3 Ways That Non-Radio Jobs Made Me A Better Producer
Making audio stories can be incredibly meaningful, creative, and fun.
But for folks trying to break into the podcast and radio world, it’s no secret that entry-level jobs can be hard to find. Frankly, many feel lucky to land a minimum wage internship when they’re first starting out.
As someone who lives in one of the most expensive cities in the country — San Francisco — I personally needed to take a different path. Non-radio jobs in tech allowed me to pay the bills while I developed my podcast skills on the side.
And I ultimately found that this helped, rather than hindered, my podcast career. Here’s how:
1. “The Boat is Slowly Sinking” (Operations)
A few years ago, when people asked me what I did, I shared a boat metaphor and made them guess:
“I’m in an inflatable boat with a hole in it, sailing on waters that are progressively getting more turbulent as I continue forward. I need to simultaneously scoop water out of the boat, row the boat, and design and construct a sturdier boat that will be able to get us to where we need to go.”
I can’t say that anyone ever guessed my job correctly, but this was how it felt to be the first employee at a mobile app startup. This role involved managing customer support and sales communications, building apps and submitting them to the stores, designing app artwork, and scaling operations processes. And scaling was necessary, because during my time at the company, our revenue grew almost 8x, but the Operations team remained two (myself and the CEO). As the number of customers increased, I needed to manage a weightier workload while staying cool-headed enough to think about new processes and tools that would allow us to handle the demand.
This experience managing complex, dynamic systems of diverse tasks has helped me greatly in my work as a podcast producer. For example, when producing a series for the intercom company Clear-Com, I was able to nimbly context-switch between different roles: strategist, sound recordist, interviewer, VO talent, writer, sound designer, and mixing engineer. More recently, at Pandora, I was able to simultaneously manage the production of three branded podcasts for three different teams. My startup ops background has helped me find creative ways to draw on available resources, adjust the scope of projects when needed, and maximize quality.
2. A Literal Boat (Free Time & Money)
Day jobs also supported my podcast career by giving me the time, mental space, and money to study the craft, develop my own creative voice, and make weird shit without worrying about needing to get paid for it.
One such quirky project was Cozy Boat, a series that explored deep questions about creativity, the human condition, and what it means to be an artist…in an inflatable boat. For each episode:
1) One or two musicians and I climbed into a supremely comfortable boat filled with pillows and twinkly lights at The Complex Recording Studio in SF.
2) I asked the musicians deep, existential questions about their creative process and what it means to be an artist (“Where do songs come from?” “Tell me about your relationship with the audience…”) over the course of 1–2 hours.
3) I synthesized the material into 5–15 minute audio portraits, using the artists’ music as sound design.
Cozy Boat allowed me to find my style — earnest, intimate, playful — and, awesomely, helped me land paid work with clients like Uber, Clear-Com, and Pandora when I shared it as a work sample. The project also helped me discover an ongoing passion: the exploration of creative process, psychology, and that ethereal magic that leads to the creation of art.
3. “I See You” (Business & Tech)
Several years ago, as the temp office manager at a VC, my favorite task was reading countless “cold call” emails and synthesizing the data into a spreadsheet. In this role, and at various tech companies to follow (including the mobile app startup), I learned key business concepts that continue to help me in my creative work today: traction, scale, lead generation, runway, differentiation…the list goes on. And whether assisting a recruiting team, tackling sales calls, or providing technical support, being embedded in tech companies helped me understand organizational structure, brand marketing, and product development from the inside-out.
This familiarity and depth of understanding has given me an edge when creating tech and business-related content. For example, when producing the Clear-Com series, I knew to ask team members about the potential pitfalls of creating a product for a diverse range of industries and contexts. And I was able to comfortably interview VPs, designers, product managers, and engineers when producing Pandora’s internal communications podcast.
Finally, as someone who creates podcasts for clients, it’s critical that I understand how businesses evaluate opportunities and make decisions. A branded podcast isn’t just a fun, creative project — it’s a strategic effort that should be linked to some measurable return on investment. Without the day jobs I’ve had in the business world, I’m not sure that I would be as strategic or data-driven in my approach to this work.
I now design, produce, and consult on podcast projects as a freelancer full-time. But I know that I wouldn’t have been able to get to where I am today — either creatively or financially — without working outside of the radio world.
Day jobs financially supported my creative development — allowing me to attend classes and conferences all over the US, and make weird shit without worrying about needing to get paid for it. They also shaped me into a producer with a fresh perspective and uniquely business-savvy approach — an approach that’s well-suited to client work.
Day-job-having-side-hustling producers and aspiring producers:
If you don’t see anyone with your professional background in the podcast world, this is a good thing. It means that you bring something unique to the table. Anything unusual about your background, style, and point of view is part of the secret sauce that only you can offer.
And if you’re in a position to hire a producer with a day job, or significant experience outside the audio world, consider the unique knowledge, perspective, passion, and determination that they offer.
I believe in the power of audio stories to teach us, to inspire us, and to help us feel less alone. This is what fires me up and keeps me going. The more perspectives and skills are brought to this craft, the fresher and more successful podcasts will be.
This article also appears on LinkedIn here.
Emily Shaw is a podcast strategist and producer based in San Francisco. She delights in producing fresh, authentic audio independently and in partnership with brands and private clients. Find out more at www.emilyshawcreates.com.