Five Things No One Tells You When You Leave Public Radio for Podcasting
Everyone has a hot take on the “talent drain” in public radio–but few see beyond the mythology and talk about the realities of what those departing are walking into.
Welcome to Dispatch #23 of The Audio Insurgent.
Today’s dispatch is very public radio focused, particularly to what I’ve seen in the U.S. among those who have left public radio for commercial podcasting. However, international broadcasters will recognize a lot of this (let’s also note that I have more than 50 subscribers from the BBC, the most from any single institution to this newsletter-thing I do–and just for fun, Spotify is a close #2 and my former employer, NPR, is currently only one subscriber behind Spotify).
And career podcasters, who routinely welcome public radio people as new colleagues, it wouldn’t hurt for you to read this either.
There’s one main thing today, so let’s light this candle…
[TODAY’S MAIN THING: FIVE THINGS NO ONE TELLS YOU WHEN YOU LEAVE PUBLIC RADIO FOR PODCASTING]
Another few months, another few departures from public radio to decidedly not-non-profit podcasters. These moves are often seen as a loss–sometimes they should be. I’ve said a number of times in the past that departures often create more room for emerging talent, which is very much a good thing.
I’ve also seen a number of examples this year of people who have departed public radio for an exciting new role in podcasting and then don’t last very long in those positions. There are probably a lot of contributing factors, but I fear a lot of it has to do with some of the things we’ll discuss here today. There are a number of myths about working in the private sector, as well as a lot of assumptions and half-truths.
Now, before we continue, if you were forwarded this by your boss as a way to convince you to not leave your job, I want you to do the following:
Print this out on paper.
Wad it up.
Walk into your boss’s office.
Toss it on their desk.
Tell them to kiss your butt.
That will get the point across. Well, except for the last part. Perhaps instead you should say, “You’d get further giving me a clear reason to stay than by trying to scare me away from leaving.”
Okay, back to the subject at hand.
I left public radio in June of 2015…almost seven years ago. That seems unbelievable to me, both feeling that it’s been more and less time. I will say that the past seven years (almost equally split between my time in the Amazon borg and running my own company) have been the most exciting and fun years of my career.
They have also been the hardest.
They were hard for a lot of reasons, but mostly because I (and everyone else who leaves non-profit, public service broadcasting) didn’t know a few things that deeply affected the experience I had when I left.
Not everyone will experience all of these, but most people I speak to recognize the truth in this list.
So here are five things that no one told you when you left public radio, but may prove very influential in your experience as a member of the commercial media world.
Thing #1: With more money comes more problems.
This applies to everyone–those leaving to host podcasts as well as those hired as production assistants.
With almost every departure, there are implicit or explicit references that the wonderful and talented departing employee will make a higher salary at their new position in podcasting than they did in public radio.
This isn’t entirely true.
On the surface, commercial media jobs, especially in podcasting, often (but not always) pay more than equivalent jobs in public radio (and frankly it isn’t all that hard to pay better than public radio). But there is a false equivalency here.
Sure, you might make more money, but you’ll work harder to earn it, too.
It may be hard for public radio creators to imagine a worse work/life balance than their public radio careers…until they march into commercial podcasting. Not only is the work more demanding and expectations larger/higher/harder, it is more stressful. In podcasting at many companies, even companies that do nothing except podcasting, there are fewer established systems or procedures and a lot of “we’ll figure it out as we go.” That’s challenging. You won’t find a lot of commercial podcast creators who feel they are overcompensated, or even generously compensated. They work for every dollar, even if there are more of them in their paycheck.
Thing #2: Lack of Patience
Commercial media, especially podcasting, has very little patience. You know those mega dollar podcast company or show acquisition deals that make headlines? Each one is an example of a company that has more money than patience. They’d rather buy something than take the time and effort to make it on their own.
There’s nothing wrong with this, but that lack of runway trickles down into everything. Launching a new show? You’ll get very little time to stand it up. And once it is launched, it needs to hit big and quick, or the company will want to move on.
Again, not wrong, but the need to produce results quickly is the price paid for the massive investments made into podcast efforts. No investor or CFO is going to sign off on a big budget to start podcasting and then wait very long for results.
When I started in public radio, it was widely held that a new show needed three years to show whether or not it would work and be viable. Now, in podcasting, that runway has been shortened to three months, if not three weeks.
And while you might think all this drama plays out at the executive level, you, as a staffer or creator working on shows, will feel it daily.
Thing #3: You’re On Your Own Now
This hit me more than I expected it to when I left–and I’ve heard similar things from many others.
When you work in public radio, you are part of a community of creators who make different things, but share a lot of values. You make friends for life. You find lots of people to care about and who care about you. Many people have found a partner (short or long term) at work or within the industry.
When you leave, you are no longer part of that community and while you often stay friends, there is a clear disconnection. You’ll probably have good relationships at your new workplace, but it will feel very different, because it isn’t a community. And if you are leaving for a high-profile position in commercial media, expect that not only will you no longer be a part of your public radio community, some within that community will start to regard you as fully an outsider or perhaps even as an enemy.
Thing #4: Strap In, Things Are About To Get Bumpy
You will miss structure. You will miss predictability. You will miss established ways of doing things.
And even though the atrophy made you crazy in public radio, you’ll kinda miss that too.
Whenever someone comes to me for advice about leaving public radio for a job in podcasting, I tell them that there is one indicator of how together their potential employer’s shit really is: how often they make strategic shifts.
Many in public radio complain that things never change or evolve. But in your new podcasting job, make sure that Aeron chair has a seat belt, as the change, evolution, and “disrupt yourself” action will make your head spin. And once you’ve settled into the new strategy and approach to work, wait three months, it will change again. This whiplash-inducing approach to strategy and direction is exhausting. Hopefully, you’ll land at a place run by adults with a clear idea of what they want to accomplish.
Being agile and changing course should be a part of any work culture, but podcasting is filled with a lot of outfits that set a strategy without any clue about what they were doing, learned nothing, accomplished nothing, and then set a new, equally clueless direction. When interviewing, ask those you talk to how often the unit changes direction and how that is decided and communicated. It will be the most revealing part of your conversation.
Thing #5: Creative Freedom, But Whose Creativity?
One of the biggest myths I see among public radio people is that when you make the leap to podcasting, you get the “creative freedom” that you couldn’t find in public radio. The kernel of that is true, you do find **more** creative freedom in the commercial sector. But what makes my eyes roll is how that kernel gets mythologized and blown out of proportion.
No one in commercial podcasting is going to hire you and fund you to do whatever you want. They are hiring you to do whatever they want. In other words, they will give your “creative freedom” to come up with ways of executing their vision, not yours.
Again, public radio’s ethos is not podcasting’s ethos. Public radio tends to act a lot like a democracy. Commercial media…is not a democracy. In a lot of shops, your voice isn’t as welcome outside the scope of your work as it is in public radio.
Now, before you think all this is to discourage you from leaving public radio for podcasting, I’m not. In fact, that isn’t a binary choice: it's never universally a correct choice in either direction. You should be at a place that values you, where you are seen and appreciated, where you are proud of the work you do, where you are around people you can learn from, where you see future opportunity, and where you have at least some fun, if not a lot of fun. Opportunities like that do exist in public radio, and if you are offered one, you should take it. Many such opportunities exist in commercial podcasting, but not every situation is right for you or set up for success. Follow your heart, but just be aware that it isn’t all cupcakes and sunshine.
[TODAY’S OTHER SMALL THING: FREQUENCY BOOST]
And continuing on our public radio theme…
Over the summer and fall I worked on a monster project that took a lot of me. As a result, I paused the monthly column I write for the public media trade publication CURRENT. I’ve started back up again, with a 4,000 word piece on public radio’s programming strategy around diverse audiences. This was a companion piece to the last one I wrote before the break about attracting younger listeners. Both have very similar solutions and actions associated with them–and both are aggravatingly simple to fix, as long as public radio actually wants to fix them.
Okay, that’s it for today.
Next dispatch of The Audio Insurgent will be about podcasting’s “middle class”--or apparent lack of one. Coming to your inbox…as soon as I find the time to finish it.
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Make great things. I’ll be listening.