Sarah Montague – Inspirational Woman!

Sarah Montague is one of the reasons I am an ardent fan of the BBC radio 4 news programme Today; I feel I know her well as her voice is often the first to float into my consciousness in the morning. She is the only female presenter out of a team of five, which must be interesting at times.

Sarah Montague 2Sarah’s BBC career began as a presenter with the launch of BBC News 24 but she had an interesting career path before she arrived at journalism which I hope we’ll hear a bit more about.

Jane: Sarah, thanks so much for taking the time to talk, particularly as you must get up at silly o clock most week days! I know you rarely give interviews so am doubly pleased to be talking with you today.
First, can you tell us something about your career pre BBC? How did you end up at the BBC?
Sarah: Well, I kept getting sacked from my other jobs! I did a biology degree at university and had thought about medicine as a career but didn’t fancy 5 or 6 years of training. I knew I wanted to do something that made a difference but I didn’t have an actual plan and I wasn’t sure at all of what I wanted to do when I was studying.

My first job was in the City where I lasted a year, and then I took up a job with Charles Tyrwhitt, the ‘shirt man.’ The company has since gone from strength to strength but back then there were just 3 of us. This was in 1991. My friend, Nick Wheeler, who set up the company, sacked me and we fell out very badly. We didn’t speak for a while but we’re friends now; in fact, he always claims the credit for my success saying if he hadn’t got rid of me I wouldn’t have ended up at the BBC!

It was after leaving Tyrwhitt’s that I decide journalism was for me; I went back home to Guernsey reasoning that it would be relatively easy to get a start there. I approached the local radio station and offered to do anything. I thought they’d take me to make the coffee but actually they didn’t want me at all. However, the local TV station did offer me a post, albeit in 2 week contracts, but I ended up staying there 3 years and gained a lot of experience of reporting and live broadcasting.

I moved to London as a freelancer and had jobs with Reuters, the news agency, and Sky broadcasting in their news and business departments. In 1997 I became the first voice on BBC News 24, the BBC’s first rolling news channel. That was a lot of fun!
After that the BBC used me on quite a few different programmes like Newsnight and BBC breakfast.

Newsnight always strikes me as a very women friendly programme; how did you find it?
The whole of the BBC seemed woman-friendly after Sky – at least at that stage. I remember arriving and thinking how different the atmosphere was and then realising that about half the room were women. When I was at Sky it was a very much more male environment.

That’s also true of Today; despite my being the only female presenter there are a lot of women working behind the scenes. It’s not the male locker room mentality that people sometimes assume it must be.

I spoke about it recently at the *BBC’s Academy  Expert Women’s day which is a good initiative to encourage more women experts into TV and radio. {*The initiative continues to seek out specialists in editorial subject areas that programme makers say they have trouble finding female experts in. }

What was your very first broadcast?
I was given the opportunity to go out and interview someone by a colleague. Looking back I suspect it was something he didn’t actually want to do, and thought wouldn’t get aired, but it did get aired. I went home from that first interview and I was flying! I loved it. After that it felt like I leaned against a door and it opened for me. I was impatient and ambitious to move on. Finding what you love is just great.

People in the public eye can get a lot of criticism as well as plaudits. Sheryl Sandberg in ‘Lean In’ says women need to toughen up as if you try to please everyone all of the time you can’t be doing a good job. Does criticism bother you much?
I have developed a thicker skin over the years but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t bother me at all. I think it bothers the men as well. I’m often criticised for interrupting but when you only have a three minute slot sometimes you just have to. It is frustrating when politicians and others blatantly don’t engage with the questions asked but it’s my job to try and get some new information and not just accept the rehearsed message
But yes, you do have to set yourself apart a little and try to ignore the trolls.

The Today programme means very, very early starts. How do you cope with that? Having children did manage to turn me Sarah-Montague & at BBCfrom an owl to a lark but I notice as I’m getting older I’m reverting to my owly type. Are you naturally a lark?
No! I hate it when the alarm goes off! I am most definitely not a lark. But the upside of this job is that I am finished with my formal work at I still have research etc to do but I can fit that in around my own times. It means I can do my share of the school pick ups. If you have an interesting and challenging job it inevitably means lots of hours; being on the Today works really well with the kids.

You’ve had some interesting assignments recently on Today. (We’ll get to Robert Redford in a minute!) How do you deal with some of the terribly sad and unjust things you see and report on?
I try to maintain the old fashioned BBC line of staying impartial but sometimes you just can’t. And sometimes I think it would be inappropriate not to show some reaction – we’re only human. Presenters are now encouraged to show a bit more of themselves and their personality but it’s a fine line. Passion is generally a good thing.

Who has been the most interesting/challenging/exciting person you’ve interviewed? Have you had any personal heroes in front of you?
Often the most challenging interviews are when you have someone in front of you who you know really knows their stuff, but nerves are preventing them sharing it; they become monosyllabic and tongue tied. You know you need to give them a bit of time but you also need to hear what they’ve been invited on to discuss. That can be tricky.

I don’t really have any personal heroes, although I did interview Robert Redford recently. I rang my Mum up to tell her that was coming! He was lovely but we had only 8 minutes and he’d been doing loads of interviews. He was very professional, listened well and answered my questions. But I’d really love to do a ‘hard talk’ with him, say 25 minutes as he is a very interesting character.

Occasionally you do interview people you’ve admired and think “Oh I wish I hadn’t actually met them” but more often it’s not about finding feet of clay rather more discovering people you had a preconceived idea about actually have hidden depths and are fascinating to talk with.

The trouble with live TV/radio is that all one’s inevitable mistakes are quite public. Have you ever had an experience like that live where you’d like to be able rewind?
Oh Yes! Almost every day! You always think I could have done that better. One of my worst mistakes was when I was pregnant and had what I call a ‘preghead’ moment. I was presenting a programme with Allan Little. It was towards the end of the show and I was drifting off a bit. I suddenly realised there was a silence and so I launched into the next item. Except it was only a pause; Alan had just asked his interviewee a question and he was pausing a while before replying! That was very embarrassing.

There was another not so long ago. It was before Christmas and we were having a discussion on the Today programme about how we know things exist, a very existential debate. I chipped in with ‘Well, we do all invent things, take Father Christmas for example…’ I was inundated with tweets and calls chastising me for ruining Christmas for the children etc, so I tried to make amends by adding at the end of the programme that I had made a mistake and of course, Father Christmas existed, but I think I actually made it worse by drawing attention to it!

Later, I was in the car with my 6 year old when the clip was played on the radio and my daughter turned to me in horror and said: “Mummy, you didn’t really say that, did you?”
(For purposes of clarification, of course Father Christmas exists, Jane.)

Do you have a role model, someone who has inspired you throughout the years?
No, I don’t have any role models at all. I often read interviews where people list their role models and I wonder why I don’t but I just don’t. I’ve never actually wanted to be like anyone else. No heroes.

On a more personal note, who or what keeps you going when times are hard, and celebrates with you when times are good?
That’s my family! I have three daughters and a wonderful stepdaughter. She’s 16 and my three are 6, 9, and 10 but it’s getting much easier now they’re older, Jane. At one point it felt like a struggle, juggling pregnancy, small children and presenting but now it’s much easier. And there seem more time to relax and unwind with the family.

What advice would you give to any women wanting to follow in your footsteps?
Oh that’s a hard one. I think I’d say if it’s something you’re passionate about and you really want it you’ll get there. Being willing to do anything in my chosen field worked for me, although I appreciate that it’s much harder now; I was lucky, I was paid for everything I did. Make the coffee, get on with folk and make it easy for them to hire you. Also I think social media opens up lots of avenues now.

If you could have an alternative dream career (anything) what would it be?
Something completely different – I’d like to know how to restore old furniture. I think it’s about taking something that’s all bashed up and making it beautiful again.

Sarah, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with us today, particularly as it was post broadcast and your early start! I hope your career continues to go from strength to strength. Thank you.

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Photos from BBC


Posted on May 21st, 2013 by

2 Responses to “Sarah Montague – Inspirational Woman!”

  1. Emma Swaisland says:

    Hi, Jane, thanks for this interview with Sarah Montague, really great to hear how she’s doing. I am used to her voice in the morning for a different reason – I was at boarding school with her briefly in the 1980’s so used to hear her saying the morning prayer before breakfast!
    Congratulations on your 100th newsletter, quite a milestone, keep up the inspirational work, best wishes, Emma Swaisland.

    • Jane says:

      Really! We didn’t get to talk about school. Next time maybe? Thanks for your good wishes, all the best to you, Jane

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