Journalist Interview with Johny Cassidy from the BBC Business Unit

Johny Cassidy

Johny Cassidy is a Producer at the BBC Business Unit. As well as being a Planning Producer for BBC business output, he occasionally writes for the BBC website. His work also includes the Inside Track section of Business Live, where entrepreneurs and bosses from global companies talk about their industries and the issues they face. Business Live is a daily programme broadcast on BBC World News, the corporation’s commercially funded international news channel. We asked Johny about his roles and his recent project, Disability Works, a week of coverage across BBC radio, TV, and web.

BBC World News isn’t easily available to viewers in the UK – how do you introduce the channel to someone who hasn’t come across it?
It’s sometimes surprising that many PRs haven’t come across BBC World News. It’s a massive channel with a huge audience. Business Live, however, which is the programme I work on mostly, is also broadcast on the BBC News Channel in the UK at the same time. This makes it easier for many of the PRs pitching stuff to me to understand the programme. In essence though, BBC World News is a global news channel which focuses on stories mainly outside the UK.

Do you find it harder to source UK-based businesses for interviews, as opposed to overseas organisations to whom the channel might be more familiar?
I get dozens of pitches every week from the UK and further afield. I’d say though the majority do come from PR companies from within the UK. The difficult thing is making sure the business bosses and entrepreneurs that I have on the Inside Track slot will be interesting for a global audience. It’s fine to have a small UK company appear in the slot, but only if they’re going to resonate with those global viewers. I’m really keen to get more pitches from overseas PR agencies who look after companies outside the UK. The difficulty though is that I need them to be in our studio in London for a live interview. This works when global bosses are passing through London, but I’m still really keen to talk to those who don’t come here that often. It’s a case I guess of PR companies from overseas knowing that the Inside Track slot exists and that it’s a great chance for businesses to highlight what they do.

What does the Inside Track interview aim to achieve for its viewers?
This is always a tricky question. People ask me what makes an ideal Inside Track guest. The simple answer to that is, if I find the company interesting then hopefully the audience will. I’m always hoping that the slot catches the interest of people who aren’t necessarily business minded. The people maybe who catch a bit of Business Live as they’re flicking through the channels or who have it on in the background as they’re getting ready for work. Bosses or entrepreneurs with a story to tell about how or why they started their business always work well. The bottom line really with Inside Track is that I’m hoping to spark an interest with the viewers and to give them an insight into a business or sector that they didn’t know about. That elusive ‘wow’ moment that they’ll want to talk about later.

Can you name any particularly memorable appearances (for example, the biggest name, or the most interesting company we might not have not heard of)?
I’m not necessarily looking for big names, although if Tim Cook or Mark Zuckerberg were to come along I reckon I might book them. There’s been dozens of great guests on the slot since it started. One memorable one was a man who owned a massive construction company in France. Nothing outstanding really on the face of it, but he was a Syrian Bedouin who had been thrown out of his family when he was a child after his mother died. He had a thirst for learning and battled to get educated. He was adopted by a French family and began his business in France with nothing more than a wheelbarrow. Even now he says he remembers what it was like to have nothing and runs his company with that in mind. He makes sure his employees are looked after. It’s this sort of back story that really lifts the slot. A story like that will have the viewers hopefully talking about it to their friends and family.

Are there any particular businesses or leaders you’d love to get on to Inside Track? Or more broadly, are there certain types of company or industries you’d love to see more of?
As much as I detest the word ‘disrupter’, I’m really keen on businesses that shake up the traditional model. I like left field thinkers who’ve come up with innovative fixes to things we didn’t even know were broken. Technology is a massive attraction. We had a boss on recently, a UK tech unicorn, who’s developed a hand held DNA sequencer. It’s being used now to help fight diseases in developing countries. I find that sort of thing both fascinating and inspiring. There’s so many different companies doing stuff that could ultimately help us all. It’s those sort of businesses I’m keen to talk to.

You also write for the BBC News website – do you enjoy either web or broadcast work more than the other?
I’ve always been a writer. The truth is though that writing for the website is a sideline to my day to day job.  If however I come across a boss that I think will be great for the business index of the website I’ll write it up. There’s so many great stories of how people started their business it’s always worth sharing, and again it’s good to reach audiences that don’t usually care about business. I had a boss of a tea company on the Inside Track last year. He was brilliant. He began his career years ago as a tea buyer for a global company. He bought his own tea plantation in India and set out to learn everything there was to know about tea. He became a tea evangelist. His story was something I really wanted to write for the website. He had such a soft spiritual manner which echoed with his love of tea. It did really well on the website, and again, reached an audience that didn’t usually read business stories.

Earlier this year, one of your pitches resulted in a pretty incredible week of coverage across all the BBC news output. How was it received, and is it something you feel could be revisited?
The whole Disability Works season was great. I initially pitched it as a way to look at how for many disabled people, starting your own business is a way to be able to work whilst managing your condition. Being your own boss means that you don’t have to adhere to many of the rigours of a traditional nine to five job. Once I started looking into it it was amazing to see just how many people were doing it. It was also a way to reach a diverse audience. People respond well to seeing people like themselves on TV. It’s great for people to realise that it is possible and that starting your own business just might be a solution. The reaction to the series was fantastic. The hashtag #disabilityworks got loads of traction on social media, which meant that lots more people saw the content that was produced over the week. The feedback I got from it was phenomenal as well. So many people got in touch with me with stories of how and why they’d  started their own business and how great they felt it was that disabled entrepreneurs were being highlighted on the BBC. The week led to me being invited to Downing Street to talk about some of the issues that had arisen and to discuss what more should be being done to support and encourage more people to do it. I think that if only one person decided to start their own business after seeing some of the Disability Works stuff then the whole week was a success. I’d definitely encourage more pitches from disabled entrepreneurs. The plan is to be able to interview a boss as a boss and not anything to do with disability. It’s being able to break down stereotypes of what disability is.

You’re a fairly prolific tweeter (@johnycassidy) – do you find it useful sourcing stories or making work connections, or is it more of a personal tool?
It is fair to say that I’m pretty addicted to Twitter. It’s the last thing I look at at night and the first thing I go for in the morning. I use it for a mixture of work and personal stuff. The way it allows people to connect is fascinating. To be able to talk directly to CEOs of companies or to other business journalists, or to the Native American demonstrators at the Dakota oil pipeline at Standing Rock or anyone else you feel like is incredible. It’s a great tool for reaching out to possible guests or contributors. I’ve got a long commute in from the South Coast to London so I use it a lot to read what’s going on before I reach the office. A lot of breaking news is on Twitter before it’s anywhere else. I’ve also built up a lot of connections through it. I’ve got people I’d consider friends now but who I’ve never even met. It’s an odd concept really when you think of it like that. The evolution of journalism and the tools we use now to do our job is interesting. Twitter allows us to find and talk to people in minutes rather than the days or weeks it might have done in the past. Social media is a huge part of what we do now, not only for research or making connections, but also for sharing. I use the InsideTrack hashtag to share the bosses we have on Business Live. It’s a great way to get the programme more widely known and to once again reach the audiences who aren’t watching on traditional media.

Is there any other role you’d like to have a go at in future – inside or outside of the media?
I used to present a world music programme on a radio station in Portsmouth a few years ago. That was great fun. It became too much though with work. I would spend hours and hours researching my Saturday show. If I could have the perfect job it would be something like that. To be able to sit and talk about what’s going on in other countries through music would be ideal.

What’s the first thing you do when you get to your desk in the morning?
Whilst I’m waiting to log on to my computer, I’ll watch Business Live go out on our internal TV channel. I always want to see how the Inside Track guest has done. It’s interesting to see how some people change once they’re in front of the camera. A super confident boss who runs a global empire might turn to stone when faced with a live TV interview. More often than not though they do fine. I always get the guest to turn up to the studio a bit before the programme goes live to allow them to talk to the presenters in the green room. This way they’ll hopefully have any nerves they have alleviated.  Once the programme has finished I’ll look at what’s coming up for the day. As well as looking after the Inside Track slot on Business Live, I’ve also got a wider planning role. The planning desk is the contact point for many of the BBC’s domestic and global outlets so it’s important I’m aware of what’s on the diary for the next couple of days. It’s then when the meetings start and we can talk to programmes about anything we’ve planned; guests booked in or any imminent outside broadcasts. I’ll also inevitably end up talking to a lot of PRs who pitch stories that aren’t really relevant to me. Goes with the territory I suppose.

Finally, we’ve paid our licence fee so are we entitled to blatantly steal a question from Desert Island Discs… What book would you take with you and what luxury would you enjoy if we were to whisk you away from Broadcasting House tomorrow?
My favourite book is ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ by John Steinbeck. It’s amazing how much it echoes what’s going on in society today. We haven’t come that far really. I think I’d want an audio version of that and something to play it on. Ideally my luxury would be my iPhone and an endless power supply to plug it into. If I had my phone then I reckon I’d be fine. I could listen to music and tweet all day long.

Catch up with Business Live on iPlayer at www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episodes/b05y1cgd and if you’ve got a story that you think would interest Johny his favourite method of contact is via Twitter @johnycassidy.

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