West coast girl finds her home in the east
Broadcaster Kate Riley has travelled the world but Suffolk feels more like home than anywhere else. She spoke to Sheena Grant about her love for the county and what it’s like to be a woman working in football
SHE may have been born in sunny California and spent a globe-trotting childhood before settling in Suffolk but Kate Riley has taken the county to her heart.
The BBC Look East presenter and sports broadcaster, above, has been an Ipswich Town fan since her teenage years and says the values she learned as a pupil at a local independent school will stay with her for life.
In fact, it was Kate’s love for Ipswich Town that fuelled her desire to become one of the very few women sports broadcasters working in television.
It’s a job she loves, although she admits it is sometimes not without its difficulties – recently highlighted in the BBC documentary Sexism in Football?, fronted by Gabby Logan.
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The programme broke new ground. Until recently most women working in football would have thought it career suicide to raise their heads above the parapet and talk openly about the elephant in the room.
But then Sky pundits Richard Keys and Andy Gray made some off-air comments about lineswoman Sian Massey that shone a bright light on a dark corner of the game. There was shock, there was outrage. Keys resigned. Gray was sacked. Everyone was horrified. Who knew parts of football were riven with sexism? Certainly many of the women who work in the game, it seems; as the Logan documentary revealed.
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Kate remembers the immediate aftermath of the 2011 Keys and Gray affair vividly.
“It was as if a lot of people didn’t know what to say to me,” she says, “even people I had known for years.”
Kate didn’t take part in the Gabby Logan programme but she is an active member of the WIF (Women in Football) network, founded in 2007 for women working in the industry to support and champion their peers.
Until recently, you would have been hard-pressed to find out much about WIF, certainly online. It was a shadowy organisation whose members felt they had to operate below the general footballing radar.
“We were definitely clandestine for a long time,” says Kate, when we meet in a cafe on Ipswich waterfront.
She arrives in wellies and sensible outdoor coat, which is either something to do with the weather or the long hours she has spent on blustery football terraces around the country. Or perhaps a bit of both.
Either way, she is engaging, pleasant and as sunny as the state of her birth, even if she admits it feels slightly odd for her to be the one being interviewed, instead of the one doing the interviewing.
“The group is a place where we can share experiences and stories in a safe environment – without being judged – often with women who have been sports broadcasters for a long time and can offer advice.
“It’s really helped me and the way I address certain situations,” says Kate, who joined WIF on the recommendation of Jacqui Oatley, Match of the Day’s first ever female commentator.
“I think I needed a mentor: there are not many women working in sport in the east. That’s not meant as a criticism; it’s just a fact. Having a mentor helps you professionally. It’s not just about sexism issues. It’s about careers and building friendships as well.”
Kate is very much aware of her position as a woman working in a male-dominated industry.
She recalls an incident earlier in her career where a male journalist leaned over and altered her teamsheet, as he thought (wrongly) she had missed some changes.
“I don’t think he would have done that if I had been a man,” she says.
“Having said that, it’s easier now for women to get involved in sports broadcasting than it’s ever been. Broadcasters are actively encouraging women to be the faces and voices of their sports coverage.
“That, of course, doesn’t take away the fact that there are some prehistoric attitudes still out there in some parts of the industry.
“Women in broadcasting roles are there on merit and I get irritated when people think you have got your job because you are blonde.
“We have to be committed. We have to travel up and down the country to report on games just like anyone else doing the job.
“Stoke away on a rainy Tuesday night is not glamorous. I sometimes feel that even after seven or eight seasons working in football I am still having to prove myself to some people in football.”
Kate was not surprised when the Keys and Gray furore erupted in 2011.
“When you are a woman in football you are aware of the odd comment, although I haven’t seen anything untoward at the BBC,” she says.
“In some parts of the industry, however, I have witnessed behaviour that should not be tolerated. When you first start out you go along with it but since becoming a WIF I have had the confidence to realise what is unacceptable.
“It is really good that awareness levels are being raised and for people to realise that it is not such a glamorous a job as it might seem to some.”
Change is gathering pace and being driven, she believes, by a growing number of women working in all areas of the game.
“I would like to see even more women and encourage the next generation of female sports writers and broadcasters.”
Kate’s interest in football was fired when she was living in the African state of Cameroon in 1990.
“My dad was working there at the time and that was the year Cameroon did really well in the World Cup, with Roger Milla and his celebration dance,” she says. “Living there, you couldn’t help being captivated by it.”
It wasn’t until she came to Suffolk, however, that Kate started to take more of an enduring interest in the game.
“It was only when I was in the sixth-form that I started to support Ipswich,” she says.
“I needed a part-time job and I started babysitting for several of the players’ families who just happened to live near me. I went along to a few of the games with the families. I loved it. The atmosphere was fantastic. It was so different to watching it on television.
“I don’t think I would have got into football in a big way without that.”
Kate was about eight when her parents bought their first house in Suffolk but she did not arrive in the county on a more long-term basis until she was enrolled at Ipswich High School for Girls in her teens.
Until then she had lived a peripatetic life, travelling from country to country with her father’s job.
Her mother is American and her dad is from the East End of London. They married in Hong Kong and were working in Oman immediately before returning to her mum’s native California for Kate’s birth.
“We soon went to live in Zambia and then dad was sent to Hong Kong again (he worked for Standard Chartered Bank and mum worked for the US Embassy).”
Kate went to international schools before arriving in Suffolk, with a strong American accent it is now impossible to detect.
“It became diluted when I started going to the girls’ school,” she says. “It wasn’t anything deliberate. It just happened. Since then I’ve done BBC voice training to make sure you’re breathing in the right places and I suppose that’s all had an effect too.
“Even though I wasn’t living in America a lot of my friends were American when I was growing up and I spent a lot of time with mum when my dad was working.
“I do regard Suffolk as home even though life has been fairly frenetic, always moving around and flying to see family on holiday. I love the countryside and the way of life here. I love being so close to the coast as well. My parents are based in Suffolk full-time as well, now.”
The family had no Suffolk links when Kate’s parents bought their first house in the county.
“It was in Woodbridge and I think it was just because it was easy to get to London and the airports,” she says. “And they were looking to have me settled at a school somewhere.
“I feel a huge connection with my school, too, and the values they instilled in me: to be independent and strong. I still feel indebted to them.”
Kate still counts herself very firmly as an Ipswich Town supporter, even though her job involves reporting on teams across the region.
“I had a season ticket for five years but I had to give it up because work commitments meant I wasn’t able to get to matches regularly,” she says. “If I’m not working at Portman Road I’ll be at Carrow Road or somewhere else in the region.
“It’s fair to say I am a massive fan, although obviously I have to be completely impartial when I’m working.”
After school she went to Leicester University to study geography, where she continued to follow some of the Town players for whom she had babysat and who had, coincidentally, moved on to play for Leicester.
“I had a really good time there, “ she says. “I was head of the radio station in my last year so I had a clear focus of what I wanted to do for a career, although when I told my head of year my intentions, he laughed.”
After Leicester she did a post graduate broadcast journalism course at Cardiff.
“I knew at that stage that I wanted to be a sports journalist,” she says. “I loved the excitement of it and the responsibility of reporting and getting post-match interviews with the players.
“It is mainly football that I do and that is my main interest, although I have reported on other sports.”
Her first job was with a commercial radio station in Ipswich, where she was the Town away-day reporter.
“It was a fantastic training ground,” she says. “I think I was taken seriously because I was putting in the hours on the road and that gives an education into how to handle yourself.
“The football club at Ipswich is like a family, really, as far as I am concerned. They’ve known me since I first started – not every football ground is like that.
“When I started working I was one of the only women working in sport. Now I see more and more women as press officers and reporters. That is great.”
Kate, 29, joined the BBC almost five years ago after a stint working on radio in Essex.
For a while she worked on both television and radio but now does only TV, presenting news bulletins as well as sports reporting and presenting.
“There is nothing like the buzz of a match day, although you do get that same adrenaline when they count you in live in the studio,” she says.
Live broadcasting represents a highly-charged environment for anyone, but for Kate there’s another dimension to the pressure – one that viewers are almost certainly unaware of and one that perhaps explains her university tutor’s reaction when she revealed her intention to go into broadcasting.
“My difficulty is that I’m severely dyslexic,” she says. “I often miss out words or say the wrong words, so I just have to come up with techniques that help me get round that.
“The dyslexia wasn’t picked up until university – where they noticed I was missing out lots of words when I was writing my essays. I went for tests, which confirmed that I am significantly affected.
“I was amazed, because I had never had any idea – I had never noticed a difficulty.
“It does mean that I have to practise more than most in the job I am doing and I have techniques for helping me. The biggest challenge is reading the autocue. How it appears is different to how my brain computes it.
“It is not easy but there are so many people who work on a broadcast you don’t want to let them down. I might stumble a few times but for me it is practising and trying to remain calm that helps.”
For now, Kate is happy with her lot at the BBC.
“I’m very in tune with their production values and still feel proud to be part of the BBC,” she says.
And although she has ambitions within sports broadcasting, she can’t see herself heading far from this most British of institutions, which is somehow fitting for a Californian girl who feels so at home in Blighty.