Tim Mansel

Tim Mansel is an international freelance journalist, with more than 20 years of experience; as a documentary maker, reporter, producer and editor for BBC radio and television.

"It all began for me at Darlington College of Technology in the autumn of 1983, the beginning of the one-year NCTJ pre-entry course.

"I have an image in my head of a room full of typewriters, and I remember how impossible it was to convey a thought onto a keyboard. I had to write it down in longhand first.

"Unusually, I enjoyed shorthand – it was like learning a new language. We were taught Teeline, and I remember a certain edge of competition as to who would get to 100 wpm first. It wasn’t me. Law and public administration stood me in good stead – I would spend a lot of time over the subsequent two or three years in council chambers and magistrates’ courts. But the real joy of Darlington was radio.

"Radio was a surprise. We were told on the first day that they had an undersubscribed radio course and they asked for volunteers. Suddenly they were oversubscribed and we all had to do a voice test. I was one of the lucky ones.

"The radio supremo was David Peel, then a working journalist at BBC Radio Cleveland. David was tough. I remember his opening salvo, “How many of you own a radio?” and his withering response to the meagre show of hands. 'How can you expect to be radio journalists if you don’t even have a radio?'

"David taught in the evenings because he worked during the day. We learned how to record interviews, how to splice tape with a razor blade, how to write for radio. We produced a weekly radio show with Echo Beach as the theme tune. Chaotic but fun. And I remember going over to Radio Cleveland in Middlesbrough during the breakfast show, being asked to cut a clip from an interview to run in the news, and the thrill of hearing it go out on air.

"I also remember my first pay cheque; ten quid, also from Radio Cleveland, for an interview I’d done with the chaplain of Darlington Football club. Killer question: “On Saturday afternoons, do you pray that they’ll win?”

"But my radio career was apparently doomed before it really got started. After a month’s placement at BBC Radio York I was told I would never work in radio. “The voice simply isn’t good enough,” was the damning verdict.

"Deeply discouraged, I turned to the world of newspapers. I got on the first train to London and negotiated three months holiday cover on the Kilburn Times, before landing a permanent job at the Informer, a series of free weekly papers in London’s south-western suburbs. I later moved to the East Anglian Daily Times in Suffolk; lots of magistrates’ courts, lots of inquests, lots of shorthand.

"But I’d never lost hope that I might find a job in radio, and in 1990 some misguided editor at the BBC World Service took a chance on my dodgy voice.

"I’m still working for the BBC, 23 years later, now as a freelancer. It’s been very good to me. I’ve been an output editor, a producer, a reporter, a documentary maker. I’ve travelled the world: to Afghanistan and Iraq, to Haiti and Rwanda. I’ve made a programme with Iron Maiden in India; I’ve been to the Antarctic.

"But radio makes you lazy. You tape everything, so the shorthand note, while still useful, isn’t essential. You want to know what someone said, you press the play button, but I still scrawl out some Teeline when I’m doing research on the phone. But if I don’t transcribe it immediately it turns into a mass of mostly indecipherable squiggles. Use it or lose it."

November 2013