As an investigative journalist for a prime time British television series, she went undercover with a hidden camera. She has interviewed politicians, public officials, celebrities and activists, and has filmed events with such notables as President Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Alison is the author of the workbook for authors: ‘Media Ready, Media Savvy,’ and currently works as a writer for Listosaur.com, is a contract producer/director, and video editor. She is also an aspiring horror novelist.
In 2008 she independently produced and directed an award-winning documentary. Alison has also appeared on Welsh TV shows, including a drama, a comedy, current affairs programs, a documentary, and a BBC special from The Newseum Studios in Washington D.C.
1) You’ve had a very interesting career so far, done and experienced a variety of things. What is the one best descriptor at this stage that describes what you do for a living?
Oh boy. I write fiction and nonfiction, but I also produce and edit as well, so I‘m still in that multimedia [phase]. I do all of that all of the time. And I do stuff for the BBC as well, which is radio. That’s a good question – maybe writer/producer/editor.
So it’s a slash/slash/slash title, then?
I know, I know. That’s how freelance works, though. You’re multifaceted, unless you just want to do one thing. I like to do several things.
2) How did your media career get started?
I started off as a newspaper reporter in Wales. I had wanted to be a journalist. I married young, right after college, and moved to Columbia, SC with my husband. It was very difficult for me there to find a career job. I did several things – restaurant work, I worked at Dillard’s selling lingerie, and I worked in a library. Obviously, though, that’s not what I wanted to do. So I went back [to Wales]. It took me five or six months to become a full-time, paid journalist.
In the interim I did some acting, I worked with a nonprofit doing its newsletter, and I worked at the newspaper doing some advertising features when people were off sick or on holiday. Less than a year after that I got a job [as an investigative journalist] with one of the most prestigious current affairs programs in Wales, Byd ar Bedwar (The World on Four). We had the same reputation as 60 Minutes.
Is that when you went undercover with the alleged cult? Yes, it is and I did many more stories as well and they were all long-term.
3) Considering the great variety of media you have worked in, do you have a favorite medium?
I do like television.
It’s just a really good medium to get your message across. With visuals, it’s the best way to tell a story.
4) Has there been any aspect of your work that you have found particularly challenging?
The undercover work was very challenging all the time because I had to pretend to be someone else.
The most challenging thing as a newspaper journalist was knocking on the doors of people who had just lost their children. I did some research on teen suicide and it was very tough talking to the parents. Several times I had to do that, but I think I handled it very well. In Wales it’s a little different [compared] to America. When family members pass, local people come to see you. That’s the tradition, so it’s not unusual for people to call out of the blue. In fact, it’s the norm. That’s how people show their respect. Some bring food and you make tea for them. It helps the people who are mourning, too, because it gets them through those horrible first few weeks. Your time is filled, people are coming to see you, you have to talk and be sociable. I remember cold-calling on one family who had just lost their son to suicide. It was heartbreaking. It was Christmastime and his presents were all there. It was very sad, but they accepted me and I sat there and talked to them. I was a really good listener and I think that helped me with being an investigative journalist.
I remember listening to five refugees from Kosovo talking about their experiences, which were harrowing and horrific. Also, I was doing a program on domestic violence and it’s very hard not to cry when you’re interviewing someone, but you don’t of course. Some of the stories were just heartbreaking, but that’s part of why you do it—to get these stories out there. It’s important for the public to know.
And I guess it must be difficult to know how to broach certain subjects and how far to push with your questioning.
Well, we were trained in interviewing. We would sit down and do hour-long one-on-one interviews with people if they were the central figure in the story. They were very in-depth.
5) Tell me more about your training. Are you happy with the training you received?
Yes. In the UK, you do on-the-job training. You don’t need to go to journalism school to become a journalist. Most people there don’t. People in the industry prefer to train you their own way. You can’t learn everything in the classroom. You can’t learn in the classroom how to keep a deadline and juggle five different stories at once.
So you were thrown into it, basically. Are you glad it happened that way?
I think I am. You can get molly-coddled too much. You can’t learn a particular newspaper’s style in the classroom. And they can’t teach you how to write, really. You learn from other people. You ask questions of others in the industry. That’s what they’re there for. You see what they do and emulate that.
6) What’s a typical day like for you? Do you have a typical day?
Right now it’s been erratic—for many years actually. I’ve been in the Raleigh-Durham area for a couple of years and I was in Asheville before that. Prior to that I was in Denver and had a full-time job with PBS as a current affairs producer.
When I first moved to Asheville, NC, I wrote two books–one novel, a sort of memoir. Actually, I wrote three books. One was awful—first ones usually are. Another one needs to be rewritten as well, so I tend to writing for a long time, but I also still do video work.
There’s no typical day, really, because I look for work all the time. I’m involved with Triangle Area Freelancers and did a talk for them. I wrote a nonfiction book, Media Ready, Media Savvy and have developed [related] workshops. I do marketing strategy consulting and media consulting. It’s slow and sporadic. I work on projects–editing and producing–with my friend and colleague, AlishaTV (http://alisha.tv/). I do a lot of stuff with her. Yesterday evening I was filming. I’ll probably be doing a lot of political commentary stuff soon with the BBC. There’s no typical day.
Do you have your own production crew?
No, I don’t. I do a lot of filming myself. I know how to film and edit. I learned how to shoot video when I was an investigative journalist. I learned the principles of editing over a period of five to six years. We were involved in the whole process from pre-production to post-production. I also studio directed and technical directed. When you work on television you do tend to learn a lot of things. It’s good to know, because if you know editing it makes you a better producer and director because you know how many shots you need.
7) You’ve done a lot of human interest and political commentary work. Is there one genre you prefer over all the others or do you thrive on variety?
I like the variety, but I do love the human rights issues. I did a program in Colorado with the real-life hero from Hotel Rwanda, Paul Rusesabagina. It was fascinating for me.
I also got to interview Michael Moore during the premier for Bowling for Columbine in Denver, CO, which was interesting and a great opportunity, and going many years back I interviewed Jason Alexander [regarding young voters].
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