Making a name for yourself in the competitive world of television is quite the challenge. But luckily Anna Johnson doesn’t give up easily. She worked her way up from the bottom, climbing the ranks as a TV runner before getting her first big break as a presenter on Channel 4’s Secret Eaters. Anna now hosts a weekly show on Heart FM radio, and is working with Sky TV on a new travel series. And in this months #My9to5 she reveals exactly how she made it all happen…
Did you always want to work in television and radio? And did you study anything related to broadcasting?
After finishing my A-levels I studied musical theatre at the performing arts school, Italia Conti. I trained in singing, dancing and acting. And whilst I was there I kept getting told that acting was my strength. So after I finished at Italia Conti I moved to Los Angeles. I was mid-break-up at the time, so decided to escape the UK and finish my training out there.
I lived in LA for about six months, training with various acting coaches. And when I returned to London I got an agent and started doing bit-parts in plays. I also took a small role in the soap opera Eastenders. I played a character called Kelly, who got chucked out of the Queen Vic.
But I kept getting the same feedback at screen tests, which was, ‘I can really see you as a presenter’. I’d never even thought about television presenting before, but I repeatedly received the same feedback, so I thought I should look into it.
How did you get your foot in the door once you decided to pursue presenting?
Presenting is a totally different world to acting, and I had to start from the bottom up. So I began working as a TV runner on the quiz show Million Pound Drop. It was my job to look after the contestants, but sometimes I got asked to stand in as Davina McCall during the rehearsals. So occasionally I was on camera. And one day a producer came up to me and asked what I really wanted to do.
Bizarrely, in the television industry it’s not the done thing to work behind-the-scenes if you want to be in front of the camera. But that’s stupid, because how else are you supposed to get your foot in the door? So I was honest with this producer, and said that I wanted to be a presenter. We shared a taxi home that evening and she asked if I would like to do screen test for a new Channel 4 show called Secret Eaters.
I went to the screen test and got the job presenting all of the vox pops. So that meant I was out on the street filming interviews with the public. Secret Eaters was my first ever presenting job, and it helped get me on the right path.
You’re now filming a travel series for Sky TV, and also host a weekly show on Heart FM radio, so what does your typical work week look like?
I’ve just got back from filming in Taiwan for the Sky travel show, and while we were out there every day was really intense. I’d wake up at 5am every morning to get camera-ready. And then I’d meet the rest of the crew for breakfast. Over breakfast we’d always chat through the scenes we were going to film that day, and look over the storyboard and script.
We’d then all pile into a van and head to our first location. The thing that takes up so much time in TV is setting up the cameras and lighting equipment. So while that’s going on I always sit down with the director to run through my lines. We usually do three takes – sometimes one if I’m having a good day – and then move onto the next location. You’re always up against the clock in TV, and on that shoot we were on-the-go every day until at least 10pm.
Radio is very different, however. So when I’m presenting on Heart I always arrive two hours before I’m due on air. I have to load all the songs I’m going to play in my show onto the system, and line them up with the Heart FM jingle. It’s a surprisingly fiddly process, and usually takes an hour.
There’s always another presenter on before me, and we only have a two-minute change over between shows. In that time I need to get into the studio, put my headphones on and set everything up the way I like it. And then I’m on air for the next five hours. Whenever a song is playing I prepare what I’m going to say in the next link – so I might search for celebrity gossip from the day, or find a listener tweet that I can read out. The most nerve-wracking thing is planning a bathroom break, because you can only leave things on autopilot for a few minutes while songs are playing. I always spend at least half an hour deliberating when I should dash out.
How do you like to unwind after a long day at work?
I’m really, really bad at relaxing. I guess it’s because I’m self-employed. This year I really want to get better at switching off though, and I’ve imposed a ban on social media after 7pm. I hope that will help. I’ve also just started doing weekly candlelight yoga classes, so I can get out of my head a bit and properly relax.
What are the biggest challenges you face working in television and radio?
Honestly, the biggest challenge is not having a job. The work itself is never actually the hard part. When you don’t have another gig lined up you go through a constant battle in your mind. You start questioning whether you’re doing the right thing, and if you should just quit and get a conventional 9-5. I have wanted to give up so many times because I’ve craved a regular paycheque! There’s this constant stop-start momentum in television, which is quite unsettling. You’ll work solidly for a month and then be without a job again.
But on the flip side, what are the perks for your profession?
When you strike it right and get a really great group of people to work with it’s so amazing. There’s no one quite like the people that work in TV. I think we’re all slightly mad. So the people that I work with are definitely the biggest perk! And you also get such an addictive high from presenting. I always get a massive shot of adrenaline when the director says “action”.
Which other women working in the industry inspire you?
Davina McCall really inspires me. I think she brings so much fun to everything that she presents, and you can tell that it’s genuinely her personality. And other women on TV and radio that I really look up to are Fearne Cotton, Holly Willoughby and Emma Willis. They’re all so successful in what they do, but also have children. And in the next 3-5 years I’d like to start thinking about having a family too. I hope I’m also able to balance what I love doing with having children.
I also absolutely love Mel Giedroyc, who presented The Great British Bake Off. I’ve met her a few times, along with Davina, and I cannot explain how lovely they both are. Truly, they are the nicest women!
And, finally, what is the best piece of career advice you’ve ever been given?
I think the best advice I’ve been given is not to be afraid of working from the bottom up. When you want to become a presenter or an actress that’s all you want to do, and it can be hard to see the bigger picture. Your ego kind of gets in the way, and says, ‘Well, I don’t want to be a runner. I want to be a presenter.’ But you have to get your ducks in a row and take those baby steps.
If I hadn’t worked from the bottom up as a runner I wouldn’t have half of the connections I do today. And, the thing is, everybody wants to work with someone that they know and like. So connections are really important in this industry.
In a way, I always hate saying that, because so many big stars have connections in their family. And that obviously gives them an advantage. But it is possible to make those connections yourself – it just takes a bit longer. And, if you think about it, that time is going to pass anyway, even if you’re just sitting behind a desk at an office job you hate. So you may as well get on the path you actually want to be on and get the ball rolling.