I would bet money you have never heard my voice. I am not an editor, nor do I produce enthralling non-narrated pieces. Nope. You can count my radio stories on one hand (with all five fingers, thank you). I live out here in the Void – the awkward space between “learning how to make radio” and “getting paid to make radio.” I am happy to be here, but frankly it’s getting old.
Between these two corners of Radioland, staying devoted to the radio lifestyle is a chore. I am on my second unpaid internship, which takes me out of state for half the week. My part-time job does not cover my expenses. When the internships are done, I will probably work odd jobs while occasionally freelancing a story. According to my radio superiors, this could go on for a year or two before I get a real job. This is not my tale of woe, but a recognition that many of you are struggling with the same issues (as others have before). We burn with story ideas, we are inspired by our radio heroes, we hope to reel in a younger, more diverse audience – but until we get a job, we don’t have the credentials to do squat.
There are paradoxes to starting in radio. How do you make radio when: (a) you have skills, but others have more; (b) you do not have the money to buy gear; (c) you do not even have the time to pitch stories. How can we be ambitious while setting reasonable goals?
Truly, I am not the person to answer these questions. (Recall – five stories produced.) But hopefully this will provide a forum for rookies and veterans to proffer suggestions. Below is a highlight reel of what is working for me, along with some mysteries I cannot unravel. Please share your ideas, too.
Don’t be too competitive. A little counterintuitive, but I have had more success by helping my peers than stepping on them. Swallow the ego, pass job posts to people you know are qualified, play nice with the other interns. Public radio is a small world. If you act like a jerk in Massachusetts, someone in Utah will find out.
Secret radio. If you want to make good radio – but have few paid opportunities to do it – teach yourself to be a clear, engaging communicator. There are opportunities to do this all day. Really listen to boring talkers. Draw stories out of strangers. Tune into speech patterns. Notice your “likes” and “ums.” Stop yourself when you are garrulous. (And avoid using words like “garrulous” – words not everyone will understand – in conversation.) When you stumble over words, take a radio pause, then speak slowly and deliberately. Act like the world is full of invisible microphones.
Non-radio radio. I am working on podcast and “radio” pitches for non-profits, my undergraduate school and newspaper websites. Go local, local, local. The world needs more good audio, but the burden is yours to prove its worth. (Also give credit where it is due: This idea belongs to Rob Rosenthal, my former teacher at Salt and Transom’s new radio instructor.)
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Go for print. I live in Portland, Maine where paid radio gigs are rare. However, the Portland area has plenty of daily, weekly and monthly newspapers, plus some magazines. While nailing down a radio job, pitch stories to local print publications. They are way more accessible than All Things Considered. Print offers pitching and storytelling experience, and any radio editor or producer will appreciate that on your resume. Plus there might be other local resources at your disposal: live storytelling, writing groups, audio soirees. Look into it.
Networking. This may sound simplistic, but it is true: People in public radio are usually friendly and approachable. So I approach everyone. Mostly I glean wisdom during pleasant conversations with smart people. But if they inquire about my work, I offer to send them a story. Then I send them the best thing I have. Most likely this will not lead to a job, but that is one more person who knows I can make radio.
Listen. This is not quite the same as networking to me. Radio requires religious devotion to the belief that all people have a story to tell. Sewn into this belief is that all stories have a lesson to teach. So learn lessons in unexpected places. Take advice from everyone (sound technicians, print reporters, your mom); when you meet someone you do not like, listen harder. Much of this business is dumb luck, so put yourself out there enough to intercept it.
And here are a few things I cannot seem to get a handle on….
Staying organized. Ideas, pitches, incomplete stories, three versions of the same completed piece, docs, docxs, pdfs, jpegs and a billion little audio files with the same name! I struggle to keep it all tidy.
Facebook, Twitter, and other things that terrify me. Am I the only red-blooded American that hates social media? In college it seemed like advertising for insecure people, but now I am insecure because I do not have a Facebook page. I know social media is vital to reporters, but it still looks like more work. If anyone does this without tweeting and friending, I would love to hear your story. If you have a social media success story, convert me!
Freelancing. Until I sell my first radio piece for more than $3.50 (Thanks, PRX!), freelancing for a living will loom impossibly before me. The jump to freelancing works after years of success, yet the rookie has no option but to try. Pitches need to be just about perfect, so this is a high-stakes game.
Buying gear. At some point I will bite this bullet, but gear remains the ultimate paradox. I love radio, I want to make radio – but this career path, which requires a year or two of monastic dedication, also comes with a hefty price tag.
Radio can be a lonely endeavor, so how about a little solidarity? Post some ideas below on how to flounder through the Void with grace. In the meantime, I will share the one thing I truly know from experience: Fill a box with noise, art, time and empathy, then shake it until your arms hurt – when you open it, you’ll have radio.
UPDATE 1/19/2012: Jack Rodolico must have done something right. He’s now an audio producer for Latitude News where he curates the world’s best radio and helps produce original content for multimedia stories.