From Three Counties radio, to travelling around the world as part of his Formula 1 work, David Croft’s broadcasting career to date has spanned 25 years.
During the Autosport Show weekend in January, I caught up with Croft (@CroftyF1) for a chat to talk about his journey from local radio through to Sky Sports F1 commentator.
F1B: How did your stint in radio begin?
DC: I started covering Stevenage Borough for the local papers in the early 1990s, but my first radio broadcast was Stevenage Borough and Altrincham in 1994. The regular reporter couldn’t make it and they called me up as a last-minute replacement. Stevenage won 2-1, Martin Gittings scored the winning goal with his hand, which as you can imagine was controversial! BBC Three Counties radio paid me £6 for covering the game.
I thought I was utterly dreadful, and I had a phone call from Ken Wilson, who was the Sports Editor at the station, the very next day saying he thought that it was really good, and asking if I’d like to cover Luton Town versus Sheffield United the next week. I got £10 for covering that, a bigger game than Stevenage! Bit by bit, I started doing more and more, I used to go into the station on a Friday night to learn how to edit, produce, write scripts. I wanted to learn so was more than happy to give up my Friday evenings.
Mike Naylor, who took over as sports editor taught me what I needed to know. In all honesty, I owe Mike and Ken, and everyone in those early years a debt of gratitude because without their help and patience, I would have never been able to take my career further. As time went on, I started to take on more gigs. My first proper commentary job though was covering the Toulon Under 20 Football tournament for their world feed. France beat South Korea 1-0 in my first match, former Arsenal midfielder Robert Pires scored the goal and I met him in Monza a couple of years ago and had a chat about the match, he actually remembered it. But the key was never saying no to any opportunity, even if deep down you didn’t really think you had the experience needed.
F1B: I guess at that point in your career, it is whatever comes your way.
DC: You want to get heard, you need to get experience. Eventually, Three Counties asked me to present the breakfast sports bulletins each morning. I initially said no, I was working full time in my day job, as a Theatre Publicity Officer and working Saturdays, commentating for West County TV. But I, rather cheekily, said that if they wanted me then they should give me a full-time job and I’d be happy to do it. Later that day, Dave Robey, the station manager phoned me up and said that if I wanted a full-time job as a BBC Sports Reporter he’d give me a one-month contract and if I was any good, there would be a chance that I’d stay on. Well one month became three months became nine months and I stayed at BBC 3CR for over three years, eventually becoming the Sports Editor there.
In December 1998 I moved to 5 Live, working as a producer via the BBC Local Radio Attachment scheme. It was a brilliant scheme as it gave those working in local radio a chance to show what they could do for BBC Sport on a national level. Once again it was initially for a month, but I stayed for much longer and managed to convince the powers that be that I was a better broadcaster than a producer and I was given a full-time contract with BBC Radio Sport.
I could be heard presenting sports bulletins for Simon Mayo or Fi Glover, covering football matches on a Saturday, and eventually presenting Sport on 5 during the summer of 2004 and 2005. I’d worked at the 2002 World Cup and 2004 Olympic Games but I wanted to specialise on a particular sport and in the Autumn of 2005, I got my chance.
As a kid, my dream job was to be a sports commentator. I was into all sorts of sports, cricket, F1, football, boxing and of course, darts! Peter Jones was my absolute idol as a commentator, this guy was magnificent in the way he could capture tension and emotion in a couple of sentences, even if your team was winning 6-0, you wouldn’t switch the radio off. I used to listen to him on Sport on 2, smuggling my old Roberts radio under the covers and hoping that Mum and Dad didn’t hear that I was still awake listening to the midweek matches.
At the weekend I’d watch Grandstand or World of Sport and dream of doing what Murray Walker or Barrie Davies, Sid Waddell or Richie Benaud did. I’d listen to Test Match Special a lot in the summer too, my Dad played village cricket and passed a love of the sport on to me. Brian Johnson had me enthralled, not only with his ability to paint pictures in my mind, but the way he would break away from the cricket and move on to random topics such as the latest goings on in Neighbours. He was a huge fan of that soap opera and never missed an opportunity to wax lyrical about it.
So, this was my dream job, still is and I pinch myself that I’m doing what I dreamt of all those years ago.
F1B: Was it an easy decision with 5 Live to travel round the world for Formula 1, or were there other factors to consider?
DC: Jason Swales, the F1 producer, asked me to audition, as he knew I liked and knew F1. When he wasn’t producing 5 Live F1, Jason would come in and produce bulletins and various other stuff [for 5 Live], so we knew each other quite well. He said that we needed a new commentator, and that the contract was going out to an independent production company. We produced a dummy commentary as part of the pitch for USP Content and they won the contract. So, on December 23rd 2005 I was told I was the new 5 Live F1 commentator by Moz Dee, who was the assistant editor at the station at the time. Moz then promptly asked when I would be leaving as I couldn’t stay on a BBC Staff Contract, the F1 coverage was being independently produced. I went freelance, another risk, but this was an opportunity I was never going to turn down.
The next challenge was to learn more about the sport, prepare for the start of the 2006 season and work out just how you commentate on Formula 1, having never done it for real before I headed off to Bahrain for the first race of the season. I spent six years at 5 Live Formula 1, and it was brilliant. Holly Samos, Jason Swales, Maurice Hamilton, Ant Davidson, myself, and Natalie [Pinkham] were a small team, bringing a great sport to people on the radio, thoroughly enjoyable and hopefully the fun we had always came across on air.
F1B: How did you find your first year, just settling into the paddock?
DC: Frightening! The paddock is a scary place at first to find yourself in. But there are a lot of genuine, lovely people in it, and once you establish a level of trust and rapport, build relationships with people and gain more and more experience, you feel less scared. I asked a lot of stupid questions along the way, apparently there’s no such thing as a stupid question but I’m sure I challenged that theory. I always remember Jason’s adage, keep it simple, don’t try and do anything complicated, leave that to the experts.
It went from frightening, to a little bit daunting and then after about three years you feel that you fit in. People to start to ask your opinion on certain subjects and you feel more qualified to give it! You spend a long time at first listening to people, and I had the likes of Maurice Hamilton, Ian Philips, and the late Alan Henry to listen to, and what a complete delight it was to listen to their stories and opinions. And I was hugely lucky to have Jason as our producer and Maurice and then Ant Davidson as co-commentators, to help me along the way.
F1B: F1 moved to BBC TV in 2009, did anything really change from a radio perspective?
DC: A little, we were able to broadcast our commentary on the red button, which increased our audience, especially for the practice sessions. But I don’t go thinking “right, there’s more people listening today, that’s brilliant.” When I’m broadcasting I imagine I’m only talking to one person. There might be a lot more of that one person, but you’re having a conversation with that person, you’re trying to imagine whatever they’re doing and hoping that you’re engaging enough to make them stop what they’re doing and focus on what’s going on. I imagine there’s an old lady sat doing her knitting, if we’re getting her on the edge of her seat, and she’s stopped knitting for a while, then we’re doing a great job!
F1B: So, you guys were doing well at the BBC, and then we come to 2011. I think people still remember that practice session in Hungary, where you and Ant were getting deluged for something that wasn’t your fault.
DC: I walked into the track on Friday morning, and got a phone call from 5 Live Breakfast, saying that the F1 TV news was the lead story at 08:00! So, as correspondent, could I come on and talk about it.
Now, the BBC decided that they couldn’t afford to continue to cover F1 in the way they were at the time and approached Sky. For me, that was an important thing, because yes, there was a strong reaction from some of the fans, but I wasn’t going to take sides and join in with that strong reaction, I wanted to present the facts as I understood them to be.
I was a massive viewer of Sky Sports at that time, and have been for many, many years, and I love what they did to football, to darts, to cricket. Actually, I thought, it might be good for Formula 1. Sky will come in, give it the Sky treatment, and the sport will become very important within the Sky stable, and I truly believe that has happened.
Yes, there was a negative reaction, but 6 years on, it’s really interesting when we meet the fans and they give us their feedback. The people we meet at races, or even randomly out and about recently, tell us they enjoy what we do at Sky F1. Have we ruined people’s love of the sport as one listener said would happen back in 2011? Certainly not, I hope we’ve proved not only how much we love this sport, but how hard we want to work to deliver a really good product for the fans.
F1B: Was it an easy decision to move to Sky?
DC: I could have stayed at the BBC, and don’t get me wrong, I loved working there. But let’s go back to when I first joined local radio, I wanted to challenge myself, I wanted to stretch myself. When Sky became interested, we had a few conversations; myself and Martin [Brundle] talked too and both said that it could be fun! I love Sky and their coverage of sport. It was flattering that they were interested in me, and in the end, for many reasons, it was an easy decision to make.
It’s a risky decision, because it might not have paid off going from radio to TV, it’s a very different job. I’ve gone from a job where I say what I see, and I paint pictures, to working for a company that provides those pictures, in glorious Ultra High Definition now. Half of what you do on radio is describing and setting the scene. You can’t really do that on TV because people can see it, so you have to find a different way to tell the story.
Luckily, I’d covered the darts on BBC TV since 2004, so I had a little bit of TV experience there, and of course my first commentating experience as such, was for television, Toulon tournament and Westcountry TV. I had that to fall back on.
And I was going from a role where at 5 Live I commentated, reported, presented, and interviewed to the role of lead commentator. So, it was an adjustment there. Martin Turner, our first Head of F1 at Sky put together a fantastic team, very different people, but all of whom fitted in with everyone else and enjoyed each other’s company. There’s no pretence, we’re just a happy bunch of people travelling the world doing something we really love. Martin and the producers brought together creative people, hard-working people, talented people. It’s the best team I’ve ever worked with. Things have changed a bit since the first race, some staff have left, some have come in, but there’s no conflict or friction behind the scenes, and I think that’s really important for the show.
And as we speak there’s not long to go till we’re all in Melbourne for the first race of the season, and I’m sure, like me, everyone can’t wait to get going again for what will be the 13th season for me as an F1 commentator, which considering my first race, Bahrain 2006, still seems like a very short time ago, is a pretty scary thought.
My thanks go to David Croft for spending the time with me on the above interview.