Radio is so rad. You know that already. That’s why you landed here. No matter how long it took you, you’re doing something about it now. Congratulations! Even if it doesn’t mean quitting your job yet or giving every hour of your day to it, you’re taking a step. That’s how I felt when I first started making radio. What took me so long? I’d come to it from somewhere else, like most radio producers I know. I’d been working for a civil rights organization, helping to tell stories in one way or another — through legal cases, immigrant rights workshops, by just talking to people — but RADIO lingered on my brain. It had always been tapping me on the shoulder. I wanted to tell stories in sound, to capture that intimate magical power that is held in a person telling their own story.
It took me a while to make the leap, to believe that I could actually make radio — that I could learn it and go my own way with it — with all that sound I’d been collecting. And it was rough for a while. But from the view here, further down that road, I can tell you it was all worth it. With that in mind, here are a few tips that helped me get started. They might help you, too.
1. Get something that records AUDIO! (Or find a place where you can borrow some gear.) This can set you back a tiny bit, but I promise it’s worth it. I was pretty broke when I cobbled together my first set of gear (after borrowing someone else’s for a while) but it’s the most important thing to have when you start. With audio gear, you have the tools of the trade. You can record something you think is interesting, you can do some work for someone if they need it. You can play. You’re ready to go.
2. Record people (and things that make noise) that are interesting to YOU. You’re doing this because you love it, right? So, record things. Bring your gear everywhere you go. I remember once I was getting eyeglasses in a hole-in-the-wall optometrist shop and the owner was this hilarious Russian woman. We started talking about Russia. Talking and talking about home, about leaving it behind. So, she shut down the shop, made us some tea, and we sat there talking. I pulled out my gear and recorded our conversation. As for interviewing, there’s a lot to say about it. Have a plan. Be prepared to scrap it. Find a quiet place. Ask open-ended questions. If you feel sad, surprised, amazed – show it! But interviewing is a whole other list and there are many good guides out there. For starters, check out Jay Allison’s interviewing tips here.
3. Listen to a lot of radio. The more you listen, the more you know what people are making, what shows are interested in and what YOU like. Subscribe to all kinds of podcasts — ones you’ve heard of and ones you haven’t. Also, check out other kinds of storytelling — multimedia, narrative journalism, photojournalism, print. Know what’s out there.
4. Market yourself on the web! This part can be hard. It was hard for me. But the easy start is to get yourself online. Join PRX and post your work there. You can even use PRX as a kind of resume; there’s room for a bio, list of skills, etc. Other stations can buy your work from there, too, so your work can air right away. There’s not much money in it, but it’s a good place to start. Then you use this PRX page to send to potential employers or editors who want to hear your stuff. Next step? Share your work on Facebook or Twitter. Get people interested in what you’re making. Hell, get a website, too! This can be super cheap (or free) and easy. WordPress for example. Even Tumblr. Here’s mine.
5. Find the people who are doing things you think are cool and take them out for coffee (or whatever they drink!) Pick their brains. You never know when that person might think of you when something comes up and they need a producer. Also, you’ll learn things about radio, about how it’s made, and it will help you get better at making it.
6. Set time aside each week to look for stories. Look long and hard at bulletin boards, read the local paper, talk to people wherever you land. Set goals for yourself. Whatever is achievable so you feel like you’re moving forward.
7. Call up your old jobs. They need audio too! Before you came to radio, it’s likely you did other things. Those other things, other places, they probably need audio in one way or another. Your radio skills can be used for all sorts of things: audio tours, multimedia, PSA’s, etc. (Those of you finding radio in the early part of your working lives, think about the organizations you care about where you might have something to offer. And call them.)
8. Pitch well. Pitch often. Send your story ideas to people who can help you get them on the air! In short, I’ve found that most pitches should answer the following questions while still sticking to a paragraph or two. Short.
a. Who’s in the piece?
b. What are they/it up against?
c. What sounds will we hear?
d. Where does it take place?
e. Why now? Why do we care?
You can read more on pitching here and here and here. Also many shows have their own specifications about how they take pitches. Check out the show page or check out this useful page on the Association of Independents in Radio (AIR) website. AIR provides tons of resources like this for independent radio producers. In fact, in addition to PRX you should join AIR too.
9. Work at a station. Radio editor and producer Emily Botein advised me of this. She was right. This isn’t a requirement of course but it can help. I found that once I had experience working at a station, I was much more marketable to other editors and shows. Plus, I understood how the machine worked. After working at WNYC, more doors opened up for me. Plus, I learned that quick turnover news isn’t my thing and I wouldn’t have known that if I hadn’t given it a shot. (Small stations are great because you can usually get your hands in every pot.)
10. Last but not least: Talk about MONEY! Especially because it’s uncomfortable. Ask what rate a show offers for the story you’re producing for them. It’s true that in the beginning (or even sometimes later on in your radio life) you’ll do some work for free. Maybe because you really care about getting that particular story told. But know that you should get paid for your work. Think about what your rate should be. Ask around. What is an hour of your time worth? A minute of your piece worth? Know this and then know you might have to go lower and that one day you should go higher. You can find tips on negotiating here and you can find more tips here.
Now, go make radio!
Sarah P. Reynolds is a radio and multimedia producer. She produces and reports for NPR programs and several local public radio stations around the country. Her award winning investigative and reporting work covers subjects as diverse as the housing crisis, hate crimes and migrant workers, some of which has culminated in projects with national organizations working to change policy. Sarah also teaches radio production and has taught with Radio Rookies at WNYC and with several of the Transom Story Workshops as the Associate Instuctor. Find her here: sarahpreynolds.com or on Twitter at @sarahpreynolds