‘Coventry Conversations’ series celebrates birthday with 200th interview

The Coventry Conversations event series is celebrating its fourth birthday this year. With 199 media conversations to date, the series – known to students as the ‘Cov Cons’ – attracts some of the best names in journalism. The event producer, senior broadcasting lecturer, John Mair, tells us how he has done it.

For any journalism and media student, listening to and meeting four contemporary heroes over three years is a dream. But in Coventry, trainee hacks have been able to sup at the altars of Jeremy Paxman, Evan Davis, Jon Snow and Jon Gaunt in just one term. This one.

They have all come to Coventry to take part in the Coventry Conversations series which reaches its fourth birthday with the 200th Conversationalist – legendary BBC comedy producer Jon Plowman – on 21 January .

The ‘Cov Cons’ will have well and truly sung for their supper in that time. Total audiences of 20,000 plus, at least one million pounds in AVE (advertising value equivalent) generated and Coventry Media transformed from a no-name to a destination where media movers and shakers come and, well, converse. It is an exercise in profile building in a very busy higher education market and one done for a very small budget.

The ‘Cov Cons’  have garnered their fair share of kudos too – being described by Professor Richard Keeble, the guru of journalism educators in the UK as ‘probably the best speaker programme in any British University’. He is parti pris – having done two himself. But kudos are no good without an audience.

Many have now got the ‘Cov Con’ habit with numbers for the 30 Conversationalists last term, ranging from 20 to 300 plus (for Jon Snow in Coventry Cathedral).

Ranging too from journo undergrads to students  from all over the uni, staff members of all shapes, sizes and grades, students from local schools and colleges and most encouragingly ‘real people’.

The Town – what passes for the ‘chattering classes’ in Coventry – found them early and attend with regularity. As I always explain to colleagues, after all they pay taxes and have children and grandchildren who come to the university.They chase me for the next term’s programme early.

But the regular full houses in the Ellen Terry Building (symbolically  the Old Odeon cinema in the City Centre) are only part of the story. In the modern world, multimedia is all. Platforms galore.

Almost from the beginning, they were podcast on the university website. One hundred and sixty are up there now. On average, those are downloaded 400 times but one, Shelley Jofre – a BBC Panorama reporter on Attention Deficit Disorder – has attracted 2000 users. Fair enough? Maybe. Once Coventry joined itunesU nine months ago, those figures have gone stellar. Worldwide, Cov’s itunesU podcasts have been downloaded one million times; half of those are Coventry Conversations. 500,000 users!

Hard to comprehend. A few are also on Youtube. The iconoclastic local Coventry boy made good/bad ‘Shock Jock’ Jon Gaunt has been downloaded 7000 plus times on that platform alone. They reach parts other recruiting agents simply never touch.

What’s the secret? Not the science of propulsion, sadly. Firstly, you get the guests that others envy and would die for (I know. Several vice chancellors have told me!). Thirty years as a TV and events producer has given me a contact or two.

Mark Thompson,the BBC Director General, and I were researchers together thirty years ago on Nationwide. We’ve remained friends. He has done a ‘Cov Con’. So too have Armando Iannucci, Paul Abbott, Andy Harries, Clarence Mitchell, Roger Cook, Donal Macintyre, Paul Gambaccini, John Humphrys, Debbie Isitt, Anne Wood, Nick Owen, many Oscar, Bafta and Emmy winners, plus scores of others too numerous to mention.

None for a fee. Expenses and a meal only.

My central principle is ‘If you don’t ask, you don’t get’. Chutzpah is all. You may not know the person directly (but I do have a Roladex second only to uber networker Carole Stone – one of the few who has turned me down) but you will always know someone who does.

It’s the way of the modern media. Secondly, you make the events  as regular as clockwork. This term each and every Thursday and Friday at 1pm you will find a media mover and shaker live in the Ellen Terry and be able to hear them talk about themselves, their career, their work.

The format is very simple and very approachable for all. Usually they are simply Conversing; that works for them and for us. Clever students ask clever questions of them and most importantly follow up with a request for an email address and a putative placement. Used wisely, The Conversations are a career bazaar.

For wannabe hacks, what better than stories on a ‘name’ published in the local or even the national press. It is double edged. One very senior broadcasting executive (no names no pack drill) found his loose tongue led to a quick step to Broadcast online and he’d blown his chances of very big job. He was cross. Very cross.

Others welcome the exposure more openly. Very few have refused to come back. If not on national platforms, students can write it up on their weekly newsletter ‘The Buzz’ or their runaway e-newsletter success cutoday.wordpress.com (currently getting close to 50,000 hits in just nine months.) Or the student newspaper ‘The Source’ or ‘Source Radio’.

Portfolio, portfolio, portfolio – the foundations of any modern media career.

So, the formula is simple – the live experience of a TV, radio, print or online face, programme maker or exec in the flesh, one hour of their collected wisdom on entering the mad world of media and a podcast if you’ve missed it.

These Conversations are very Reithian – they inform, educate and entertain in different measures and at different times. As they reach their double century, do check them out in person or virtually.

Today, Coventry is truly the place to Converse. It is up there with the big boys of Britain’s Media Schools.

Happy Birthday, ‘Cov Cons’.

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