Feature Article from the July 2008 AIRblast
If you daydream about pulling up stakes and basing yourself in a foreign country to do radio or simply have wondered how to break into a foreign radio market, Jean Snedegar has some advice to offer.
When I was nine, my grandfather died and my father inherited his 1930s shortwave radio. Encased in a beautiful piece of walnut furniture, it sat next to my father’s chair in the den. Underneath the cabinet door was a big dial with numbers and — in tiny letters — cities: “London,” “Berlin,” “Paris,” “Rome,” “Havana.” We lived in the mountains of West Virginia. At night, I used to love tuning in to faraway stations. During the height of the Cold War, I remember listening to Radio Moscow and China Radio. But my favorite was the BBC World Service. In my mind, I can still hear the introduction to hourly newscasts, a posh English voice saying, “This is London,” followed by 20 seconds of the 17th-century signature tune, Lilliburlero, which plays up to the six pips of Greenwich Mean Time.
Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I would one day sit in a studio in Bush House, London, speak into an antique-looking microphone, and broadcast to millions of listeners around the world.
In 1975, I moved to London simply for a “cross-cultural experience,” planning to stay for a couple of years. Instead, I found a job working for a charity and eventually obtained permanent residency.
I also fell in love with BBC Radio 4, the national speech network. I loved the news and current affairs programs, the comedy shows, the plays, magazine programs on a variety of subjects — from food, women, and the environment to science, religion, and consumer issues. I had never heard radio like this before. Shortly before I turned 30, I decided to see if I could get work in this wonderful medium. I approached every American network with a London office and numerous departments of the BBC.
Amazingly, the door that opened was a department in BBC Radio 4 called Current Affairs Magazine Programmes, or CAMP. The department head arranged for me to have some training, and I started working as a freelance reporter for one of their daily programs, Woman’s Hour.
From there, I branched out to other programs on Radio 4, and later the BBC World Service. At one point, I was part of a roster of staff producers and freelance contributors who wrote and presented weekly current affairs review programs. My American accent was a problem to a certain extent, but not so much that I didn’t get steady work.
Many other radio folks have done what I did, contributing to foreign radio markets in all kinds of interesting ways. After many years watching freelance reporters trying to work for the BBC, I’ve noticed that it isn’t necessarily the most talented person who succeeds, but rather the one who perseveres the longest. And the polite dogged determination it takes to make your way in is very similar to the work itself.
Based in Los Angeles, Laura Hubber started working for the BBC in 1995. After doing her master’s degree in Britain — where she became familiar with the BBC’s output — she approached the World Service with film ideas. Today, she reports regularly for their weekly film review, On Screen.
“Film is my favorite subject,” says Hubber, “and I particularly love doing pieces that don’t have a news peg. They are so much more fun.”
One of Laura’s recent On Screen pieces was on the city of Ouarzazate, the “Hollywood” of Morocco, where Laurence of Arabia, Cleopatra, Kingdom of Heaven, and Babel were shot.
Anne Tyley, executive editor of a range of World Service programs, including On Screen, says, “People need to listen to the output before pitching ideas to us, but a cracking idea and the ability to realize it will always get through.”
In 2006, Hubber was one of 10 freelance reporters from around the globe that the World Service brought to London for four days of training. “It was very helpful,” she says, “and I was able to meet reporters from nine other countries.”
Though she reports for programs in the United States, Hubber says the sensibility of the BBC suits her personality. “They take longer pieces and allow them to ‘breathe.’”
It’s not all smooth sailing, however. “The editors change frequently. You might establish a relationship with a particular program editor, then they move on to something else.”
Today, Laura does one or two pieces a week for the BBC, but hastens to add: “I’ve never made my sole living from radio. I do television and book editing to supplement my income.”
People based overseas who do both news and features can make a living serving many outlets.
For the last six years, Charles Haviland has been a freelance correspondent in Nepal, contributing a steady stream of stories primarily to BBC domestic and international programs, but also to numerous other outlets.
What’s his secret? “The main reason I get lots of work is that I am in an interesting, exotic country with few foreign journalists. It’s as simple as that.”
“Also, a lot of my output goes on to the BBC Web site, which is one of the most popular in the world, so even non-BBC people see interesting or quirky stories of mine and then track me down.”
Recently KCRW-Santa Monica’s Good Food show tracked Charles down. They wanted to interview him about a bakery he visited at the Everest Base Camp, plus other joys of Nepali food.
From Berlin, former NPR producer Susan Stone works for a number of European broadcasting organizations as well as NPR. In 2005, the native Floridian received a fellowship from the Robert Bosch Foundation to work in Germany for a year, then decided to stay. During her Bosch fellowship, Susan was a “guest journalist” at Deutsche Welle Radio and Spiegel Online. She also worked as a consultant to Radio Netherlands Worldwide.
“The experience gave me insight, information, and contacts.” Susan says, and today she contributes to European broadcasters as well as the cultural and business desks at NPR. Susan says if you plan to go to Europe, diversify. “Every journalist I know here works for more than one medium — print, online — and all of us that work in radio know that it’s a time-consuming thing to do.
“And don’t expect to get rich! To be honest, you need to resell your pieces to be able to survive as a freelance here — radio simply doesn’t pay enough for individual pieces.” But Stone tries to live off what she earns in euros, not in U.S. dollars. “You’re not going to make a lot of money doing what I’m doing. In fact, I cannot imagine being a freelance in the U.S., but I can live quite well here on not very much."
Apart from reporters covering a major news story, perhaps no broadcaster in history has sold one story to as many markets as Stephen Beard, now the European correspondent for Marketplace.
In 1988, Beard, then a full-time London-based freelancer, went to Vienna to do a piece about the 50th anniversary of the Anschluss — the German annexation of Austria. The first version of the piece aired on the CBC program Sunday Morning. He then did different versions for BBC Radio 4, BBC World Service, British Forces Broadcasting Service, Deutsche Welle, ABC in Australia, Radio New Zealand, South African Broadcasting Corporation, Radio/Television Hong Kong, and NPR.
“That’s my all-time record,” he says with a grin. “It’s much more difficult now, but while it lasted it was incredible.”
On his office wall at home, Stephen had a list of all the programs he could sell his stories to. “Every time I did a piece, I forced myself to sell it to someone else. Before the Internet, I would put a tape in an envelope and send it to Australia, or New Zealand, or wherever.”
Today, Beard says he’s happy to think about one subject: economic and financial issues for Marketplace.
But the one-time king of story-sellers says that if someone from the U.S. or Canada is interested in working overseas, they should, like Susan Stone, try to get a fellowship to get there, then build things up.
“And don’t bother to work for Vatican Radio.” he adds. “The pay is so low, the reward is in the afterlife.”
As for my own “cross cultural experience” in London, I ended up staying 27 years before returning to the mountains of West Virginia. Today, I work closer to home — for West Virginia Public Broadcasting and Soundprint — but every few weeks, the phone rings and a voice in London politely asks me to do something.
And in my living room, my grandfather’s shortwave radio now holds pride of place.
U.S. vs. overseas markets — How much do they take from us?
Weekend America needs our contributions. Every week about 40 percent of the program is freelance material. NPR takes about 21–24 percent of material from outsiders, including member stations’ reporters as well as freelancers. About a quarter of Radio Netherlands pieces come from freelance contributors. For Deutsche Welle, it’s about a third. A high percentage of the stories for these broadcasters come from Europe.
Different BBC programs, departments, and radio networks vary enormously as to how much freelance material they take. For whole programs or series, the percentage is usually lower. The BBC World Service, for instance, buys about 10 percent of their programming from independent production companies, while news and current affairs or arts programs take more material from freelance contributors.
Jean Snedegar started her broadcasting career in London, working for the BBC. Today she contributes from time to time to The Food Programme on BBC Radio 4 and Business Daily on the BBC World Service, while also producing features and documentaries for West Virginia Public Broadcasting and Soundprint.