How to Probably, Maybe, With Some Luck, Get a Job in Public Radio
Not too long ago, Metafilter founder Matt Haughey tweeted about how my very first question on his website, Ask Metafilter, was “How do I get a job at NPR?” Five years later, I am an alumnus of WNYC’s On the Media, and I am launching my brand new podcast, Reply All, as part of the Gimlet Media podcast network.
It’s bizarre to look back at just how naive I was when I put that question together. I didn’t even know the difference between NPR and public radio. Some of the answers did help, but getting from that question to today was a lot of fumbling and missteps. Not long after the tweet, Matt got in touch and said “so, with the benefit of hindsight, how do you get a job at public radio?” So, I decided to compile a six point list that reflects my experiences in public radio.
1. So the first thing you have to do is apply for an internship. This is the most straightforward way to get into public radio. A lot of internships are pretty bad, but in my experience, most public radio internships allow you to get really hands on. It helps to try and work for a show that you’re excited about. Don’t be afraid to say in your application that you obsess on the minutiae of the show. In fact, show some examples. That’s what they’ll be looking for.
2. You have to be willing to take a steep pay cut — if you’re getting paid now, don’t expect to get paid as an intern. Yes, this sucks. There are a couple exceptions — NPR being the most notable, This American Life, Snap Judgment, and a couple others pay as well. But I was an unpaid intern on weekdays and a mover on weekends. I got used to it, and I was really strong for a year.
3. Realize that making radio is a lot more than just pressing record on a microphone. I was totally convinced that I could just become a great radio journalist if I had the right tools, but there’s so much more to it — editing, story craft, pacing. I am very much still learning these things.
4. Make yourself indispensable. There are new technologies and media coming out all the time that enhance or compliment audio storytelling. If you can figure out the way to best utilize those technologies, you can make yourself invaluable. For me, a huge part of actually getting the job was helping On the Media learn how to talk to Twitter, a channel that it was vastly underutilizing at the time.
5. Be patient, and be versatile. Public radio tends to use people as temps on a lot of different shows before they find a home. You have to love not just longform storytelling, but the entire medium of radio. There are daily shows with hectic schedules, newsroom slots where you’re going into the field for hours and coming back to file a 45-second spot on a school board meeting.
6. All my advice might be wrong! Until very recently public radio was the only way to get into radio that was well-crafted and intelligent. But that is changing. I still work with people who cut their teeth in public radio, but Reply All is private radio. The landscape is changing! Find someplace that is doing smart, exciting, inspiring work, no matter where, and ask them if you can help!