Floating on air
Monita Rajpal revels in her job of presenting the latest news to CNN’s global audience
Even after many years as a TV professional, CNN International anchor and correspondent Monita Rajpal still takes a deep breath before striding into the dazzle of the studio lights.
Once past that delectable frisson and on air, however, “I am in the moment and enjoy it for what it is,” she says.
As host of the daily live evening news programme CNN NewsCenter and the weekly flagship show Talk Asia, Rajpal is one of CNN’s most familiar faces in Asia. Based in Hong Kong, she says she thrives on deadlines, multitasking and dealing with the unexpected.
When in Hong Kong, a typical day for Rajpal starts with waking up at 7am to monitor the news and prepare for prospective coverage. Her mid-morning taxi later arrives to pick her up and take her to the CNN offices in Quarry Bay. After arriving, she is briefed by her producer and the news team, who in turn co-ordinate with their counterparts in Atlanta and London as to the scheduling of events.
“So much happens everywhere,” Rajpal says. “Something is always developing or breaking out, and we have to be on top of it. My challenge is to be well versed when I go before the cameras, but it’s a good challenge.”
Rajpal is quick to stress that her involvement in her shows goes beyond the presenter role. “I’m very involved in production,” she says. “I write the scripts and work with our writers and producers in Hong Kong and London to determine the treatment of the news.”
Chasing stories also regularly keeps her out in the field as she interviews people for Talk Asia wherever is most convenient for them. “I never know how long a trip will turn out to be,” she says. “It could be for a day or 48 hours. I was in and out of China a lot towards the end of last year.”
Born in Hong Kong, and growing up in Causeway Bay and Aberdeen, Rajpal immigrated to Toronto with her family at the age of 14. She majored in radio and television arts at Ryerson University in Toronto following advice from her high school guidance counsellor, who noted her writing and speaking skills.
Joining Toronto’s popular Citytv television station, her first job was not before the cameras, but behind the counter as a receptionist. “But it was an important role,” she says. “I enjoyed it because I got to know everybody. Since I was nice to everyone, the TV crew allowed me to go with them after my shift and see how they put things together.”
Eventually, Rajpal’s intense interest in the production process landed her the position of assistant to the news director. Later she became a general assignment reporter and then anchor for a prime-time news show on CablePulse 24, the station’s round-the-clock news channel.
Looking back on her debut newscast, Rajpal remembers that she stumbled slightly – she knew family and friends had tuned in – but it lasted only a split second before she resumed the pace. “As an anchor and correspondent, you take great care in your presentation, but what separates you from the rest is how you recover and move on,” she says.
After joining CNN International at its Atlanta headquarters in 2011, Rajpal found herself on a much steeper learning curve. “You had to sink or swim,” she says. Her first anchor job for the network was a breaking news segment on a bombing in Tel Aviv in Israel. “I suddenly felt the magnitude of working for CNN,” she says. The experience also reinforced the value that background research plays in conducting interviews and providing perspective for the audience.
Rajpal manages to stay calm and collected before millions of viewers, despite a producer peppering her with updates, the clock ticking away broadcast minutes and global scrutiny. She does this “by being herself” and prioritising tasks, which she has to perform without skipping a beat.
Some stories, however, have proven so absorbing and adrenalin-raising that Rajpal was loathe to leave the on-air action – even if it entailed several hours of continuous broadcasting. These included the 2004 tsunami in Phuket and the 2005 London Tube bombing. “I didn’t want to step off the set,” she says.
But as much as Rajpal knows that she leads an extraordinary, high-profile life, she takes pains to balance it with keeping close to her large family in Toronto, who she speaks to on the phone regularly and visits twice a year. She also makes sure to regularly catch up with friends over brunch or a movie, and goes to Pilates classes or swimming when time allows. At home, her love for cooking has now led to a tentative foray into baking.
“It’s all very normal,” she says. “A different world helps you tune off from the pressures you’re always exposed to. Then you become a better professional and a better person, and much more of an asset.”
RAJPAL’S BROADCASTING NETWORK
Having interviewed such people as Russia’s ex-president Mikhail Gorbachev, musician Bob Geldof and tennis star Roger Federer, Monita Rajpal explains that success in the industry is just as much about the work you do as the people you work with.
Different voices “All the interviews I have done for CNN have brought something different. They have all been unique and interesting in their own way. I can’t single anyone out.”
Winning workmates “[I’m grateful for] CNN colleagues Christiane Amanpour, Max Foster, Zain Verjee and Charles Hodson for being the most generous people and always so open to suggestions. It’s a thrill to work with them.”
A matter of mentoring “Stephen Hurlburt, the controversial news director of Citytv in Toronto, took a chance on me and appreciated my willingness to learn and perfect my craft. Even if he had a station to run, he took the time to explain to me how to put a story together.”