By Jacob Passy, Class of ’14
Students in Stacey Vanek Smith’s “Fundamentals of Multimedia-Broadcast” class were treated to a panel discussion on freelancing in radio that covered everything from the importance of pitching to what aspiring journalists should look for in an internship.
According to a 2006 study by SchardtMEDIA, independent producers are becoming more integral figures in the public radio arena, producing around 2% of the content heard around the country. Freelancing continues to become more viable as a career option due to the expansion of online content at radio stations and the existence of forums like the Public Radio Exchange. “I think [freelancing] is a slightly different skill set. You think on your feet a lot more,” Vanek Smith said.
Charlie Herman frequently works with freelancers as business and economics editor for WNYC Radio and the national program, “The Takeaway.” “If you’re pitching me a really obvious story, I’ll know that,” Herman said. “I really love interesting stories and what I face all the time is not having enough staff to tell them.”
Herman said radio journalists should get used to pitching frequently. This advice resonated with Ashley Rodriguez, one of the students in the class. “The advice to constantly be pitching is good to hear,” Rodriguez said. “I keep coming up with reasons why I should wait, but I realized I need to just do it.”
Herman added that he often works with his freelancers to get stories picked up by multiple outlets whenever possible. This allows the reporters to get more use out of the material they gather. “I try really hard to find stories, even if they’re about New York, that have a national angle to them,” Herman said. “That way the freelancer can get paid two times, one for working for me and one for working for NPR.”
Another panelist, Tracey Samuelson, has worked frequently with Herman and has benefited from this help. “[Herman] is one of the rare editors who pitches,” Samuelson said. “So if I do a story for him, he’ll send it to NPR or “Marketplace” and I won’t even have to worry about it.”
Samuelson said that pitching to editors she knew was generally more successful than cold pitches. “I’ve never had tremendous success emailing an editor who doesn’t know me at all and getting a pitch accepted,” Samuelson said. “When I branch out it’s more likely I’ll have a friend or colleague who’s worked for someone and will put me in touch with them.”
On the other hand, the discussion’s third panelist Sally Herships, a regular contributor to American Public Media’s “Marketplace” program, said she had success when she first started as an intern doing some cold pitches. “That’s how I got my first feature story,” Herships said. “I’ve been rejected a lot, but I’ve also gotten some pitches accepted that way.”
While all three on the panel acknowledged the stress associated with a freelancer’s need to pitch frequently, they also commented that there are positive aspects to working independently. For Samuelson, she enjoys the ability to record her tracks from home. “Tracking by myself in my closet sometimes I’m just so much more comfortable.I t’s just me in my pajamas saying, ‘I wish that drilling noise would stop,’ ” Samuelson said, laughing at the less glamorous side of freelancing.
Herships said she occasionally misses working with other people in the room. To remedy this she has come up with her own strategies to make her voice sound engaged. “I’ve now started directing all of my track to the engineers,” Herships said. “So when I start my track I’ll say, ‘So engineers,’ and then read my story.”
All three panelists agreed that for up-and-coming radio journalists internships are very important. But Samuelson cautioned that students should make sure that their internships are giving them good clips. She also stressed the importance of doing weighty pieces to build a strong portfolio. “I saw people in school working on these silly stories about picklers in Brooklyn,” she said. “I think you have to take this time as your time to experiment, but also to do stories that you’d do as a working journalist.”
To hear more from the panel of journalists, check out this video that features the entire discussion.