“how does one get a job producing public radio?”
On a semi-regular basis, I get email messages and telephone calls from people who want to ask me about my job. Usually, it’s someone considering pursuing a career in radio who wants to pick my brain. And I’m happy to oblige.
Often, the questions are the same: Is it worth going to school? Are there actually any jobs? How do I get an internship?
I don’t have good answers to most of these questions, so I usually just end up telling people my story — how I came to work at the CBC — in the hopes that it might help.
Last week, I received another of these semi-regular emails asking about how to become a public radio producer. I started to type a reply, but then realized that it might be helpful to write a more public response. This blog post is that. So then, here are a few rambly thoughts on how I ended up in my current job.
Caveat #1: there really isn’t a clearly defined career path to becoming a CBC Radio employee. I took one route. You may (and probably should) take another route.
Caveat #2: I am a bit of an anomaly. By the end of high school, I had my sights pretty firmly set on working for CBC, and spent the next five years trying *really* hard to make that happen. A little more than a decade after deciding to pursue a career in public radio, I now have that job. I’m a producer on Spark, CBC’s national tech/culture show, and I serve as a technology columnist on most CBC Radio local afternoon shows.
OK. Let’s begin.
I am not a good person to ask about journalism school, because I never went. Sure, I went to two great universities (King’s ‘03, Ryerson ‘05), both of which have decent journalism programs, but I didn’t study journalism at either. Why? At the time, both journalism programs seemed strongly focused on print, and my interest was very specific: I wanted to make radio.
So, coming out of high school, I took a 3-year BA at King’s, studying English and Contemporary Studies and the History of Science and Technology (and a bunch of other small-liberal-arts-college-type subjects), and volunteered at the small but mighty CKDU. Then, in my last year at King’s, I applied to Ryerson’s Radio and Television Arts program. At the time, RTA had an “advanced standing” option for university graduates, which gave me a second degree in exchange for two years of my life. The advanced standing option no longer exists.
While at Ryerson, I developed some production chops, and learned a bunch of technical stuff that’s now largely obsolete. I co-hosted a campus radio show, sold a bunch of my school assignments to CBC Radio and made a half-hour radio pilot, which was a gigantic TAL wannabe rip-off.
And while Ryerson was great, I’ll be frank: career-wise, the single most valuable thing I got from RTA was the license to call people up and say, “Hi, my name is Dan, and I’m an RTA student. Can I buy you a coffee and ask you about your job?” Holding a Ryerson student card gave me a non-threatening way to approach people with jobs that I wanted. “Hi, I’m a student and I’m interested in your job,” is a way better introduction than, “Hi, I’m some guy who wants your job. Can you tell me how to take it from you when you retire?” Generally speaking, I’ve found that if asked politely (and on a good day), most people are willing to sit down and talk about themselves. The nicer ones might even take pity on a starving student and pay for your coffee.
The lesson: if you decide to study broadcasting/journalism/media/whatever, one of the single most valuable resources at your disposal are professors with professional connections. Find them, then work the hell out of them. The connections, I mean. Which brings me to…
I hate this word. And I’m not naturally a “network-y” kind of guy. But when people ask me how I got a job at CBC, I usually tell them, “By pestering people.”
I asked my professors who they knew at CBC. I called those people up, name-checked said professors, and got coffee meetings, job shadows, and ride-alongs. After meeting someone, I’d tell them how much I wanted to work at the CBC, and the kind of radio I wanted to make. Then I’d ask, “Who else should I talk to? Can I use your name?”
Lather, rinse, repeat.
Especially when you’re starting out, who you know is how you eat. The best way to get a job is to meet people who are in a position to give you one.
That said, it’s easy to be annoying. I’m sure I was annoying. It’s like Goldilocks and the three bears: there’s too eager (annoying), not eager enough (forgettable), and then there’s just right. I remember asking people if I was too pushy. The straight shooters told me when I was.
The CBC has a proper internship program. However, I had a hell of a time getting one. Here’s the story, adapted slightly from a report I had to write about it for school:
One day in the summer of 2004, I was having lunch with Alex Mason, a producer for CBC Radio’s Sounds Like Canada. We were talking about internships, and he told me about his at CBH in Halifax. When I asked him for advice, he suggested that my best bet was not to approach a large network show like his, but rather a regional or local show. I asked him why, and he gave me a few reasons:
- On a local/regional show, I’d be more likely to get my hands dirty with real work. On a network show, they might simply have me labeling CDs or doing more traditional “intern” type work.
- On a local show, I’d have a better opportunity to try a wider variety of things.
- Because I’d be doing real work, Iíd have a better opportunity to prove that I could do real work. This might translate into work after graduation.
This sounded good to me, so I tool Alex’s advice, and emailed all the local/regional CBC shows produced in Toronto. On July 21, 2004, I heard back from Metro Morning and Here and Now. Both shows referred me to a woman named Joan Melanson, Executive Producer of Current Affairs for CBL. I got in touch with Joan by email. She wrote back, explaining that “the exact policy around CBC and interns is up in the air. As it stands right now, we are required to pay interns for any work they do. So, as a result, in Toronto anyway, we are not bringing in interns to work as volunteers.”
I came to Ryerson hoping to pursue a career in public radio. Executive producers around the country were telling me a CBC internship was something I needed in order to be considered for any kind of work. Joan’s news didnít bode well for my chances. But at the end of her email, Joan did invite me to give her a call once I returned to Toronto and she returned from holidays. So I did. I called and left several messages on her voicemail. I sent her more email messages.
And then one day in early September, Joan called me back. We talked about school, and radio, and why I wanted to intern at CBL. We found out that we both have Nova Scotian roots. She explained again that the CBC was unclear about its policy on interns, but promised me that sheíd look into it for me. At the end of our first phone call, Joan promised that if there was any way she could make a CBL internship happen for me, she would try. I apologized for bugging her so much. She said it was no problem. Ever since, Iíve not worried about bugging her with my persistence.
And for the next few months, I was persistent. I probably emailed her or called once a week, just to check in. For a long time, there was nothing for her to report. The CBC was still confused about interns. On one hand, they recognized the importance of interns, but on the other hand, there were union issues. Plus, because I was an Advanced Standing student, RTA’s official internship course wasnít available to me, so I couldnít do an internship for credit.
Over the next couple of months, I visited the Broadcast Centre several times. I asked everyone I could about internships. None of them could tell me anything concrete about the CBCís official stance on internships. One day in November, job-shadowing reporter Geoff Ellwand, I met Joan Melanson in person for the first time. We shook hands, sat down for a few minutes, and with little new to report, Joan told me that weíd make an internship happen. Near Christmas-time, a CBC exec who was working on the CBC’s official internship policy told me that without school credit, there was no way I could get an internship. So I concentrated on getting official school credit for any internship that might happen.
After very little success with Ryerson admin, I approached my Case Studies professor Charles Davis early in the winter term. I explained my situation, and asked if he could offer me official credit in his course for an internship. He agreed, and I had what I needed. I contacted Joan, letting her know that I had official school credit. Again, interning was a “maybe.” It continued to be “maybe” until one day, Joan got the final word from those in charge. The word was “no.” I was disheartened.
But Joan pleaded my case. Eventually, someone had a change of heart, and on January 28, 2005, Joan emailed me, saying “I have some good news ñ the approval for your internship at CBL has gone ahead. They are making a bit of an exception since technically, RTA is not part of the agreement CBC has with various schools about bringing in interns. But you can now officially intern with us at CBL.”
I will stop here and try to explain what a wonderful feeling it is to have someone believe in you. Joan didnít know me that well, other than as a Ryerson student who kept leaving messages on her voicemail. Still, she took time out of her day to deal with the CBC bureaucracy, trying to find internship answers for me. And when neither of us liked the answers that she found, she cared enough to champion my cause, convincing the higher-ups to let me into the building. I am very grateful for what Joan has done for me.
So when she emailed, I was delighted with the news. I jumped around my apartment for a bit. I called my mom in Halifax. The moral of the story, I suppose, is that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. On February 11, 2005 I started my internship at CBL.
I wrote that in 2005. Reading it back, I’m still flabbergasted by the bureaucracy, and delighted by the Joan. I spent several months with CBL, assigned to Metro Morning. Sure, I did some pretty “interny” things, but I got a chance to participate in story meetings, pitch ideas, and chase guests.
When CBC internship ended, I already had a job offer for a short-term (2-3 month) contract in Windsor, Ontario. The local morning and afternoon shows needed an associate producer/technician, and somehow, my name ended up on a list somewhere. I took the job, and have been working at CBC on a reasonably steady basis since then (with a 2005 lockout and a few months of freelancing thrown in for good measure).
People sometimes ask me how long I’ve worked at the CBC. “Depends on when you start counting,” I reply.
You could start counting when I sold my first freelance piece to Radio Syndication in 2004 (I sold a bunch of my Ryerson radio productions to CBC as short documentaries). Or you could count my first contract job in Windsor in 2005. Or, you could count the six months I spent freelancing full-time.
In late summer 2005, CBC management locked out CMG employees (like me). Rather than stay in Windsor, I packed up and moved back to Toronto. Personally and professionally, it was maybe the best decision I’ve ever made. In Toronto, I spent hour after hour on the picket line with people I would *never* have otherwise had access to. Executive producers and hosts of the shows I wanted to work for. As we circled the Toronto Broadcasting Centre, I talked about the freelance radio pitches I could sell them once we were back inside. When we eventually got back to work, I had the names and numbers of a bunch of people who were willing to buy pieces from me. Most notably, I started a four-year freelance stint with the Saturday morning show GO!
Freelancing is a hustle. It keeps you hungry. Luckily, I only spent about 6 months freelancing full-time, before getting a “job job.” But it was long enough to learn how to survive on a sporadic public radio income. In my (short) experience, here’s how to make a go of freelance radio at CBC:
- Find out who has money to hire you. Not everyone does.
- Find out how those people prefer to receive pitches
- Be awesome. Deliver great stuff.
For me, freelancing was a stepping stone to a more stable job. If that’s your goal, I have one additional piece of advice: do your freelance work AT the CBC. Even if you have better equipment at home, still do it at the CBC offices. It sounds obvious, but if you’re not there, you’re not top of mind. And you want to be top of mind when the fill-in jobs become available.
Getting a “job job”
Getting a “job job” at the CBC was the goal from day one. Here’s how it happened for me: I interned, then got a 3-month contract, then freelanced, then got a series of 1-week-at-a-time jobs, which turned into a short-term contract job, which turned into a slightly-longer-term contract job, which turned into year-long contract job, which eventually turned into a permanent staff job.
It doesn’t happen that way for everyone, but that’s how it happened for me, and a bunch of other people I know. Little jobs turn into bigger jobs, if you’re good at what you do, and reasonably easy to work with.
Right now, I am staff at CBC. I work on a show that I really like, alongside people I really like. I have a ton of creative license and latitude to explore things that interest me. It’s my job to call up smart, interesting people and talk to them. I’ve been lucky enough to do a bunch of different things, and I got almost all of the most interesting assignments because I knew someone, and had built up a body of work.
People sometimes ask me if it makes sense to pursue a career in public radio, given today’s job market. I won’t lie: I would *not* want to be looking for a job in public radio right now. I know a bunch of smart, talented people who have pursued work in this field, and been left nothing but unemployed and frustrated. But I also know a bunch of smart, talented people who are doing great work, and love their jobs.
So on the “do I or don’t I” question, I’m afraid I don’t have a strong suggestion.
It’s nice work… if you can get it.