Tune in: Radio freelancing tips from the Born Freelancer

This column by the Born Freelancer shares personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something to add to the conversation? Your input is welcome in the comments.

Today’s working freelancers need to have as many skill sets as they can comfortably manage in order to pursue their storytelling on as many platforms as possible.

Radio is in many ways the language-based storyteller’s most ideal mass medium. Like print, it can offer great focus on important ideas. Unlike television there are no visuals to dominate the viewer’s senses. But the additional nuances of the human voice can lend texture and unparalleled meaning to any news report, interview or work of fiction.

So how does the novice break into radio freelancing? And is it even possible to make a living as a freelancer in it?

Begin With The Basics

As with any medium there are numerous and constantly evolving basic techniques to learn. Most colleges offer a variety of continuing education courses, and if you look closely enough you will probably find a radio-related course nearby. You should contact your local community college for details.

Be wary of those ads in newspapers for any kind of unknown XYZ School of Broadcasting. “You can be on the air in weeks!” They may gleefully take your money but very rarely give you any useful experience. (Of course, there are always exceptions.) Look instead for accredited schools of technology. Alternatively, look for experienced names in broadcasting who may occasionally teach specific seminars.

However, you need not pay for this kind of experience if you are motivated enough to learn mostly on your own and self-disciplined enough to avoid picking up some potentially inappropriate work habits. Many regions and communities have some kind of campus or community radio station at which you can volunteer your services for a period of time in exchange for some kind of basic instruction and, more importantly, the opportunity to experience all aspects of the medium.

Exploring Community Radio

It can be a wonderful learning experience depending upon your own personal predispositions and the organization you are about to join. Some community stations are very finely tuned and newbies enter a well-oiled training schedule followed by a probationary period during which they are mentored in their program making. Other stations are more loosely structured and you are more or less left to fend for yourself, often thrown on the air with little more than a hearty handshake and cursory rundown of the basic mechanics. Most offer something in between. It’s largely up to you to make something of it.

Going in with your own game plan is helpful. Do you wish to learn a little of everything or to specialize in a particular aspect of the medium? I’d strongly advise to begin getting as well-rounded a background as possible in all areas, both off mike and on the air. Once you’ve got a sense of where your strengths and weaknesses lie, it will be time for specialization. At that point you may seek to augment your experience with more formalized training. The great joy of community radio is in its often free-spirited approach — the unfettered ability to explore the exciting dimensions of an incredibly under-appreciated medium. The flipside of which is occasionally you can learn poor or ineffectual technique and get caught up in its often incessant political infighting. Nevertheless, if you are prepared to put in the time and energy required you will find yourself part of a dedicated team of individuals producing radio because they love it, believe in it and wish to share their own unique stories with the world through it.

As a working freelancer, however, there is literally no money to be made in community radio (unless you are prepared to move into one of their relatively few paid staff jobs, like station manager or program director). And so you must eventually start to look around to find your next step.

But First A Word From Our Sponsor

Commercial radio these days is increasingly run by accountants in large corporate offices with apparently little regard for the medium or their audiences. Doing more and more with less and less seems to be their motto. Employees appear to be perceived by them as little more than liabilities to dispose of as quickly as possible rather than as their greatest assets capable of enriching their bottom line. This is not true everywhere, of course, and it was certainly not always so to the extent that it is today. The tide of events will eventually shift once the bean counters have downsized themselves out of a job and radio returns to being run by local radio people again. When I was starting out every station’s news department had freelance “stringers” who augmented on a piece by piece basis that station’s news content. I had a ball doing it. And I learned so much. It is still worth contacting your local station’s news department — if they still have one — especially if you live outside of the major markets. The key to local radio success is local coverage. See if they might buy reports or sound actualities (recorded audio of newsworthy events) from you that they do not themselves have the staff to cover. It won’t make you a lot of money but you will quickly learn the dynamics of the business and find out if it is for you. If you are lucky you may find a mentor who will guide you through the process and help you find your place in the medium.

Freelancing In Public Radio

And so the natural goal for most freelancers wishing to make some kind of an actual living however meager in the medium is to find work in public radio. Here in Canada that means CBC Radio. Many freelancers will find its philosophy and general approach to the medium to their liking — some will not. A vast number of former campus/community radio folk have ended up working in public radio so there is a definite connection there. Most importantly, public radio still requires talented, experienced freelancers to create satisfying, original content. Unfortunately, not as many as they used to.

When I started in public radio a few years ago I was able to make what amounted to a good part-time living within it (supplementing my income there with work in commercial radio, television and print). I used to hear stories from more experienced veteran freelancers who would tell me of the days gone by in which you could make a decent full-time living as a freelancer at the CBC. Well, those days are long over. And, sad to say, even the days of making a decent part-time living seem to be over except perhaps for a chosen few. Still, it is the place to be in Canada if you want to work in radio and wish to pursue radio that has exceptional original content you need to proactively create.

CBC Radio — The Freelancer’s Friend

Where to begin? Read all the Canadian Media Guild material available online. All work you do at the CBC in Canada will be covered by CMG contracts and so that is a good place to start. And then? Listen. Listen, listen, listen. Find a show you feel you could contribute to or be a part of. But research it thoroughly, listen to it for days or weeks. I was once told by a CBC Radio producer how grateful he was that I actually listened to the show before contacting them! It seemed that a vast majority of freelancers would contact them with ideas that had no relationship to anything that particular show ever did or ever could or would do. Producers there are generally good people who would love to find and encourage new talent but are frequently under a great deal of stress and are very pressed for time. Do not waste it. When you contact them with ideas be concise, be precise, be cogent.

What you want is a door to open a little and for you to develop contacts on the inside. Approach individual shows first — always try to get a name to contact. Listen to the shows and check out their websites. Later you may wish to try pitching the network with ideas for whole shows or series. There is a webpage you must read about that here. But before you can run, you must walk and usually you will need to start with smaller individual contributions.

Everyone has a story to tell about themselves, and an ideal outlet for the beginning radio storyteller (as well as those more experienced) might be the weekend show Definitely Not The Opera on CBC Radio One. They look for unusual, memorable stories in the form of short memoir-like oral recollections. You should get on their freelance contributors’ mailing list, which announces upcoming topics upon which you can base pitches. Check out the show, of course, and their website.

Eventually you may wish to build up to larger items, mini-documentaries, or full-fledged documentaries such as those that frequently run on the CBC’s mid-morning shows. Listen to them closely and analyze how the best of them incorporate sound, speech, and music to achieve often-impressive results in your mind’s eye. The best radio story-telling, even including factual documentaries, is a kind of aural theatre.

The more freelancers who create exceptional programming, the more value the CBC will see in us doing so and the more power we will have collectively to fight for better standards.

Space — The Final Frontier

Beyond the CBC here in Canada lie foreign public radio organizations: NPR to our south, which actually comprises a number of independent public radio stations; the BBC in in the U.K., perhaps the role model for most if not all of the world’s serious public broadcasters; the impressive ABC Radio National in Australia; and so on. All require content and all use freelancers to some degree or another. But of course you will be competing with their own native freelancers (as they will be competing with you for work at the CBC). The trick is to see if you can come up with something that their local freelancers cannot — or have not yet thought about — thanks to your specialized knowledge, geographical location, or preferably both. Go online to find their relevant websites and listen to shows there that interest you. Then proceed as you would with your local public broadcaster, although with the knowledge that you are now competing with a larger and more varied pool of fellow freelancers. But it is never impossible if you are determined enough and persevere. This I know firsthand.

Digital Dexterity

Up to now I have been talking about the freelancer who brings to the table themselves, most likely their well researched script, and possibly raw sound material (recorded interviews or on-location audio of some kind) to be fashioned and finally assembled in-house by a competent producer. If you find yourself handy with the digital tools of the trade and can create self contained, completely ready to air segments — and I strongly urge you to train yourself to do so — then further opportunities immediately open up. Many public radio shows are increasingly happy to accept fully produced audio components that take the pressure off of them to create all in-house original content. In Canada, in addition to contacting individual shows to determine their preference as to the form your input should take, check out that CBC’s Digital Pitch Guide.

If you have sold material to the CBC that you have completely created yourself under a CMG contract you should find yourself still owning the copyright. With slight to major modifications you can in theory repurpose and resell the same essential story to other broadcasters (subject to their specific requirements and formatting). Use CMG-CBC contracts and standards as your general blueprint for negotiations although sadly not all standards will apply. If you have been unable to sell a completed audio segment to the CBC you can still try selling it abroad. You can begin by exploring the vast public radio market to our south station by station or else via a very useful website.

Online Resources

The sites Transom.org and its related site PRX.org offer the radio freelancer (for a nominal fee) a clearinghouse or centralized showcase with which to present their wares and hopefully find public radio buyers. At their basic default royalty of 50 cents a minute the average freelancer won’t get rich quickly, but it remains a useful sales tool and an additional marketplace that any committed radio freelancer must eventually explore.

Another kind of website worth exploring — although back at the commercial end of the marketplace spectrum — is exemplified by VoiceBunny if you are suitably qualified and have an exceptionally distinctive radio voice. Using this site or others like it you may be able to get a variety of potentially lucrative freelance voiceover and commercial voice gigs without ever having to leave the comfort of your home studio. And with the revenue you make doing a few commercials you may free up the time necessary to work on your own documentaries for public radio.

The Future Beckons

Digital technology has opened up so many new and unimaginable opportunities for the radio freelancer. For example, today you can send an mp3 audio file of your work to a broadcaster anywhere in the world within seconds, which none of us could even dream about only a few years ago. However it has also created new difficulties and challenges to overcome. If the segment I sell to CBC Radio is also heard throughout the U.S. on various public radio stations as well as throughout all of North America on Sirius Satellite Channel 159 (as are many or most CBC Radio shows) will any other cash-strapped public radio station within that gigantic footprint want to buy a repurposed item? If an item heard on CBC Radio around the world via its website and podcasts can be heard in Sydney, why should the ABC there buy a repurposed version? (Your CMG contracts with the CBC of course should ideally reflect this situation with better negotiated terms than the default minimums.) Clearly to succeed, the entrepreneurially minded radio freelancer will need to have the built-in flexibility to repurpose the same or similar material sufficiently to appeal to different marketplaces, each with its own unique audience and stylistic requirements. Radio may never again provide the average freelancer with a great full-time living but it will still provide an additional platform for unique storytelling as well as an additional revenue stream for those who choose to develop their skills and sales abilities.

Freelancers with specialized knowledge in such areas as medicine, the law, technology, pop culture, economics, the arts, science, sports, and politics, when combined with a broad range of radio production skills, will probably be best-positioned for most future freelance employment opportunities in the medium. Those with a passion for adventure and travel should additionally explore more unusual possibilities such as being a freelance foreign correspondent or “stringer.” Most broadcasters have cut back significantly on their staff abroad (to the point that they probably no longer have any) and so may increasingly be forced to turn to experienced freelancers for such services.

Radio is not dead as is so frequently lamented by its former practitioners and historians. It is alive and well and finding new listeners every day hungry for intelligent, entertaining, original content. But, yes, its methods of distribution or “plumbing” is undergoing a radical change — for example, will AM and FM even exist in a few decades hence? Look at what happened to SW. (And if you don’t know what I’m talking about you’ve just proven my point.) Today’s podcasts are just the first baby steps into its future. The medium has repeated demonstrated that it will constantly evolve and manage to survive. It will therefore continue to be an exciting avenue of expression for the freelancer to experience who is willing to learn as much as they can about it and evolve right alongside with it.

Know of any great on line resources that you would recommend for radio freelancers? Please share them in a comment, below.

Posted on March 30, 2012 at 10:00 am by editor · · Tagged with: , , , , ,

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