Intro from Jay Allison: When Zach Hirsch graduated from the Transom Story Workshop back in the Spring of 2013, he resisted the gravitational pull to Brooklyn. Instead, he took a reporting job in the most northern part of New York State, up near the Canadian boarder, at North County Public Radio. Zach stayed there for five years. He got to do LOTS of jobs. He shares stories and advice in his Transom feature... and don't be surprised if you find yourself checking ads for rural public radio jobs.
Most audio producers I know are constantly on the move. They bounce between podcasts, stories, stations, and production gigs all the time. When I left the Transom Story Workshop in 2013 I figured I’d hop around too, finding a new gig every year or so. It seemed like the right way to keep life interesting and gain different kinds of experiences in radio and podcasting.
But then I found North Country Public Radio, and I fell in love with the place.
The station is in the northern tip of New York State, near the Canadian border. The listening area is huge, rural, gorgeous, and — like anywhere else — full of fascinating people and stories. During my five years there I covered food insecurity, the environment, immigration, national politics, border economics, and university protests. I even filed pieces about an atlatl spear-throwing competition, a marijuana factory, a haunted forest, underground hip-hop, experimental theater, and craziest of all, an epic escape from a maximum security prison.
I got to do so much more than just report and produce for the daily news show. I worked on podcasts and oral history projects. I hosted live storytelling events. I helped with on-air fundraising and gave guest lectures at college journalism classes. I freelanced on the side for NPR and local magazines. I attended trainings with NPR, Planet Money, and Investigative Reporters and Editors.
I recently moved back to New York City to freelance full-time, and I’ve been thinking a lot about my work at NCPR. Here are some reflections and tips for anyone considering a similar path, which I highly recommend for new radio producers.
Note: I want to put an asterisk next to “Small” in the headline. It’s a smaller budget and staff, but NCPR is a well known big deal in the public radio community, thanks to station manager Ellen Rocco and other award-winning public radio veterans like Jackie Sauter, Martha Foley, Brian Mann, and David Sommerstein.
1. A Note On Impostor Syndrome
The station initially brought me on as a part-time digital news intern/reporter-in-training, and I embraced that long, clunky title. It took some of the pressure off. I was 22, a recent college grad, and fresh out of Transom. I knew how to put together a radio story and was eager to learn more about the business — but I was also intimidated. I wasn’t convinced I was a “real” public radio journalist yet.
In other words, I radiated newbie vibes during that training period. Interviewees kept asking if I was a student working on a class project, and I had to clarify that, no, I was in fact talking to them for a news story that would air on their local NPR station.
Thankfully it occurred to me that no matter how young I felt or looked, I was now part of a well-respected media organization. My life got easier when I began to internalize that. I became more confident and relaxed in interviews. In turn, my interviewees relaxed too, and took me seriously. And the more stories I finished, the more I felt like a legitimate reporter and storyteller, which is exactly what I had been from the beginning.
If you find yourself feeling like a fraud, remember: the station hired you for a reason. You belong. So lean in.
2. Make Friends
In a small, rural community, it’s actually somewhat feasible to meet everybody. Or almost everybody. At the very least, you can get to know a lot of the key players and personalities, and this will help tremendously when you’re gathering story ideas. Say yes to as many social events as you can. Hit the bar or the coffee shop after work, without your microphone. Shoot the shit. Make sure people know you’re off duty and have lots of off-the-record conversations. Even if you don’t always get the best story ideas, these conversations will inform your reporting and help build trust.
3. Call Your Editor!
Every news story is a collaboration between a reporter and an editor. The reporter gets the tape, writes the script, checks for accuracy, owns the byline — but your editor keeps you focused, makes sure your script works, and makes sure you’re being comprehensive and fair. They should be part of the process from start to finish.
Sometimes I didn’t reach out for help when I could’ve used it. After my first year I ended up running a satellite news bureau, two hours away from radio headquarters, so I was almost always working remotely. I wasn’t isolated — I lived in a great community, and shared office space with reporters from other news outlets — but occasionally I’d get stuck in my own head. I worried that calling my editor too much might make me seem needy, and that it would be more professional to muscle through on my own.
Those stories were always harder to write. When I finally did pick up the phone, I felt silly that I hadn’t called sooner. Don’t worry about seeming needy. A few phone calls or check-in meetings are better than bad tape, nonexistent tape you wish you had, a script that’s missing important context, or a script that isn’t getting written because you’re stuck. Your editor wants to help and expects to be part of the process.
Plan to check in before you gather tape. Call again while you’re still out in the field. They’ll help with your gut check: Do I have all of my elements? Did that person answer the big questions? Check in again as you’re putting together your script.
4. Edit Your Editor
It’s also important to remember that your editor may not have all the answers. At the end of the day, you’re the one who did the interviews. You know what it felt like to be there. You’ve done all the research, and you’re often more familiar with the precise facts of the story.
When you’re on deadline, though, it might be tempting to say yes to whatever your editor suggests. Don’t do that automatically. Think hard about every edit. That proposed rewrite might sound great, but it also has to be accurate and fair. You’re the expert. Be meticulous and speak up now so you don’t have to write a correction later. Your editor will respect you for pushing back.
5. Embrace Criticism
People are passionate about their public radio stations. They’re deeply engaged and listening closely. This is obviously a good thing. It also means that if you get something wrong, or if someone believes you got something wrong, you’ll hear about it — in emails, over the phone, on Facebook, and at the grocery store. Don’t panic or take it personally. Listen closely because they probably have a good point. Take notes, thank them, and share the feedback with your news director or editor before you respond.
6. In Defense Of Quick Turnarounds
Sure, the daily news grind can be exhausting. But it’s also exciting and gratifying to run out into the field, grab your tape, and produce a story all in one day. The more you do, the faster you get, without sacrificing ethics, quality, or creativity for speed.
A few years ago, I covered a groundbreaking ceremony for a new manufacturing school at a community college. All of the important-looking people were having a photo op — smiling and putting shovels in the ground. This was theoretically the big reveal, the climax of the press event. I found it boring.
So I did something a lot of my favorite radio reporters would do, too: I walked away mid-ceremony and talked to a construction worker instead.
A different newsroom might have considered this move edgy or disrespectful, but for us it was just better radio. We were always thinking outside the box to make our stories more human, even at press conferences and ribbon cuttings.
Say yes to more human stories!
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7. Room For Experimentation
That’s another reason to spend time working for a public radio station, especially one with a solid reputation, a fun work culture, and great editors: you’ll probably get extra wiggle room to experiment and have fun.
This story, for example, got pretty meta. I went for a hike on the Fourth of July, and in the piece I teased my own editor, who’s an avid hiker. He let it slide.
8. Survival Tip: Making It Through A Long, Harsh Winter
The cold really isn’t as bad as you’d think, especially when you combine the following remedies, as needed: long underwear, winter sports, potlucks, Netflix, craft beer, soup, and therapy.
Winter sports make for some great radio stories, by the way.
And if you’ve never tried snowshoeing or skiing, don’t be shy! Ask your editor to show you how.