Working in television is not the easy option. And by far the most difficult bit is getting a foot in the door and, once you’ve managed that, keeping that door open. The first rung in television is the runner role. Exciting though it may be to get that first job, for most people it will be the beginning of a long hard slog.
Louise McNamara is an experienced runner and someone I had the pleasure of working with on a live daytime show for Sky1. She is hard-working, willing, resourceful and has heaps of that essential qualification – a sense of humour. If we were to demand a pair of women’s Irish dancing shoes in an outrageous size 9 with only hours to spare before they were required live on air – Louise would find them! She has agreed to share her story and she’s not holding back. Want to know the reality of life as a runner? Then here it is:
“The best way to describe my time in television is to liken it to taking one of those back country roads that you think is a short cut, but in actuality turns out to double the length of your journey. If you are anything like me you’ll be too stubborn to turn back when the going gets tough, and instead you’ll just keep on going in the bitter hope you’ll eventually get onto that motorway – the highway to employment and success!
I started out in a fairly conventional way. I was exceptionally fortunate to have a contact, my Mum’s best friend’s son, who was a post-production engineer at ITV. He got me a job as a post-production runner on ITV’s ‘Dancing on Ice’ programme. Despite my easy route onto the road, I felt on the back foot, because unlike many others I hadn’t got a media degree. As a result I had little or no idea on how television worked.
That first job was perfect in the sense that I had an opportunity to learn quite a bit on how everything worked and apart from ensuring that the editors were fed and watered, it wasn’t tremendously busy. So while it was great, it didn’t really do much for me in preparation for the life of a real runner!
The Runner’s Duties
My enthusiasm on ‘Dancing on Ice’ served me well and I literally walked from that job straight into a long contract as a post-production runner at the London Studios on the Southbank. There I was part of a team of five who looked after roughly 35 edit suites.
The morning started at 8am with the job of distributing fruit and water to all the edit suites. By the time that job was finished all the editors and producers had arrived to start their day of editing various programmes – and thus began the dreaded toast run.
A Runner’s Pain!
The toast run still takes centre stage of the worst task I have ever had to do as a runner. Every day was filled with complaints – “Ugh, this toast is cold”, “I have been waiting twenty minutes”, “There is too much marmite on this”, “I asked for peanut butter NO butter”. It was just awful. I once was walking down the corridor balancing a box filled with about twenty bags of toast in one hand, and five coffees in a holder in the other when a woman came up to me and screamed in my face.
“How dare you keep the executive producer of such and such show waiting?”
It was the closest I have come to crying on a job. It was awful. The rest of the day was filled with regular tea runs, lunch runs, distributing afternoon ‘treats’, more tea runs, if you are lucky getting time to have your own lunch, squeezing in a dinner run before clocking off around 7pm. That first week alone I knocked up nearly 60 hours. In reality there was absolutely no time during your working day to actually learn what you wanted and needed to learn. You had to rely on your observations and maybe shadowing on your precious days off. But despite all this, I absolutely loved it!
Due to my lack of prior knowledge or experience in television I didn’t really have an idea of what area I wanted to focus in on. I had fallen into post production, and I really enjoyed it – but I didn’t feel that it was exactly the career I wanted to pursue. Fortunately my boss realised this and after three months she transferred me to studio.
A Studio Runner
Studio life was equally if not more busy than post, but it was a lot more exciting. The plus side of being a studio runner is that you are not confined to one production. So in any given week you could be working on the likes of ‘Graham Norton’, ‘Have I Got News For You’, and ‘Loose Women’. The days are long, usually 14-15 hour days (you were usually the first to arrive in the morning and last to leave in the evening). Your duties are varied, you can be roped into anything from tea and lunch runs to ferrying people to and from the studio; you could be on a roll, doing some interesting work and then be brought crashing down to earth by someone informing you that “the toilets are disgusting, can you do something about that?”
It was an exciting fast paced environment to be around. Every single day you would meet or see someone famous, whether it be high-fiving Will Smith, or bringing Carol McGiffin her lunch. It was a world completely different from anything I had ever even imagined doing and I adored it.
The down side of being a studio runner is not being a member of a one team. Because you don’t belong to a particular production you are looked upon as an extra. Unless you get really involved with a team you are usually just called upon to do tea runs and fix photocopiers (which burn like hell!). Usually the bigger the show, the easier it is to get lost in the crowd, this happened to me quite a bit. You would slave for weeks on end on a show, and when it was done you wouldn’t even get a ‘thanks’.
Advice for runners
The most important thing I found to do is to keep smiling, and never for a moment convince yourself that you are better than this. Try and make as many contacts with as many people in different departments as possible. Whether it be a producer who you hope will one day give you a job, or the cleaners who if onside will come and empty the bin bags in one of the client areas quicker. People who work in the canteen are a key ally as they are the ones that will give you free food – something that is exceptionally welcoming given the pennies that you earn.
The money is shocking. I figured out recently that I earned more working 36hrs in a video shop than I did working 60hrs a week as a runner. If you enjoy it enough you will find a way, although living on the breadline becomes a way of life. I know many people who couldn’t handle the trials and tribulations as a runner, and quit to seek a normal career. Money matters aside, maintaining that enthusiasm and passion is the key to surviving.
I finally decided that I ultimately wanted to end up as a producer; I was quite excited about the future and seeing how my route would progress. What I didn’t anticipate, however, was the impact of entering unemployment at possibly the worst time for television. It was the summer of 2009, the recession was biting and there was very little being made.
My work life halted and didn’t know what to do. It was three long months of having literally no money and heavily relying on my Dad to continuously bail me out. It’s a very hard pill to swallow; you keep feeling sorry for yourself and thinking ‘I have spent a year and a half working my ass off and for what?’
After three months and after sending out hundreds of CV’s I got offered a running job through someone I knew. Two months later, I found myself unemployed again, back to square one. I spent my two months polishing my CV, emailing and ringing people, and still nothing. Until one Friday morning I received a call from a woman in desperate need of an experienced runner to start on the Monday (which again came through a former employer and had nothing to do with the CV’s I had sent out).
The contract was for initially five months and eventually extended for nine. The relief of having a stable job was amazing, and the added bonus was I was working with probably the best team I ever worked with. The work was tough, being the only runner I had to split myself into three people – but it was a fantastic education on learning all the different aspects of how of live TV.
However, all good things must come to an end, and when that production ended I found myself unemployed yet again. I found myself in an unusual predicament as now employers deemed me too experienced for runner jobs (one saying they were ‘overly impressed ‘by my CV), but were also unwilling to interview or take a chance on me for a researching role.
After three months of work in drips and drabs, I was offered a production secretary role on a pilot show for ITV 1. It wasn’t exactly the promotion I was looking for, but the overwhelming relief I felt when I was offered that job was indescribable. After two and half years of running I finally had made some progress!
I still haven’t abandoned my dreams of one day becoming a producer, and I hope that one day someone will take their chances on me being a researcher. For the time being, however, I am enjoying my time – although it’s shocking how much I miss the madness of running around like a headless chicken!”
Many thanks, Louise. That’s telling it how it really is. And I hope all production people reading this make an effort to nurture those runners and at least remember to say ‘thank you’!