Discover more from Starting Out
Surviving the era of unpaid internships with Jonathan Menjivar
Plus: what is a pre-interview and how do you do one?
Hey y’all! We’ve got a bunch of new subscribers, so I thought I’d do a little housekeeping!
I’m Alice, a podcast producer in Durham, North Carolina. I write this newsletter in partnership with Transom, the best training ground for radio and podcast makers, no matter where you are in your career.
And it’s all free! But if this newsletter has helped you get a job or just made you feel a little more confident, consider donating to Transom to help support this work!
Also, I’m going to be on an episode of the excellent Work Appropriate, a podcast about (what else!) work, hosted by Anne Helen Peterson and produced by Melody Rowell. We talked about the challenges of being early in your career and why interns should always be paid. Keep an eye on your feed and let me know what you think!
Okay, on to this month’s newsletter! I spoke with Jonathan Menjivar, a producer/reporter/host (he is very talented!) whose work I love. He was a longtime This American Life producer, known for his scoring and is now a Senior Producer at Pineapple Street Studios, hosting a new show called Classy. It’s all about the uncomfortable and surprising ways that class impacts our lives.
But before all of that, Jonathan was an unpaid intern, hustling to turn opportunities into an actual job. We talked about how things have changed for early career producers, and how people often misunderstand the role of the producer.
Jonathan Menjivar knows how hard it is to break into radio
Alice: You started your career when unpaid internships were the norm, and I'm curious, how do you think that changed your trajectory?
Jonathan: It mostly made it so that I was spinning my wheels for a really long time. Podcasting didn't exist. Public radio wasn't as cool as it is now.
I was completely self-taught too. I was doing anything I could. I started at KCRW as a volunteer, and the way you start there is you answer phones at the front desk, or at least this is the way it worked 23 years ago. I worked in events.
I spent days crawling around on my knees helping them network computers. I volunteered on music radio shows. Eventually I got a job at KCRW working as the volunteer coordinator for the pledge drive, and then somebody who worked on the food show showed me how to cut tape.
I was able to get in touch with people — like I saw that Transom was starting, and I wrote to Jay Allison with a pitch for a story. He was like, "Great. We'd love to give you some money to do this." So I got a thousand dollars or something, and some editorial support putting that story together. I made contacts really early with one of my radio heroes, but then how to translate that into an actual job, I didn't know how to do. It was hard, and I really did not know what I was doing.
Alice: What were you doing to make money and pay rent while “volunteering,” AKA working for free?
How to approach a pre-interview
I’m trying something new for season four of Starting Out: a theme for resource guides! This is the first in a series on interviewing for narrative podcasts. If you produce a daily news show or a chat show, I think you’ll find this useful too. As is always the case with my resource guides, don’t take this as a complete guide to anything, but rather as a starting point!
Part One: Pre-interviews
What is a pre-interview?
Pre-interviewing is a really fun part of the process, especially if you’re someone who doesn’t typically get to do an interview for the actual episode (aka, a producer). You get to sharpen your interviewing skills and help make an important decision for the episode: advising on who will be a good guest. It’s also a way you can build trust with a source ahead of an interview.
A pre-interview is a conversation you have with a potential source in order to 1) get a better understanding of their story, 2) vet whether they’re a good talker.
Let’s break those two pieces down a bit.
Get a better understanding of the story:
This means that you’re going to understand the contours of their story in more detail, beyond what you found in your research. You want to know the general “beats” of their story (beats is jargon for plot points).
Here are some questions you might want to ask yourself after a pre-interview.
How would you describe this person’s personality?
What was their goal?
Why was that goal meaningful to them?
How did they go about accomplishing it?
What got in their way?
What were the stakes of their story?
What happened to them in the end?
Looking back, how do they think about their journey?
You don’t need to do a whole interview (that will come later) but when you pitch the story it will be important that you can answer your colleagues’ questions about the narrative as they arise.
Vet whether they’re a “good talker” or not:
I’d never heard the term “good talker” before getting into podcast production, and now I think about it all the time. This term is so subjective and someone’s judgment on what makes a good talker can be impacted by their own background and biases. That said, these are some general qualities you might find in a “good talker.”
They’re speaking with energy and emotion. You can tell that they care about what they’re saying, not just rattling off talking points.
They’re reflective. That means that they can look back on the past, for better or worse, and talk about who they were and why they made certain decisions. They can admit where they might have made a mistake, or why they felt a particular way in a particular moment.
TL;DR: Imagine your friend shows up late to coffee and says, “You won’t believe what happened to me on the way here.” You put your phone to the side, lean in, and are fully locked in to the story you’re about to hear. You’re hanging onto their every word. That friend is a good talker.
How I prepare for a pre-interview:
Do solid research on the person. If they’ve done interviews in the past, read or listen to them.
Write a list of questions. I don’t stress too much about them or the order they go in. When it’s time for an actual interview, a lot more thought will go into the order of questions. But for the moment, I’m just having a casual conversation and following my curiosity, while making sure that I get all the information I need to make a strong pitch.
That said, the way that person is going to (potentially) be used in the story will guide which questions I ask.
Is the goal finding an expert voice for an episode?:
Then I’m looking for someone who can explain complex ideas in an understandable and engaging way. That can be accomplished by asking them very basic questions about the subject at hand. I love doing this because I get to ask questions that I genuinely want the answer to. And I can find out if they’re able to explain things to a novice.
Is the goal finding a lead “character” in a narrative piece?:
Then I want someone, who is able to speak in detail about their experiences, who is reflective and engaging. I often ask someone to explain their story from the beginning and occasionally interject follow up questions. I might also ask how someone was feeling in the moment they made a pivotal decision, to see if they can be reflective about their experiences.
After the pre-interview:
Review the notes you made during the conversation, and add any other big picture thoughts you have on the person. And prepare to report back to your team with your impressions.
Have advice to share on conducting pre-interviews?
Sports Media Intern, Audacy Philadelphia, Audacy (No pay information shared)
New York Market Intern, Audacy ($15-$20/hr)
Intern, The Block, Audacy ($15/hr)
Broadcast Engineering Fellow, Audacy (No pay information shared)
Digital Producer KNX Fellow, Audacy, ($50,000/yr)
Judy and John McCarter Family Fellowship, WTTW, ($18/hr)
Report LA Fellowship, KCRW ($26.93/hour)
Associate Producer, MPR News with Angela Davis, American Public Media Group ($58,822-70,600/yr)
Associate Producer, Pipe Dreams, APMG ($22.70 - $27.20/hour)
Assistant Producer, Planet Money, NPR ($36.06 - $40.86/hour)
Associate Producer, Futuro Unidad Hinojosa, Investigative Unit ($58,000-61,000/yr)
Assistant Producer (Part-time), Audacy Chicago (No pay information shared)
Associate Producer, CNN Audio, ($53,144.00 - $98,696.00/yr)
Production Assistant, iHeartMedia (No pay information shared)
If you are hiring interns, fellows or other entry level positions, send your job postings and rates to startingout [at] transom [dot] org and I’ll list them in the next issue. Please note that Starting Out features only paid opportunities.
Bandsplain: The Cure – I never took a chance on this show because it's so long, but then I fell in hard and listened to maybe the longest episode they've ever made. Over seven hours on The Cure. The skill required to be this insightful and funny and smart on a chat show, it's immense. A real model of what you can do with lots of prep work and passion.
Stolen: Surviving St. Michael's – Is it dumb to recommend a show that won the Pulitzer and Peabody this year? I had avoided listening because I was in a place where I couldn't hear difficult stories, but I think this is maybe the best podcast I've ever heard. Connie Walker is seeking answers to really big questions, but it's all so personal and unfolding in front of the microphone in these incredibly intimate scenes. I know she made it as a podcast, so of course she wants people listening. But I felt privileged to be let in.
This American Life: Jane Doe – Miki Meek is such a powerhorse of a reporter, quietly hitting home runs without ever being showy. She really centers the woman in this story and gives her room to be her full self.
The Ezra Klein Show: Why This Economist Wants to Give Every Poor Child $50,000 – Super good episode if you listened to episode 1 of Classy and were left wondering, "OK, so what do we do to make things a little more even?"
Heavyweight #46 Dan – My favorite episode of this show ever.
Coming up… Normal Gossip’s Alex Sujong Laughlin and Kelsey McKinney on how gossip has influenced their careers.
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Starting Out will always be a free resource. If you want to support this work you can donate to Transom. The newsletter is edited by Jennifer Jerrett and Sydney Lewis. Interviews are transcribed with help from Elizabeth Kauma.