Mike Thornton's BECTU Success Story

Isn’t it strange the cyclical nature of our working lives and how what goes around invariably comes around?

Mike Thornton started his career as an apprentice with Marconi in 1976. He now spends part of his working life assessing media production apprenticeship schemes for some of the UK’s major broadcasters.

Mike enjoys this work; he’s the type of person with strong ethical values who likes to give things back so he brings a genuine passion to the role. His story is worth telling as it clearly illustrates the influential role that a trade union – in this instance the media & entertainment union BECTU - can play in helping to develop one of its member’s professional careers.

Mike’s apprenticeship at Marconi laid the foundation for his successful career in the broadcast industry. He became an audio test engineer and later a development engineer there and continued to work for them until the company dropped out of the broadcast sector in 1981.

He then went to work for Piccadilly Radio as an engineer, helping to keep the station on the air, before running their Outside Broadcast department by 1985.

As their senior engineer, he pioneered live acoustic sessions with visiting artists like Dean Friedman and The Alarm.  He left Piccadilly Radio in 1990 to go freelance and he worked on the TV Outside Broadcast circuit in the North West. He joined forces with two colleagues to set up a sound OB truck and was the first person to mix a live programme in Dolby Surround in the UK for Granada TV.

Around this time the marketplace changed and Mike moved into the world of digital audio post production using Digidesign Pro Tools software in its very early days. It’s now a market leader and Mike’s expertise grew in parallel with Pro Tools, as he edited and mixed prestigious and award winning programmes for BBC Radio.

In 2007 a minor game-changer occurred.  Mike takes up the story. “I came across a freelance media fair and being keen to improve my marketing skills and with an eye towards networking opportunities, I went along. It turned out to be organised by BECTU and there were a number of interesting workshops as well as keynote addresses about the impending launch of Media City in Salford. During that day, it became very apparent to me that the union is very keen to look after the little guy, like myself, who didn’t have the benefit of HR and training departments and so I joined up pretty much on the spot.”

I first met Mike at this freelance fair, shortly after starting part-time work as BECTU's Northern Learning Organiser. The post was funded through the Learning and Skills for All Fund; a regional learning fund that was run by unionlearn in the North West and was a source of financial support to unions and their projects across the region. At that time I was also working as a freelance sound editor so the two of us had a fair bit in common and a lot to talk about. Mike is a genuinely thoughtful and knowledgeable professional and we got on well from the start. At that time I was working with Gary Herman, NUJ’s Northern Training Rep on the Digital Toolkit - a series of training days under the FEU (Federation of Entertainment Union) banner. We were both concerned that freelance media workers were being left behind in a landscape of rapidly changing technologies and the DTK was our answer to this. We made a successful application to the Learning and Skills for All Fund and this financial support made the courses affordable for members. The training days covered subjects like how to build web sites, manage money, self marketing as a freelance, the pros and cons of social media and so on.

Mike attended all of the courses and got a lot from them. He says, “I found these incredibly informative, practical and hands on. As a direct result of the Marketing and Social Media days I decided to have a go at doing my own blog. I had been aware that although there were blogs and forum sites about Pro Tools they were focused on ‘Music’ rather than Post production.”

Mike’s enthusiasm for learning and association with BECTU led him to undertake training as a freelance ULR (Union Learning Rep) in 2009.  Shortly afterwards Mike’s Pro Tools teaching experience came in handy when BECTU members in the audio post production department at Yorkshire TV were being made redundant. The equipment they’d been working with for years at the TV station was also redundant, outdated with no other broadcast company using it. So without retraining they would have remained virtually unemployable in their chosen field.

Working with the BECTU departmental rep Lynne Heggarty and ITV’s HR department we arranged an introduction to Pro Tools course, which Mike designed and delivered; bringing his equipment with him.

Mike’s straightforward and friendly approach de-mystified the unfamiliar technology for the editors. Lynne used this successful training as the basis to argue for and secure further funding for additional training for herself and some of her colleagues, which enabled them to develop their own freelance careers.

Mike Thornton's career has also progressed

Whilst continuing to be active within BECTU as a ULR and NW Freelance Branch committee member Mike has set up Pro Tools For Media, and slowly built up a web following, increasing his expertise along the way - adding Twitter and RSS feeds and gained a niche worldwide following in the process. “Russ Hughes of the AIR Users blog approached me to see if I was interested in working together. The outcome was Pro Tools Expert www.pro-tools-expert.com and the site has really taken off. In July this year the site had 163,000 unique visits but the norm is more like 150,000 per month. Manufacturers and software developers are advertising with us as we are the only site that specialises in all things Pro Tools. I am now making training videos for some of the manufacturers as well as producing training titles for Groove 3, my second title iZotope RX2 Explained went to the top of the Groove 3 best sellers in its first month of release. All this from a couple of affordable training days that the union set up. I am now a BECTU Freelance Union Learning Rep and I am also an NVQ Assessor for several Creative and Digital Advanced Media Apprenticeship schemes”.

He is currently supporting and mentoring over 25 apprentices over 4 schemes in the Manchester area working with the BBC, ITV as well as a number of smaller companies, who have taken on apprentices. This activity is making a significant contribution to the Union Learning Fund (ULF) supported national BECTU project within which apprenticeships and support for apprentices is a key theme.

“As a product of a level 4 apprenticeship scheme myself it’s ironic that very recently I took part in a focus group meeting to establish how we could set up some level 4 schemes in our industry. It is a real shame that in the recession so many excellent apprentice schemes were dismantled and closed to save money, and unless our industry has a huge push into putting together a large number of apprenticeship type schemes with real mentoring and on the job learning we are going to end up with the mother of all skills and experience gaps. We need BECTU, Creative Skillset, the broadcasters (BBC, ITV, & C4) as well as the
indie producers to work together to facilitate and fund a massive range of training initiatives.”

With the current squeeze on budgets across the media industries, such funding will not be easy to come by. But people like Mike can keep the flame alive, passing knowledge and expertise to the next generation - along with an understanding of what unions can achieve through the dedication of their members.