The drama of live: Whisper’s Kirstie Bennett on thriving and not just surviving in sport
From a young age, Kirstie Bennett’s sights were set on a career in film and TV. But having initially thought her future lay in scripted content, she was drawn in by the drama of live sport, and following a foray into football she secured a prized role as a Formula One producer.
In her role as programme producer at Whisper, Bennett mainly works on UK broadcaster Channel 4’s Formula One coverage. Every race weekend, Whisper has a team on site and a team in a gallery in Ealing, west London. Together with senior producer Tim Hampel, Bennett alternates between an onsite role and working in the gallery. The role on site includes directing any features or openers for Channel 4’s coverage, as well as liaising with talent and producing the running order with the main presenter.
Meanwhile, the role in Ealing is more of a programme editor role, as although the Channel 4 coverage is mainly a highlights show the production still operates as a live show with a gallery talking to the presenters from London.
It is a role she relishes, although her route into the industry is not one she envisioned when she set out. “My dad worked in television and I did film production at university so I always knew I wanted to work in film and TV in some capacity. I initially thought I wanted to work in drama; I went to the Northern Film school and studied film and moving image production and while I was there my focus was directing and producing, but I was also able to get a decent knowledge of editing, camera work and sound.”
However, after getting a job at Premier League Productions straight out of university, Bennett says she soon fell in love with the world of sports TV. “I’ve always loved playing and watching sports anyway, so being able to merge two of my passions together was a really exciting thing.”
In the months leading up to leaving university, Bennett sent out her CV to every company she could find and eventually landed the job with IMG/Premier League Productions (PLP) as a production assistant.
“My main tasks were booking crew, doing purchase orders, making call sheets and I also handled the diaries for the heads of production. It was a great way for me to get into television, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I was more interested in the creative and editorial side of the industry so I spent a lot of my spare time shadowing and learning from anyone I could about the other roles available to me. At that point I remember there were only two female producers in the whole production, and they were real role models to me.”
“Covering England win the Women’s Euros last year was the pinnacle of my career…to be part of such a huge moment in sport, and the fact it was women’s sport was a very special thing. I truly believe it has changed the way people look at women’s football and sport in general”
After a season on the Premier League, Bennett moved as a production assistant to Futbol Mundial and a much smaller production company. After some “nagging”, she was able to flex her creative muscles and started to produce some features, eventually becoming a junior AP on their World Cup preview series.
“It was hard work but I really loved it, and knew this was the path for me,” she says. After 18 months, she moved back to PLP as an AP on its weekly Premier League review show, and then on to UEFA again as an AP.
“When I left my job at UEFA at the end of 2016 my aim was to work in Formula One, a sport I’ve always loved. Whisper got the Channel 4 F1 rights in 2016 and I really enjoyed their coverage which was done in a different and more entertaining way. I emailed them in 2016 expressing my interest to work with them, and followed that up on my return to the UK and offered up ideas to try and show that I was really serious about working for them.
“I got an interview ahead of the 2017 season and managed to get a role as an AP which I was over the moon about. Since then, I have progressed to the role of programme producer on Channel 4’s F1 coverage.
“I’ve always loved F1, so to work in an F1 paddock at a big race is still very exciting and something I’m very proud of. It has been a pleasure to see the increase in fans and excitement around the sport since Drive to Survive started, and to have a season like we did a few seasons ago with Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen fighting for the title until the last lap was a career highlight.”
Reaching new heights
While Bennett mainly works on Formula One, she has worked on several other big projects, including the Paralympics, Winter Paralympics, Women’s Six Nations and the Women’s Euros, which was a particular highlight.
“I think covering England win the Women’s Euros last year was the pinnacle of my career so far,” she says. “The Women’s Euro final, which England won, was the second-most watched programme on TV last year. To be part of such a huge moment in sport, and the fact it was women’s sport, was a very special thing. I truly believe it has changed the way people look at women’s football and sport in general.
“It was such hard work, but I came out of it with a month’s work I was extremely proud of. One of the things that I love about Whisper is that we’re always trying to raise the bar, and while that can be really tough at times, it does lead to better output where everyone feels satisfied, they’ve done everything they can to make the best possible programme.”
Getting the balance right between work and life is one of the most challenging aspects of working in live sports, Bennett says. “It can be tricky when you work in sports television with events that mainly take place at weekends. I’m lucky that my partner also works in the industry so we understand the long days, the weeks travelling, the fatigue we get from travelling or very long hours in a darkened room.”
Bennett considers herself fortunate to have worked with some great people, but working in a “very” male-dominated sport has its challenges, she says. “I haven’t always been treated as fairly as I would have liked. When I first started in the editorial side of TV it was a lot worse than it is now, but we still have a way to go before we see real equality in TV.
“Sometimes there are tough days, weeks and months, as it can be a gruelling job. But then I realise how lucky I am to love what I do, and to still have the passion for the sports and the content that we put out. My advice to other women looking to move into a role in sports broadcasting is to be confident, and don’t be put off by a male-dominated room; own it.”