An interview with Ian «McRobbo» Robertson, broadcast operations and venue manager for FIFA and UEFA (Australia).
— When and where were you born, who were your parents?
I was born in Glasgow in Scotland, in 1960. My parents were William and Margaret Robertson, and we were a working-class family — my father was a truck driver, and my mother was a cleaner.
— Do you have siblings?
I have a twin brother who is also an electronic engineer as well as two older brothers who live in London.
— What were you like in school? What subjects did you like?
Growing up in Glasgow, I don’t remember much from primary school. But secondary school was very rough. We thought all schools were this tough, so just got on with it. My favorite subjects were art and geography. I’m interested in art and graphic design, which has continued into my adult life. I was a pretty good student, and along with my twin brother, we did alright and survived.
— Did your older brothers help you with school?
No, the other two were older and more distant from us. They had left by the time we went to secondary school. So, it was just him and I. We ended up studying the same things, which led to us both having careers in electronics.
— When was your interest in technology born?
I was always one of those kids that was forever taking things apart and trying to rebuild them. Once, I blew up my mother’s small portable black and white TV during one of my investigative experiments. It was a while before I could afford to replace it. During my teenage years, we decided to move from Glasgow to the Scottish countryside. My twin brother and I had already left school, but we did not go to university.
— Did you do anything instead of university?
We attended what we call ‘technical college’ in Scotland for electronics diplomas in broadcast and television. Most engineers and technicians from my area studied at technical college — you end up with a certificate from the City and Guilds of London. Ours was for electronic television and broadcast engineering. It was funded by the government education system, so, thankfully, we did not pay for it. This was the start of being paid to mess with electronics, and I ended up working in the electronics manufacturing industry for the first part of my career.
— What was your first job?
My first job is quite interesting — I got an apprenticeship with a very famous company called Neve Electronics. In the 70s, it was one of the major manufacturers of audio consoles. I was employed as a technician testing the Neve consoles before they left the factory. I worked here for about five years while completing my technical college courses. This is where I got my backbone in electronics. It was a fantastic company to work for – it gave me my first opportunity to visit some of the top recording studios in London. It was at the forefront of audio console design long before SSL, Harrison, Sony, or Calrec were heard of.
— How long did you work there?
Until I was 21, so probably around five years. Then, I decided I needed an adventure, so I moved to Australia.
— Why did you choose Australia?
When I finished being a technician and got my certificate, I started reflecting on life in Scotland. Being young and adventurous, I wanted to take on the world. I had the choice of going to South Africa, America, England, or Australia. I had an uncle who lived in Australia, and as a young boy, I had learned all about it, so I decided to move there. I could not get any further away from Scotland if I tried! To add to the adventure, I got married just before migrating.
— Was your wife Australian?
No, she is Scottish. We were both 21 and got married on her birthday. Then, to the horror of our families, we emigrated to Australia later that year.
— What did she do at the time?
She was a receptionist at her family’s hotel where I worked part-time as a porter, so that is where we met.
— How did you build your new life?
Because I worked for Neve, the first thing I did was go to all the places in Sydney that had their consoles installed to try and get a job as a technician. I ended up getting a job with ABC Television, the government broadcaster. They invited me in for a job to look after their newly acquired NECAM suite with the first total recall moving fader system — an innovation in those days, and a chance for me to reunite with a console that had my signature all over it. I had compliance tested this exact desk in Scotland a few years earlier.
— What was your position at ABC Television?
I was an audio technician, so my video background was not as important in those days. I knew a lot about audio because of my work at Neve. Most technicians were obsessed with the video side, so the management loved having someone happily looking after all the audio maintenance.
— How did your career develop after this?
I did a few years at ABC TV and learned a lot — the facility was massive, so it introduced me to loads of new equipment I had never seen before. But audio was my passion, so I ended up at the radio facilities of the national broadcaster, maintaining the various on-air studios and equipment. This was a great experience and education for my future. I worked there for a few years until I eventually got a technician job at one of the major commercial television broadcasters, Channel 9.
— Did you start working for Channel 9 immediately after ABC?
No. First, I took a break and went for a 3-month tour around Australia with my wife. Like tourists, we went all the way up the coast of Australia to experience this amazing country. On return to Sydney, I started working at Channel 9. It was magic: a whole different way of looking at life compared to the government broadcaster. I worked with them as an audio technician, again looking after all manners of audio equipment and, of course, a few Neve consoles.
It was at this time that I started building OB vans for the Adelaide Grand Prix. I had the opportunity to work on three Grand Prix, which was fantastic. I found myself looking after the winner’s interview studios in the Pitts. As an avid Formula One fan, it was great to be in the same studio as my racing hero Ayrton Senna.
— Where did you go after this?
I am always on the lookout for the next big challenge. I couldn’t see any movement at Channel 9 after a few years. I heard my favorite FM radio station 2MMM was looking for a technician, so I applied and got the job. A few years in, the chief engineer decided to leave after the station was bought by another company. The management offered me the position if I added the required certificates to my resume. It was a no-brainer as there were only two of us running the station. So, at 27 years old, I became the chief engineer.
This brought a whole new electronics field to my resume. To this day, I think it’s black magic. In my time there, along with my colleague, we completely rebuilt the multitrack and on-air studios. It was an amazing radio station — always number one in the ratings and had all the stereotypical things one would expect: concerts, major stars, etc. One of the highlights of my time there was moving to London to engineer a live broadcast of the INXS concert from Wembley Arena.
— Where did you go after Triple M?
After eight years of working there, I decided I needed another change. I ended up working with an outside broadcast company called Global Television. I spent a few years there building OB Vans, TV studios and working in outside broadcasts.
— What happened next in your career?
Around the mid-’90s, I decided I wanted to move away from the engineering side and ended up working on a TV show called «Who Dares Wins». It was one of the first reality shows on tv, featuring members of the general public long before it became the norm. We would dare people to do crazy stunts, and my job as the producer was to devise and plan the ‘dares’ we would ask them to do. We traveled all over Australia to film. We had people do stunts like ride motorbikes through flames and bungee jump from hot air balloons. My first ‘dare’ to go to air was when a dental hygenist by day walked between two hot air balloons while 500 meters in the air. The highlight of my time on this show was convincing someone to ride a motorbike out the back of an airplane.
— Did you continue working in television after this?
After WDW ran its course, I ended up becoming the production manager on another reality TV show based on the life of a young cattle rancher who owned a million acres of land in the remote central part of outback Australia. He raised Brahma bulls, mostly to sell on the Japanese market. He lived an adventurous life and would take me in his little glass-fronted helicopter to chase wild kangaroos, brumbies, and camels from the air. Like all good things, it came to an end, but the production company was looking for a production manager to tour with the PGA Golf Tour of Australia for two years. This was a great experience — touring from one side of the country to the other whilst watching these professional golfers show their mastery. As a very amateur golfer, I also had the opportunity to play on the best courses in the land. Though, to this day, I am still useless at it.
Then came the next big thing: the Sydney Olympics.
— What did you do for the Sydney Olympics?
I was hired by the Organizing Committee to be in charge of planning, vision, and sound for all the venues. At that time, this was a relatively new concept dubbed as ‘Sports Presentation’ — what we take for granted now was completely new in those days. I was hired not for television but to utilize my technical background to do planning, installations, hire third-party AV companies to facilitate the setups, etc. Again, I was lucky enough to travel throughout Sydney and Australia to oversee these installations.
During the actual Games, I ended up being the Sports Presentation director for the football finals. That was the other side of my work at those Olympic Games and the reason I can relate so well to the guys doing the same job that I deal with at my present World Cup jobs.
— How many people were on your staff here?
There were about 50 people at various times, as the cities used had different technical requirements. The Sydney Olympics was hosting football in Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane. In Sydney, multi-sport venues were also widespread all over the city.
— What did you do after the Olympics?
When the Olympics were over, I got a job offer to go to South Africa and work for the cricket World Cup as a production manager touring with a crew between Zimbabwe and South Africa, covering the tournament for the host broadcaster. It was a great experience, even though there were lots of challenges. I came back to Australia in 2001 and took on the mantle of technical manager for the Goodwill Games organizing committee. These were a multisport event, sort of an American equivalent of the Commonwealth Games and a smaller version of the Olympic Games. I looked after the sound and vision installations for the many venues. I then took on a long-term job with a company called Great Big Events, whose claim to fame is introducing the ‘sports presentation’ concept to the world. I worked as a technical manager on the Rugby World Cup in Australia and the Commonwealth Games in Manchester.
— How did your career develop after this?
During the Sydney Olympics, I was approached about future employment working on the next FIFA World Cup with a company called HBS — Host Broadcast Services. HBS had secured a contract with FIFA to provide all broadcast services for the next six football World Cups. This eventually led to me getting my first BVM (broadcast venue manager) job in Korea at the 2002 World Cup.
— What exactly did you do at the World Cup?
At the time, I had no idea what a broadcast venue manager did. The job entailed managing all facets of the broadcasting facilities for the host broadcaster and the international broadcast partners and liaising with parties to ensure everyone was ready. I was based at two venues in South Korea located at either end of the country — one in Incheon and the other in Busan. For a few months, I would fly with my technical manager back and forth to look after the planning of the venues. This included ensuring the construction of various infrastructure, camera platforms, interview studios, presentation studios, etc.
— Did you have a role after the World Cup had begun?
During the actual tournament, I looked after the Incheon stadium and the day-to-day running of the broadcast. It was all very new, dealing with so many foreigners in a very different culture. This was the start of my very long career with HBS and FIFA. When I watched the previous world cup hosted in France, I was at a pub with my mates in Australia. Growing up as a football-mad boy in Glasgow, never in my wildest dreams did I think I would end up being the broadcast manager for so many World Cups! I still find it quite surreal.
— What came after the World Cup?
After this, I came back to Australia and did a few smaller local jobs. I worked on special projects as a technical manager in theatre productions. Then, I did my first job for UEFA at their European Football Championships in Portugal in 2004. I was once again a broadcast venue manager looking after the broadcast requirements, exactly like during the World Cup. This was a great experience and the beginning of a great relationship with UEFA which has continued to this day.
— Did you continue working as a broadcast venue manager?
The next few years repeated like the previous with BVM roles at the German World Cup based in Leipzig and traveling in and out of Australia to various parts of the world. It’s been great.
2005 and 2006 were an exhausting and crazy couple of years. Before the FIFA World Cup in 2006, I was involved in planning for the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne as a tech manager for Great Big Events. After this, I went straight to Germany for three months with HBS and then on to Doha. I spent three months as BVM on the Asian Games in Qatar, looking after a multisport venue in the desert. I had completely burnt myself out. I was exhausted. Although it’s fantastic fun, it is still a job with all the usual stresses — it is very tiring, you’re away from your family, you travel a lot, constantly in and out of airports… So, I gave up for four years and had my own private business.
— What did your business do?
I was laminating and selling posters and art pieces. This business took off and I found myself printing, laminating, and mounting posters in various galleries. This kept me extremely busy, but I couldn’t wait to get the call to come back for the 2010 World Cup. Eventually, it came, and I ended up going back to my favorite industry in South Africa based in Rustenburg. It was wonderful to be back.
— What did you do after the 2010 World Cup?
Since then, I haven’t stopped. I went to Kazakhstan and did the Asian Winter Games, which was fantastic. I had never experienced such cold temperatures — minus 20 degrees is like sticking your face in a freezer. I worked for UEFA again at the Euros based in Lviv, Ukraine. I then moved to Brazil, and lived in Rio for two years, to take up a senior BVM role for HBS. I was planning the broadcast infrastructure for the Confederation and World Cup tournaments, one of the highlights of my career. What a great job! I got to travel all over Brazil to the host cities. During the World Cup itself, I was the BVM in charge of the final, based in the world-famous Maracanã stadium. It was the largest outside broadcast I had worked on, with about 32 different broadcast trucks in the compound. It doesn’t get much better than that.
I then returned home to work as BVM on the Asian Cup final in Sydney, then back overseas to Singapore for the SEA Games. I then did another job with UEFA, working on the 2016 Euros in Lyon in France. It was fantastic to experience the lifestyles of these amazing cities.
— Did you work on the 2018 World Cup in Russia?
Yes, I lived in Moscow for a year and did the planning for the FIFA Confederation and World Cup. This was my first time in Russia — I was privileged to travel all over this great country, visiting various cities and stadiums. Eventually, I was the BVM at Sochi for the Confederation Cup and in Samara for the World Cup; two completely contrasting cities, but fantastic in their own ways.
— Was it difficult to work on these projects?
Fischt Stadium had previously hosted the Winter Olympics, so was relatively easy as most people had experienced a major tournament. Samara, on the other hand, was a very tough venue with a lot of challenges. It was still being built when I arrived and progress was very slow. The first match wasn’t too far away with a lot of construction and broadcast infrastructure still needing to be done. We needed to find a solution. To be diplomatic, we agreed to bring in the FIFA executive to lay down the law. It ended up being a perfect stadium, and the Russian World Cup is one of the best tournaments I’ve ever worked on.
— Have you continued working in this field since then up until now?
Yes, my next international job as planning BVM on a smaller scale was in Abu Dhabi where I did the Asian Cup finals touring around the UAE. Now, I’ve just returned from the Euros in St Petersburg. It was great to be back in Russia. Even with all the Covid restrictions, this has to be my favorite country to visit and I look forward to returning one day.
— How do you think remote production can help broadcasters?
Remote production is great, it has been a lifesaver with COVID restrictions and crews not being able to travel — it means fewer people are required. And, of course, companies like HBS and UEFA are very conscious to ensure they provide enough remotely accessible content for foreign broadcasters. Broadcasters are provided with so much material and information at the IBC, they don’t have to send massive amounts of staff to the venues. In most cases, they send a journalist and a couple of cameramen, and the rest of the production is done back at the home studios. This ultimately means lower costs, so a big win for the production budget. The quality is also so great that the viewer has no idea the show they are watching is being hosted remotely. In the World Cup and recently at the European Championships in St Petersburg, we used remote production a lot more. It is, of course, the way forward.
— What are the main achievements in your career?
I would say planning the sound and visuals for the Sydney Olympics because no one had ever done that before. For so many sports requiring individual tailoring, it was amazing to stand back and say, “we did that». Also, my time in Brazil and planning everything and then being the broadcast venue manager for the World Cup Final was great. Again, the small boy from Glasgow could never have wished it. I was also a bit nervous about going to Samara not knowing what it was going to be like. But by the end of it, it was an amazing experience. Working for FIFA and UEFA has always been great, which is probably why they keep flying me back from Australia — we have such a great relationship.
— Where did your nickname come from?
I have been known as McRobbo for most of my working life. It started way back at Channel 9 when I was doing the Adelaide Grand Prix. I built an OB truck, and funnily enough, the Australian guy who operated the desk in the truck was also named Ian Robertson. So, we were stuck together side by side for hours. Australians are well known for shortening names, and during production, our colleagues were constantly calling on the intercom asking for «Robbo». The wrong one would always answer, so, eventually, one of the guys got fed up and referred to me as ‘McRobbo, the Scottish one’, to differentiate us. Most people don’t even know my real name now.
When I was in South Africa for the World Cup as a BVM, I was friends with the accreditation manager and he let me have ‘McRobbo’ on my ID card. The ex-President of the USA Bill Clinton was at the stadium to watch the USA v Ghana and ESPN asked me to organize an interview with him through FIFA protocol. When I met him I was introduced as McRobbo, so later in the day, he called me that from across the room which I thought was very funny, so the nickname stuck.
— What is more interesting or difficult from a technical standpoint, the Olympic Games or the World Cup?
I would say the Olympic Games, as they are multi-sport and a huge specialist camera challenge. The World Cup is quite easy in my mind — 22 men run up and down a field. At last count, we had 44 cameras for coverage of one Euros match. Now, in the Olympics, you have sports like golf, surfing, and skateboarding. All of this makes it much harder. Even if you are not interested in these sports, it is fascinating to see how the technical teams and producers put everything together. The Olympics wins hands-down.
— What are your plans for the next five years?
I will continue what I am doing now — being hired by companies to help plan and manage their events. The next major event will hopefully be the women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. With the Covid lockdowns here in Australia, it is hard to plan anything outside the country, but a minor role in Qatar would be nice. I would also love to return to work for UEFA in St Petersburg. I am very much a fatalist, so we will see what happens next.
— What do you like to do outside of work?
My wife and I have some land, we live in the countryside and have a couple of horses to look after. Working in broadcast management, there are always people with you, non-stop for months. So when I come home, I like to relax and work on renovating our old house or go to the beach with my dog Matilda. My friends call me Shrek because I live in a swamp and never see anyone.
— Do you have children?
I have one son who Liam is 24 now. He lives in Brisbane, about 100 km away from us, and works in IT.