So...Now What?
Hello friends,

May of 2023 has been a bit of a cruel month for audio makers. We've got scores of eager students graduating college, ready for their first real job. And at the exact same time, we've got experienced producers facing cutbacks and job uncertainty.

We have officially entered into a season of "now what?"

I don't have all the answers. But I can say – with perfect clarity – that good projects are still being made. And production houses are still desperately searching for talent.

The stakes are higher now. People are starting to pull back from investing in projects that have no chance of commercial success. (And, if we're being perfectly honest, that might actually be a good thing for our industry.)

But if you're looking for work…it's a scary time. There are definitely fewer jobs and more qualified candidates to fill them.

So, I'm gonna break format a little bit this week. And instead of writing about how to DO the job, I'm gonna write a little about how to GET the job.

And I'm just gonna acknowledge from the start – this is a really tough industry to break into. Really, really tough. And the system is not fair or equitable. I hope we can continue to try to fix that.

But in the meantime, whether you're looking for your first job or your 15th, I think there are some ways to set yourself apart.
I do have a good reason for picking this swimming pool photo, but you're gonna need to keep reading if you want to know what it is! (Photo by Etienne Girardet on Unsplash)
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Be Friendly

This section was originally titled, "Work your Network," but … ugh. That sounds so awkward!

Totally, totally awkward.

But you know what's not awkward? Following someone whose work you admire on social media and congratulating them on a milestone.

Or sending an email to an old friend and casually mentioning that you've just finished up a project and are looking for the next thing.

Or reaching out to a stranger on LinkedIn and asking if they might want to hop on a Zoom call to share stories.

Or even sending an email to someone you haven't talked to in YEARS and asking for career advice. (Though, to be fair, that would have been less awkward if I had stayed in touch.)

Anyway, this is my way of saying that I have done all of these things…and more.

And, yeah, there have been times when I've really had to force myself to do it. It can be so intimidating!

But the thing is, I have never regretted reaching out. Something good has always come of it. I've learned something. Or clarified something. Or met a connection who introduces me to another connection.

Build your network by being friendly. But when it comes time to "activate" your network to help you find work, you are gonna want to have a plan. A strategy. Here's mine:

1. Reach out to someone in your network and tell them that you're hoping to ask them a few questions about X, Y or Z. None of those questions should be, "How do I get a job at your company."

2. Ask for 30 minutes of their time. Give them a very general, but helpful, time frame during which you'd like to speak. Something like, "Maybe sometime next week? Mornings are best for me."

3. If they say yes, realize that you're in charge of all the logistics. Send them a zoom link or ask them what phone number you should call. Do not expect them to call you!

Also -- just as an aside, don't pressure them to meet up for coffee. If you're geographically close, you can mention it as an option. Maybe. But then don't push it. Because people are busy. So, so busy.

4. Have a couple of questions ready for the call. Prepare more questions than you think you'll need, because awkward silence is no fun. But make sure your first question is the important one. If things go well, you might spend 25 minutes on that first, good question.

5. Ask smart follow ups. Share your own experiences. This should be a conversation, not an interrogation.

6. When you feel like the conversation is lagging or when 25 minutes have elapsed (whichever comes first) ask your last question. And your last question should be, "Is there someone else I should be talking to about this?"

Usually, you'll get a couple of names. Often, you'll get a couple of names and email introductions.

7. Hang up after 30 minutes. That was the deal, so you should stick to it. Yes, even if everyone seems to be having fun. If you want to plan a time for socializing, that's a different ask.

8. Follow up with a thank you note. And…

…this is the one that feels really, really awkward, but it's so, so, so, so good…

Include a line that says something like, "As I mentioned, I'm looking for opportunities to do X, Y, and Z. I'm especially interested in working on (Insert project type here. Something like investigative projects, narrative projects, chat shows, true crime shows, sports, science, pop culture, etc.)

And then include your resume. Yep. I told you this part was awkward.
Be Collaborative, Not Competitive

Look, I get it. We work in a highly competitive industry. And so it might be easy to think that the only way to get ahead is to be the only person who can do what you do.

But it just doesn't work that way.

The truth is, every time I help someone make their first-ever story, I am adding to the list of people who might hire me one day.

Every time I share my rates with someone who's trying to set their own, I am adding to the list of people who might hire me one day.

And every time I send out this newsletter, I am adding to the list of people who might hire me one day.

Jobs don't come my way because I've made friends with the "Head of This" or "Manager of That."

In fact, many of my jobs come through people who have – at some point in time – gone after the same exact jobs I've gone after.

Yep..the exact people I'm supposed to be "competing" with.

So, share your knowledge. It really is the best way to prove that you know what you're doing.
Do the Odd Jobs

When I think about people I have hired, all of them are people I have interacted with before.

I'll pay pretty much anyone who's in the right place/right time to do a tape sync. People post those opportunities on AIR and the Listservs, and so just keep an eye out for syncs that are in your area.

You'll need to have access to a recording kit and some samples of things you've recorded. But, frankly, to make your sample, you can record your best friend talking about what they did that day.

As a person who hires for these things, all I'm listening for is whether you know how to set someone up in a relatively quiet spot and position the mic at the right distance from their mouth. I don't care whether or not that audio appeared somewhere after you recorded it.

Once I've hired you to record a tape sync, I'm more likely to take a risk by hiring you to do a freelance story.

Now, it's true. Most of the places that take freelance stories don't actually have full-time positions open. That's why they need freelancers!

But as a person who has often worked with freelancers, I've been listed as a reference on a TON of resumes. And I can say with certainty that I helped a lot of newbie reporters get their first full-time jobs.

(And, to be totally fair, I probably also warned a few potential employers away from bad choices. Always check with your references before you give their names to potential employers, and they'll let you know if they're comfortable giving you a glowing recommendation!)
Avoid Working – for Others – for Free

Look, if you want to make a passion project and use it as your resume, I'm all for it.

I can't tell you the number of freelance reporters I've hired on the basis of their student project or self-published podcast.

I can't tell you because I haven't counted. But it's a LOT.

Fun fact: Stephanie Foo built a career on a self published project. She made a series called "Get Me on This American Life" and used it to actually, eventually, get a job on This American Life.

I am totally not lying to you right now.

So, I'm not against doing unpaid work.

What I don't like is when people – usually young people – get roped into doing work that's unpaid or underpaid as a way to "break into the industry."

The fact is, people who claim they'll pay appropriately as soon as they have the money will likely never have the money to pay appropriately.

And maybe that's okay?

If you're learning a lot and believe in the mission, maybe it's okay to do underpaid work for a little while...

A VERY little while. And that brings me to my last point.
Fake a Little Confidence

In this industry, there are a few, lucky folks who were born confident.

They never question whether they know what they're doing. They're strong. Competent. And usually pretty opinionated.

From the outside, I might look like one of those people. (Though, to be fair, I do tend to have VERY strong opinions.)

But the truth is, we're all just figuring this shit out. Nobody has all the answers. Nobody is good at every task.

That said, I think far too many of us hold ourselves back for far too long because we feel like we're not "enough" yet.

I haven't done "enough" work on this pitch to send it out.

I'm not talented "enough" to pitch my favorite podcast.

I don't have "enough" experience on my resume to apply for that big job.

I spent years waiting until I felt like I was enough. Maybe even decades?

(Sixteen years with the exact same job title, folks. SIXTEEN years. And I can't even blame my employer for that. Because I never asked them for more. Never.)

And then I realized…I was never going to feel like I was "enough." Never ever.

Instead, I try to remind myself that we all feel this way. I'm pretty sure even the naturally confident people feel this way sometimes.

And even though I don't always FEEL like I'm enough, I am totally, totally ready to take the next step.

So…reach out. Pitch. Apply.

And do it now.

Yeah, even though the job market kinda sucks.

"Now" is always the right time.

It's kinda like jumping into an icy swimming pool on a hot summer's day. Going slow isn't going to make it any easier. And once you're in the pool, it's gonna feel so, so good.

You got this.

A couple of things to let you know about today. First, I want to thank Wudan Yan at The Writer's Co-op for getting me started thinking about all of this. She interviewed me about my journey from full time to freelance for her podcast, and the episode is out now! Check it out.

Also, if you enjoy this newsletter, I have another newsletter to recommend. Subscribe to Sound Judgment and go behind the scenes to learn hands-on storytelling techniques from today's best podcast audio makers. Subscribe here.

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