Feature article from the September 2009 AIRblast

Producers Step into the Media Shift with AIR Mentoring

By Steve Rowland

Steve Rowland is a former president of the AIR Board of Directors and was the first director of AIR's mentoring program, a program that has provided guidance to scores of producers since 1994. Steve recently had the opportunity to trade roles, moving from longtime mentor to become a mentee of the fabulous young photographer Josh Cogan. With his unique vantage point, Steve reveals how the AIR mentoring program is key in helping producers through this revolutionary period of transition in the digital tools we use and the ways we share our work.

Everything goes back to storytelling — West African griots. Homer. Shakespeare. The Bible. Moms and Dads telling bedtime stories.

Storytelling — as radio producers, that is our primary resource. There are always new ways to tell our stories, and right now, media markets are looking for new kinds of products — work that blends radio, video, and stills. Many radio producers are wondering where we fit in as these new markets evolve.

As production technology and distribution channels change, we have to change. Not long ago, we made the shift from analog to digital audio, and radio producers had to learn new skills. That transition turned many of us from producers who knew how to talk to engineers into producers who were engineers. We learned to deal with all the technical issues of mixing — editing, processing, mixing, and mastering. Was this a good idea? Hard to say for sure — a lot of upside and some downside — but no one was asking; we had to step up to the plate.

Now, the convergence of digital technologies and the Internet is creating opportunities for multimedia projects. Digital photography, digital audio, and digital HD video are all affordable and generally easy to use. Distribution of media on the Internet allows us to share short audio-visual pieces that would have had no home at all just a few years ago. How do we as radio producers fit into this new paradigm?

Some of us will resist, claiming that audio art needs to be "pure" audio storytelling. Some will purchase video cameras, still cameras, learn to edit using Final Cut Pro, and change their business card titles from "radio producer" to "multimedia producer."

Both paths make sense. But what about the rest of us, who want to be somewhere in between?

What are we anyway? Specialists or generalists? Jacks of all trades? Producers or audio engineers? Journalists or artists? Obviously, each of us needs to have a wide range of skills in order to survive as a radio producer. Yet, as more tools become available and affordable, it can be hard to know where to draw the line on which skills are necessary and on how to actually define the kind of storytellers and producers we are.

I'm quite excited about the opportunity to say something here in AIRblast about these issues because they are facing all of us, they are very challenging, and because it will take group efforts — and the leadership of AIR — to help us all to cope with the dramatic shift happening across media and the impact it's having on our craft.

Here's my case: I went to film school in the 1980s and emerged hoping to make documentary films about music. I couldn't get funding for my first film (to be about John Coltrane), so I turned to radio, thinking it would be a temporary stop on the path. Thirty years later, I'm still doing radio — and have done this full time all along.

I have interests in film, in video, and in still photography. But my skills in radio are far ahead of my skills in any other sort of storytelling. I'm knocked out by some of the terrific multimedia projects I've seen on the Web sites of The New York Times, National Geographic, and MediaStorm. It's clear to me that there are all kinds of new opportunities, but should I change my business card title or hold firm in the radio camp?

Enter AIR and AIR mentorships. The program was first established in 1994 with a grant from the MacArthur Foundation and continues to grow and thrive with ongoing support from the NEA. For about 10 years, from its inception, I was the director of the AIR mentoring program and often encouraged newcomers and veteran producers to take advantage of the service — four hours of discussion, review, or working with someone more experienced in certain areas. Erin Mishkin, AIR's membership director, now heads up AIR's mentoring program. I was thrilled when I recently saw her call-out encouraging multimedia mentorships, and I found myself switching from the position of longtime mentor to a mentee.

Erin matched me up with a fabulous young photographer named Josh Cogan. (Josh is the product of a great mixture of experiences and interests: a degree in anthropology, a commercial photographer, a travel photographer, and a multimedia producer. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Washington Post, The New York Times, GQ, and Men's Health. Josh came into AIR's mentoring tent after meeting AIR ED Sue Schardt at the Integrated Media Conference last February. 

Josh and I worked on three main areas:

1)    getting a grasp of multimedia production economics and distribution models
2)    storytelling and multimedia
3)    becoming a better photographer

The economics of multimedia remain vague and mysterious. While it's relatively easy to create a bad multimedia project, the good ones take a long time — and require advanced skills in writing, photography, video, and editing. The New York Times and The Washington Post often have stunning work on their sites. My hope was that these newspapers had found ways to make these productions profitable or that the sophisticated consumer demand for them was so great that a true new model for journalistic excellence was emerging. So far, at least as far as I can tell, this does not seem to be the case. A lot is still being done using passion as currency, and producers are all but donating their time. There appear to be some institutions and nonprofits that do value these forms and are willing to pay, but so far, there is not a boom market for this work. I have no doubt that things will evolve.

Getting coaching from Josh about shooting pictures was a dream. He's an instinctive shooter, who can see light in amazing ways. He is able to foresee how a flash will fill in an existing light shot so well that he can paint light with a handheld flash. Hard to explain it all. Visit his Web site and you'll see why I felt so lucky to learn from him.

The best news for me in working with Josh was to learn that storytelling is still the core skill, the most necessary ingredient in multimedia — and somewhat surprising, the skills that we have as radio producers are actually the most important. If the piece is going to be based on words — either a narration or edited interviews — a radio edit will be an important early step. One has to get the words in order first.

This was further reinforced when I was lucky to land a spot (not AIR related) in a Brooklyn-based MediaStorm workshop that took place in May. Two teams of four — veteran producers, photographers, and editors, including other AIR members Gregory Warner and Zachary Barr — worked for a week. Each team completed a short documentary in exactly a week, start to finish. Exhausting and not perfect, but perhaps worth viewing here.

It was great for me to walk into the MediaStorm workshop so soon after finishing my mentorship with Josh. Armed with a new insight into shooting stills — especially for multimedia — and a commitment to really get my arms around the complexities of this form, I was ready. Here's the good news — and this is important for us in radio — the method for creating the multimedia piece was to create a radio edit first.

What does that mean exactly? Well, we spent days in the field, shooting stills, interviews, location photography — also spent time rounding up archival images, research, graphics, and more — and then sat down to create the piece. First step? Transcribe the interviews. Second step, create the narrative using only spoken word material from the interviews and audiotapes. Third, place these in sequence using Final Cut Pro to create a "radio edit" — and only then, begin to add images.

For me this was nearly a revelation. I know it shouldn't be, because, as always, it comes down to finding the story — and telling the story. Telling the story in words first, then adding images to elaborate. So for us in radio, the issue is this: As journalists of many stripes — photographers, print journalists, video producers, and radio producers — move toward multimedia, where do we fit in? Well, to me, the good news is that our skills are essential and are at the core of good multimedia storytelling. We are interviewers, writers, oral historians, and storytellers. This is the spine of multimedia, and we are already there. This is what we do. It is who we are. Now we just have to get used to adding in the visuals — but that is a big caveat.

Who is going to create the visuals? Is it a good idea for all videographers to learn to edit sound? Is it a good idea for all photographers to become oral historians? And is it a good idea for radio producers to become visual artists — or at least visual craftspeople?

Maybe radio producers can remain radio producers — and be at home as part of new multimedia teams. I'm guessing we will begin to create partnerships with video producers and photographers and work in small teams of two or three creating high-quality multimedia pieces. Let's search out others, work on collaborations, create new works, learn good skills of conversation and coaching — pushing and pulling each other, gently and compassionately, into a new era. We should not be intimidated by these new models, but excited and encouraged to expand into new paths and new career opportunities.

AIR will continue to have a big role in whatever changes we face. Executive Director Sue Schardt will continue her exceptional work as both advocate and visionary — working in harmony with folks at the CPB, the networks, and with other partners to set new goals and standards. The CPB is asking us and others across the public media system to consider its priorities, the 3 D's: Diversity, Digital, and Dialogue. Diversity has been a mainstay of the CPB for decades. Dialogue has always been a goal too — openness and engagement aimed at building bridges and understanding among all Americans. Digital is about recognizing the new, continually evolving territory open to us now with the genesis of digital distribution platforms and tools that are shaping our approach to craft.

Over the next decade, the AIR mentoring program can play an essential role in this convergence of new technologies and new distribution channels already underway. One of AIR's roles will be to encourage radio producers to connect with people in other media, to experiment with new projects and find new distribution models for them. The mentoring program was close to my heart when I was its director, and now, as a client or student, it is close to my heart again, helping me stay active and au courant. One big question still outstanding is what to put on my new business cards. I'll let you know soon.

AIR members who are interested in a mentorship can find an application and check out instructions for how to submit a request here.

Steve Rowland has produced more than 50 hours of radio documentary work. His programs explore music and the arts by addressing issues in American history, society, race relations, the nature of artistic change, and human potential. His most recent series, the 11-hour documentary series Leonard Bernstein: An American Life, and his eight-hour The Miles Davis Radio Project have earned him two Peabody Awards. He also produced the five-hour documentary on John Coltrane, Tell Me How Long Trane's Been Gone and other radio documentaries, including Carlos Santana: Music for Life; Patti LaBelle: Gospel into Soul; Frank Zappa: American Composer; and Hip-Hop 101: On the Road with the Roots. He was president of the Association of Independents in Radio for six years and director of the mentoring program for 10. He is on the faculty of Columbia University's new program Master of Arts in Oral History, and he is currently the chief interviewer for the oral history of the Apollo Theater, being conducted by Columbia. He is also working on a documentary series about Shakespeare for radio and plans to produce a number of multimedia segments to augment it.