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Bill Birtles - Journalist and News Presenter, Triple J

Bill Birtles
‘First of all, you need to be really persistent just to get a solid job in the journalism industry.’

Bill worked hard to achieve his goal of becoming a journalist by studying a journalism degree, volunteering at community radio stations, networking, proving his commitment during an internship at the ABC and getting through the milestone of a regional stint.

His distinctive resonant voice can now be heard each day on the Triple J news around the nation.



What do you do in your job?

I’m a radio journalist and a news presenter at Triple J at the ABC, so I chase stories, conduct interviews and write up stories on a daily basis, as well as produce and edit news bulletins and present them – that is, read them out to a national audience.

Do you choose which news articles to broadcast?

Yes, essentially I have complete control over what goes to air. I choose what bulletins I produce and present, but you can’t just put anything to air! You have to stick to the news agenda and also stick to what would be relevant to a Triple J audience. There is a lot of quite dry political stuff, which is nonetheless important – but instead of reporting it in a dry and dull way I try to present it in an interesting way that appeals to a slightly younger audience.

Triple J news has a particular focus on youth issues, including things like music, entertainment, technology, sexual health, youth mental health and education issues.

What qualifications do you have?

I have a Media and Communications degree from UNSW and I studied a graduate diploma in Journalism at UTS. I chose to do post-graduate studies primarily because I knew UTS has strong links to the industry, in particular the ABC.

How did you get to be in this position?

While I was in university I was volunteering and later working for a community radio station, and this is where I learnt the vast bulk of my radio journalism skills.

During my post-grad studies I put my head down and worked really hard, and made it very clear to the people at UTS who had a bit of sway that I was very keen to be in broadcasting and get to the ABC.

I received a five-week internship at the ABC, and I put a lot of work into it. I got a lot of stories to air, and they extended my stay by a couple of weeks. Eventually I started working as a runner, then worked on the overnight radio news desk – 10pm to 6am shifts – and then gradually started working more and more shifts during the day.

Then I did a stint in the bush – I went to Wagga Wagga for about three months and worked in their regional newsroom. It’s a really good thing for any young journalist to do because you work a lot harder in a regional newsroom than you ever will in a metro newsroom. The stories might be a little more provincial, but the number of stories you have to produce, the number of contacts you have to develop and the responsibilities you have are invaluable for any young journalist.

You have a great voice for radio – have you had voice training?

I didn’t have any voice training until I came to the ABC, but volunteering for a community radio station while learning the ropes gave me a great opportunity to listen back, practise and develop my vocal style. When I now listen back to the programs that I produced back then, I cringe a bit because I sounded like a real amateur.

The voice training really helps. You generally receive that as part of your training in broadcasting.

Is anyone’s voice unacceptable for radio?

They tend to test your voice when you apply – it’s a requirement in broadcasting that you have a broadcastable voice, and there are a few people I’ve come across or who I’ve known who have been told their voice wasn’t up to scratch. It wasn’t their fault, just their natural voice didn’t sound particularly comfortable on the air. I’d say the vast majority of people would be fine though.

Do you see your future in broadcast or print journalism?

I think these days that a division between print and broadcasting is archaic. Basically if you look at the ABC, Fairfax or other news organisations, all of them are producing a mixture of video and online written stories. If you’re going to be writing a story for radio, doing interviews and recording them for radio or for television, subsequently you will write that same story up for the website. Also, reporters who don’t have much background in, say, taking photos would be given a camera when they go out on a job to take photos to be published online. So I think you need to be a jack-of-all-trades.

Certainly if you want to progress and work in some sort of senior position, you’ll need to have the ability to write as well as having television and radio experience.

I understand you’ve learnt Mandarin and spent some time in China – how has this impacted on your journalistic career?

While I wouldn’t say that speaking Mandarin has had a significant effect on my work so far, it has helped me get to know people in the Chinese community and do the odd story. Obviously if you can use a language to get to know people in a migrant community, that’s an advantage for any journalist. Speaking another language, such as Mandarin or Bahasa, can also help you work as a journo overseas.

What characteristics do you need to be a journalist?

First of all, you need to be really persistent just to get a solid job in the industry. There are far too many people being pumped out with journalism degrees across the country relative to the number of jobs.

Second of all, you need to be able to write.

You also need to be really confident because you spend a lot of time approaching strangers – for example, talking to an alleged criminal coming out of a courtroom, or to a politician who doesn’t have any time for you. You have to barge up to them, stick a microphone in their face and shout some questions out at them, so if you’re not willing to do that or you don’t feel comfortable doing that then you’re probably not really in the right job.

What advice would you give young people considering a career in journalism?

Build up a portfolio of work ASAP – if you’re at university that means start writing for student publications. If you’re still at school, take opportunities to enter student film festivals, anything that shows over time that you have a commitment to actually working in the industry and that you have an interest in current affairs and all those sorts of things.

You certainly can’t sit back and one day just decide you’re going to be a journo. You need to build up a portfolio of work to make sure that people realise you are keen and ambitious.

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