‘You’d be bonkers not to enter!’: Summaya Mughal on her SJA British Sports Journalism Awards win

Success in the Podcast category with BBC Radio Leicester’s ‘Brown Gal Can’t Swim’ was a significant career moment for Summaya Mughal; in our latest Q&A, the journalist and presenter talks about ‘being in it to win it’, conquering imposter syndrome, and the importance of representation…

By Jon Holmes

Summaya Mughal celebrates the success of ‘Brown Gal Can’t Swim’ in the SJA Awards Podcast category

“It’s the first time I’ve been here, I’m quite overwhelmed and I didn’t expect to win…”

Summaya Mughal’s reaction to her triumph at the SJA British Sports Journalism Awards last March was one of the highlights of the night.

The journalist and presenter shared a video on Instagram after the gala ceremony, capturing her excitement as Ebony Rainford-Brent declared BBC Radio Leicester’s ‘Brown Gal Can’t Swim‘ as the winner in the Podcast category.

In her acceptance speech, Mughal thanked her colleagues Ollie Peart and Ian Brown for their hard work on what was her debut podcast and urged any other nervous swimmers out there to find a local pool and “take the plunge”.

Now the 17 January entry deadline is looming for the next edition of the Journalism Awards – and Mughal wants her success story to inspire other hopefuls to go for it.

With a refresh of categories and the introduction of a new assisted-entry scheme for under-represented groups, there is even more incentive for writers, broadcasters and photographers working across sports media in Britain to be recognised by their industry peers.

“You have a great opportunity to showcase the work that you’ve done,” says Mughal in our latest SJA Q&A feature interview. She’s also a TV reporter and host, such as for Trent Rockets matches in The Hundred, and says having a mention of the SJA Awards on her CV has opened several doors for her in the last 12 months.

She also feels the new diversity scheme should make submitting an entry a no-brainer for many more people, adding: “It would be bonkers for you not to do it!”

We caught up with Summaya to learn more about the background to her place atop the podcast podium…

Hi Summaya, and congratulations again on your award win last time out! When and where did you first learn about the SJA British Sports Journalism Awards?

Thank you! It was actually through Alice Dearing, who was a guest on my radio show and later on ‘Brown Gal Can’t Swim’ itself. I’d noticed on social media in December 2022 that she had won in the Equality and Inclusion category at the SJA British Sports Awards.

At the time, I didn’t have a huge background in sports media. I asked some people about it and found out there was a Journalism Awards event as well.

A colleague of mine at BBC Radio Leicester referred to that as “the Golden Globes of sports media”. So I thought, OK, let’s put in for a Golden Globe! It felt ambitious, but I thought we should go for it.

I felt being recognised in any way by the SJA would be an incredible accolade not just for the podcast, but also for the wider impact of ‘Brown Gal Can’t Swim’.

Tell us more about the idea behind the podcast. When did you begin planning it?

The idea started to germinate before the pandemic and then when I interviewed Alice before the Tokyo Olympics, the momentum really grew.

I realised that here was an ambitious and inspirational young woman who was doing great things for the Black community in aquatics and I couldn’t see the same level of representation in the South Asian community.

When COVID happened, pools were closed and it wasn’t possible to learn to swim at that time. But I still believed in my heart that this was an important story that needed to be told and thankfully we managed to do it after the pandemic.

Summaya with Ollie Peart, Ian Brown and Ebony Rainford-Brent

What did you make of the entry process for the awards? I expect that after your colleague recommended entering, you went to look at the criteria…

At first, I felt entering would be something more for big broadcasters and publishers who have proper ‘sporty’ podcasts.

But I also thought, ‘Brown Gal Can’t Swim’ is sport – it’s grassroots sport. It’s maybe a little bit different, but at the same time, there should be a place for everyone.

It still felt like a big thing, to go for a Golden Globe. And part of me thought, ‘who am I to apply for something like that, especially given I’ve never applied for it before?’

But I wanted to try and by the time we’d decided to apply, I didn’t have long to get the entry in. We had to put around 25 minutes of audio together so I needed to come up with a strategy.

I took the approach that the judges knew nothing about me, and nothing about ‘Brown Gal Can’t Swim’. So it was all about believing in the story and weaving the best bits together.

The most difficult part is trying to choose what you want to put in. But it was pretty easy – and it paid off!

Those descriptions of the awards as being ‘the Golden Globes’ or ‘industry Oscars’… is that intimidating or encouraging?

I think it can be intimidating. I remember looking at previous award winners and people that had been nominated. I saw Gary Lineker had got bronze in the Presenter category the year before… if Gary is only getting bronze, this feels like quite a big deal!

But at the same time, it’s exciting. In sport, you aim to be at your absolute best and we love that ambition and degree of challenge. I was fairly relaxed about it.

And what happened next?

‘Brown Gal Can’t Swim’ got shortlisted in two categories – Podcast and Audio Documentary!

I was climbing in Spain when I found out and I almost had a heart attack. I was like, ‘what? This is crazy!’ I was so happy to be nominated alongside the other incredible broadcasters.

I know it can all feel daunting, but what I’d say to anyone thinking of applying is that you have nothing to lose. I’ve said this about other awards as well. It’s not just about winning, it’s the fact that you have an opportunity to showcase the work that you’ve done.

You may never meet the judges, you may never know who they are, but for other people within your industry sector to hear, read and watch the work that you’ve done… put an entry in just for that, because you never know where that might take you.

Down the years, representation has been an issue at the Awards. The SJA has again been making efforts to address that, with some fresh tweaks this year. What are your thoughts on that topic and how improvements can be made?

That feeling of ‘this isn’t a place for me’ – I know what that’s like.

Put sport to one side. I’ve sometimes had it as a broadcaster too. However, because of that, I also know how important it is to try and be as visible as possible and show what I have to offer.

It can be scary and you get that imposter syndrome. But if there aren’t people that you can see that are like you, you’re only going to feel that more. It will be like a vicious circle.

It’s great that the SJA is making changes that open up more pathways but a lot of work still needs to be done. You can have diversity schemes but if you don’t have people applying through them, you aren’t going to get that representation.

I think back to ‘Brown Gal Can’t Swim’ which I created in my hometown of Nottingham. I went to my local pool, to my old council estate, and spoke to my dad. He’s a doctor, a Muslim man, and he has a lot of influence within the community.

There was an increase in people learning to swim afterwards and I feel a contributing factor was the fact that my dad and I had done the work – speaking with individuals from the local mosque, tapping into the communities, and saying, ‘swimming might not be a sport that you feel is for you but here’s us – a Pakistani British Muslim woman who is in her 20s and a man who is 62, born in Pakistan – and we’re doing it.’

Whether it’s modesty, mixed changing rooms, your faith, body shame, feeling embarrassed – these are all reasons not to start swimming. But my dad and I were visible and outspoken about it, and I do feel it made a difference.

When low representation is a problem, your impact is going to be limited if you don’t have grassroots organisations, community clubs, etc, also implementing the change that you want to see, because that’s when it filters up.

Watch Summaya’s YouTube playlist to learn more about the story behind ‘Brown Gal Can’t Swim’

We know that cost can be a barrier too. Entry fees are already lower for SJA members, and for freelancers entering more than one category. Now we have the assisted-entry scheme as well for anyone from an under-represented group whose employer isn’t willing to underwrite their application. How much can this help?

That’s great because it can be a lot of money, especially now given the cost of living.

For a freelancer, it’s one thing applying but then if you are nominated, you naturally want to go and there are additional costs if you have to travel to London and stay overnight, for example.

I’ve entered awards where I’ve paid for it off my own back so I know that feeling, when you’re weighing up whether to enter and you don’t know if it’s ever going to make any difference in your career.

All of that thinking can definitely be a turn-off, so the scheme is a great idea.

One thing that came through from the research we did after the last Awards was that if your employer doesn’t suggest that you enter, you probably won’t do it yourself. Anecdotally, that seems to have discouraged many women from entering by themselves. What more can be done to combat that?

I’m sad to hear that’s been the case for other women, but I’m not surprised.

I’m fortunate in that BBC Radio Leicester believed in me and they believed in the work that I did. They’ve been really supportive.

But I think at the same time, if they didn’t think that I was good enough, I would still have taken the same attitude to enter and just go for it.

If someone doesn’t believe in you, you’ve got to try to push past that. And even if you don’t get shortlisted, it still means that people will have listened to your entry, or read your work – whatever it is. I’m speaking from experience.

I went for an ARIA (Audio and Radio Industry Award) for ‘Brown Gal Can’t Swim’ and it wasn’t nominated. I was a little surprised, not in an arrogant way, but I guess because I felt like I’d got an SJA Award with very little sport experience at the time, yet I’d been working in audio for over six years.

But since then, I’ve been told by more than one person that we only just missed out on the shortlist, and those people have become industry connections.

They thought the pod was brilliant. So you’re not losing anything by going for it at all, especially if you have something like the scheme. It would be bonkers for you not to do it!

The SJA British Sports Journalism Awards gala ceremony is the highlight of the industry calendar

As you’ve said, there’s a lot of kudos that comes just with being shortlisted – that can count for a lot. Was that your experience too?

I was certainly happy to be on the list and yes, it’s not just about winning. Obviously that’s great if you win, but you’re also contending with some of the best people within the industry.

If you talk to three new people as a result, that’s three people that you didn’t know before. So many people came up to me afterwards and yes, I know that I won, but I think regardless of that, just being in that room is super valuable.

The audio documentary category was before the best podcast category – and we didn’t win that. I thought, OK, we can just relax now, because it’ll probably be the same.

But then Ebony started doing a speech for the podcast winner and said, ‘it’s local radio at its finest’. And I knew that there were no other entries for local radio.

That’s the important thing to remember – it was a BBC local radio podcast and if we see what’s happening with BBC local radio nationwide, it’s not a space that has loads of resourcing. For ‘Brown Gal Can’t Swim’, it was me and my producer Ollie, who came in halfway through.

All of the other entries in my category were national and we were this tiny little podcast. I think me winning goes to show that can be good enough.

Don’t let anything put you off, whether it’s work that you did by yourself in your bedroom or whether it was with a national broadcaster.

How has having the award win on your CV helped your career?

It’s helped on so many levels. As an individual, my confidence before ‘Brown Gal Can’t Swim’ wasn’t very good – I was going through the motions a lot in terms of how I felt professionally. We’d just gone through the pandemic and I threw myself into work.

But seeing the reaction and the response to ‘Brown Gal Can’t Swim’, I feel like a completely different person. Just having someone say, ‘this is BBC local radio at its finest’ – the language that was used to describe the podcast and what it stood for, that was what was important for me.

I won an Asian Media Award a few weeks after the SJA Awards and I was nominated for an RTS Award for on-screen breakthrough too.

When I’m putting in applications, I mention the SJA Awards. I was asked to host at the Podcast Show 2023 and I think the win was a factor in that too.

Recently I went to Latvia to speak about ‘Brown Gal Can’t Swim’ at a learn-to-swim conference put on by European Aquatics (LEN) – it’s the UEFA of swimming. I was doing my speech, talking about the journey and as soon as I mentioned that it won the SJA, the audience went ‘wow!’

There have been lots of other opportunities too and I feel that the SJA Award has helped in terms of opening those doors because it’s a really respected accolade.

I’m very grateful and I hope the fact that I’ve won it shows that other people can do it, whatever your background or experience.

And if you’re still feeling doubtful, just send me a message on Instagram and I’ll give you a pep talk!

Our thanks to Summaya for the Q&A. To read more about the SJA British Sports Journalism Awards and how to enter one or more of the 30+ categories, click here.

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