MAKING history wasn't on Valerie "Pat" Riley's mind when she started work at the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation (JBC) over 40 years ago. Rather, she was just happy to have entered the working world in Jamaica after eight years in London, England.
She started out very traditionally in September 1972, working as a secretary in the Scheduling Department. Her job entailed making bookings for the TV studios and handling logs for master control. Working in media generally was exciting enough, but Pat soon found an even greater and unexpected source of excitement – the cameras!
Her fascination led her to take a chance on stepping away from her desk and applying to become a camera operator. It was not the career she had envisaged as a school girl at Alpha Academy. Again, making history was not on her mind. But make history she did, the second she was offered and accepted the job of camera operator, becoming the first woman in Jamaica's history to hold that position.
From the adrenaline rush of live news to the nail-biting tension of major sporting events to the painstaking detail work associated with documentaries, Riley soaked it all up, excelling in the process. "I was given the opportunity to work on my passion and it was one of the best decisions I ever made," she said.
"I was thrilled and couldn't believe my luck," she explains.
But natural aptitude and hard work were to play a much greater role in her career than luck. From day one, she had to learn and adapt quickly, as nothing in her years of schooling had prepared her for this new and exciting profession. She ended up spending years at the company, and experienced many memorable moments.
She still vividly recalls shooting test matches at Sabina Park.
"That was a little scary, because they used to have a little rickety stand way up in Sabina Park, because when you're shooting cricket you have to be high up. The ladder was so long, and when you're up there and the wind blows, everything shakes!" However, Riley says she was well aware of what she was getting into, and was determined to show that a woman could do the job as well as a man.
Another memorable day involved a behind-the-scenes incident in studio. "We were doing news in studio C, Errol Lee and Leonie Forbes were reading major news and one of the cameramen [had an epileptic attack]. It was the old-time camera, and he was going down, so I had to hold up the camera so it didn't fall on top of him. Meanwhile, Errol and Leonie had to be reading news as if everything was fine, until we took a break and they rushed him to hospital," she remembers.
Riley has also been behind the camera for interviews with famous global figures. "I remember doing Mohamed Ali, Minister Farrakhan, Dionne Warrick…you get to meet so many people that you could only hear about," she says. She enjoyed every minute and only wishes more women would follow in her footsteps.
"I hope other ladies will get into the field, you just have to equal up to [the men]," she advises.
As if being the only camerawoman in the 52-employee Operations Department wasn't enough, she also got a chance to develop her leadership skills. This was through her union work, after being named chief union delegate for the National Workers Union (NWU). This allowed her to learn negotiation and advocacy skills, that would serve her well throughout her life. She was able to hone those skills when she received a scholarship from the NWU to the Barbados Workers College, where the courses taught included labour relations, collective bargaining and leadership skills. She was given a chance to use those skills when she notably became one of two employees selected to the JBC board, after the introduction of the Worker Participation Programme.
She believed in fully participating in company life. As such, Riley also served as secretary for the JBC Sports Club and played on the company's netball team. She was invited by "the great Leonie Forbes of blessed memory" to audition for a part in the hugely popular radio drama, The Fortunes of Flora Lee, which ran for over three years and in which she played the part of 'Mavis'.
Valerie "Pat" Riley has been a pioneer in local media. Fittingly, her contribution to media is this year being recognised by the Press Association of Jamaica (PAJ), which is honouring her at the PAJ's annual Veterans' Luncheon on Wednesday, February 1.
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