(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.
My obstacle, I realized, wasn’t technophobia. It was pride.
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.
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.