Second Acts, Work
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Secrets of a Second-Career Intern

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(Photo Credit: Donna Svennevik)

When I left my last magazine job in 2008, it seemed there were exactly zero print publications left worthy to work for. I had devoted 20 years of my career to the magazine industry, but it was no secret that the field was going down the tubes.

Also, If had to edit one more piece on why blueberries are a superfood, there was a good chance I would slide under the desk into a fetal position and never come out. I was burned out and my well of work ideas had run bone dry.

So when a friend told me about the jumpstart she got from her career coach, I went to see him. One of the first exercises he gave me was simply to muse about my job:

Turn off the censor in my head, and make a list of the places I would love to work.

The first name that popped in my head was WNYC, the public radio station in New York City. I’d done a slew of radio interviews during my magazine career, and they were always fun. And I was a fan: I loved the warm intimacy of a good radio interview. Listening to radio, my mind was engaged. I was learning, thinking, and entertained all at the same time.

A few drops of inspiration fell into that dry well.

But where to start? I knew what made a good story in print. I assumed those skills would translate to making radio. Right?

Well, actually, they do.

Problem was, I didn’t have the vaguest idea how to edit a sound file, how to set up a studio for an interview, or even how to turn on a microphone. I needed some training: Difficult to admit after spending two decades mastering another career. After many more fruitful talks with that same career coach, I knew that to learn, I was going to have to start at the bottom. I would become an intern.

[pullquote]My obstacle, I realized, wasn’t technophobia. It was pride.[/pullquote]

Thankfully, I wasn’t alone. According to a 2010 CareerBuilder survey, 23 percent of employers report that they have internship applicants who are age 50 or older, or who have more than 10 years’ experience in the workforce. I wasn’t yet 50, but my 40th birthday was almost a dim memory.

So I put my pride aside and applied, and then counted myself lucky to be chosen to work as an intern —  four days a week for five months — at Studio 360, a popular, national radio show that explores creativity and the arts.

Technically, it wasn’t unpaid. I was reimbursed about $10 per day. I remember thinking that it was enough for the subway down there and back, or lunch, but not both. But luckily I had money saved, and had an employed and supportive husband.

My fellow interns fit the more traditional age profile– one had just graduated from Yale and the other was finishing a graduate degree at Boston College. They had a much greater facility with the technical stuff than I did: they had been playing with laptops and sharing sound files since they were in high school. I had written all my papers on typewriters.

Inside WNYC’s window-filled, Varick street offices we’d meet to discuss story topics and themes. Sharp creative ideas were slung around insouciantly and I could barely keep up with the pop culture references. But I felt challenged. I hadn’t felt as inspired for a decade.

While the full-time staff was friendly and accommodating, training me was not a top priority. In order to learn the audio editing software and other fine points of radio, I was going to have to ask these recent grads to teach me. For a few weeks, I worked with my head down, doing the writing assignments the show staffers gave me. I pretended I was being a good employee, but really I was chicken. I briefly convinced myself that I was satisfied doing something I was already good at. I wasn’t, of course. Why would I work for nearly-free at something I was already good at? My obstacle, I realized, wasn’t technophobia. It was pride. The challenge wasn’t taking an internship in mid-life. It was humbling myself enough to ask a 22-year-old for help.

Finally I got my nerve up and scheduled sit-downs with my young colleagues. Turns out, my hesitation was unjustified. They couldn’t have been nicer, and I started to get the hang of radio editing. I also signed up for a short off-site class in ProTools, the editing software they used at the station. I was still no whiz, but I left the class with the confidence to do the work, as well as the humility to ask others for help.

Around the same time, I started snooping around next door where the daily, live interview show The Leonard Lopate Show is produced. One of their staff invited me to come down to the control room during the show. I found it thrilling in that musty, soundproof booth. While I’d been weighted with fear at the desk upstairs, here I could barely sit down. This was live radio, and anything could happen. If the guest didn’t show up on time, the staff had to figure out how to fill the time seamlessly so listeners couldn’t tell. If the host didn’t get back to his seat in time after a bathroom break, there could be dead air. If a caller started cursing, the producer had to find the “dump” button fast and get him off the air. It was a complicated opera that had to come together at just the right moment to produce an entertaining, provocative show. The stakes felt higher than on the taped show I’d been working on, and I found it exhilarating.

When my internship at Studio 360 was over, I knew what I had to do next: I signed up to be an intern (again!) at The Leonard Lopate Show. There, it wasn’t so hard to untangle the mysteries of radio because the Executive Producer threw me directly into the deep end: I produced a live segment on my second day. I did the research, wrote questions for Leonard and reviewed the material with him before the show. I stood in the control booth (with more experienced staffers by my side) and helped guide the discussion that was happening live on the air. That feeling that anything could happen was completely terrifying. And through my sweat and the sound of my heart pounding in my ears, I loved it.

A couple of weeks in, I realized I was grateful for my advanced age. I doubt that in my younger days I could have handled the pressure of a live show, or the way the stressed-out staffers barked at me when I did something wrong (a daily, inevitable event).

I stayed there — working once a week — for a year or so, until that Executive Producer recommended me for a professional, paying job on satellite radio’s Martha Stewart Living channel, which I got (!). At that job, I continued to learn the lay of the radio land by producing shows every day and collaborating with terrific colleagues. I continued to make mistakes, big and small, but I got good at the job, too.

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Interviewing writer Mitchell Jackson (Photo Credit: Donna Svennevik)

About a year in, I pitched an idea for a show, which I hosted. Called BookTalk, it showcased three candid author interviews over the course of an hour each Friday afternoon on Sirius. Listeners loved it and so did I. Though I felt that familiar wave of terror when the engineer said “One minute to air,” I knew that my internships and past work gave me the tools I needed to host the show.

When the Martha Stewart station shut down at the end of 2012, I launched my own podcast version of that author interview show. (Shameless plug: You can subscribe to it on iTunes and hear it for yourself)

I’m happy to report that I made it out of the intern ghetto. I swallowed my heaping pride and took many steps back to learn a new trade. I still love radio just as much as when I was simply a fan. Possibly more now, because I understand what it takes to bring in listeners, entertain them, and maybe help them see things from a different perspective.

And if I had to spend some very underpaid time to get here, well … that’s a trade I can live with.

Filed under: Second Acts, Work

by

Cary Barbor

Cary Barbor is the host and producer of Books and Authors, a podcast that features candid conversations with today’s leading writers. It’s available on iTunes. She tweets at @Bksandauthors.

38 Comments

  1. Adrianna Dufay says

    I’ve thought about doing that exact thing. (At WNYC, even.) I admire your bravery!

    • Adriana, If you ever want to have a cup of coffee and talk about it, I’d be happy to.

      • I second Adrianna! Great piece, very inspiring, and I have often fantasized about doing a show. Is the coffee invitation extended to me, too? 🙂 (I hope!) — Blair

  2. So many people settle into careers and don’t look back, even when they are no longer learning or inspired. I love how you took a different path! And of course I love your radio show 🙂

  3. Rachel says

    Cary – You are an inspiration! I am 30, but I was in a dead-end job where I couldn’t get promoted (even though I’d just gotten my degree). I hated what I was doing in insurance and I went to school for communications, so I took a leap as a paid, part-time marketing intern. I’m loving the industry I’m in and I hope to secure a full-time opportunity in this industry after my internship ends. I loved reading your story, thank you for sharing! This stuff takes guts!

    • Great article Cary!

      Rachel, Were you able to get a paid internship while in school or was this after graduation?

      • Rachel says

        Lisa – I graduated last December and my internship just started last month. I looked for a full-time job in marketing, but with so little experience, I didn’t have any luck. I have an understanding boyfriend who agreed to take on more of the financial responsibility for a while. It’s a little scary, but I have until Feb. to learn as much as I can and hopefully find something permanent.

        • Thanks, I wonder if there are paid internships while in a masters program? Did you find there was while in school? I am planning on starting school this next year. I appreciate your input.

          • Rachel says

            Lisa,

            I’m sure there are some! I knew someone who used to work where I am interning now, so that helped. You can do online searches for internships in your area too, so try that maybe?

    • Thanks, Rachel! It does take guts, but the thought of being bored for a few decades is the most horrifying prospect of all, isn’t it? I am wishing all the best for you.

  4. Rachel says

    Lisa,

    I happened to know someone who used to work where I’m interning now, so that helped.

    Try an online search for internships in your area and some you’ll find are actually paid, I bet! Good luck!

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  5. You, my friend are my hero! Steadfast. Curious. Graceful. Always with humility, good cheer and a slight amount, just the right, of unmerited angst.

  6. Cary, I am so proud of you! And, I love your writing style. I wish you great success.

  7. Pamela says

    This is a lovely story and I have just subscribed to your podcast 😉 – I live in Europe, so am not familiar with it and am looking forward to a good listen. I am a devout radio fan and also at the burnout point in my 25 year career. I would so love a change! Alas, as a single parent and sole provider for the household, letting go of income is a bigger challenge. Nevertheless, I was inspired by your story and thank you for sharing it.

  8. Jennifer says

    This is truly inspiring! And this is the first time I have ever commented on anything online besides a FB post….finding myself at similar crossroads in life as you were Cary. Thank you for sharing, I think I have just changed the way I am approaching life, thank you for the push!

  9. Cary – Congratulations for the courage to do what you love and step up to your potential. Do I have your permission to post your story on my website?

    I guide women through uniquely customized workshops in self-discovery and career awareness that build their self confidence to experience empowerment to make career decisions for employment or entrepreneurship.

    As part of Career Role Model Program, Inc. we use women’s career stories for inspiration and learning. Your story is an awesome example that will inspire all ages.

    You can find a few examples already posted at CareerRoleModel.com/share-your-story. We also have a mentorship program if you would enjoy being a mentor. I would be honored to share your story of becoming an intern and look forward to your reply.
    Deepest appreciation,
    Claudia

  10. Tressie says

    Tears are streaming down my cheeks! My passion is to work in health care (Compliance or Patient Advocacy). Receiving many rejection letters, I just gave up trying. I’m 46 and have no experience working in healthcare or transferable skills; however, I received my Masters in Health Care Management in ’11. How do i gain experience was a constant question I kept asking. I have the answer, through your inspiring story. This is a mind and life changing moment for me. God Bless!!!!

  11. Cary – was introduced to your story by Margit, who told me about it at the Indie Media Camp. I do interviews with people who have changed their career to follow what they love (www.chapterbe.com), and think your story would be a great addition to the site. Let me know if you might be interested. Thanks and congrats!

  12. Debra Wagner says

    Thank you for this candid and inspiring story. I have recently left a successful fifteen year career as a Project Manager to take a plunge in an entirely new field, for a lot less money. I needed to hear that it’s ok to question my definition of success. At this point, for the first time in my life, my career is not about my survival and that of my five kids. Realizing that has made me look with fresh eyes at what I do, and I suddenly realized that I absolutely HATE it!

    I have no idea how I will pay the bills, but I am exhilarated – and terrified! 🙂

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