Four PRODUCERS ON HOW TO MAKE A LIVING
By Jason deBruyn
Sally Herships took her first radio internship at the age of 30.
Herships pitched and pitched, and began picking up work after her internship at “Radiolab,” eventually producing segments for the BBC World Service and “Studio 360.”
Eleven years after she began, Herships hosts public radio parties at her apartment in Brooklyn (complete with a vintage sound booth named Ermentrude), is a regular contributor with “Marketplace,” and teaches writing for radio.
AIR has tracked producers’ income and professional activities in an annual survey since 2007. For Herships and other producers, the areas of greatest change are centered on the opportunities they see in the marketplace. Producers who used to work in public media and broadcast are seeking new revenue streams — at the same time that corporate media companies shift more resources into audio projects, like Mike Pesca’s podcast, “The Gist,” for Slate.
The shift may reflect a few changes: an increasing number of multimedia producers have joined AIR, and some of their work appears primarily online. More producers primarily distribute their work through podcasts (8 percent of producers in 2014, versus 3 percent in 2010), and 60 percent of AIR’s producers say they are working on “new approaches to craft,” with just 10 percent working exclusively in broadcast radio.
Herships is one of the broadcast-focused producers whose career echoes findings from the 2006 benchmark study “Mapping Public Radio’s Independent Landscape,” which determined that “[o]ftentimes, producers who successfully sustain their independent radio production work full or part time within the industry at radio stations, doing freelance on the side.”
Herships is part of the 38 percent of AIR producers whose income from public media increased in the past year; 40 percent of the survey’s respondents said their pubmedia income had decreased. (But independent producers aren’t exactly fleeing the system: 79 percent said they expected to maintain or increase the amount of work they did in public media in the coming year.)
Herships said there isn’t anything “magical” about growing a career as an independent producer in the system.
“You just have to get out there and pitch,” she said.
Herships is part of the 58 percent of AIR producers who still rely on broadcast radio as the primary outlet for their work, and the 61 percent who work primarily in public media, according to AIR’s 2014 survey of producers.
But five years ago, broadcast was the primary outlet for 77 percent of the network, and 74 percent worked primarily in public media.
Mathew Holding Eagle, a multimedia producer in North Dakota, got his start in public media, but he is one of a growing wave of younger producers who hope to have more options in producing and selling their work.
“I think the smart thing to do is keep your options open,” he said. “I wouldn’t limit myself if there was something that was not connected to public media.”
Holding Eagle belongs to the largest cohort of AIR producers: Thirty-nine percent of the network has worked in media for five years or less.
Holding Eagle’s journalism career began two years ago after a series of construction jobs, a college degree, and consultation on museum projects. In 2012, he wrote and helped produce a documentary about milk cows for Prairie Public Television, then worked on the Localore documentary “Black Gold Boom” with Todd Melby.
He made about $1,400 for a month’s work as the liaison between the production and the Native American community. Now, he said, he is looking for the next project.
“In the off time here, I’ve been pretty blessed. I own land out there, and drilling out there you have a 97 percent chance of hitting oil,” Holding Eagle said. “I get monthly checks for a pretty significant amount of money that lets me do kind of what I want.
“I’ve been lucky, and I live in a pretty small community by most people’s standards, and I am able to help out at the paper and look for the next thing to come along.”
Jeff Emtman is another young producer who is focused on creative control. Emtman works 20 hours a week as a bicycle courier in Seattle and earns about $15 per hour, enough to pay the bills. Having that security allows him to produce “Here Be Monsters — The Podcast About The Unknown.”
“I come at this a little differently than I think many of my colleagues,” Jeff Emtman said. “I don’t think that having another job is such a bad thing.”
Emtman is one of 8 percent of AIR producers who work primarily in podcasting, up from 3 percent in the 2010 survey.
In a recent story about podcasting for Nieman Reports magazine, Eric Nuzum, NPR’s vice president for programming, noted that a successful podcast doesn’t have to reach the hundreds of thousands of listeners that radio does in order to draw advertisers. The listening behavior of podcasts’ fans — Nuzum calls them “a [show’s] tribe” — puts the magic number for financial success somewhere around 50,000 to 60,000 listeners.
Emtman estimates that 10,000 people listen to his show — he’s produced 45 episodes in three seasons — and thinks a moneymaking opportunity waits around the corner.
“When I tell advertisers, syndicates, or public radio stations that I have an audience of 10,000, it opens doors,” he said. “It lets them know that I’m not just messing around.”
He recognizes that his perspective comes somewhat “from privilege.” His family paid for his public university education, he’s still on his parents’ health insurance (though that’s about to change), and he considers himself lucky to have a job that pays well enough to keep his bank account in the black.
All this allows him to make his podcast exactly as he wants, and he said he wants to work with underwriters he would like to associate with, instead of plugging products he might not like. (“I actually enjoy waiting in long lines at the post office,” he quipped; perhaps you’ve heard a pitch or two for Stamps.com from some of your favorite podcasts?)
Although podcasting and working a side job gives him artistic control, he said he “respect[s] the hell” out of his colleagues who pitch their stories every day to shows run by others.
“I’ve given myself five years,” he said. “And I can’t believe I’ve already gotten this far after just two.”
And during that five-year waiting period, Emtman noted, he is prepared to live a “frugal” lifestyle that includes five roommates, but he makes no complaints.
“My life is phenomenal,” he said. “My roommates help keep costs down, but I wouldn’t dream of moving out of my house.”
By one measure, making independent radio has become more lucrative. According to the 2014 survey, 34 percent of AIR producers earn between $30,000 and $60,000 per year, up from 23 percent in 2010.
Although the percentage of AIR members earning more than $30,000 per year has grown, more than half — 55 percent — still earn below that amount, and many, like Emtman, take on second jobs.
This, year, Audrey Quinn’s income from independent work put her in the top quarter of AIR producers. Between 2009, when she started in radio, and 2012, when she became a full-time freelancer in Brooklyn, she supported her journalism by working as a cheesemonger and a barista, and in a beer store, “things that made some money but kept my mind free,” she said.
“Over the past 12 or 13 months, I’ve probably applied for six grants, and I’ve gotten five,” she said. “I’ve had a good string this year; it’s not normal.”
A PRX STEM grant brought in a few thousand dollars — “A lot of these, I spend all of the money on production stuff,” she said — but a couple of investigative grants boosted her income further.
Although the 2014 survey found a sharp decrease in AIR producers who identify as strictly independent — a 15 percent drop since 2013 — Quinn says that independent production affords her more latitude in the kinds of stories she pursues.
“I’m always interested in meeting someone who has a job that I know nothing about,” she said. “I like being able to see something that interests me and report it how I want.”
Before the run of grants, her primary source of income was blogging and online writing, and even with a string of grants, her income is diverse: teaching, print reporting, fact-checking, and radio production — “a delicate balance.”
And, like Herships, she developed an ongoing relationship with “Marketplace,” which led to editors there asking her to report stories, saving her the time she might have spent pitching. Her radio pieces run, on average, four minutes — as “Mapping the Independent Landscape” noted in 2006, “there are few opportunities outside the news-feature format for independents,” and four-minute segments fall tidily into the NPR clock.
When Quinn wants to dig deeper and tell more, she searches for a grant that will allow her to continue work on that story.
It took her close to two years to get the grant-writing process down to a science, but now that she figured it out, it has proved a steady source of income.
“I’ve always been intimidated applying for grants, because it seems like a lot of work,” she said. “But someone said to me, ‘You only need one.’”
So she applied for grants and learned to use “the pitching pattern of how you get someone’s attention and how you fill that out with details.”
And, as Herships did, Quinn continues to pitch stories for radio. She keeps close tabs on the hours she commits, and if the pay comes out to an undesirable hourly rate, she knows to push for more money the next time.
Quinn has learned boldness when asking for more money.
“It’s four simple words: ‘Can you pay more?’” she said. “There is nothing to be afraid of.”
• Jason deBruyn is based in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he reports on the biopharmaceutical and health care industries for the Triangle Business Journal. If you have questions or comments about this story, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s note: This article has been corrected to reflect the nature of Sally Herships’ work for “Radiolab” and her employment with “Marketplace.”