Programs/Publications

Feature article from the July 2011 AIRblast 

Station-Indie "Do-si-do"

By Lisa Morehouse

This year, AIR and the Independent Television Service (ITVS) released a benchmark study of independent journalists working in radio, TV, film, and the Internet. A majority of those polled said that, in the last few years, it's become more difficult to generate income in public media. But one of the key findings indicates a sharp difference between radio journalists and their counterparts in TV and film. According to the survey results, radio indies have much stronger ties to their local public media stations than do TV or film indies. While nearly half (43 percent) of radio respondents report a "strong" or "very strong" relationship with a station, 56 percent of TV/film indies have station relationships ranging from "very weak" to "none at all." The study indicates that radio journalists find their local radio stations to be among their strongest clients — both as channels for distribution and generating income. AIR member Lisa Morehouse of San Francisco was one of the people who took part in the survey. We asked her to put a human face on the data by writing for us about her relationship with her home station, KQED.


I am Jane Q. Public, radio producer. Or so I've determined reading a summary of the AIR/ITVS survey results. I'm white, under 44, use some online tools to raise money and publicize my pieces, and self-finance much of my radio work. And, like 43 percent of the other survey respondents, I have a strong relationship with my local public radio station. In fact, I wouldn't be doing radio work at all if I didn't.

Five years ago, KQED Public Radio in San Francisco took a leap and gave me an internship on The California Report, a daily news program (and a weekly magazine) that airs on more than 30 stations across the state. I was an unlikely candidate: 36 years old, no journalism training, leaving a career in public high school teaching. Like interns everywhere, I logged tape and followed reporters in the field, time-marked press conference tape and collected vox. I sat at the elbows of the show's producers and created audio postcards well enough that they let me start filing for the show. At first, I produced light features about berry picking and Mother's Day and unusual holiday celebrations. But as the staff saw that the lessons they imparted to me were sticking, I traveled farther from the Bay Area to report on arts, culture, and economic development in rural parts of the state where The California Report has no bureaus.

So when I conceived of a radio series about the changing economies and cultures of small-town California, before I even sought funding, I made sure The California Report might air the pieces. Though they'd never produced a series with a freelancer before, they agreed. When I did eventually get a grant from the California Council for the Humanities and some travel monies from the Society of Environmental Journalists, I sat down with The California Report's radio and Web producers to review the series components, themes, and my story ideas. They rejected some. They suggested others, nudging me toward parts of the state for stories. We figured out which Web extras I could reasonably add in, and they designed a specific page on their website for the series (now called New Harvest: The Future of Small Town California). From the beginning, the series has been collaborative.

After nearly a year of working on the series, these are some lessons I've learned about working with my local station:

• Build on relationships you already have

I'm quite sure that this series only happened because I freelanced for the show for more than four years and I was trained by their staff. Because of this, the engineer lets me sit in while she mixes my pieces, I'm forgiven a little control-freak behavior around photo captions, and I'm generally trusted when I say, "I think there's a story here."

• Fill their gaps with your interests
Does your local station lack an education reporter? Someone covering the tech or environmental beats? Figure out what you can contribute to help your station meet its content needs. The California Report has an impressive stable of reporters in San Francisco and three bureau chiefs across the state, but that still leaves a lot of California to be covered. I married my interest in rural issues with the show's need for wider coverage, and even when I covered their reporter's tracks, I took a "people's" perspective on stories, using voices not often heard on the radio. For example, as voters considered a proposition to legalize and tax the sale of marijuana, The California Report (in partnership with the Center for Investigative Reporting) dug deep into the economic, legal, and political implications. My story on Garberville, a town underwritten by pot sales, focused on the culture shifts there, and featured small-business people and nonprofit directors, original back-to-the-landers and budding entrepreneurs.

• Reduce the work for the local station ...
With money from the California Council for the Humanities, I hired an independent editor to work with me on the series (Deb George, AIRster, and my editor for this piece). This is great for me: Deb helps me plan my reporting, outline ideas, and wrangle the 15-plus hours of recordings for each piece into eight-minute drafts. I call her my radio doula, because her independent status means her primary focus is the quality of the story. Though The California Report had never worked with a reporter working with an independent editor before, the show's producers benefit too: They get drafts that have already gone through Deb's wringer.

I also brought some funding, and some funding partners, to the table. I couldn't do the series at all without funding from the California Council for the Humanities, and I found a sponsor in Spot.Us, a project for community-supported journalism.

• ... But don't leave the station out of the process
Bottom line: The stories I produce are for The California Report, and each needs to match the style and interests of the show. This took some growing pains for me to learn. With the first couple of pieces, I delivered pieces that were — in my head — complete, and I smarted when the show's producers had questions or edits. Now I brainstorm with them before reporting, and I bring in solid drafts not finished pieces. We also build in more time for final edits. This way, I'm not disappointed when there are changes, and they're not as frustrated by my stubbornness.

• Be an ambassador and a collaborator
Indy or not, I represent The California Report (and all public radio) when I'm reporting, and I'm always reporting in someone else's turf. I've contacted local print and radio reporters in almost every region I've visited, alerting them to my visit, offering to take them to lunch, and sopping up advice, story angles, and contacts. I then share leads I develop and co-report when appropriate. I know the topic of reporter's "territory" and beats can be tricky, but I've just found I sleep better after I've reached out to the reporters who know an area best, and I hope the respect I show them reflects back on both me and The California Report.

So, developing a series in collaboration with a local station is satisfying, but it let's do a little financial reality check. I have grant funding, and get paid per story by the show, but when I do the math, my salary for this series (which I've been working on half or three-quarter time for a year) falls well below 50 percent of the starting salary of a radio reporter in most newsrooms. I know many of us have found that there are fewer national outlets airing stories of the length and focus of these. I simply have to work outside of radio to pay the bills, and I'm lucky that my experience in education gets me consulting gigs.

But on the bright side, because of grant funding, and because of the relationship with KQED, I am able to work part time in radio. I'm hoping that I'm building my credentials through these partnerships, becoming part of the network of California Council for the Humanities grantees, and establishing my ability to report a series, not just one-off stories. Their support has allowed me to meet farmers and hardware store owners, prison guards and inmates, environmental activists, legendary marijuana growers, and chainsaw-wielding, Limbaugh-listening Native American elders, and bring all of their stories to California's public radio audiences. That is a rare privilege.

After 12 years as a public middle and high school teacher, Lisa interned at KQED in San Francisco in 2006. Since then, she's reported on a Samoan traveling circus, a Laotian mini-truck modification shop in rural Iowa, and a camouflage artist in Alabama. For the last year, she's collaborated with KQED's The California Report on a series about the future of small-town California.

AIR welcomes inquiries about republishing this feature article in its entirety or in part. Please contact us at airblast@airmedia.org.