Current Online

Radio College website: 'on-ramp to being an independent radio producer'

Radio College logoOriginally published in Current, Feb. 21, 2000

By Mike Janssen

Scratching out a living as a public radio freelancer is a difficult lifestyle. No big revelation there. But it's one thing to hear the sentiment slung around, and wholly another thing to learn through experience, which is what Robin White did when he quit writing audio tours for museums and took up freelancing.

"The rate of pay was appallingly low, and the time involved in putting together a story from scratch was high," White has written. "It was like eating a diet of raw carrots--you burn more calories eating and digesting than they provide in return."

That insight appears in White's essay "How to Make $60,000+ a Year Freelancing in Public Radio," which offers tips on how to sell different versions of the same story to several media outlets. With its infomercial title, the essay gets the largest number of hits on Radio College (www.radiocollege.org), a web site that White co-founded to help other public radio freelancers find hardier fare than carrots and avoid the pitfalls that dot their paths.

"My perspective, as an independent producer, is almost that I don't want people to have to go through what I went through learning the business," he says. "There's no on-ramp to being an independent radio producer, and that's what we try to create."

Roughly a thousand visitors a month point their browsers at Radio College to read essays and join discussions on everything from ethics and equipment to finances and grants. Their questions cover the basics as much as they hint at the wide range of concerns inherent to freelancing. Should I go into debt to start as a freelancer? Where can I get cheap digital minidiscs? Where should I sell this story? How do I go about recording musicians in prison? How do I set up a studio in my home?

White and other frequent contributors usually answer questions with gentle advice--far less bruising than finding out the hard way when a grant falls through or your cheap microphone fuzzes out. Most recently, Radio College started a series of week-long discussions with public radio figures, including NPR Vice President for News Jeffrey Dvorkin, CPB Vice President of Radio Rick Madden, and producer Scott Carrier.

"What we offer is the business know-how," says White, who wants the site to play up business skills even more than it already does. Radio College recently landed a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, which White says will be used to fund an interactive business skills class as well as software upgrades and maintenance.

Tanya Ott, who freelances for Marketplace and other programs from her Orlando home, calls Radio College "unassuming." "I think some other venues out there, especially for independents, tend to be a little more pie in the sky and philosophical and theoretical, 'What's our place in the universe?' sort of stuff," she says. "It's really sort of intimidating for new people to enter that kind of discussion, and Radio College is very approachable." Ott discovered the site last year and became a regular contributor to its discussion boards. She now volunteers time to maintain the site's job listings.

Radio College has the feel of an online community of people who lean on each other for crucial guidance and support--something that's probably talked about in the touchy-feely corners of the Internet much more often than it's realized. That makes it unusual, since it links professionals who are by definition insular and, well, independent. To some extent, Radio College's singularity might also be its Achilles' heel.

"There are some things about the independent and freelance audio production communities that probably limit [Radio College's] usefulness in the long-term," says Karolyn van Putten, c.e.o. of Western Public Radio and Radio College's co-founder. "These people may not be empowered to return value. People relate to the web in a way that we expect things on it to be free, and while we wouldn't want to charge people for the information, clearly it costs something to make it available. I don't know that those who have needed the information would have any commitment to supporting that which makes the information available to them."

"Maybe in the future we'll hold a pledge drive or something," says White, laughing at the idea, but adding that Radio College could someday request contributions from frequent visitors to keep the site going. White currently spends about 10 hours a week maintaining the site.

Other pubradio freelancers are also proselytizing on the web. Indies David Isay and Jay Allison have both posted how-to essays on their web sites (www.soundportraits.org and www.well.com/~jwa, respectively). And This American Life even produced a Radio: An Illustrated Guide comic book. This could be unique to public radio among broadcast media--when was the last time Dan Rather told viewers how to start their own network news show?--and White hopes Radio College can play a part by pumping more independent talent into the system.

"Nobody's won a Peabody yet," he says. "But our existence is helping some people start out in freelancing. I think that's the biggest achievement."

 

. To Current's home page
. Earlier news: This American Life producer Ira Glass describes his way of radio production, 1998.
. Outside link: Radio College web site.

Web page posted March 11, 2000
Current
The newspaper about public television and radio
in the United States
A service of Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.
E-mail: webatcurrent.org
301-270-7240
Copyright 2000