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Last Updated: Thursday, 18 October 2007, 09:56 GMT 10:56 UK
Washington diary: Life as an anchor
By Matt Frei
BBC News, Washington

No politics this week, just pure self-indulgence. I apologise but, if you can't deal with that, stop reading now.

BBC World News America presenter Matt Frei
Swapping the open road for a studio brings new challenges

These days it seems to be as inevitable as hair loss, reading glasses or love handles.

I'm talking about the transition from being a correspondent to becoming a presenter; the migration from the road to the studio; from occasional hairbrush to regular hairspray.

After 17 years on the road in southern Europe, the Balkans, the Middle East, Asia and America, it seems like entrapment, or at least confinement.

But it was my choice, I am having a blast, and there is no better country, I believe, to start one's career as a presenter - or "anchor" as my type is customarily called in the US.

Not only does America matter, but it is also blessed with people who are a gift to English language broadcasting.

Washington DC is perhaps the world hub of silver tongues. The myriad of think-tanks, universities, lobby firms and publications are a breeding ground for articulacy and a retirement home for the formerly powerful.

Days after John Bolton stopped being America's ambassador at the UN, he was happy to vent his anger about North Korea in our studio.

Up close and personal

It is outside Washington, though, that the stuff Americans say is truly inspiring.

A horse trainer in Texas (file image)
It is often outside Washington that the American people most impress

On one of my first trips to Texas, in the weeks before the Iraq war, I found myself at a cattle auction outside Austin with BBC cameraman Ron Skeans.

We were canvassing a group of cattle ranchers on their views about the UN and especially the French moves to derail President George W Bush's plans for conflict.

There were five men sitting round a table knocking back the beer. It was 10 in the morning. They all wore hats apart from me. One of them leant over. I could smell his breath up close and personal.

"I'll tell you something about the Freeeanch'" he drawled. "But it ain't real naaiice!" I should introduce this guy to Jacques Chirac, I thought.

Perfect sound bite

The following year I found myself covering Hurricane Ivan in Mobile, Alabama.

They know how to talk here - and they're not afraid of cameras

The storm had not been as bad as expected. But it had levelled dozens of houses, driven most of the population to school shelters and messed up the landscape gardening for years to come.

In the morning, we found Ethel, an 85-year-old African-American lady, standing on her porch. She was tiny, shivery and wearing a flowery nightie.

"Why didn't you go to the shelter?" I asked. She looked at me as if I was insane.

"Why should I?" she responded, chin jutting. "I spent all night long on my knees praying to the Good Lord. And I say to him, I say 'I ain't running away from Ivan. Ivan's gonna run away from me!'"

The soundbite was perfect. We stopped the interview there and then.

That never used to happen to me anywhere else in the world. It happens all the time in America. They know how to talk here. And they're not afraid of cameras.

I can see where it comes from by watching my daughters, who go to an American school.

At the age of three they start doing show-and-tell presentations about their favourite stuffed animals in front of the assembled class. Stage fright is banished. The power of language nurtured.

Sky slalom

Covering Washington brings other highlights. Like travelling with the US president on Air Force One. I have done this a few times now.

President George W Bush by Air Force One
Riding on the president's plane has its pluses and minuses

The journalists get to sit in the very back of the world's most famous plane, somewhere near the waste disposal unit.

The chairs are comfortable. The president is nowhere to be seen but the movie menu is chosen by him. We watched Last Tango in Paris and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (director's cut).

Only kidding! We did however have steak and eggs for breakfast somewhere over Africa, and at one stage the plane slalomed through the skies for security reasons.

Most of the time, though, you travel on a separate jumbo jet chartered by the press.

It is the only plane I know where you can stand and drink a glass of wine while taxiing down the runway.

Sniffer dogs

Once we flew to Entebbe in Uganda on a four-day, five-nation trip round Africa.

Matt Frei in Afghanistan
Reporting from the road brings many unexpected experiences

I was doing a live broadcast when I was interrupted by a South African man screaming his head off behind me. Instantly three US secret service gorillas pounced on him and led him away in handcuffs.

Later it emerged that the man was actually from Soweto, had broken through the world's most impermeable security cordon at a Pretoria Air Force base, and boarded our charter unnoticed. He sat two rows behind me.

The stowaway thought he was heading to the US. In fact, he had hitched a ride to Entebbe, which probably accounted for his later outburst.

The secret service panicked. There was an exhaustive security sweep, sniffer dogs thought that Christmas had come early and we had to wait for five hours before getting back to our home in the sky.

On board, the pilot apologised and then explained: "We shoulda known the guy wasn't one of us. He was the only who had the spinach frittata and didn't complain!"

Living god

These moments are priceless and there will doubtless be fewer since my new home is the Washington studio.

Matt Frei in Washington DC
Promoting the new news show proves surprisingly enjoyable

But the programme BBC World News America will be travelling. Mobile technology allows us to roam on the campaign trail, relatively cheaply, for what promises to be the most fascinating and unpredictable election for more than half a century.

I love the challenge of "anchoring", of trying to hold an hour of news and current affairs broadcasting together, with interesting interviews and wonderful films. It is new and different. The programme makes great use of all our bureaux and shows the BBC off at its best.

So far the reviews have been good and the American audience, thirsting for international news they can't easily get, is growing.

We have interviewed Laura Bush, Jimmy Carter, Benazir Bhutto and three presidential candidates.

On Thursday, we are talking to a living god, the Dalai Lama. I shall, of course, ask him to bless the programme.

I have to admit I'm rather enjoying all the promotional stuff. I was at Washington's busy Union Station the other day, being filmed looking earnest.

There was a crew of 10, including a director from California, who looked at me and said: "Okay Matt, I want to see big pride, biiiig pride in the BBC. And give me a smile to match."

God bless America!

Matt Frei is the presenter of BBC World News America, airing at 2300 GMT (1900 ET / 1600 PT) every weekday


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