October 11, 2012
(This post went viral in a way nothing I have ever done before has. It was re-tweeted multiple times, blogged about elsewhere, and received many comments below. In short, it struck a nerve.)
I'm still recovering from the Third Coast International Audio Festival, a biennial event for audio storytellers. The festival had its biggest ever turnout this year, with about 400 people in attendance. I arrived on Friday and went to the meet and greet for members of AIR (the Association of Independents in Radio) of which I've been a member for about 9 years. After that and the evening schmoozefest, I was hoarse by Saturday morning.
I thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing, although I intend to gripe a bit further down the page. Public radio luminaries like Joe Richman of Radio Diaries, and radio gods Ira Glass and Jad Abumrad were all there, at least for a while. I attended some excellent sessions, including a talk by intrepid NPR Middle East reporter Kelly McEvers, with whom I briefly worked in the NYC Marketplace bureau several years ago, and who sometimes heads into Syria armed only with an iPhone under her abyaya to record her stuff. Robert Smith, also of NPR, gave some fabulous pointers on how to produce creative radio when you're on a crazy deadline, a very familiar situation thanks to my years at Marketplace. I also attended a panel moderated by John Barth of the Public Radio Exchange called Own Your Thing, for obvious reasons (if you don't know me, I recently launched a podcast about women and work called The Broad Experience, into which I am pouring a ton of energy).
So why am I here?
The festival was a celebration of some wonderful work and of creativity in general. And working in radio is creative and rewarding in so many ways. Just not monetarily - at least if you're an independent. AIR's membership has grown a lot in recent years, and AIR president Sue Schardt announced on Saturday morning that 41% of attendees this year were independent producers. People whooped. But here's what no one ever says at events like this:
You cannot make a living as an independent radio producer
It's what one of my radio friends calls radio's 'dirty little secret'.
I found it hard to sit there applauding at the idea that AIR has so many more members, when a lot of these members will be 20-somethings who will find it very hard to make anything more than $200-$700 a story, depending on the outlet and the 'tier' of pay the outlet decides the producer deserves (I know everyone wants to get on This American Life or Radiolab, which I realize pay better, but only a fraction will). Another radio colleague suggested, and I strongly agree with her, that at the next Third Coast we need to have a panel on rates. A panel that in part explains to all these keen newcomers that unless they work on staff or on contract at a show or a station (and given the general dissing of boring old daily news that took place at this conference, these jobs may not appeal to them), radio can only be one of several things they do to make a living.
People coming into radio are fueled by passion, idealism and creativity. All of which are great. But as someone who's been in the public radio world for 10 years now, and truly independent for part of it, the lack of pay per amount of time spent on a radio piece rankles. I met a guy at Third Coast who has ditched a career as a laywer to do this. Can you imagine? Going from a six figure salary to trying to work out how to be paid for your passion on a piecemeal basis?
At the conference I heard phrases like, 'You're the future of public media' aimed at the audience more than once. I'd love to think so, as I'm passionate about my own podcast project, but again, when making these statements, no one talks about the money. We all need to start doing that for the sake of the newcomers. As the same radio friend I mentioned earlier says:
'A lot of radio workshops focus on all the cool stuff you can make without attempting to come up with an explanation about how to get paid for it or make a living.'
It's time they did. We need to discuss this honestly rather than just celebrating creativity without admitting that when you are paid by the piece, you may end up working for minimum wage.