The Public Radio Programming Conference and my report

The Baltimore National Aquarium where we had our closing night

I spent last week (Sept. 20-23) at the Public Radio Programing Conference in Baltimore. I was representing AIR as a New Voices Scholar at the conference. There were 21 of us all together, of varying ages but all within about five years of first entering the radio industry. I enjoyed making my first ever trip to Baltimore and made a number of friends I hope to stay in contact with in the coming years.

Following the conference we were asked to write a report telling the story of our passion for public. I’d like to think of it as a sort of manifesto for why I make public radio. Here it is:

Some people grow up listening to public radio like other people grow up Democrat or Catholic, it’s just part of their family’s identity. Me, I’d never even tuned in to my local NPR station until just before I started interning there. But within a few months of discovering public radio, specifically science radio, I knew it would shape the rest of my life.

In late 2008 I was finally coming to terms with the fact that I might not be cut out for my current career. In college I’d channeled my fascination with brains and behavior into a neuroscience degree. Since then I’d worked in a number of research labs. I’d performed hippocampus surgery on mice, used MRI scans to measure brain volumes of children with autism, and analyzed electrical signals coming from people’s scalps when they saw pictures of faces. On paper that might sound really interesting, and I did love talking about neuroscience research and the theories behind it. But no matter how much I liked the bigger picture behind my lab duties, for me the daily reality of the work felt repetitive, lonely, and frankly, dull. I started seeking out volunteer work in hopes of discovering something I felt more excited about. While in a training to help at a woman’s shelter, I heard a lecturer make a comment about mental illness that contradicted current research. I talked with him afterward, and surprised myself by how passionate I was to share my science knowledge. “You know what?” he told me, “You should start a neuroscience podcast.”

That suggestion really caught me off guard. I’d been ready to give up on science forever, it just didn’t seem to be working out for me. I wasn’t quite ready to follow his advice, but I credit him for first giving me the idea that maybe science wasn’t wrong for me, I just needed to go about it in a different way. A few months later I met a woman from the local community radio station. She encouraged me to attend their reporter training classes. After I’d done my training and explained my research background the news director began assigning me science features. I still remember gathering my first bit of tape, a conversation with a climate change scientist. My microphone hand shook throughout the entire interview, but I loved learning about the research he’d conducted. Better yet, a few days later I heard my story on the air and realized I’d just gotten to share that learning experience with a few hundred other people. I started spending a couple of days a week at the station, addicted to the process of fine-tuning scripts, editing cuts, and mixing my own stories. I’d never done anything before that brought with it such pride and enjoyment.

Within a six month period, producing radio went from a passing fancy to something I was determined to spend the rest of my life pursuing. I knew that to move forward I needed to break into a larger audience. I started transcribing tape for a reporter at my local NPR affiliate station to figure out what this national public radio thing was all about. She helped me land the station’s reporting internship, where I learned how to produce news and feature stories for wider broadcast. I realized that if I wanted to continue spending so much time making radio I needed to get paid for it, and that wasn’t going to happen at my intern and volunteer-saturated local radio station. So a year ago I followed a whim and moved to New York City where I started getting serious about freelancing. It’s taken more focus than I ever thought I had, but the pay-off has been the excitement of getting to work with Radiolab, PRI’s The World, Deutsche Welle Radio, and a number of NPR affiliate stations. In the past few months I’ve started to realize I really have become a “real” independent radio producer, and I’m excited for the opportunities to come.

When it comes down to it, my reasons for loving public radio are largely selfish. Contributing to it is the most personally satisfying thing I’ve ever done. Sure, at least a few days a month the downsides of the business (inconsistent paychecks, diminishing outlets for independent work, the stress of constantly being on the search for my next gig) seem to outweigh the upsides. But the rest of the time I’m ridiculously in love with what I do. I get to visit interesting people I’d never usually meet and ask them questions I’d never usually feel comfortable asking. I get to write scripts to construct stories in the way I think they should be told. I get to manipulate everyday sound clips into art. And I get to feel like I really own my journalism by having my own voice present it on the radio. But there are other reasons I value public radio beyond my personal fulfillment. Radio is the technological manifestation of humanity’s oldest mode of storytelling – people talking to other people. You can accuse NPR of leaning left, and many certainly have, but I still believe public radio is the most balanced news source available. Lastly, the most unique part of public radio to me is that it presents people in action, either reporting or verite, so that listeners can share in the journalist’s learning experience as if they were right alongside them.

The PRPD conference was just the career energy shot I needed last month. I met fellow young independent producers who reminded me I’m not the only one struggling to get in to the business and inspired me with their innovative and impassioned work. I attended seminars that presented examples of the kind of radio I’d like to strive to produce. Perhaps most wonderfully, I met independent radio veterans who assured me it is possible to make a lifelong career from this work, and gave me some of the most sound and direct professional advice I’ve yet to receive. The conference strengthened my conviction that if I continue with such confidence in my work, and diligence to pushing myself, I’m going to succeed in this business.