Stephen Moss worked for the BBC for almost 30 years as wildlife TV producer, producing shows such as the BAFTA winning Springwatch, Birds Britannia, Nature of Britain, Big Cat Diary and Birding with Bill Oddie, among others. He has written a number of books on birds and wildlife, as well as writing for the Guardian and presenting on BBC Radio 4. He is currently an Honorary Professor at Nottingham University Business School.
You’ve been an Honorary Professor at The University of Nottingham for two years now, what have you enjoyed most about the position?
Meeting the students. I wasn’t sure what to expect at first, I was a student myself at Cambridge more than 30 years ago, and then I had a career with the BBC for almost 30 years. I started being an Honorary Professor almost the moment I left the BBC, so it was part of a new adventure for me.What I have enjoyed is working one to one with third year environmental history dissertation students. It has been interesting meeting them, getting to know them and following through when they produce the dissertation in the work they’re done. Also meeting students on a bigger scale giving a range of careers talks such as tourism futures and managing big beasts, which is about how you manage creative people in an environment where you still have to get things done.
When you work in television you work with an enormous range of talented people, both on and off the screen, whom may know more than you about the subject or think they know more than you and everyone’s opinion is valid
What are the best skills students can take from these talks?
From the management talks, what I am trying to get across is that management is as much of an art as a science. When you work in television you work with an enormous range of talented people, both on and off the screen, whom may know more than you about the subject or think they know more than you and everyone’s opinion is valid. Your job when running the team is to manage those people to get the best out of them creatively without letting them take over and turn it into anarchy. What I’m trying to do is say to people, what I wish I knew thirty years ago when I started out in television, is that it is a collaborative process. This is much different to writing a book, which I also do. Don’t think of the media as one monolith, there are two broadly different jobs in the media, one where you work in big teams and must manage, and then there’s work such as certain aspects of radio, newspaper and web journalism, if you’re more self-reliant then you’d be much more suited to that.
Would you say the most challenging part of working in television is working with such big characters?
Yes, it’s a very challenging part. When you work with David Attenborough or Bill Oddie or Alan Titchmarsh as I have, they have very strong opinions, and you have to listen to those opinions because they may well be right. Bill and I have worked together for a very long time, and he and I are both very different. He has very strong opinions and so have I, and how you find a way to manage that can lead to a much better creative process then if you both agreed all the time. It’s challenging but it is also very rewarding.
How did you first get into wildlife broadcasting?
I spent my time at Cambridge, rather than doing an English degree, running the student newspaper and writing for some of the national newspapers. I applied for the BBC and thought I wanted to be a journalist but it turned out I didn’t. I didn’t know I wanted to be a TV producer but my experience editing the newspaper meant I was much more suited to that side of it.
The programmes I made have always been designed to tell people you can go and see this
Have you seen a big increase in popularity of nature and wildlife programmes throughout your career?
I have seen a big change. In the 1980’s almost all the programmes were set abroad and almost all didn’t have presenters. David Attenborough only did a few prominent series. Most series didn’t have presenters, and were narrated by an actor. What that meant was that people were not very engaged with the nature that they were watching, and they didn’t think it was for them. Whereas the programmes I made have always been designed to tell people you can go and see this. Birding with Bill Oddie, which was the first series that I made, was designed to be the process of bird watching and not the birds. I was saying you can go and see this, here’s how to.
What is the most important thing the audience can learn from your wildlife shows?
I worked in BBC Education for a long time, before I worked in wildlife, and I learnt that unlike what I’d learnt at school where education was the imparting of facts, that education should be about experience, understanding and enjoyment, as well as knowledge. Early on I received an email, back when email had first been introduced, and someone had worked out my email and said to me ‘I have just spent all my beer money on a pair of binoculars after watching your programme, yours sober but seriously contented’. I’ve always loved that, because that man was hopefully inspired to go out and watch birds as a result of watching Bill. I want to engage people in nature in a personal way and that’s why I do it.
What inspired you to get involved in wildlife broadcasting?
It happened by accident. I had met Bill Oddie a few years before and then met him again at the BBC and had always wanted to make a series about bird watching. I kept suggesting it but people always said no, and then one day someone said yes. At that moment I realised that there was just an outside chance that I could turn my hobby into my job. I had always kept them separate because I liked the idea of having a passion that wasn’t my job. I did the series, and got a second and then more, and was asked to join the BBC Natural History unit. I asked myself are there any downsides to it and the answer was not really. When I’m out bird watching I’m not thinking how I could film this, it hasn’t impinged on my enjoyment of it.
One of the big things about my work is, the places and wildlife are fantastic, but it’s the people you are with in those places and the friends you make through wildlife television.
You’ve travelled the world when filming, what are your career highlights?
Antarctica was amazing. The Okavango Delta in Africa, I think was the most beautiful place I have ever been. But also getting to know Britain. One of the big things about my work is, the places and wildlife are fantastic, but it’s the people you are with in those places and the friends you make through wildlife television. I have numerous friends in the business, both wildlife television and bird watching generally and if you ask me what my memory of Springwatch is, it’s not what we put on air, it is the fact we inspired people that’s the most important thing, but from a personal point it is the people who I have got to know through it. That is the greatest joy of becoming someone who is heavily involved in nature, is that you meet such as range of people. You have a shared passion for wildlife, not the television, which is what makes it special.
Is the main key to success having the passion in what you do?
There is a reason that BBC wildlife programmes are successful and that is down entirely to that. It is obviously a really interesting subject but the reason ordinary people who are not overtly passionate about wildlife watch and enjoy them is because they can tell that people care about it. You just know that when a series is good, it is because the people working on it believe in it. If you are into wildlife you have a head start immediately making wildlife programmes because you care about the subject.