Making the decision to change careers is undoubtedly easier when you truly dislike the field you’re working in. But what happens if you enjoy your job yet feel an overwhelming urge to explore another career? That’s what happened to Bela Shah. Despite spending years training to become a lawyer and securing a highly-coveted job as a media lawyer for ITV, she couldn’t shake her long-standing desire to become a journalist and presenter. Here’s how she made her career change to become a BBC Radio 1 and Channel 5 news presenter.
Name: Bela Shah
Job title: Broadcast Journalist and Presenter
Years since changing path: 7
TAP: You’re a broadcast journalist – we’ve seen you on the Channel 5 news and heard you on BBC Radio 1’s Newsbeat too. From the outside, it looks like a dream job. Is it and what exactly does your job entail?
BS: As a broadcast journalist every day is different. I do a mixture of presenting and reporting. At Radio 1 and 1Xtra, I often present news, sports bulletins and the Newsbeat programme. I write the scripts for bulletins and work with an editor for the programme. I’m always looking for original journalism story ideas that could work as a radio piece, social video and online article too. It’s a long day: from 8 am to 6 pm. We have a morning meeting at 8 am to discuss ideas for radio and online. If I’m reporting, I will have to turn around a radio piece for the 12.45 pm programme and another one for 5.45 pm. Radio 1 and 1Xtra is a fun place to work – it’s fresh, dynamic and not bad for a celeb spot in the green room! But it’s also hard work. With millions of listeners, there is no room for error. Newsbeat is known for thinking outside of the box and creative storytelling, which can be tricky to do when you have a tight deadline.
At Channel 5, I present news bulletins. I decide the order of stories and write the scripts. There’s a lot more to consider with TV – your outfit, hair, make-up, etc. – but I really enjoy it. It’s nice to have a hair and make-up artist to get me TV ready! TV news is an area I’ve always wanted to work in so I’m grateful for the opportunity.
TAP: You haven’t always worked in this field. Tell us about your previous career, when you switched to journalism and why you made that career change
BS: I studied law at university and that was my plan from a young age ever since I watched the courtroom scene in A Few Good Men! I really loved learning about different laws and went on to train as a solicitor. I then worked as an in-house lawyer at ITV Sport – which I loved – but journalism and presenting was something I had always had an interest in. When I was five, I used to record my own “radio show” on cassette tape. It was called “Bela’s AM Music” and I would present the show and sing the songs! My mum still has the tapes.
I knew broadcast journalism was very competitive and thought it could be something I might be able to do later in my career. In 2011, my department at ITV was changing structure and I thought it would be a good time to try broadcast journalism. So I did a postgraduate diploma at the London College of Communication and it took off from there.
TAP: What were the defining steps and opportunities that helped you change careers from law to journalism?
BS: The postgraduate diploma was incredibly useful because it was very practical and gave me an insight into life in a newsroom. We had work experience placements and often guest lecturers from different broadcasters. It was great for making contacts. I did work experience through my course but also in my spare time. As a mature student, I felt like I needed to accelerate my new career because I knew it would take time to get to where I wanted to be and I wasn’t 22 (I was 29)!
TAP: What would you say was the most important thing you did/didn’t do to succeed?
BS: Persevere. It can be such a competitive and often cut-throat industry, to succeed, you have to be really determined, focused and thick-skinned. Work experience is key as it allows you to make contacts and also discover the parts of the job you enjoy and what you’re good at. Don’t compare yourself to others. I know it sounds cheesy but everyone is on their own journey, focus on yourself and where you want to be. You’re not going to be good at everything so work out what you’re good at and play to those strengths.
TAP: Let’s talk about money. Did you have to take a pay cut when you made your career change and how did you deal with this?
BS: Leaving law was a tough decision and yes, partly due to my salary! I left my job so I had no income when I went back to study for a year. It was a decision I made with my parents and my fiancé (now husband!). They said they would support me because they wanted me to follow my dream and they really did believe in me. I had to knuckle down and cut down on shopping, eating out, nights out etc. I started work as soon as my course finished but my salary was considerably less than what I was earning as a lawyer (less than half!). But I had already prepared myself for the pay cut and I knew that once I had gotten some real work experience, my salary would increase. It wasn’t easy but I was determined to make it work. I wouldn’t have been able to cope (mentally or financially) without my fiancé and family.
TAP: Can you share three resources that you think are invaluable for breaking into broadcast journalism?
1. Twitter: I found it really useful to follow other journalists and see what they were doing. It gave me insight into the industry and it’s a good way to reach out to other journalists and editors.
2. Postgraduate diploma/masters: In my experience, having a broadcast journalism qualification is helpful. It’s not always necessary – I have friends who have worked their way up through experience and are very successful. However, it does teach you the basics of writing, editing and media law. It shows prospective employers that you are serious about the industry and it’s a great way of making contacts. But it’s not cheap, so understandably it’s not for everyone.
3. Local radio: You can’t beat actual newsroom experience. I would highly recommend asking for work experience at a local radio / TV station. You get to see how everything works and often they will let you help out with research or other bits. If you make a good impression, it can lead to paid shifts.
TAP: What’s the biggest misconception about your job?
BS: A lot of people think it’s all glamour and meeting celebrities – that is about 1 percent of the job! Nobody sees the unsociable hours, the late night and overnight shifts. It can be stressful reacting to breaking news or working on a difficult and upsetting story. There isn’t much downtime during a shift and it can be intense as there’s no room for mistakes. It’s hard work but it can be really rewarding to see your work on TV or hear it on the radio. Every day is different so it never gets boring and you meet some extremely interesting and inspiring people along the way.
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