max, I’ve got my own career to worry about.’
By the early 2000s, I was a regular on BBC Breakfast, the leading UK morning show. I was reporting most of the time but also filled in for the presenters, including a brief stint alongside Moira Stewart who I had grown up with watching on TV. I had to pinch myself when she said my name for the first time on air. We got on well though and that’s where CNN noticed me and I plunged myself in to the furnace of breaking news.
My first big story was when Pope John Paul II became gravely ill and we went in to rolling coverage. I was on and off set for nearly three weeks, until his successor, Benedict XVI, was anointed. I was ad-libbing much of the time and if a script appeared in the prompter I wouldn’t know what was at the end of it – a package? a live guest? a blank screen? If you had asked me if I would cope beforehand I would have said no but I had a lot of support from colleagues and I knew I had to prove myself.
The same year I was on air after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in August 2005. We had dialed back coverage assuming the worst was over until the levees protecting the city were breached during my show. I didn’t even know what a levee was at the time, but thankfully Google was a thing by then so I looked it up and swiftly realized how grave the situation was.
The levees eventually gave way and the city was submerged in the costliest natural disaster to strike the U.S. up to that point. I told that story to viewers in America and around the world and it mattered that they got story right for them. Ultimately that’s where I find meaning in what I do. It’s a cause, a privilege. Whether it’s a natural disaster, an election or a shift in interest rates - I give people information that they use to make decisions that affect their lives. I could never take that responsibility lightly and it would never bore me either, which speaks to my drive which is rooted I think in the fear of returning to the mindlessness of the school holidays in my village.
In my experience, success is driven by fear. I see it too in all the prominent people I interview and meet. If they are at the top of their game, they love what they do and I think most of them would struggle to explain how they ended up there. That's because your dream job finds you, not the other way around. You just need to be open to opportunities when they arise and go with them if they will challenge you and add meaning to your work.