How do I get a job at NPR?
January 18, 2009 8:08 AM   Subscribe

I'm 29, I'm living comfortably as an IT professional in New York City, but my dream is to work for NPR. I have a bachelor's in journalism and I was the music director at my college radio station...6 years ago. I have no connections, I have been out of radio production since college. What do I do?

My first impulse was the to just buy the necessary equipment and start interviewing people to create clips I could use in my cover letter/resume. I bought a Marantz PMD 620, and an electrovoice Re-50 mic, and started contacting the folks I wanted to interview, but no one was particularly interested in being interviewed by a guy who's basically doing it as a hobby, with no immediate intention to find a place for it on the airwaves.

Next, I went to the New York NPR affiliate (WNYC) and asked if they had internships for people outside of college, or if there was any way to do volunteer production work. Again, nothing.

I applied to a couple of production jobs that were posted on the WNYC website, but my lack of experience was apparent on my resume, and I was never called back for an interview.

My next step is to audition for a radio show at WFMU, the community run radio station in Jersey City, so I can get more recent broadcast experience. The earliest opening they have is in April.

Still, I feel like I'm being rebuffed in every direction. This is compounded by the fact that I live in New York City, which ups the ante considerably as far as competition goes. I know that I would excel in this position, and, in spite of a likely steep pay cut, I am sure I would be infinitely happier at work than I am now. Where do I go from here?
posted by orville sash to Work & Money (13 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
My friends who didn't get their jobs through internships got their positions through volunteering. I'd start volunteering, and maybe try to work with Radio Rookies, which is an WNYC affiliate...also, all of public radio is cutting back right now, because of the economy.
posted by melodykramer at 8:14 AM on January 18, 2009

If your goal is to be on-air talent why not create a radio show that does not depend on interviewing other people. Like a news program or something.
posted by norabarnacl3 at 8:24 AM on January 18, 2009

Like other flagship NPR stations, WNYC is a fortress of media elites. In trying to make your way into its wood-paneled, underfunded environs you're up against a zillion This American Life fans beating down the door and working their connections to get on. There may be more opportunity at a public radio station in the middle of nowhere. I know a national reporter of theirs who scored her gig after serving time in Alaska somewhere.

The best way to get interview clips is to start a podcast. Then you can call yourself a real host, and won't suffer the classic J-school issue of people wondering why they should be interviewed for a spec project that won't be heard by anyone.
posted by Kirklander at 8:24 AM on January 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Why not just start making shows and offer them to NPR as an independent producer? If you're on good money now, you can get yourself a decent field recording kit and hardware and software to edit your pieces, and do it on weekends and evenings.

As you've realised, you're fighting serious competition to get a staff position. By your own admission, you have no recent experience. So get some - make some shows.

Have a poke around Hearing Voices for a bit of inspiration, write a few intro scripts and draft out some ideas for subjects, interviews and themes. Then get making, build yourself a website and start putting out short pieces for the web and sending your longer pieces to NPR.
posted by Happy Dave at 8:24 AM on January 18, 2009

Have you considered going back to school specifically for radio journalism? The Salt Institute has a great semester-long program geared for those coming from related fields.

Other than that, start working on stories and posting them to PRX. See also Transom, AIR.
posted by joe vrrr at 8:45 AM on January 18, 2009 [3 favorites]

First, don't be discouraged. As others have pointed out, economic times are tough and as you yourself observed, you're in a tough market.

Good on you going out and grabbing some equipment. Working with audio for its own sake is something you can do whether anybody is listening or not and only practice will improve your skills. Your own podcast may not ever gather much of an audience, but committing to creating something regularly will build good habits.

For a good idea of what others are doing, poke around PRX. In time, set up your own account and put up your own work. It will serve as a nice compliment to your own web site, which was an excellent suggestion from Happy Dave.

There is a lot of valuable insight available from the Association of Indpendents in Radio, a surprising amount of it free to non-members.

I highly recommend getting to know Brad Linder's work. I really admire the way he's turned a broad range of interests into steady work. With your own background in IT, he's not a bad role model.

Finally, don't be discouraged. I've been in public radio for going on 24 years. I spent a very long stretch in development and despite a good resume and audition reel (or whatever we're calling it these days), my return to freelance programming and production has been a long process. I hustle for work every week.

But, if it's what you want to do, it's totally worth it.

(And, on preview, seconding joe vrrr's much more succinct recommendations. I can't believe I forgot Transom!)
posted by LinnTate at 8:49 AM on January 18, 2009

I've seen two routes to NPR (My career so far has been in newspapers/online journalism, not radio): Starting at smaller-market public radio stations and getting hired from a major metro newspaper. I have no idea how common the latter is in the overall hiring because the editor at my previous paper took over the news operation at NPR after leaving and hired a bunch of people from the paper.

There are at least two This American Life producers/reporters from my old paper who were hired before the editor went to NPR. One had won a Pulitzer and the other was just a very well-respected reporter. Another (experienced newspaper) reporter I know has worked on forming a relationship with TAL and has pitched them stories and set them up with sources but has yet to get his own stories on the air.

Keep in mind that the bulk of NPR's national operation is in Washington, not New York. And not only are they cutting back, but they've recently had layoffs. I don't say this to discourage you.
posted by Airhen at 9:41 AM on January 18, 2009

The one person I know who works at NPR (in DC) got started there with a short-term production program for students.
posted by The corpse in the library at 10:03 AM on January 18, 2009

Get. Out. Of. New. York.

You absolutely cannot be competitive in this market. Leave, and for a few years. Live a life worth taking about. In Provo, UT; Biloxi, MS; Billings, MT; or anywhere. Leave, and then come back. Obtain experience in radio stations in very small towns, then not so small towns, then bigger towns, then in Chicago, maybe, for that one small radio station no one's heard of.

This is not a goal accomplished in a few months, or even a few years. It is a life's work for someone without an in.
posted by trotter at 12:03 PM on January 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

Yup, start your own show and run your own stories.

A friend of mine was an award-winning radio journalist and she got in by finding her own stories and pitching as a freelancer.

If it's anything like print writing, you will need to submit clips.

So my advice is, get some good recording equipment and put some stories together that NPR would be likely to run and send them in. They should be edited perfectly, sound should be broadcast quality and it should be in the style of NPR. You can contact them regarding the technicalities of submissions but the key is to be specific about which program you want to submit work to, how your background helps and makes you perfect for the job and then start out on a freelance basis.

The good thing is, if you have your radio clips done already, you can submit them to other stations and build your body of work from there.
posted by HolyWood at 12:28 PM on January 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

First of all, congrats on figuring out what you want to be when you grow up. To have done that at 29 is impressive! Secondly, all the above posters clearly know what they're talking about re: public radio. Subscribing to TAL and Radiolab podcasts is pretty much the extent of my NPR experience. But I'm not psyched about all the discouraging comments.

I think if you really know what you want to do, the path is straightforward if not necessarily easy (and btw, this works for any job, not specific to NPR):

1 - Contact as many people as you can who are doing what you want to do and ask them out to lunch/coffee/phone call/whatever. The more people the better, from all levels - Ira Glass on down to the assistant to the regional manager of Scranton Public Radio.

2 - Tell them that you want to be just like them when you grow up and ask what you should do.

3 - Go do whatever they tell you awesomely and them after each step to let them know how it's going. Ask for more advice as necessary.

After a year or two of this you'll have a sick network (the magic "in" that the posters above talk about), a bunch of experience, and a crystal clear view of how to get where you want to go.
posted by oqrothsc at 2:23 PM on January 18, 2009

Best answer: I'm on staff with two national programs.

1: Now is the best and worst time to try this. Worst because no one is hiring and most are even laying off. Best because many of those people being laid off are leaving the industry, which means in five years when everyone's hiring again, there will be a few less veterans.

2: I've never seen anyone without a ton of experience get hired as a staff producer. That's what freelancers do. If you pitch a story to one of my shows, we listen to your old work. Even if it's rough and there isn't much of it, if it's interesting, your pitch might get accepted. Then you're assigned a staff editor and you go produce the story. So, if your short-term goal is a staff position, give up. If your goal is to crawl your way to a position years down the road, then you might have a chance.

3: Freelancers don't do interviews - hosts do. If you want to freelance, you have to pitch stories. Find something interesting going on, people doing interesting things, some window into an interesting topic. And most importantly, something in the future. If there's a parade going on this weekend, and you record it and make some beautiful sounding piece on it and submit it to our show in two weeks, we won't run it, because it's a story about something that's already happened.

4: Making work is really important. It's the only way to learn. But making it in a vacuum is a waste of time. Public radio uses a very specific style of storytelling. Some of that style you can pick up by listening. But a lot of it will only come by working with an editor in that style. Make PR friends that are willing to listen to your work and critique it. And listen to them, even if you think you're going for your own sound. Remember that Ira spent years cutting tape for ATC before he got to do his own thing.

5: I've worked in a number of industries, and PR is, by far, the closest thing to a meritocracy that I've ever seen. It really is about the quality of the storytelling. If you're a random dude that no one's ever heard of, but you produce killer work, you'll get it on air. The flip side to that is that if you don't produce good work (or you haven't produced any work) they won't give you the time of day. You've been feeling rebuffed because you've given them no reason to care about you.
posted by ochenk at 3:00 PM on January 18, 2009 [15 favorites]

Mod note: Final update from the OP:
Matt got in touch and said “so, with the benefit of hindsight, how do you get a job at public radio?” So, I decided to compile a six point list that reflects my experiences in public radio.
posted by mathowie (staff) at 2:07 PM on November 26, 2014 [10 favorites]

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