Like many in our field, I’ve been a freelance journalist for as long as I’ve been a broadcast journalist. It’s a great way to supplement my income without taking on a second job. Specifically, the work I’ve done has been in public radio, with occasional programs for public television.
In my current job as the statehouse bureau chief and director of state news programming for Indiana Public Broadcasting Stations, I’ve also been charged with hiring freelance radio journalists. Over that time, and with those different perspectives, I’ve learned what skills are necessary and what it takes to get a radio editor to take your pitch. So if you are thinking about breaking into the world of public radio journalism, here are a few tips I can offer from my own experience:
1. KNOW THE FIELD
It goes without saying, but you have to know something about journalism. If you don’t have a degree in the field, or have never worked in the field, find some way of gathering that experience (like volunteering to file a story, in particular short spots, or requesting an internship for a specific beat). I don’t know whether this problem exists in print or TV, but it amazes me how many people pitch stories for hire just because they like listening to public radio.
2. CRAFT THE PITCH
Know your story before you try to sell it. A good pitch should never be more than five sentences. It should grab the editor’s attention in the first sentence and it should describe not just what the story is about, but why a listener should care. You should give an idea of how you intend to tell the story, what sources you know you’ll need to include and scene selection. What sound will make a listener hearing the story feel like they are right next to you, experiencing the story at your side?
3. KNOW WHO SHOULD GET THE PITCH
There are stories to be sold at all levels of the public broadcasting world, from the local station, to the national news desk, to the individual programs. Spend time thinking about who would care about your story, then find the appropriate news outlets. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting lists many stations and programs, and you can check out each of their sites for information on where to send your pitch. It’s a lot of digging, but once you build up a clientele that trusts your reporting, you’ll have regular work.
4. BRUSH UP ON YOUR AP BROADCAST WRITING STYLE
There are important differences between print and broadcast writing that many from print don’t know about. This is probably one of the most overlooked steps when print journalists cross over to broadcast. (For example, “says” for broadcast versus “said” for print is the most common mistake.) You can get an inexpensive, used AP broadcast stylebook from nearly any online book retailer.
5. WRITE LIKE YOU SPEAK (WITHIN REASON)
Don’t use a quarter word when a nickel word will do. It’s an old cliché in broadcast, but it’s true. And it’s not because your audience has a low level of intellect. That’s certainly not the case with the average public radio listener. It’s because someone listening to radio news isn’t likely giving it the attention they give print. The listener isn’t sitting down reading the paper or the website. They’re driving to work, getting the kids off to school. They have other things on their mind, so give them the information in a way that’s easily digestible.
6. USE YOUR RESOURCES
Talk to other freelancers. Talk to the professional associations to which you belong. One I particularly like is the Association of Independents in Radio. There are not only great lists of freelancing opportunities, but how-to articles, gear reviews and training opportunities.
7. GET GEAR
It’s helpful to have your own recording gear and production software and know how to use it. That’s not necessary, but it can give you an extra edge. You can find good recorders for $300 to $400, and decent audio-editing software is available for free online (Audacity, for example). There are a lot of expensive recorders that don’t do the job, but the basic handheld recorder you may be using as a print journalist to transcribe quotes won’t do.
Marianne Holland is the statehouse bureau chief for Indiana Public Broadcasting Stations in Indianapolis. She has worked in public broadcasting for 10 years, for local stations and networks from New York to Alaska. She also freelances for NPR, Voice of America, the BBC, National Native News and WBUR’s “Only a Game” in addition to filing guest reporter updates for Chicago Public Radio and WNYC. E-mail:
Tagged under: Freelancing