Electric sound: Freelance sound supervisor and grams operator Heather Winn talks challenges and problem solving on live sport productions

Heather Winn working as grams operator at the Tokyo Olympics 2020 in July 2021

“The atmosphere at sporting events is usually electric, and even working remotely is exciting as you never really know what is going to happen next,” enthuses freelance sound supervisor and grams operator, Heather Winn on her career in sports broadcasting audio. “I also really enjoy problem solving and there are often on-the-day issues to overcome during the rig stage, so it can be quite a challenge.”

On how Winn got into sports broadcasting, she says: “I first came across TV broadcasting when I was working in a department store; one of my colleagues offered to see if her husband, who worked at Granada at the time, could pass on my CV to the sound operations team in the hope that I could see a show being filmed from behind the scenes.

“From the moment I arrived, I knew that this was the career that I would want to do for the rest of my working life,” Winn says. “The sound, the lights the sets, the show all mesmerised me and inspired me to be part of the team. After a long work experience period and a few years of working in the studio environment, I had the opportunity to branch out into sports broadcasting. I had most of my early opportunities as a sound assistant on lower league football, then trained as a grams operator and sound supervisor for studio sound, and most recently moved into sound supervising for OB sports sound.

“The world of sport is fast and filled with many various personalities within the sound department and the wider crew, which is one of the things I love about it. No two days are the same; every event involves a different team so you’re constantly learning new skills and approaches from people with diverse experiences” she adds.

As to what Winn enjoys about her career in sound, she says: “Working as a grams operator one day, sound supervisor then next and sound assistant the day after is great. The variety on a day to day basis is unlike in any other job I know, and I feel fulfilled to be able to straddle across these roles.

“The hard part is understanding where you are in the chain of command that day. Being adaptable can be a challenge at times, but it is part of what I love about working across different levels of authority within the department. Every day is different and that is what I find the most enjoyable part.”

Heather Winn working as the sound boom operator for Matchroom Boxing in March 2023

Pushing forwards

After completing an A-Level in Music Technology, Winn studied Popular Music and Recording at The University of Salford. Her first roles were freelance studio assisting roles that came about by, “being available when people went off sick!” she says. “It wasn’t an easy transition to working full time in the industry” Winn continues. “I needed to have other jobs for a good few years, supplementing income until I was established and busy enough to work full time.”

Since her career began, Winn has worked across a broad range of productions. “I have worked on a wide variety of productions along the way from quiz shows, chat shows, daytime productions and award ceremonies like Sports Personality of the Year to political debates, amongst others.

“Take every opportunity that comes your way. Don’t be afraid to knock on a few doors as eventually someone will answer, and it could be that one email that makes all of the difference and allows you a route in. Being a woman will not prevent you from doing your job and if you can see that, everyone else will too”

Each of these shows and events presents their own obstacles to overcome. Working in TV studios poses distinct challenges to working in outside broadcast settings, and I have been incredibly fortunate to have been given opportunities to work across them both to be able to understand the processes of using both disciplines together.”

On getting into sound supervision, Winn comments that it is not particularly easy: “There are no structured avenues into working as I do. There are some entry level positions or audio guarantee roles available but very few roles that have a clear route to sound supervising and opportunities are scarce. I have arranged and attended several industry-specific training sessions hosted by technology manufacturers such as Calrec and Riedel. These sessions are regularly offered to keep operators updated on advancements and the most effective ways to use their equipment.

“Keeping up with technology and ensuring that you are using the equipment that is best suited for that specific job is the hardest thing about this role. Moving into the world of Dolby Atmos has been quite a leap in my opinion. It involves more rigging, and balancing the additional feeds within a 5:1 or Stereo mix can feel like magic,” she adds.

Sound supervisor on popular TV gameshow, Countdown, Heather Winn in November 2023

Facing the challenges

There are challenges to working in sports broadcasting, but many are going to be familiar to people in other industries as well. Winn explains: “When I initially entered the industry, I found it very difficult to get opportunities as there were a lot of colleagues being made redundant from the main broadcaster that I was completing my work experience at.

Being young… we’ve all been there and had to start somewhere, so I’ve generally found people to be understanding. As long as you can follow what is being said and the language of the job (or are willing to ask when you don’t know,) then age isn’t often a sticking point.

“I have honestly only had a handful of small incidents where being a woman has been an issue. I do remember one colleague who offered an opportunity to another male colleague even though my past experiences were more relevant; I was met with a patronising, “I don’t think this would be for you”. I’m not really one for letting such biases phase me, in fact I’d go as far as saying that it spurs me on more to prove that I am just as good as the next person no matter what their gender,” she adds.

“The most difficult part I have found is balancing work with a young family. I aim to work within a certain distance from home so that I can get back and be home for my children whenever possible. Of course, there are times where working relatively locally just isn’t feasible, but one can only try!”

Finally, to other women looking at this industry for a career, Winn says: “Take every opportunity that comes your way. Don’t be afraid to knock on a few doors as eventually someone will answer, and it could be that one email that makes all of the difference and allows you a route in. Being a woman will not prevent you from doing your job and if you can see that, everyone else will too.”

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