From the Archive: Independent for $60K a Year

Editor’s note:“From AIR’s Archive” brings forward some of the lost (or long-buried) profiles and advice about audiocraft that we’ve collected over the years. Robin White, the founder of Radio College, wrote this advice about an entrepreneurial approach to independent production. This story, published as “How to Make $60K a Year Freelancing in Public Radio,” is one of the most-read pieces of advice we’ve ever published. 

by Robin White

My search for a way to make a living as a journalist in, or around, radio has led to some depressing side trips over the years. As many producers do, I did some writing for guided museum tours. The low point came a couple of years ago when I was standing in a museum on the West Coast with Fluffy, the creative director of the audio company, screaming in my ear. “Fluffy” is not her real name.

Fancying herself a Southern aristocrat, wearing the tattered clothing of the truly rich, she governed the audio tour business with all the flexibility of an iron bar. Two days before the exhibit was due to open with my script used as the basis for the audio tour, Fluffy had flown in from New York for a special, up-close-and-personal screaming edit.

The exhibit was about art of the Harlem Renaissance, and we had already had a tussle over whether I could mention lynching in my script. Despite the fact that lynching was rampant during the period and depicted in the paintings, Fluffy insisted that talking about lynching in a museum was “just too inflammatory.”

As we walked around the museum using my script as a guide, we eventually came to a photograph of the lesbian singer Bessie Smith taken by the erudite, white, gay, negrophile Carl Van Vechten. Fluffy grimaced over my script, which mentioned that many of the key writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance were “in the life” or homosexual.

“How can you sully such a beautiful photograph with this information?” she asked, her voice rising. “Why don’t you talk about what a beautiful woman she was?”

I’m a courteous man, except when I experience injustice, and this was the last of a long series of shouted censorious comments. By now I was grinding my teeth and getting ready to organize my own lynch mob for Fluffy. I’ll spare the details of the battle that ensued. Suffice to say that Bessie Smith remained a lesbian, but I began to recognize that the polite world of writing museum audio tours might not be for me.

* * *

I was out of ideas about how to make a living. The previous year I had had a lucrative contract writing audio for an educational multimedia company. When it ended, finding another similar gig in the fickle waters of multimedia had proved impossible. I had been freelancing in radio to help pay the bills, but going from story to story had never seemed a viable way to make a living.

The pay was appallingly low and the time involved in putting together a story from scratch was high. It was like eating a diet of raw carrots — you burn more calories eating and digesting than they provide in return. If you tried to live on raw carrots alone you’d gradually waste away.

I decided to call my friend Reese Erlich, a radio freelancer and university lecturer who lives in Oakland, California. Reese had once told me he makes a decent living from freelancing and had offered to tell me his strategy. He didn’t appear to be wasting away from carrot-eating syndrome so I thought he might know something about carrots that I didn’t.

The phone call that day was a pivotal point in my life and has led to everything that I have done since in public radio (including starting Radio College) because it enabled me to stay in the field. Reese gave me an idea: a simple idea and not a new idea, but the idea that got me on my feet financially.

Many people start in radio being story-driven as opposed to market- driven. The motivation to do the work does not come from making money, but from a kind of burning passion for the story itself or perhaps a passion around the craft of making radio: a delight with sound and personal expression, or the intimacy of radio. Those passions are wrapped up with the thrill of hearing your voice talking to millions of people on the air.

That’s exactly where I started. But I can well remember my disbelief when I sold my first story and realized that, despite my zeal, I was being paid little more than a gratuity.

It’s all very well to have a creative life, but if your creative life cannot support itself — well, you’re back at carrot-eating syndrome.

The idea that Reese gave me, which keeps me better nourished, is a mercantile idea that I call “multiple-selling.” The strategy is to take a story that you feel passionate about, and, before you start work on it, think about how you can sell it as many times as possible. If you can’t sell it more than once, DON’T DO IT, unless you’re willing to do it as a volunteer. At the rates typically paid in public radio, to get a return on the initial investment, to even begin to make money back from the time and money that you put into the research, the traveling and interview gathering, you need to sell a story more than once.

There are a few limitations placed on multiple-selling by the shows and networks in public radio but, by and large, it is in a show’s interest to encourage freelancers to do this. If they are making decent money, freelancers will stick around, get better, and be there the next time a show needs a story.

If you do it, here are a few rules to keep you out of trouble:

Rule 1: Sell the story starting with local and ending with global. Air a piece for the local news department or regional network before airing nationally. If a piece has already aired nationally, a local station will not be interested in it. The converse is not true. If you air a story in your local community, a national show is still going to be able to broadcast it to a vast audience that hasn’t heard it.

Rule 2: Don’t try to sell pieces to competing national shows. “Marketplace,” NPR news magazines, “The World” and some national specialist shows like “Living On Earth” may see themselves as reaching similar markets and may not be happy airing “stale” material.

Rule 3: Be honest about what you are doing. If you have already sold a story locally, tell the national program. They probably won’t care, but will need to know just in case they hear back from that one listener who hears the story twice.

Rule 4: Think of ways to make it advantageous to the shows — for example, by sharing expenses. If you are working with a local station and with a national show at the same time, you will get pressure from both sides with regard to the air date. The local or regional buyer needs to air before the national show, but may not be able to air immediately because of scheduling problems. This holds up the national show, which may want to air more urgently. However, if from the outset you have arranged a deal with both the local station and the national show to split expenses, therefore making the piece cheaper for both sides and putting the editors in communication with one another, you are more likely to find understanding and cooperation from both buyers.

Rule 5: Never sell the same story to different outlets. Always rewrite the script, use a different set of actualities and re-slant the story appropriately for the new outlet. An environmental piece about the destruction of a local beauty spot for a local station becomes a piece about the economics of eco-tourism for “Marketplace.” A piece about the 20th anniversary of a Balinese gamelan orchestra for a regional show becomes a piece about the way Balinese see Americans for “The World.”

Rule 6: Sell a story as many times as you possibly can. Your health, your wealth, your retirement and your ability to return and do another great story depend upon it. Sell locally. Sell regionally. Sell nationally. Sell internationally. Sell to specialized programs on kids or computers or Native issues or Latino issues or environmental issues. If the story is still current, next year resell it somewhere new.

* * *

Ever since that phone call with Reese, I have made up to half my income by freelancing using this technique. I am still not in Reese’s league. He sells his work up to 12 times, including sales to newspapers and magazines. I don’t have an established track record in print and, as Reese points out, writing for magazines is a different skill from writing for radio. It involves a different degree of research, and articles are structured differently from radio pieces. Still, writing for print is just a skill and skills can be learned.

I find that redrafting a script four or five times is an enjoyable task. It’s a great way to develop flexible writing skills and allows a surprising amount of creativity. I remember the frustration that I felt in my first stories when I realized how much information I had to cut out and how much great tape I had to waste because of the severe economies necessary for good radio. Now here’s a way to use that material and to express all the nuances of a story.

Multiple-selling also allows me to stay with a story longer. Reese works on international stories and moves from story to story, getting each batch of sales done and moving on, but my method has been to revisit stories over time. For each new market I might go back to the story and add an interview or two and learn more about the subject. The investment of additional time is small, but the reward in deepening my understanding is satisfying. The process can also lead to bigger projects. I am now working on a longform documentary that started out as a short feature, grew into another, and so on until someone agreed to fund a documentary project.

Carrot salad, carrot juice, cream of carrot soup, roasted buttered carrots, carrot and onion rissoles, Irish stew, carrot aioli, carrot cake!

Reese says he now makes as much income as senior NPR reporters and has given up his university teaching career in order to freelance full time. He chooses his own stories, and works from home. He travels to countries in which he is interested, putting together expense packages shared between several different outlets.

Best of all, neither Reese nor I are beholden to people like Fluffy. Public radio is only a remote sibling of audio tours for museums, but there are small tyrants in every field. Even in public radio, Reese says he has run into ideological censorship from acquirers who don’t like his perspective, but as a multiple-seller he has the choice of simply moving on to the next outlet. He maintains his integrity as a journalist, and the Fluffies of the world let out a little screech of dismay.

Robin White created and produced stories like this for Radio College from 1999 to 2003. Reese Erlich is a Peabody Award-winning journalist whose work appears on NPR, CBC, GlobalPost, and PBS, among others.