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Lily Feng: My good old days with BBC

Lily Feng is with children in Bangladesh for BBC's 'Green Boat' overseas operation. Photo: Courtesy of Lily Feng

Before Lily Feng left the BBC World Service a couple of years ago, she has worked for the world's largest international broadcaster as a radio presenter and producer for twenty years. According to her, the days in the BBC left her wonderful memories and shaped her up as a well balanced and responsible broadcasting journalist.

"I truly regard the time as the happiest period of my life," Lily said with a warm smile, while reflecting on the long journey transforming her from an aspiring Chinese girl yearning for a place in the world to a seasoned BBC reporter travelling around the world to tell true stories.

From Beijing to London

"Nixon's visit in 1972 brought China a wave of ‘English fever’ and that’s when my mother bought me English 900 (英语900句), my first textbook for learning English," Lily recalled. Since then, she developed an interest in the foreign language and decided to use it for opening the ‘gate’ to the outside world.

In the early 1990s, Lily had an opportunity to study in the UK. During her time in London, she noticed the BBC recruitment ads on a local newspaper, and decided to give it a try.

She went for BBC’s written and voice tests, and soon received notice for an official interview. "I was mad with joy when the interviewer told me they decided to offer me the position of broadcaster." Lily recalled that when she stepped out of the Bush House, BBC World Service's headquarter in London then, it was already dark. But she felt on top of the world that she could never forget the refreshing breeze and warm lamplight of that night.

Lily was neither an English nor Journalism major and she later found out that almost all her colleagues came from different fields. "If you have a solid knowledge on world current affairs and are good at English, you have a chance to get into the BBC. Journalism major is not a must," said Lily.  

"When I joined the BBC, we started to work at around 7:30a.m every morning, having meeting to decide how to cover the news and current affairs of the day. And in about just two hours, we need to be ready for live transmission toward China and Southeast Asia," Lily said.

She felt quite stressful in the first three years, "working against clock was really nerve-racking. The deadline was always nearing and in the nascent phase, I got so nervous that my writing hand would tremble. But when you survived the trying moments, you'll find it's really a good and valuable training," Lily smiles.

'Would you talk to your family in this way?'

The BBC World Service broadcasts news in 28 languages to many parts of the world, and its audience was reported to have reached 188 million people a week on average in June 2009.

Lily said, although the BBC was once known for its 'Queen's English accent' broadcasting, by the time she joined in the 1990s, the biggest and also oldest broadcasting group had begun to encourage diversity and styles in touch with the common people.

"When I first began to broadcast live, I had the idea that there would be thousands of people in front of their radio waiting for my news, and then I got so nervous and cautious that my voice sounded rigid and high-pitched. One day, an English sound technician in our transmission studio asked me, 'Would you talk to your family in this way?' and then he told me to relax when broadcasting and to picture my family and friends are listening to me." Lily said, she has grabbed the key to broadcast from that moment!

Sometimes, broadcasters are supposed to deal with gaps in programs with quick wit and Lily found the job to be quite challenging at first. "There was one time when I was left with a few minutes' gap, and I was almost panicking and had to read the headlines again and again awkwardly." But later, Lily learned to deal with such emergencies in a better way from one of her African colleagues.

"He faced the same dilemma: when he motioned for the sound technician to play a recording tape, nothing happened. And then he found the recording tape fall into the crevice between the console table and wall and the technician was trying to retrieve it. The African broadcaster did not panic and instead joked about the whole thing, 'Oh, gosh, the sound man dropped the tape into some crack. But no need to worry, he's now trying his best to reach for it. Oh, my god. It's hard, but he is still trying. Oh, his hand almost got there. Thank God. He made it. Now, we finally get to hear what's on it.'" Lily explained that this story was presented at a BBC training course as a good example because it has attracted so much praises from our audiences in that African country. "They want us to be authoritative news broadcasters but at the same time, they also want us to remain human beings."

From hard news to feature programs

The BBC Chinese service expanded considerably in the 90's. After a few years' working with news and current affairs team, Lily transferred to features team.

"For me, feature programs would allow more space for creation and innovation and would be more exciting," she said.

She traveled through the country for programmes about British people and their lives. "I always think that it's a quite romantic experience traveling alone only with my recorder with me. I enjoy talking to people and hearing their stories," Lily said, who felt a curious mind remains her push for a reporter's job.

She would prepare a package of materials for every feature program, including her own presentation, recordings of interviews and the background sound. "I tried to explore and present things from different angles. The job was so creative and satisfying for me."

According to Lily, except for having a curious mind, being able to ask good questions should be the essential quality of a good reporter. "We did not have many personal computers back then, and so I would keep a notebook with me, for writing down my thoughts about the things I intend to cover and the questions that should be asked."

As the time went by, Lily got so accustomed to broadcasting that sometimes she would forget the fact that there would be listeners hearing her by the side of radio, "until I got letters from them," Lily recalled. "When I began to anchor a weekly music program called the Pop Stand (流行乐坛), I began to receive letters from our audiences."

"There was one letter that I can still remember in detail," Lily said, referring to a letter mailed to her from a remote small village in Chinese mainland in the 1990s.

"A college student wrote the letter from his hometown when he was on a school break. There was no TV or other kind of entertainment medium in the small village. All he could have was the radio and he listened to my Pop Stand when it's on air. 'I would sleep in my father's watermelon fields [as a keeper] and I would always take the radio with me. At night, the shortwave sound quality  is perfect. I hear the beautiful music brought by you and would like to thank you for bringing color to my boring life,' he wrote," said Lily, who is a sentimental person and was totally stricken by the romantic scene of a young Chinese boy enjoying lingering tunes under a dark-blue starry sky.

Lily said these letters made her feel that all her hard work paid off, and she felt so happy to have been able to serve people in her motherland even if she was thousands of miles away.

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