If you are a producer, you will eventually end up on the floor. I think this is Anthony Lemos here, who is setting up the microphones for a Talking Feds podcast episode in the offices of Congressman Ted Lieu. Anthony used to fix jets, so I think this is easier?

The producer’s mindset

Jennie Josephson
The Mechanics of Producing

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If hell is other people, this job is not for you

I learned how to produce radio and television at CBS News. CBS had and still has some of the best news producers ever — people you have never heard of and likely never will. People who changed my life, whose names are forever enshrined in my heart, and in the case of one Los Angeles bureau producer, buried deep in my psyche like a warning bell that surfaces at odd hours of the day and night. (Thanks a lot, ROBERTA.)

The reason you have likely never heard of these people is because at its core, being a producer is about supporting and facilitating others.

I can’t say this strongly enough — if thinking about and working with other people is not in your core skill set, don’t be a producer. You may have to start your career as an associate producer or producing intern for a year or two and that’s OK. You can learn a lot in a couple of years. But then move on.

(I, of course, stayed too long, but for a slightly different reason that we will get to later.)

If producing is not for you, get a job as an on-air reporter at the smallest newspaper, radio station or digital outfit that will hire you. If they don’t pay enough, you’ll have to get a second job, but even so, you’ll be happier because what you really want to be is talent, and no one is more miserable than a producer who secretly believes they are the talent. (Except the talent with whom you are currently working. Believe me, they know.)

If you are the type of person who likes to think about, interact with and solve problems for others, then you’re going to make a great producer.

Here are a few basic principles:

Listen. I can’t stress this enough. A producer’s core mission is to listen to others and make decisions based on what you’ve heard. If you don’t listen, you can’t make good decisions. Listening in no way means “do everything you’re told.” That’s where the decision-making comes in. Also, and this style is not for everyone, saying nothing until you decide something has a certain kind of mystical power. I’ve seen it in meetings and it’s impressive. I for one, like to talk it out, and that’s OK too.

“Be curious, not judgemental.” Fictional football coach Ted Lasso nails it here. The best advice I’ve ever heard on television is also a core tenet of producing. Don’t assume, follow-up. Gossip amongst colleagues is inevitable, but don’t be cruel. Everyone is the way they are for a reason. Unless they are harmful. If a person is harmful or outright deceitful, back away. If they are not, keep asking questions until you understand them, or the situation they are in, just a little better than you do now.

And if you haven’t seen Ted Lasso, go watch it! You’ll feel so much better!

Don’t give in to the luscious temptation to be a dickhead, even when you’re definitely right. This is a good life policy, and I’ve tried to get a little better at this through the years. Because as it turns out, everyone you’re mad at now is someone you will need help from later. Doesn’t matter if it’s a government official, a sound person who has screwed up your sound, or an assistant producer who wears high heels to a walking assignment, leaves in the middle of said assignment, and you find her leisurely sitting at an outdoor table at your next location, eating lunch. Resist the temptation to scream or belittle people who make mistakes. You will feel terrible later. (Also pro-tip: NEVER throw your car keys in anger in the rain at 3am, because the keys may end up down a storm drain, and you will no longer be able to drive your car.)

Speaking of lunch, don’t let anyone you work with go hungry, including yourself. I talk about lunch a lot. It’s important to me. So is dinner. But nothing is more important than breakfast. Ok, I’m joking, but not really. In a busy day, it’s always easy to focus only on the impossible act of getting the job done well, and not on the well-being of your team. They are grownups, after all. They can feed themselves. But if you take care of your team, if you pay attention to their well-being (and your own!) you will make friends for life. You will also know them well enough to know when they look a little woozy, standing behind the camera in the hot sun with no hat after driving 500 miles through high altitude, and are about to pass out and end up in the hospital. Useful skill.

Anticipate the needs of your correspondent, reporter, host, crew, and interview subject. A good host or reporter will appreciate your efforts to make their reporting better. If you are not aligned, have an honest conversation about story direction. If you are dealing with a true subject matter expert, give them wide space and appreciation for their expertise, but remember, they’re not always automatically right. They may have a blindspot, they may be speaking from privilege, they may not have information from another beat. But there’s a way to do that that’s additive and not combative. The phrase “yes, and” is your friend here.

Think ahead about the way events are likely to unfold, so you can make good guesses about where the story will go next. To paraphrase our pals over at Battlestar Galactica, all of this has happened before and all of this will happen again. There are difference in the details, but court cases usually unfold according to the rule and practice of law, which means you can expect certain story beats ahead of time. News stories involving the police have definable moments that play out over and over again, sometimes in very unfortunate ways. (We’ll talk more about that later.) If you’re dealing with a company or a government, they have agendas, they have a message to get out, and the means by which they try to convince you of their message is often repeated. Look for the patterns. Read old news stories, not for the news itself but for the unfolding patterns. The AP does timeline recaps of big stories and these really help to anticipate what comes next in a breaking news situation.

Producing out in the world: Me and a buddy waiting outside Cottage Hospital in Solvang, CA because a very predictable part of covering the 2005 Michael Jackson trial was that Michael would end up here when it was all too much. There is a lot of waiting involved in producing.

Learn to quickly encapsulate a situation in a sentence, a paragraph or a short news piece. A helpful skill is the ability to listen to lots of information, record it in some fashion, and then explain it to other people. It helps to be able to explain things succinctly. One of my many limitations as a news producer was the way I fell in love with the story tangent, or the odd detail. I couldn’t see the through-line through the trees. We’ll talk more about this when we get to writing, but the ability to deliver information to a lot of different people as fast as possible is helpful. How would you tell this to a friend? How do you explain someone’s position accurately to others? How do you explain something in order to “get the yes?” How quickly can you explain a problem to your bureau chief before her attention is needed elsewhere? Don’t worry, this is something you can practice.

There are many more parts of a producer’s mindset, but we’ll get there. I want to end this article with some guardrails.

Your personal and emotional safety always come first. Even if you are comfortable with a high level of personal risk, no job should thoughtlessly put you at risk of losing a limb, or your life. If you are not comfortable with a dangerous situation, or you feel you don’t have the proper resources and support, say something — if not for you, then for your team. There are very few people who are actually paid enough to risk their life for a corporation. If you’re going to cover a forest fire, do you have the right protective gear? Are you trained in fire safety? Are you going with an equally experienced team that you trust? Do you have all the proper credentials? If the answer to any of this is no, you have to protect yourself and your team. In the end, that’s the most important part of the job.

If a particular person in your organization is threatening your emotional well-being, don’t endure it alone, and get away from that person, personally and professionally, as fast as you can. (I promise to write in more about this in detail.) Your job is service-minded, but that should never, ever include emotional harm or compromise.

Find a non-harmful way to turn the job off. The internet contains most of the known information in human history, in a delivery device that fits in the palm of your hand. This has quickened the pace of journalism to an almost unsustainable degree. Decide what things you are not going to care about as part of your job, and then don’t care about them. Someone else will and you can talk with them about it.

When the work day is done, stop thinking about work. There are very few people who are actually paid enough to never stop thinking about work, and they usually are the president of your news organization and her lawyers. Go for a run, watch five hours of television, take a hot shower, listen to music, eat, cry, do whatever non-harmful thing you can do to remove the dull buzz of work pressure from your brain for a time, so you can sleep. YOU HAVE TO SLEEP. Bad things happen to your brain when you don’t sleep.

If your coping mechanisms are harmful to your body or mind, you deserve help. Drinking too much, the bad drugs, self-harm, abusing prescription medications, unhealthy personal relationships with colleagues — these are coping mechanisms that may someday or already have become dangerous to you. Everyone brings their own mental health continuum to a job, and the job of news producing can trigger some serious brain quakes. Just about every producer I know struggles in some way with the demons they’ve brought to the job, and the ones they meet along the way. (Substituting the word human in that sentence also works.) It’s not just you, and you have a right to ask for help, anywhere you feel safe doing so.

That includes me, OK?

Because when I was alone in a fancy hotel room in Salt Lake City, Utah, feeling totally outmatched and clueless in a breaking news story that just kept breaking, I had friends I could call who understood exactly what I was going through.

So now you do too.

Jennie Josephson is a writer and producer. She has worked in television, radio, digital media and now corporate communications. Her company is Infinite Gain Studios, from which she has launched and produced many podcasts. You can find more stories about producing here, including:

The mechanics of producing

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