Rob Rosenthal- Life After Salt
Here’s my favorite question to ask prospective radio students at Salt: “Do you have the fire in your belly?”
That is the most important question I ask. It’s more important than “What radio experience do you have?” or “Why radio?” because if you don’t have the fire in the belly for radio, then there’s a good chance you won’t make it. And, I don’t mean you won’t make it through Salt, rigorous as it is. I mean you may not make it in radio once you graduate Salt.
All the training and practice Salt provides helps prepare you for the “swim against the current” that awaits once you graduate and step out onto the sidewalk and into the radio maelstrom. But, it’s your fire that will sustain you.
Okay. Okay. I know. That’s really melodramatic. I tend that way. But it’s also true.
Basically, what happens at Salt is this: Students arrive at the school for writing, radio, or photography. The instructors say “Here’s a few things you need to know. Now go. Get out of here. Start working. Oh, and remember to come back for class on Friday.” In other words, the approach is experiential. We get our hands dirty with documentary.
Students hail from all over and arrive with a stunning array of life and educational experiences. In the radio track, they typically have little to no radio skills. Fifteen weeks later, they graduate as producers. Rough around the edges maybe, but producers nonetheless.
We cover nearly everything in class. Fieldwork. Recording. Interviewing. Writing. Voicing. Production. Ethics. We work collaboratively as a production team – everybody is a producer, everybody is an editor. The goal for each student is to produce two, broadcast-ready, six-minute documentary features and an audio slideshow for an end-of-the-semester gallery show open to the public. (You can listen to a lot of student work on the podcast I produce, Saltcast.)
We try our best to catapult people into radio. Of the one hundred and fifty or so Salt radio alums, I’d venture a solid guess that half to two thirds are working in radio or producing podcasts, audio tours, and audio slideshows.
With the help of Samantha Broun at Transom (a Salt radio grad, by the way), I selected seven grads to write about how they made it in radio – or didn’t. I hope their varied experiences will offer clues for your own success even if you’ve never gone to Salt.
Jamie York suffered through the very first semester in radio at Salt in 2000. I experimented on students enrolled in the writing track to find out if radio would work at Salt. Jamie not only lived to tell about the ordeal but he’s thrived in radio since graduating.
Amy O’Leary told me she was so afraid to interview people for a vox pop project at Salt, she cried in her car for half an hour before hitting the streets. Now, she’s a Deputy News Editor at the New York Times producing audio slideshows and multi-media.
Josh Gleason has more storytelling talent than you can shake a stick at. When he left Salt, he was a story-pitching machine. He was unstoppable. But, as Josh’s essay suggests, sometimes the road to success in radio is a bit too long. Eventually, your wallet may want to have a word with you.
There’s an old reporter adage that goes something like this “Where do you start reporting? Right where you are.” In Heather Radke’s case that adage could be amended to “Where do you start producing? Right where you are.” Heather writes about stoking her fire for radio by producing podcasts for non-radio outlets.
Grant Fuller’s first radio story was set in an ice-fishing shack on an obscure river in Maine. Little did he know he’d leave that shack behind, to travel, producing radio stories internationally so many times, he’s probably filled up a handful of passports.
I picked Zoe Chace for this feature for two reasons. First she made it safely across the moat – she’s working in the building at National Public Radio. Second, she’s managed to carve out her own beat at NPR rather than following the, pardon the pun, beaten path.
Lastly, it’s a good thing Bradley Campbell owns a station wagon. Anything smaller and he wouldn’t have had a place to sleep while he interned at WCAI on Cape Cod. After a stint of radio-induced homelessness, Bradley now works at WGBH in Boston. He says he’s traded his back seat for a foam pad on a floor in a room he rents. Talk about fire in the belly carrying you through the hard times!
While the trajectory of these Salt grads is varied — there’s no one-size-fits all answer to “So now what?” when you leave Salt — I think you’ll discover recurring themes of chance taking and stick-to-it-iveness in their essays. And though they don’t mention it explicitly, there’s a white-hot fire in their bellies as well. I hope they stoke yours.
About Rob Rosenthal
Rob Rosenthal launched the nationally-renowned radio program at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies and has taught there for over ten years. He teaches radio production at the University of Southern Maine and has taught audio production and storytelling at many workshops and conferences including Third Coast, Oral History Association of America, and the National Press Photographers Association.
Rob is also a freelance radio producer. He’s produced audio tours, documentaries, podcasts, public service announcements, and commercials. “Malaga Island: A Story Best Left Untold” is Rob’s latest documentary. It received a first place award from the Maine Association of Broadcasters. Rob also produces the Saltcast, a podcast about radio storytelling. And, he’s currently working with photographer Ed Kashi producing audio slideshows for the Open Society Institute.