In Defense of Grunt Work

Intro from Jay Allison: "Do you wanna be a STAR, Honey? Well, you're gonna have to WORK to be a star." I once recorded a prima ballerina-turned-teacher saying that. People do want to be stars, even in radio and podcasting, and they want to be stars FAST. Lauren Ober reminds us that we may have to work.

Lauren came to the Transom Story Workshop back in 2012, a print journalist determined to learn how to make radio. Five years of grunt work later, she now hosts her own podcast/radio show ("The Big Listen" from WAMU and NPR). In her Transom feature, Lauren shares a bit of her own story along with those of other successful radio producers (Kristen Meinzer, Arwen Nicks, Martina Castro, Lulu Miller) who all say grunt work is where they learned some of their most important skills.

Tape Sync Queen

My very first tape sync nearly killed me. It was 2013 and I’d been hired by 99% Invisible to record a woman for a story on bubble houses. I got there 15 minutes before the scheduled call so I could set up. I took the liberty of reorganizing her living room furniture and made sure her wall clock was turned off, lest any ticking make it onto the tape.

About 20 minutes in, my forearm started to get stiff. But I worried if I switched hands, the shuffling could be heard on the tape. I didn’t want to screw up a recording for a pre-eminent show like 99% Invisible. Thirty minutes after that, my back started to burn. If this is what radio-making is, I thought, then maybe I’m not physically cut out for it.

Two hours later, the epic tape sync ended. My upper body was a twisted wreck. No one warned me tape syncs were so hard! But I got the recording. It sounded professional. And some of it even made it into the story.

In the years that followed, I recorded hundreds of tape syncs in the Washington, D.C. metro area. I visited with a man trying to build his own spaceship, tried to calm a very nervous and very sweaty economist and sat across from Cabinet secretaries in their vast offices overlooking the National Mall. If I could bestow upon myself the honor of “Tape Sync Queen of D.C.” I would.

Recording interviews for other people wasn’t why I got into radio. But tape syncs helped reinforce the importance of doing a job with precision and care, especially when it’s for someone else. They also helped train my ears to the infinite variety of speech patterns and ambient sound. And when I finally got to do my own reporting and producing, if nothing else my guests sounded good.

Not everyone is into unsexy work. Over the years, I’ve noticed that a lot of newbies want stories and bylines and their names in the credits, but they don’t know how to properly hold a microphone or log tape. Some folks don’t want to do the humdrum tasks that are critical to building work muscles.
But I will forever evangelize the value of tedious, banal work. And to help spread the gospel, I’ve enlisted some talented women who as young sprouts cut the tape, made the coffee, worked the phones and over time landed some super sexy jobs.

The Pestering Pre-Interviewer

Arwen Nicks — Senior producer, On Demand at KPCC

photo of Arwen Nicks
Arwen Nicks

When Arwen Nicks sought out an internship at KPCC in 2008, the hiring manager asked if she knew HTML.

“I thought HTML was Hotmail. Like I thought she wanted me to email people,” Nicks, 34, said. “And so, I was like, I got this. Sure, I can send your Hotmail emails.”

Instead of giving her a Hotmail login, the hiring manager gave Nicks a binder full of code. Later, she graduated to pre-interviewing guests for a local midday talk show. That, Nicks said, was one of the more formative experiences of her radio career. And she applied her own special flare to the task.

“I made it my personal mission to aggravate economists and other academics and intellectuals that I had to book until they were so frustrated they had to explain the information to me plainly,” she said. “I would use terrible analogies until they gave me one back that worked.”

But beyond annoying smart people, pre-interviewing was an exercise in ego management.

“Getting over the ego of wanting guests to think I was smart or wanting to impress people with my knowledge of a topic, helped me better serve the audience,” Nicks said.

That experience of picking up the telephone and calling potential guests could at times be excruciating for Nicks. But it forced her to get over her phone shyness.

“The instinct of just reaching out and cold calling and leaving a message and connecting with a human voice considering we’re in the medium of audio, I think that can be really powerful.”

The Super-Fast Script Runner

Martina Castro — Founder & CEO of Adonde Media

photo of Martina Castro
Martina Castro

Martina Castro had exactly two responsibilities when she interned for NPR’s now-defunct live show, Talk of the Nation, in 2004 — print the show script in triplicate and deliver the copies to the host, the director and the line producer. Glamorous it was not.

“I would just run scripts the whole time,” Castro, 35, said. “I would make sure they all came out in order and if there were any changes in the middle, I would print out new scripts and be sure to take out the old script and give [the host] the news scripts. That was really important.”

Papercuts notwithstanding, Castro loved the grunt work. It made her feel like an important part of the machinery that is a live daily talk show.

But beyond that, Castro learned the value of a well-written and thorough script. The host she worked for, Neal Conan, required a script for every segment — not because he wasn’t conversant on the respective topics. He was. But a script provided critical framework for the show.

“I do strongly believe in the strength of scripts. It’s interesting now how many people I come across who do not use scripts or who prefer to be off the cuff,” Castro said. “My host was reading live and still had a script. And he was one of the most knowledgeable people I’ve ever met. But he needed a script.”

And it was Castro’s job to deliver it.

The EQ Eviscerator

Lulu Miller — Co-founder of Invisibilia

photo of Lulu Miller

Lulu Miller was a brand new college graduate when she took an internship with Radiolab in 2005. Her job was pretty standard intern fare: answering listener emails, burning CDs of the show (what’s a CD?!) and uploading audio to a satellite feed.

“I was deeply underqualified and entirely over the moon for them,” Miller, 34, said. “But I didn’t get to touch tape for a year.”

When she was finally allowed to try her hand at cutting tape, it wasn’t even on a Radiolab project. Back in the days before the TED Radio Hour, TED had hired Radiolab to clean up the audio of their talks, add some bumper music and send it back to them. And that became Miller’s job.

The lack of editorial responsibility for the tape meant that Miller could focus on the skill she most desperately needed to learn — working with ProTools. In a way, it was like mastering a new language or building up a muscle.

“To be a radio reporter, you have to know how to fly a jetpack. There were all these mysterious nobs and buttons, and a fluidity and confidence with gear, which I did not possess. And there were cords and a lot of jargon. . .” Miller said.

Miller’s assignment certainly wasn’t prestige work. It wasn’t even making stuff for Radiolab. But it demystified part of the radio-making process for her. Miller eventually became a full-time producer on the show, winning a Peabody Award for her work there in 2010.

“There was a really concrete simple goal that I had to do over and over and over again,” she said. “And something like removing a hiss was super empowering. I was like, I know how to remove a hiss!”

The Bad-Ass Booker

Kristen Meinzer — Co-host of By The Book and When Meghan Met Harry; Director, Nonfiction Programming at Panoply Media

photo of Kristen Meinzer
Kristen Meinzer

Kristen Meinzer’s first job in New York City was at a media nonprofit that taught film and television classes over the phone to disabled and elderly homebound people and Holocaust survivors.

It certainly wasn’t the hot media job she expected to get after college. But it turned out to be more formative than she could have anticipated.

Years after that first New York City gig, Meinzer landed a job at WNYC working on the daily talk show, The Takeaway. She had no radio experience, but she could work a phone like nobody’s business.

“The first challenge they gave me — I think it was my first week there — they said, ‘If you can book Taylor Swift, then we’ll know you’re worth your weight,'” Meinzer, 43, said. “And so, I booked Taylor Swift in less than a week and got her on the show.”

After that, Meinzer says, she became the go-to booker on the show. They needed a lesbian Cub Scout leader in the Midwest? Meinzer would find her. A white supremacist mom? No problem. The more needle-in-a-haystack the guest was, the more Meinzer relished the challenge.

It wasn’t just Meinzer’s friendly Minnesotan approach that reeled guests in; it was also because she was willing to work the phones. And she learned that from her first job in New York.

“Maybe because I was slightly older than people in the newsroom, and maybe because I was less afraid of the phone, or because I taught classes over the phone, I wasn’t scared of it,” Meinzer said. “I knew that pounding the phone was the number one way to get people.”

While booking guests isn’t the reason most people get into radio, Meinzer doesn’t view it as any less creative or artful than clever sound design or smart story structure.

“I think there’s an art to finding human beings and finding the story in them,” Meinzer said. “I felt that the ability to give someone a platform where they can be heard is such an honor and I never thought it was drudge-work.”

Brick By Brick

In the last few years, audio has gotten pretty popular with the explosion of podcasting. And sure, you might be able to go from zero to podcast host in one quick jump. But what will you have learned, besides the fact that you love to hear yourself talk? These days, I host a national radio show. And I wouldn’t have been able to do that had I not built my foundation brick by brick with garbage jobs and crap tasks over many years. Some of those I still do today — booking, logging tape, heck even publishing our website. You don’t win awards for pre-interviewing or tape syncs. But you can’t win awards without them.

*From left to right in the featured image at the top of this post are: Kristen Meinzer, Arwen Nicks, Martina Castro, Lulu Miller, and Lauren Ober.

Lauren Ober

Lauren Ober

Lauren Ober is the host of The Big Listen from WAMU and NPR. Before taking the helm, she was an award-winning radio producer. Her stories have been heard on public radio shows like NPR's All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Here and Now, as well as podcasts like Criminal, 99% Invisible and Gravy. She is a graduate of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, American University, and the Transom Story Workshop (Spring '12). A proud Pittsburgh native, Lauren has a deep and abiding love for pierogi. You can find her @oberandout.

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  • Gregory Haddock



    Best line of this article: “You don’t win awards for pre-interviewing or tape syncs. But you can’t win awards without them.” What a wonderful reminder of the beauty of process. Great tips and inspiration all around. Thank you.

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