BREAKING NEWS: in conversation with journalist & BBC Look North newsreader Jeff Brown 1/2

Jeff Brown has been a familiar face on North East TV for 25 years, delivering news and sport in his calm and self-assured way. I arranged to meet him in The Customs House, South Shields to find out what makes him tick.

Everyone is good at something it’s just finding it, it gives you tremendous focus and peace of mind and I was lucky to find mine at a young age. I was also very lucky having supportive parents so when I said at 14 that I wanted to be a sports reporter they never said everyone wants to get into football matches for nothing, why not be an accountant.

Journalism was all I wanted to do. My Dad said let’s see what we can do to make it happen. He suggested looking in the Sunderland Echo every night to see what sports stories they don’t cover and go and cover them.

First thing I did was follow some friends up to Edinburgh for a Table Tennis tournament. I wrote it all up and sent it in. It was used in the Echo and it was an absolute wow seeing it in print. This was around 1976.

I also followed Newcastle Diamonds speedway, wrote up the reports in longhand and my Dad drove miles out of his way to work to drop them off at the Echo office.

After having three or four printed and not being paid my Dad said why not drop them a line and say you are happy to supply them but payment would be good. I eventually got £1.25 for each report printed and after a few of these they started putting my name on them – giving me a by line. I knew then this is what I wanted to do.

I was desperate to start work straight after school but a teacher advised me to go to University because it would help get me further and faster in a career. Unfortunately no Media courses then so it was Economic and Social History at York.

Jeff at the Birmingham Post & Mail.

HAVE YOU HEARD THE NEWS

In my third year I wrote off to fifty newspapers and got six replies, two interviews and one job offer. So that’s how I finished up at the Birmingham Post and Mail in 1982 as a trainee at a time when newspapers had a bit of money so they were putting you on training courses.

I did my two and a half years training and everyday I would go over to the sports desk and ask if there’s a job nobody wants to do – maybe on a weekend or evening – I’ll do it.

As my training finished a job came up on the sports desk as a junior, so I became sports reporter in January 1985 and after a year a job came up on the North East Journal. I thought I had left the North East and wanted to go to Fleet Street in London, but after talking to friends and looking at the opportunity of writing about North East sport, I came back and did ten years on the Journal.

That was mainly football, boxing and speedway plus Durham cricket who became a first class county and I got the job covering them home and away for not just the Journal but the Chronicle, Sunday Sun and the Pink. I always loved writing and did fourteen years in all on papers.

Jeff interviews cricketer Ian Botham for the Journal, 1993.

SPIRIT OF RADIO

When Durham were playing first class county matches BBC Newcastle wanted news reports from matches that I was covering. So at the end of the game I’d pick up a phone and talk about the game for a minute – and that was it.

Writing a report, you’d spend all day crafting eight hundred to a thousand words then ring the office, asking them to change a comma or paragraph – it was so much easier just talking! So I did a bit more radio broadcasting, before a job came up at Tyne Tees in 1996.

The boss, Roger Thames, got in touch and asked if I wanted to come in for a chat ? I was a bit naïve, because it was an interview really – and he asked me to do a screen test there and then.

I thought I had my best tie on, but is my hair ok ? Maybe I should say I’ll come back tomorrow, when I would have had time to prepare. But as he was talking I thought: no this is TV – it’s what you’ve got to do and be ready at a minutes notice.

I still have a copy of the screen test on tape, and if you saw it you would say ‘How did that bloke ever get on TV!’ I’m reading a news bulletin and it’s awful! I’m tense and moving nothing but my lips.

Then they asked me to talk about a sports topic for two minutes. I was wired up (through a headpiece) to the gallery and they let me know when there was a minute left, 30 seconds left, and then there was a countdown from ten seconds to zero. Timing is all important – especially on ITV, because you have to hit the advertising breaks.

For the two minute sports topic I talked about Durham cricket, and as I wound the piece up I came out bang on zero. That’s when Roger Thames said ‘that’s the guy for the job’. Sometimes I wake up in a cold sweat and think what if I did say I’ll come back tomorrow?

You’ve got to take opportunities when they come along. What’s the worst that could happen ? Changed my life that did – and that was twenty five years ago this month.

BIG PICTURE

The Kevin Keegan and Peter Reid times were great for sport in the North East. ITV had Premier League rights to use the football highlights, and at its height we had a team of eleven in the sports department.

We did sport every night on Tyne Tees, and on a Monday and Friday there were separate sports desks in City Road, Newcastle and at the Belasis studio in Billingham.

We did a Saturday tea-time results service called ‘Full Time’, a weekly magazine programme called Café Sport, and Football Flashback – an archive programme. We had our own football shows with studio guests, built around Highlights of big Cup ties, and I even travelled to do features in Italy, Holland and the States – it was a great time.

I had six and a half years at Tyne Tees, but then in 2003 I had an appraisal with Roger where he asked what do I want to do? I said ‘I want to do your job, Head of Tyne Tees Sport.’

But he told me his job would be gone in a few years and there wouldn’t be a separate department – it will all be under one roof. It was just the way ITV was developing. Instead of eighteen separate regions – Tyne Tees, Yorkshire, Granada etc – it would all be just one big ITV company.

It broke my heart to leave but BBC Look North were looking to compete by having a sports night every night. And everything Roger said about the way ITV was changing came to pass.

On the BBC sofa with Carol Malia.

LIFE IN A NORTHERN TOWN

In 2008 our main Look North news presenter, Carol Malia, went on maternity leave and a national advert went out for the post. I thought ‘I’ve done sport for around twenty years now – I might just give it a go’. I was in my comfort zone, and thought I should try something different.

I had being doing sport on Look North five years so knew I wouldn’t be a new face to viewers. My boss said ‘You didn’t give the best but we’ll take a chance!’ So I started on news, and when Carol came back I filled in on some days. Now she does three days a week hosting Look North and I do two, plus two days of sport.

Most of the programme is done in advance with a planning team. The order of news stories is decided on the day. On Monday we spend most of our time churning out the weekend sport. But we also plan ahead for the rest of the week so we know we have something every night. At the same time you’re always ready to drop everything and go chasing after a breaking news story.

There is a high degree of flexibility because of the way the industry has changed. Initially it would take five people to put a story on telly. When I started there was a cameraman, sound engineer, reporter, video editor and another sound engineer for recording a voice over.

Now I can be a video journalist (VJ) where I film something, digitize it, choose the pictures, write the voice over and record that, then edit the whole package and finally present it – which is why there aren’t as many jobs as there used to be, despite there being loads more channels!

Being able to edit pictures can give you great flexibility. If a story breaks at 6pm I can write it, choose the pictures, edit it all together then bang – it’s there to use at 6.30pm.

One time I was just putting my phone in the locker and I picked up a text that the Sunderland manager at the time – Steve Bruce – had just been sacked. We had half an hour to reshape the whole programme, which began with Carol asking me questions while we floated in some pictures of Steve and I talked about it for 2-3 minutes. It’s that immediacy which makes it so exciting.

The day after this interview Newcastle United were sold to new owners becoming one of the richest football club’s on the planet. Jeff was called in for a special live broadcast from St James’ Park and Newcastle manager Steve Bruce again was in line to be sacked.

Read part two about Jeff’s involvement in theatre and arts and what he is doing now.

Interview by Gary Alikivi   October 2021.

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