So You Want To Do A Series?
For 13 years I lived in Asia and South America, filing news reports, features and commentaries for NPR, Marketplace and other outlets. By the time I headed home to the US in 2001, I knew that the one-and-done model was not for me. I’d never been much interested in news, and I was moving to a place (Ithaca, NY) with no typhoons, volcanoes, hostage-taking guerrillas or election-stealing dictators. What I really wanted to do was sink my teeth into a single topic for a while, the way I might if I were writing a book.
I had my subject all picked out: the impact of global change on local culture. Around the world, landscapes were being transformed, languages were disappearing, entire systems of knowledge were being lost. At the same time, imported ideas and modern technologies were creating opportunities that were unimaginable before.
It was complicated and dramatic and important. And I actually knew something about it! Wouldn’t it be great to travel the world and report on the ways in which different societies were adapting or failing to adapt? Wouldn’t it be great to put it all together into one big… thing?
That was when I learned the sexy public radio term “limited duration series.”
A limited duration series is a group of features linked by format or subject matter that is broadcast on an established show or shows. (That’s to distinguish it from a program, a special, a series of specials, a series of modules, an ongoing series or a beat, all of which are excellent and manifesto-worthy things to do.) Sometimes a series airs with little fanfare and retires quietly to the program’s archives. Often, though, it spawns its own little media universe. (See “Keep it simple(-ish)” below.) Shows produce limited duration series in-house all the time: NPR’s Fifty Great Voices, Marketplace’s Built on Belief, The World’s How Wars End. But the format is perfectly suited to independent producers.
Or so I’d been told. But where to begin? Luckily, a colleague introduced me to Sandy Tolan, a terrific producer who co-founded Homelands Productions, an independent journalism collective that had already created several series for public radio. I showed him a sort of proto-proposal and played him a not-so-great story I did from the Peruvian Amazon for NPR. He and partners Cecilia Vaisman and Alan Weisman agreed to take me under their wings.
They helped me put together a budget, write grants, woo partners and generally act like I knew what I was doing. I got a support letter from NPR, had a bizarrely encouraging meeting with (now-departed) Jeff Ramirez at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), and got tons of great advice from independent radio people I barely knew (thanks Bari! thanks Sue! thanks Dan! thanks Amy! thanks Jay!). Before I could say “bio-cultural diversity,” I was executive producer of Worlds of Difference.
Between 2002 and 2005 we produced 40 features from 27 countries, along with six hour-long specials and a 65-page website, and won a couple of national awards. (We also provided paying work for about 20 fellow indies, probably our greatest achievement.) As that project wound down, we began to lay the groundwork for WORKING, a series of portraits of workers in the global economy, which would air as a special monthly feature on Marketplace. By the time we finished, in 2009, we had produced 29 profiles from 25 countries and won some more awards.
Conceiving and giving birth to a series can be more fulfilling than siring a string of unrelated stories. It can also be more remunerative (typically series are funded by grants, from which you pay yourself for your work as wizard and mastermind). But it’s not for the faint of heart or the spreadsheet-averse. You may think of yourself as a journalist or an artist, but as an executive producer you’re basically running an organization.
What follows is a very rough sketch of what’s involved, masquerading as a series of tips.
Have a burning question (or two or three)
I tend to think in topics: the Individual and Society, Rootedness vs. Connectedness, the Meaning of Life. But it’s more rewarding for you and your audience if you put a few questions in your satchel and set off in search of some answers. For Worlds of Difference, the questions were, “Are traditional societies doomed? If not, what are the best survival strategies? And why does it matter to the rest of us?” Pretty flabby, and often ignored as we did our reporting, but the questions gave us a general sense of direction. I can’t speak for our audience, but by the time it was over, I had actually learned something. (I started out thinking that change was bad. I ended up thinking that change was the key to survival, as long as it’s not imposed by somebody else. That’s a pretty serious turnaround!)
Recruit your dream team
Sadly, a good idea rarely sells itself. Funders (and broadcasters) want to know who you are and why they should invest in you. The path at this stage is strewn with chickens and eggs. How can you prove that you can do the job until they’ve given you a chance to do it? If you’re green, bring on some old pros. If you’re an old pro, pay it forward and bring on some newbies. You’re not looking for an all-star team; you’re trying to build an effective working unit. Find people who have different skills than you have. Find people whose work you admire. Find people you like (and who like you). Avoid people who take two weeks to answer an email begging them to work with you.
Find the perfect outlet
It’s hard to get a project funded if you don’t have a distributor more or less lined up. This could be a radio show, a podcast, an online publication or even an institutional website. But don’t just jump into bed with the first show that agrees to write you a “letter of interest.” Make sure the match is right for you. Do they reach the audience you want to reach? Are they the sorts of people you want to work with? Try to meet them face-to-face. Walk through the editorial process with them. Because it’s their show, you’ll have to make some compromises (yup, they want your pieces to be shorter), but you want to feel confident that your stuff won’t get mangled. (When we started on the WORKING project, it took a while for Marketplace to appreciate our earnest documentarian aesthetic, and for us to appreciate the needs of a daily half-hour show that prides itself on its cheekiness. We met somewhere near the middle and pretty much waltzed the rest of the way home.)
Negotiate hard (then roll over)
Once the courting phase is over, you’ll want to make your relationship official. This protects both you and your new partner, and it’s worth spending a little time getting it right. Most shows have a boilerplate freelance contract; let a lawyer see it and make sure it applies to your situation. If it doesn’t (and often it won’t, especially if your project is at all complicated), ask for changes. In general, you want the show’s rights to your work to be as non-exclusive as possible (that is, you want the ability to resell and repurpose your stuff as quickly and freely as you can). You also want to make sure that the expectations are clear on both sides. How much lead time do they need on each story? Will they need photos? A reporter’s notebook? If so, how much will they pay? The financial side can be maddening. You basically have no power. The show is the only thing that stands between you and your audience. You really don’t want to lose that just because you insisted on an additional $200 per piece. You’ve got to raise a boatload of money anyway. What’s another few hundred bucks? (Fume, fume.)
Refine your rhetoric
Call me old-fashioned, but I’m attracted to projects that are easy for audiences, funders, collaborators and elderly parents to understand. Try to come up with a simple phrase that describes what you want to do. Worlds of Difference was “stories of people facing critical decisions about who they are and who they want to be.” (I wish I had that one back!) WORKING was “portraits of workers in the global economy.” A great side-benefit to having a little catchphrase is that it gives you some leverage later on, as your project naturally strains at its leash. (While WORKING was in production, I would go through all my outgoing emails and replace the word “story” with the word “profile.” Not that I have anything against stories — au contraire! — but it was my little way of reminding my colleagues and myself that these were portraits of human beings, not features about issues.)
Keep it simple(-ish)
So you’re going to produce some radio stories. While you’re at it, why not create a website, logo, theme music, photo galleries, audio slideshows, reporter’s notebooks, bonus audio, timeline, quiz, interactive map, app, long-form documentary, podcast, blog, Facebook page, Flickr account, educational materials, CDs, magazine articles, book, posters, traveling exhibition, fashion accessories and refrigerator magnets? The digital universe is like a giant playground, full of temptations. But doing anything well requires time and attention. It’s easy to say, “We’ll combine the audio and photos into multimedia features and distribute them to major media outlets.” It’s quite a bit harder to actually do it. Try new stuff, absolutely. Just make sure the “add-ons” advance your mission. And don’t wear yourself out on something that a handful of people might see, especially if it means letting more important things slide. For WORKING, I spent tons of time with a programmer and web designer on a cool interactive tool called the “Worker Browser.” But I’m shy online and never really promoted it. So it just kinda sat there. (If you want to take it over, let me know!)
Make strategic alliances (or don’t)
If you’re doing a series about water scarcity, how about teaming up with National Geographic and the International Association of Hydrological Sciences? If you’re doing a series about nuclear proliferation, how about teaming up with FRONTLINE, The Washington Post and the Council on Foreign Relations? If you’re doing a series about the social history of your neighborhood, how about teaming up with the local community college and public access TV station? Sometimes partnerships (with media organizations, professional organizations, cultural organizations, universities, think tanks or civic institutions) can seem irresistible. You get access to expertise, new platforms, new audiences and maybe even new sources of money; they get access to your fabulous reporting and media savvy. It’s a win-win! Just remember that every organization has its own priorities, its own timelines, its own financial needs and its own internal politics. If you’re going to hook up (and far be it for me to discourage you), arrange things so the relationship can fail without bringing the whole project down with it.
Write the damn budget
Sample Budget: Click on the image above to see the various line items in a Sample Budget
I hate this part. But writing a budget is the best way to get to know your project. How many stories will you produce? Where will you travel? How will you get there? Will you need fixers? Interpreters? Photographers? (Remember that they all need to eat.) How about rental cars? Visas? A lawyer to review your contracts? An engineer to mix your pieces? A bookkeeper to track your spending? A graphic artist to design your logo? A musician to compose your theme? A marketer to sell your special? A programmer to create your app? How about a domain name for your website? A hosting service for your podcast? How many months will you need for planning? How many months for finishing up? Will you make CDs? (If so, you’ll need to pay for copying, design, printing, cases, envelopes and postage.) You may want to go to a conference or two (remember both travel and registration), and enter your work in awards competitions (applications cost money, and you’ll have to cover your travel expenses if you win.) Donors are often reluctant to pay for things that aren’t specifically related to the project (e.g., equipment or day-to-day operating costs), but you can often justify a new gizmo or piece of software that you absolutely need in order to get the job done. Talk to people who’ve run similar projects to make sure you’re not forgetting anything big. And don’t forget to include a line for yourself as executive producer! Once you’ve got your line items, ask around (or search online) for the going rates. Round up to be safe (just remember this ain’t Hollywood).
(A word about rates. What seems appropriate to the paymasters at NPR or your local radio station looks laughably low to a foundation program officer, and rightly so. It’s impossible to say how much you should get for running a project or producing a piece. I suggest you multiply a reasonable day rate by a reasonable estimate of how many days you will need to do the work. A radical idea, I realize.)
There’s no set format for series budgets, although more bureaucratic funders will make you use their forms. I’d recommend that you create a super-detailed budget for yourself and a somewhat simpler one for donors. (The more detailed the budget that accompanies your proposals, the less flexibility you have in moving money around later.) Not to get too nerdy, but embed your calculations in your spreadsheet (“=5*150+150”) rather than simply entering the totals, and create a separate column for notes (“five syncs @ $150 + $150 total mileage”). You don’t have to show these to anyone, but they’ll help you’ll remember how you got your numbers, and if you have to change something (add a story, subtract a story), you won’t have to do the math from scratch. Your budget will never be accurate, and it will change as the project (inevitably) changes, but it’s the closest thing you have to a blueprint. The earlier you draw it up, the better.
Raise a boatload of money
I can’t say I love this part either. But unless your series involves sitting at your window recording your musings about the weather, acquisition fees from radio shows won’t come close to paying the bills. CPB used to fund independent projects but rarely does now. Big foundations can be like fortresses (if you ever get an email from Ford, frame it). Agencies like NEH, NEA and NSF are great if you don’t mind writing 150-page proposals and assembling squadrons of scholars. Search the web for similar projects and see who funded them. The Foundation Center is a great resource; it’s worth buying a monthly subscription to their online directory. Few places fund radio for the sake of funding radio, but thousands fund projects in their areas of interest. (Important caveat: don’t let your funding sources subvert your reporting or undermine your credibility.) Exploit your connections, if you have any. In the end, though, it’s a crapshoot. If only for that reason, try to look professional. I’ve received a couple of grants because program officers were in a rush to unload money. I doubt they lingered over my sparkling prose, but I bet they were impressed with my font choice and layout.
Have superhuman patience
I don’t want to sound too sorry for myself, or surrender my cloak of invincibility, but I sometimes think my main task as executive producer is to wait for people to answer my emails. It’s especially frustrating toward the beginning of a project. The steps described above take time, much of it pretty dead. Months (dare I say years?) can pass between your bright idea and the airing of your first story. Keep pitching pieces, learning yoga, and working on your novel. Take a trip. Get dental surgery. Once you do get rolling, start planning the next project before the first one is over. For you, this series may be the most important thing in the world. For the rest of the world…not so much.
Mind the matrix
For much of the last decade, I’ve carried an invisible multidimensional grid in my head. Night after night, I’ve lain in bed reviewing a floating, shapeshifting Project Checklist. Too many men! Too many sad stories! Too many stories from Peru! Such is the internal life of the executive producer. As Prime Mover and Mother Hen, you’re thinking about tension and balance; you’re thinking about posterity; you’re thinking about The Integrity of the Project. You want the whole to be greater than the sum of its parts. And this is all crucial. But don’t forget that your audience experiences the parts one at a time. Make each one beautiful.
Talk to your peeps
One of the joys of working on a complex project is that you get to team up with other people. It’s a huge treat for those of us who normally work alone. There’s no better feeling than hearing an inspired idea issuing from lips other than your own, or beholding an object of beauty that came into being behind your back. But collaboration can be tricky, especially when the project is your personal obsession. Week after week, you’re asking people to help realize your vision. You can understand why they might lose interest or focus. The challenge is even bigger if everyone’s spread out. You can’t send a memo every time something pops into your head. But you can’t assume that just because you’ve thought it, everyone else is right there with you. Hold regular meetings (phone is fine), whether you think you need to or not. Report on everything. Listen to what everyone has to say. But dig in your heels when you have to. (Once, during an edit, I threatened to pull my story if a certain line — the heart of the piece! — was cut out. It was the first time I’d ever done anything like that, and for two days I was so scared I wanted to puke. My editor finally relented. I’m glad I was stubborn. So is she.)
Deliver the goods
By the time you’ve identified your questions, recruited your team, found your outlets, written your budget and raised your money, you’ve made a lot of promises. Now you have to come through. Meet your deadlines, stay under budget, proofread your copy, say please and thank you, do quality work. (But you knew that!)
A Limited Duration What?
A limited duration series generally airs on an existing show (or shows); it tackles a well-defined issue (or set of issues); it starts and it ends. It’s different than an independently produced program (Hearing Voices, The Moth Radio Hour, Peace Talks Radio, Humankind), a special or series of specials (Crossing East, Against the Odds), a module (Pulse of the Planet, Dueling Docs) or a beat (climate change, theater). It is ever-so-slightly different than an ongoing series, such as This I Believe or StoryCorps, which could theoretically go on forever.
Homelands Productions has produced several limited duration series in addition to the two discussed in this manifesto: Vanishing Homelands, World Views, Searching for Solutions and Border Stories. Some fine examples by other independent producers are Five Farms by Wesley Horner Productions and the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University; New York Worksby Radio Diaries; Musicians in their Own Words by David Schulman; Hidden World of Girls by the Kitchen Sisters; and Heartland Chronicles by Long Haul Productions. It’s worth noting that most of these projects produced long-form specials as well. It’s a natural combination, and worthy of its own manifesto.
About Jon Miller
Jon Miller is executive director of Homelands Productions, a nonprofit journalism cooperative specializing in radio features and documentaries. He is currently organizing a radio and multimedia project about hunger around the world from his attic office in Ithaca, New York.