Nick Powell, BA Modern Languages (German and Russian) 1981
Sports Editor at Sky News
In 1977 Nick Powell came to the University of Bradford to study a four-year Modern Languages degree. In 1981 he graduated with the intention to pursue a lifelong ambition to become a broadcast journalist. 35 years on, Nick has fulfilled his ambitions having established himself as one of Britain’s most experienced news broadcasters.
A double Royal Television Society award-winner, Nick is currently Sports Editor for Sky News having joined the multimedia news organisation in 1996. He was previously Breakfast News Presenter for Pennine Radio and spent a decade at Yorkshire Television (ITV Yorkshire) working as a presenter, producer and reporter. From the smoke-filled newsrooms and carbon typewriters of the early eighties to the fast moving mobile media of today, an innate ability to adapt, keenness to develop new skills, and strong work ethic has enabled Nick to survive and thrive in an extremely competitive field.
In this special 50th anniversary alumni interview Nick tells us about his time at Bradford as a student getting involved in the launch of RamAir student radio and how it proved to be a catalyst for shaping his future career direction. Nick also talks about his fondness for Bradford and Yorkshire, where he spent 15 years of his working life, and the many highlights in his career as a radio and television broadcaster.
A lifelong desire
Although it had always been a childhood ambition of Nick’s to become a radio broadcaster, there were doubts about whether he possessed the right attributes as a schoolboy to make it in the industry.
“I had always wanted to be a journalist, I was a radio nut when I was younger and wanted to be on radio from a very young age but I didn’t have a lot of encouragement in that my parents thought I wasn’t pushy enough and it might be too competitive and difficult to get into. So I wasn’t really looking seriously at radio broadcasting as a career after school.”
It was therefore another of his interests, in languages, which became the focus of his attention at A-Levels and University, bringing him to Bradford in 1977 to undertake a sandwich degree in German and Russian.
“I had studied languages at A-level and found that it was something I was good at and enjoyed. The top two modern languages degrees of that type at that time were offered by the University of Bradford and Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, and I was lucky enough to receive offers from both. The decision was a very close one and in the end I chose Bradford because it was nearer to my home, in Merseyside, and also because I felt the cricket and weather was going to be much better. So Bradford it was and I’ve never ever regretted it.”
RamAir re-ignites broadcasting dream
It was during the latter stages of his time at University when Nick began to realise his childhood ambitions. He highlights two key developments during his final year at Bradford, including his involvement in the launch of RamAir radio (Bradford’s student radio station), that were instrumental in convincing him a career in broadcast journalism was what he was destined for.
“I was unbelievably lucky that my final year at Bradford (1980/81) was the very first year of RamAir. I never got involved with the University’s newspaper but the radio definitely did appeal to me. RamAir started with a 36 hours non-stop broadcast and I broadcast three of those along with John Dash, who is a radio executive these days, and Jon Atkinson, who went on to have a career in radio as well. Topically ‘Ashes to Ashes’ by David Bowie was the very first track that I played on air.”
Nick broadcast two weekly shows including a Friday evening airing titled “Thank God it’s Friday” that covered a broad range of topics including politics and sports – two subjects he would later cover in his career as a professional broadcaster.
“I did two shows each week for RamAir and rather than just play records we did lots of interviews with both people at the University that had something interesting to say and also with people from the wider world including former Prime Minister Ted Heath, comedians Cannon and Ball (Tommy Cannon and Bobby Ball), Yehudi Menuhin the violinist, and many others including live telephone interviews with the Guardian football correspondent before the Cup Final and the Wales Manager before a big World Cup Qualifier.
So we were kind of doing a football /sports magazine programme and that convinced me that I could do it and I thought it would be great fun to do this for a living.”
The other key factor that fuelled his appetite for journalism at the University of Bradford was his languages dissertation which was linked to his sandwich year abroad; comprising six months in Munich, Germany, and four months in St Petersburg, Russia.
“I did my dissertation on Süddeutsche Zeitung which was and still is a very big newspaper in Germany, and is the nearest equivalent to the Guardian here in the UK. My dissertation wasn’t a typical culling together of various bits of research; it was based on a series of original interviews that I had carried out myself. This gave me a very good insight into professional journalism and proved to me, again, that I could do it.
I actually sent off my completed dissertation to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, another big newspaper in Germany, and the Editor there got back to me to say that he wasn’t qualified to comment on whether I would make a good academic but felt that I would certainly make a good journalist. I took great encouragement from that.”
The year abroad was one of the most memorable features of Nick’s degree and he was one of only a handful of students fortunate enough to be able to participate in a direct exchange programme with a Russian institution at the time.
“To spend your industrial placement in two cities as beautiful as Munich and St Petersburg was just fantastic. Bradford, in those days, was the only University in the entire Western World to have its own student exchange programme with an institution in Soviet Russia and that was thanks to the connections of Dr Jim Riordan whose wife was Russian. As a result, ten Bradford students and ten students from the Herzen Teaching institute (Herzen University) in St Petersburg were involved in a direct exchange. It was an unbelievable opportunity for me as group leader of the ten Bradford students.”
Nick was an active student and got involved in a number of sports societies and extra-curricular activities. Alongside broadcasting on RamAir he played cricket and table tennis for University teams and thoroughly enjoyed his time at Bradford as he recalls.
“For me a key part of University life is getting involved in sports and other activities. Whilst I loved putting my language skills into practice by doing simultaneous interpreting, I also loved my sport. Modern Languages was not very well known for doing sport however in my third year our department team won the University 11-a-side football tournament and we celebrated by going off to Nantes, in France, to play against a team over there which was fantastic. The evenings at Annabellas, which was based just around the corner from Wardley House, and the Cricket Club were our favourite.”
After graduating from Bradford in 1981 Nick moved a step closer to a career in broadcast journalism by securing a place on a leading Postgraduate degree in Journalism at the University of Cardiff. He would however return to Bradford to take up his first job as a reporter for Pennine Radio (Pulse Radio).
“I got into Pennine Radio via a three-week work placement I completed as part of the course at Cardiff. I was called up by the radio station and offered the chance to work there on a permanent basis after my studies which I accepted. Within a few months of joining Pennine the guy who did the Breakfast news left and so I got the chance to do Breakfast radio which is the best show to do on radio.”
Based out of Forster Square, Nick’s radio work with Pennine saw him travel all over Yorkshire covering sports teams and news stories. The setup in those days was a far cry from the cutting edge, technology-filled newsrooms of today.
“It was an old fashioned studio and newsroom, with old typewriters and using carbon ink paper copies. There were about six or seven full-time news reporters. It was there that I began to do sports broadcasting alongside the breakfast show.
A very energetic sports editor called Tony Delahunty, who was in fact the commentator when the tragic Bradford Fire happened at Valley Parade, employed me almost as a freelance sports reporter covering sports teams in Yorkshire.”
Swapping Radio for Television
Though Nick’s preference had always been to remain in radio broadcasting circumstances led him to make the switch from radio to television when, after four years with Pennine, he joined Yorkshire Television as a news producer in 1986.
“I didn’t want a job in television as I liked radio however one summer the radio news editor at Pennine announced he was leaving and I didn’t want the editor’s job as I really liked what I was doing. So I thought it was time for a different job and, for that reason only, I approached Yorkshire TV.”
Not long after joining YTV Nick was to make his first appearance on screen as a news presenter in unexpected fashion.
“One morning, about four months into the job, Robert Hall, the reporter who was supposed to present the 9.55am news bulletin was late, having been held up in traffic, and they looked at me saying… ‘You’ve done this thing before on radio, you do it’.
So that was my first TV broadcast and it went okay. Thereafter every so often I would be asked to fill in whenever there was a gap. Gradually I was doing it more often and stopped the producing and became a reporter and presenter after a couple of years.”
Nick would go on to become a familiar face on YTV for years to come presenting a number of programmes for the channel and working alongside some of the best in the business including Richard Whiteley. His work was recognised with two Royal Television Society accolades; Outside Broadcast of the Year in 1989 for the rugby league programme ‘Scrumdown’ and Sports Documentary of the Year 1996 for ‘Rugby league, a Northern religion’.
"I presented my first 'Calendar' in 1988, a couple of years after I joined. I presented with Richard Whiteley quite a lot, I got on very well with him. I then presented other programmes for Yorkshire TV as well as Calendar including 'Fight Night', I did an exam phone-in helpline, children’s game shows, I did all sorts for YTV. Nobody at Yorkshire had that license to do so many different things which is why I stayed for quite a long time.”
“I absolutely loved my time at Pennine and YTV. I was fortunate enough to report all across the Yorkshire region and the rest of the country as well as overseas in terms of my work on Calendar and, on weekends, the sports broadcasting.”
In 1996 Nick joined satellite giants Sky TV as a producer for Sky News bringing to an end a decade with YTV and almost fifteen years of broadcasting in Yorkshire.
“I wanted to do some producing. I had produced quite a few Calendars and other programmes but there wasn’t a job as a producer at YTV and that’s why I decided to apply for a TV Producer job at Sky and that’s the only reason I moved south.”
Nick recalls his interview experience with Sky as very down to earth. Incidentally, he happened to be the first recruit of the current head of Sky News, John Ryley, who was Editor of the Sunrise show at the time.
“My interview was a brief chat in a broom cupboard at the end of an overnight shift with John Ryley and the Australian Deputy Head of News at that time, a guy called Mike Nolan.
Mike said to me… ‘My only worry about you mate, is that in six months’ time you’ll miss live broadcasting and will be knocking on my door about it’.
I said… ‘I don’t know I’ve largely always been a broadcaster although I’m serious about producing but I don’t know whether I will miss broadcasting. If I do knock on your door what are you going to say?’
To which he replied… ‘Shave the beard off mate!’
And funnily enough it so happened, but rather due to my wife’s preferences however, that I did shave the beard off some time later.”
As was the case during both of Nick’s previous roles, a move into the broadcasting studio at Sky News wasn’t far away. Perhaps production work was just a temporary fix he craved and it was actually presenting and reporting that really made him tick?
"Although I was quite happy producing Sunrise, John Ryley one day said to me… 'Do you realise there is a job going on the sports desk as Producer/presenter, it might be ideal for you?'I’ve always been grateful to him for saying that. As it happened I did get that job and so a little bit more than a year after joining Sky I became a producer-presenter on the sports desk doing about 50 per cent of each and, similar to what had happened at Yorkshire TV, after a couple of years into it I had dropped the producing and become a presenter in the main.”
Highlights from 20 years with Sky
With so many highlights during his 20 years at Sky, we asked Nick to touch on some of his most memorable moments leading the sports news at Sky News.
On the London Olympics in 2012
“The chance to broadcast live from your home Olympics was just fantastic. I was on air on ‘Super Saturday’, on the night when Mo Farrah, Jessica Ennis and Greg Rutherford all won their gold medals – and to do that as the lead item on the 10 o’clock news live from the Olympic Park was absolutely brilliant.”
On the Rugby World Cup in Paris, 2007
“I’ve covered three World Cups as a broadcaster but that particular one was a stand out. From the Friday morning we did all the daytime sports bulletins live from Paris knowing England were going to be in the final.
"Although I did see the game, something that quite often doesn’t happen when working for TV news strangely enough, I had to leave early and get ready to present the whole 10 o’clock news live from Paris after sadly England had lost.
I was asked to present the programme at very short notice and there was no autocue. So I scribbled down some notes for the headlines literally a minute or so before going live on air. Gladly everything went well for the half hour show - you get used to that sort of thing.”
On Tony McCoy winning the Grand National, 2010
"I know Tony quite well, he is a great guy, and I’ve dropped in for a cuppa at his house from time to time.
My very first Grand National stands out as well. It rained for three days and in the race itself only four horses finished the race and two of those had to be remounted. The race was won by a distance by 33/1 shot Red Marauder, ridden by jockey Richard Guest who came back caked in mud - he could hardly see.”
On Andy Murray’s historic Wimbledon success, 2013
"I was live at Wimbledon covering the tournament and final and it was a great privilege to be there to see Andy Murray becoming the first British men’s singles winner for 77 years. I have been very fortunate to have covered Wimbledon every year since about 2000 I think.”
On being Sports Editor at Sky News
Nick’s tenure at Sky News has seen him fill a number of different roles including Producer, Chief Sub-editor, Producer/Presenter, and his current role as Sports Editor. What does the job of Sports Editor actually involve?
“There is no set pattern to which days I work. The most demanding and enjoyable is the Saturday afternoon. I start on air at 11:30am and do a half-hour programme previewing the weekend’s sport. I also usually tend to do one mid-week match night per week (and in some cases more) in addition to the Saturdays.”
His role also requires him to be flexible making appearances on both Sky Sports News as well as the main Sky News channel. It is this type of variety he has grown to enjoy at Sky, in some ways similar to his days at YTV.
"Although my main role is with Sky News, Sky Sports News makes use of me when they need to because they know that I am a steady, reliable and familiar face.
One of the reasons why I’m still enthusiastic and very happy at Sky is the variety that I have been allowed to have over the years. I also do a few Sunrise shifts, although it does mean I have to leave my home in Hampshire at 3.30am to get to the studio but its good fun and great to work with Eamonn Holmes.”
It doesn’t end there. Nick oversees a lot of production work too.
“Most of the rest of my days are normal day shifts so I’m on the telly from mid to late morning until tea time and on all of those shifts I play a big role in deciding in what order we do things in. I re-write and improve scripts before they are published or presented, help to select stories, look for new ideas, and select guests for our Saturday sport programme.”
His remit as Editor also includes oversight and contribution to online news content as well as acting as the sports analyst for Sky News.
“In my role as Sports Editor I also write articles for the Sky News and Sky Sports websites – these are usually comment or analysis articles. The other thing I haven’t mentioned in my role is of course working as an on-screen analyst for all sports related news that is aired on the Sky News channel so I often get called up to provide analysis and insights into leading stories and headline news.”
On his future plans
After almost 35 years of broadcasting there is not much Nick hasn’t been able to achieve in terms of his work. Is there still something left, or a different challenge, to tick off his list of things to do?
“Not really, no. I regard it as an achievement to remain sharp enough and knowledgeable enough and flexible enough in the very fast-changing broadcasting world to still be a sufficiently accomplished performer that Sky Sports still want me to do it. I’ve no plans to do it for anybody else. We always keep changing the way we do it and so there is a new challenge nearly every other day so you often go to what is in effect a new job every year.”
On 50 years of the University of Bradford
“I’m very proud of my Bradford heritage. I’ve always spoken extremely highly of Bradford. Obviously I came there to study at the University and I stayed in and around the Bradford district for nearly enough 20 years. When I was working in Leeds for Yorkshire Television I actually lived in the Bradford Metropolitan District. I have enormous fondness for the city and more so when reflecting back on my time at the University, and I reckon I know a good curry when I see one!
I’ve been fortunate to have returned to the University on a few occasions. I came back when I was working for Pennine Radio and I have also returned to Bradford to Chair the Modern Languages Conferences that were organised for post graduates – I have done that two or three times. I’m also still in touch with Professor Arthur Williams.
A lot has changed since I graduated in 1981 and it is of course a real shame the Modern Languages as a department has faded at Bradford as back then it was very much one of the reasons why Bradford was such a prized place to come and study. The programme has definitely equipped me for life.”
Published February 2016