May 14, 2012

The man in ‘show’ business

Monday, May 12, 2012

Manoj Sharma, Hindustan Times


He is a ‘journalist’ of a different kind: For Aakash, the cellphone, not the pen, is mightier than the sword. His BlackBerry has over 3,000 contact numbers — of everyone who is someone in the country. And he also claims to have launched many fresh faces on news television. Aakash (he uses his first name only) heads the ‘guest desk’ of the news channel CNN-IBN. His job is to organise talking heads for various shows hosted on the channel.


“I work closely with the editor-in-chief and the news desk and source the best analysts, newsmakers and experts for the special shows hosted on the channel. Except my editors, few people in my office know what I do,” says the 34-year-old.



After passing out of Indian Institute of Mass Communication, Aakash joined DD News in 2002, where his senior offered him three options: Either he could work as a guest coordinator, reporter, or a producer. “I chose the first option and have no regrets,” says Akash, who was born and brought up in Patna.



Aakash arranges for about 12 guests every day for the channel, including for the prime time 9.00pm news. His day begins with calling people at 7.30 in the morning from the bathroom itself. He claims to remember contact numbers of at least 150 guests.



“At times, I feel like a call centre guy; I speak to at least 40 people before I get the required number of guests. Journalists and politicians are the most accessible; serving bureaucrats and some industrialists are not quite so,” he says, adding, “Once when I called a constitutional expert at 10.30pm, he yelled at me and said, ‘you are an idiot of the highest order. This is not the time to call anyone’. In my field of work, one has to be persuasive, without ego and chatty,” says Aakash, who has authored a book titled ‘Verbal and Non-Verbal Communication’, which imparts lessons in communication skills.



Fifteen minutes into the conversation and you realise that Aakash indeed loves talking. He regales you with the tales of follies and foibles of his own and those of his guests.
However, Aakash’s job does not end with getting consent of the guest for the show — he also manages the logistics of the guest’s travel to the studio and ensures that they get a warm welcome. The type of car he sends to pick the guest depends on his status, he says.



“Once when I was at DD News, I invited a former diplomat to the studio. He was furious when he arrived. Later, our driver told me that the car had broken down on the way and he had to ask the guest to push the car,” says Aakash, adding that he often faces the music for others’ mistakes. “I am responsible if the guest is unhappy about something, if he does not speak well on the show or does not arrive on time,” he says.



That is not the only job hazard. Aakash has to guard against cases of mistaken identity too. To cite an example, he refers to the mix-up that happened a few years ago on BBC News 24 channel, when a man called Guy Goma, a graduate from Congo, appeared on the news channel in place of an IT expert.



And then he refers to his own case. “At my previous office, I called former Indian cricketer Chetan Sharma and he agreed. In the evening, to my horror, another Chetan Sharma, also a cricketer, arrived at the studio. I realised I had dialled the wrong number,” laughs Aakash.
There have been occasions, especially during important debates in the Parliament, when he had to virtually push politicians through waiting crowds of cameramen and reporters of other channels into his car parked outside to take them to his studio for the show. “If I don’t do it, my competitor will take them,” he says.



However, the most difficult part of his job, he says, is to cancel a guest for a show. “It happens when we get a better alternative to someone already invited. Then I have to tell blatant lies that the show has been cancelled or the topic has changed. There have been times when I had to cancel guest appointments after the lights and cameras were set up at their homes. In such a situation, I tell them that the satellite connection or the phone line is not working. I am sick of lying now, but I cannot help it; the show must go on,” he says.



Aakash says that he often get requests from marginalised or out-of-news politicians for an invitation to shows on his channel. “But we have a strict criteria for inviting guests — fluency in English is important, though Lalu Prasad Yadav is an exception. Besides, I need to know the views of my guests in advance so that we do not end up with people with similar views. On a day of big incident such as a terrorist attack, what also matters is how far the guest lives from our studio.”



A key requirement of his job is to hunt for fresh faces for various shows. “Many people who were nervous the first time have now decoded television. They love being on air. Some people keep going through their notes till the time they enter the studio,” says Aakash.



He loves his job as it has got him an opportunity to develop personal equation with his famous guests. “If the guest is very important, I personally go to pick him up. Since I am not a reporter, the guest does not fear being quoted and opens up easily. Once I went to pick Mallika Sherawat and I found that contrary to her image, she is a sober, decent and a down-to-earth person,” he says.



Aakash claims he is not in awe of the rich and famous any more but regrets not getting himself photographed with mountaineer Edmund Hillary, when his channel did a show with him.
Aakash, who lives in Noida and is single, says that even his parents are yet to get a hang of what he does on television. “My father often wonders what I get paid so well for,” says Aakash, whose second book on television journalism will be published soon.

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