A soon-to-be college grad wonders where to start in public radio

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Just about every rising journalism graduate wrestles with a variation of the question that won the latest voting round in our Currently Curious series.

Eliza Lambert

Lambert

“As a soon-to-be college grad, do I really have to start in the middle of nowhere to eventually get into the big-league public radio game?” asks Eliza Lambert, a 21-year-old documentary media student at New York University.

Lambert told Current that she isn’t opposed to starting small. She’s from Maine, where an internship with Maine Public Broadcasting inspired her to chart a career in public radio. Over the summer, she interned for WNYC’s The Takeaway in New York City and is now a per diem associate producer with the show, she said.

But as graduation approaches, she’s feeling torn as she tries to answer that age-old question of where to make a start. People often advise her that she needs to go to, say, rural Oklahoma — “no offense” to the state, she said — or just someplace small to gain experience and pay her dues.

“I’m not against that,” Lambert said. “I really loved Maine Public Broadcasting, and I love Maine and rural areas. I’m comfortable there, but I think because I’m so lucky, and I feel like I’ve worked hard to be in this position at WNYC, I have this question of, ‘Can I stay here? Can I make it work freelance?’”

CurrentlyCurious_lrgLOGOAnd Lambert wonders whether the advice she’s received on starting small is sound. “There’s this pervading myth, and I didn’t know that it was up-to-date, necessarily,” Lambert said. But she acknowledges there could be benefits. “I would rather spend my time getting work experience than necessarily spend months trying to get jobs in an oversaturated market,” Lambert said.

How would you advise Lambert? And if you started out in a smaller market, why and how did you take that path? Please email me or respond below in a comment. We’ll be talking to recruiters and others to answer Lambert’s questions in an upcoming article.

Submit your own question to Currently Curious in the form below. It could be investigated in a future story.

  • Gabe

    Hey Eliza! It’s never the same for everyone, but I literally JUST graduated so I went through the same things you are. I interned at NPR this summer, and then managed to get three weeks of temp work there, but that wasn’t really sustainable. A few of my fellow interns have managed to stay on as production assistants for a few months, but a few others – myself included – really loved the idea of going somewhere smaller and really getting some experience. I was doing digital news, but wanted to be reporting for air as well, so I moved to Columbus to join WOSU, which lets me do both. Smaller stations you have to be able to do a little of everything, which means you get experience in more things and get to try new things. One of my best friends from NPR is spending the year reporting from Dillingham, Alaska – a little further away! But same idea. I also think that it’s important to be reporting and learning from places outside of the main media centers. Even if the goal is to end up back in a big city, there’s nothing more valuable than that on-the-ground experience. At least, that’s the plan!

  • James Manilla

    Hi Eliza,

    Interning at either a station, a show, a production company or a podcaster is a great way to gain entry. Of course, you could also try grad school to broaden and sharpen your skills. As Director of Audio at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, I see many grads grabbed up by various audio organizations. We will also soon launch a center at the J-School dedicated SOLELY to audio story-telling with courses of varying lengths and topics. The main thing is to follow your passion. Doors will soon present themselves. Best, Ben Manilla

  • Fred Fletcher-Fierro

    Hi Eliza,

    Four months ago today I started at WTSU, Troy Public Radio broadcasting from Troy, Alabama. Never heard of it? Me neither until August of 2015 when I was in a similar situation that you are currently in. My family and I moved 2,100 miles from southern California so that I could pursue this job. The station has an on-air staff of 3 people an a total staff of 7. In less than two months I went from being a student in Fullerton, CA to being WTSU’s local ATC host. And , I’ve learned and filled-in on ME, On Point, Fresh Air, H and N clocks. Knowing and talking about how the clock works is one thing, performing them well is something else. In addition to being exposed to countless jobs/chores that would probably be done by other people at a larger station but here at TPR there are none of those “extra” people. Not that I can’t contribute to NPR newscasts or pitch local stories to the national shows from southeast Alabama, you can do that anywhere. My previous vantage point of living 20 miles outside of downtown Los Angeles I was never going to get the experience that I have here in Alabama. I’ve known colleagues who work in commercial radio in Los Angeles still working the overnight shift even after being employed at the same network for over 10 years. It’s not that they are not talented people, they are, but they never want to leave California and learn new things. I know that they would move up in the world of radio if they only moved outside of their comfort zone. Moving to a new place is hard. But good job opportunities in public radio can be even harder to find.

  • Ryan Kailath

    NOTE: Apology for the novel-length response here. I sent it privately to Current over the weekend for their upcoming article, but figured I might as well include the full version here since they surely don’t have space for all that :)

    Hey Eliza,

    I love this question.

    I’m pretty new to radio too, and I spent 2015 asking EVERYONE this question. Well, easily 100 people anyway. From the hosts of All Things Considered to the producers of Radiolab to rookie reporters at rural stations and other friends, peers and mentors. Now, when people ask me this question, I answer with a few of my own.

    What do you like to listen to? Do you know what kind of work you want to do? Do you want to report your own stories? Hard news, or more longform narrative work? Would you rather be behind the scenes, helping to craft and structure and research and edit? How much money do you need to make? Where are you willing to live, and for how long?

    Are you not even sure about any of this stuff? That’s okay, too. Every person answers differently, and that changes our conversation. Since you and I haven’t spoken, let me tell you my own calculus—hopefully it can illuminate some aspect of yours.

    A caveat: I’m going to talk about “reporter” and “producer” as though they’re separate jobs. In some places, they are. Increasingly, they’re not. But let’s use the traditional NPR definitions as points of reference.

    Also: I’m going to include some of the great advice I got from others. I’ll be paraphrasing from memory here and will probably smoosh different people’s thoughts together by accident. Apologies to all.

    About me: I’ve been in radio just under three years. I spent the first half of that interning (WNYC, KUT, KRTS, Planet Money) and the latter half working (first as a KCRW producer, now as a WWNO reporter). I’ve also freelanced throughout, doing stories for NPR, APM, PRI, 99% Invisible, The Heart, and others.

    Finally: I changed careers from tech into radio at age 30. As such, I’ve given myself tons of pressure about making up for lost time. With your college graduation looming, I’m sure it can feel like time’s running out. It’s not. But if you’re ever feeling that way, take comfort in knowing you’ve got a 10-year headstart on me, anyway.

    So. I came into radio with a very surprising and original goal. I want to tell longform narrative stories like the ones on This American Life. It helps that I’m the first person to have this idea.

    The way I see it, getting there has very little to with resumé-building: holding the right jobs in the right order. It has everything to do with skill-building: getting actually good enough at making radio to tell stories like TAL does. That’s been the driving force behind all of my career decisions: what can I do next to get better at making the radio.

    Coming out of my last internship*, I identified at least four pathways to getting better:
    1) Report at a small member station.
    2) Produce at a big member station or network or podcast or show.
    3) Freelance.
    4) Make your own thing.

    1) Report at a small member station.

    This is the traditional wisdom. As Tamara Keith told me, there’s no training for being a reporter like being a reporter. And as Robert Smith said, this used to be the only path: Start at a small member station, work your way up to a big member station, make the jump to NPR, and then you’re done. That was the top. There was nowhere else to go.

    Obviously, that’s not true anymore. When I told a longtime NPR employee I wanted to level up to NPR reporter within a few years, they laughed and said, “No you don’t. By the time you get there, they won’t even have reporters anymore.” It was barely a joke.

    But that doesn’t mean the station path is without merit. In fact, it’s the path I chose. I’ll come back to why at the end, but let’s run through some of the other options first.

    2) Produce at a big member station or network or podcast or show.

    Sonari Glinton said “Get in the building and work your way up. Everybody wants to be a reporter. They overlook the value of being a producer.”

    This is a solid strategy, whatever the “building” in question. For a lot of my fellow NPR interns, that was NPR headquarters. They stuck around as temps, and many are now full-time producers. Sonari said that for years, he came in to every weekend to file spot after spot, until someone finally realized he was doing the work of a reporter and gave him a shot. And you’ll learn scads from traditional-definition “producing.”

    Producing a daily talk show at KCRW gave me BEAST-MODE skills that I now use every day as a reporter. We would pitch stories at 8:00 am, get assignments by 9:00, then research, pre-interview and book guests, write a script, coach the host, and be ready to live-direct the segment on-air at noon. Every day. I used to be shy about calling people on the phone. Now, if you picked three random words out of the dictionary, I could have a panel of experts ready in two hours to debate their interplay. I also learned to play to a guest’s strengths, and to see a conversation from 10,000 feet and give it structure and arc and forward motion—all on the fly.

    Producing at the fancy narrative shows will teach you plenty too. Planet Money taught me some of my favorite lessons. Sure, I logged a bunch of tape, and it was tedious. It was also a master class in conducting interviews. Doing pitches and group edits and field recording and just plain hanging out with the best reporters in the business blew my mind. I have pages of notes that I still refer to regularly. Always take the opportunity to train with people who are better than you.

    Plus, plenty of producers get their own great stories on the air at Gimlet and Planet Money and the like—the blurry line I mentioned. Taking a “producer” job is a great way to get into rooms where you couldn’t expect to be a “reporter” right away, and to then pick up reporting as you go.

    3) Freelance.

    If you can make it work, freelancing is an opportunity to have it all: working with and learning from lots of great people at lots of different places. Have ideas for Morning Edition AND Reply All AND FiveThirtyEight? Get pitching. You may have to do some random tape syncs and temp jobs to make ends meet, but you’ll have a lot of freedom as well.

    I considered this hard. When I asked Lu Olkowski about taking a station job to practice my craft, she said “Sure—if you want to practice making four-minute news stories. If you want to get good at longform narrative, practice making those instead!” Steve Henn said something similar: “Make the work you want to be making.”

    That’s pretty compelling. And a few of my peers have pulled it off—they freelanced for shows like TAL and Radiolab until they got on staff at TAL and Radiolab.

    I finally opted against freelancing for a few reasons. First, I don’t have the stomach for freelance life. Second, I wanted to have something to work on at all times. Third, I’m not sure I’m skilled enough to consistently land freelance stories at the big shows I admire. I have a lot to learn about making good radio; the friends I mentioned have been at it longer and are more talented.

    Also, Alex Goldmark said something that stuck. “Doing great freelance stories tells me that you can do great freelance stories,” he said. “But I don’t know how long it took you to do them, or what the editing process was like, or how much work was yours vs. the show’s. Good freelance tells me something about the work you can make, but nothing about how you make it. A station job, though—if you did well at a station for a healthy stretch, that tells me you can hit deadlines, take feedback, turn things around quickly, adapt to different situations, and be a team player.”

    Finally, you can always freelance while also on one of the other three pathways. I still do.

    4) Make your own thing.

    Ooh. The holy grail. You want to talk to Megan Tan about this one—I don’t know about the lessons to learn here vs. elsewhere because I haven’t done it. Not because I don’t think I could…I just haven’t had an idea that compels me enough. I don’t want to create my own show until I have an idea I love and believe in so much that I want to spend all my time doing it. But if you’ve got an idea, go for it. Certainly the barriers-to-entry are lower than ever before.

    In the end, I went with a station job for reasons specific and general.

    Specifically, I lucked into the combination of a good beat in a good city with a great editor whom I can learn from. That last one is crucial—there may be nothing more essential to your opportunity for growth and improvement than a good editor. When you’re looking at jobs, vet that person carefully.

    More generally, I think about something David Kestenbaum told me: “The thing about station reporting is you get to make lots and lots of stuff in a really, really short time.” It’s true. I try all kinds of things, and experiment with sound and structure and writing and humor. It’s not all fun: I have to cover flood insurance requirements and tax code amendments too. But I make radio every day, and I practice and practice and practice. It’s the best path I’ve identified for getting better at what I want to do as quickly as possible. Plus, there’s no substitute for being able to pitch and report your own ideas.

    Lastly, I knew I lacked some “hard news” skills which station reporting would help me obtain. I’ve now filed FOIAs, dug through bankruptcy filings, and examined nonprofit finances. I’ve learned to better read between the lines, and to pin down slippery, media-savvy interview subjects. I landed my first investigative story on NPR last month, and have more in the works. I finally learned how to tell Important Stories. Next step: learn to make them less boring.

    Hope that helps, and let me know if you want to chat some time,
    Ryan

    *Oh yeah, internships. That’s a whole separate conversation.

    • Anna Sumi

      Ryan,
      This was such a comprehensive and overall very helpful answer. I find myself in a similar situation to the author, I’m a senior in college in Washington D.C., and am more compelled by the long form storytelling of shows like TAL. I had a question for you – how did you get in the door at your internships at podcasts and the like?
      Thanks,
      Anna

      • Ryan Kailath

        Hey Anna,

        It’s all about the cover letter. I had no radio experience before my first internship at WNYC, but I think my letter showed my enthusiasm (and ability to think and write clearly). After that one internship built on the other. Let me know if you want to chat some time.

        Ryan

  • Doug Mitchell

    Sitting at my alma mater right now, Oklahoma State University. I’m from Oklahoma too. My school and the public radio station where I started in public media want to host the next gen program here next summer and I want to find more Native American students interested in public media for our projects. We’re needing to meet people where they are.
    I’ll say this: Insulting an entire state as you launch yourself is not the wisest career move.

  • Brad Deltan

    As the saying goes, the best way to learn to be a reporter is to spend six months working as a taxi driver (well, I guess it’s an Uber/Lyft driver these days) and then spend six months working as a bartender.

    FWIW, I spent one summer in college working as a dockhand at a high-end powerboat marina. That’s a really great way to learn how to deal with obnoxious, rich (and obnoxiously rich) people with a smile on your face and never giving them a clue how much you loathe them. Excellent training for dealing with power brokers and politicians later in your journalist career.

    Another thing you can do, technically in your spare time, is to go to city council, school board, and similar “small government” meetings, and report on them. Doesn’t matter where you report; just post your reporting to wordpress or blogger, and link to it on Facebook and Twitter. Hashtag the local TV & radio stations & newspapers. Besides the fact that communities DESPERATELY need people covering this stuff, it’s a good way to learn how to write, how to report, how to build relationships with elected & appointed officials (as well as various government employees). And if you’re any good at it, you’ll get picked up by a local paper or NPR station quickly enough and that’ll build your portfolio pretty fast.

    Plus if you find that you hate doing that work, then that means journalism is not for you! :) Perhaps the most valuable lesson of all: what you DON’T want to do with your career.

    FWIW, one thing that will boost your marketability quite a lot? Technical know-how. Learn how to do basic network administration, how to debug computer problems, how to use your gear in the field and get the results out to other people by any means available.