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Freelance journalist and podcaster: How I got my job and where I'm going

Video transcript

Well, I decided to apply for our college radio station. Just, impulsively in my last quarter of college. And, the only time slot they had was on Mondays from 5 to 6 p.m. And, the only kind of topic that they weren't covering was like love and romance and relationships. So, my friend, Issac, and I started a radio show on Monday nights from 5 to 6, live, every week. We went through 10 hours of FCC training. It was called dates and other mistakes. And, I loved it! I loved all the horrible parts of it. I loved, you know, operating the board. I loved writing the script. I loved talking to the guests and inviting them and asking them to be part of the show. And, talking to callers and listeners. And, then going back and listening to the whole thing and thinking about, okay, what can we do differently next week? And, I was like, that's a really good sign. From there, I decided I was gonna pursue it professionally. And, I started talking to my parents. And, being Pakistani parents, they thought a degree was the best way to go about it. I decided I was gonna apply to journalism school. And, I didn't think I was gonna get into any journalism school because I had no real journalism experience. People apply to all these like really competitive schools with amazing clips under their belt from well-known outlets and internships at CNN and the New York Times and whatever else. I just decided, you know, I'm gonna get in. Like, I'm really sincere, I really wanna do this and I think I'm gonna succeed in this field. So, that's when I started emailing journalists that I was really inspired by. A lot of them directed me to their friends who were professors, former journalists. And, so, I started sitting in on classes. I sat in on classes at USC, at Northwestern. And, I would ask professors over email to talk for 15 minutes on the phone. And, then, once I got them on the phone, I was like, well can we like meet up in person? Or, can we Facetime? And, I knew that if I just got in a room with them, like, in person, that they would like me and that I would convince them, no matter what, that I should go to their school. And, as I started meeting more and more journalists, I realized how to ask better questions. And, the better questions I asked, the closer I got to figuring out, okay, how do I get into a really good journalism school? And, over time it just became very clear that I just needed a couple great clips. I need to demonstrate that I could meet deadlines. And that I was really passionate and that I had a unique story. I got into journalism school at Northwestern, at USC, at City University. And, then I was wait listed at Columbia. I was offered a full ride from USC but decided to go to Northwestern because it was not in southern California. And, also, it just felt right. And, the name Medill has a little more prestige to it, which I thought was important. And it's a decision I'm really happy with. I was offered a good scholarship so I didn't have to take out a large amount of loans. And, my professors were always really helpful. But, once I got into Northwestern, I didn't expect that I was gonna deal with a lot of push back about radio. Radio and pod casting were just starting to become big again. And, people were starting to say things like, oh, this is the golden age of radio because of pod casting and Serial was just a big thing. I think my professors were a little bit behind the curve. It's not their fault, it's an institution that's built on broadcast journalism that's like traditional TV journalism. And print and text and photos. And, the fact that radio, which is something that had already had it's time, was all of the sudden having a resurgence, didn't really make sense to a lot of people. Or, that you could make money in radio, which you couldn't in public radio, was also really surprising. So, I kept pushing back. There were a couple professors who were really, really supportive. And, with their help, we were able to create additional classes and a specified cap stone. And, I think there's a lot more support around it now. What I am realizing, in journalism, and I think probably in every field, is taking initiative and starting something of your own is never going to be a detriment to getting a traditional job. If anything, it's gonna be a positive. So, you'll be able to go into a job interview and say, hey, I started this podcast. Or, I started this magazine. Or, you know, I started my own You Tube channel. And, it sucked and this is why it sucked and this is why it failed. And, these are all the things I learned about how to be a better journalist. And, that is really compelling. No matter who you are, where you come from or what it is that you create or how awful it was. I think it's really compelling in any setting. Best case scenario, your thing actually takes off, and you learn how to make money off of it. And, you gain some notoriety. And, you get to do exactly what it is that you wanna do. So, if I could go back and tell my high school self to start a podcast before Serial or any of the big pod casts were a thing, I would do that. Even more than my college radio station. That wasn't gonna reach anybody. I wouldn't have learned how to do all the nitty gritty editing stuff. I am a big believer in prestige and in the power of institutions and credibility. And, I think if I had just come out of UC Irvine, as wonderful a school as it is, I don't think people would have taken me as seriously, without a product and with a degree from UC Irvine in philosophy as they do with a Masters in Journalism from, arguably, the best journalism school in the country. I think having that Medill name and having people who are in positions of power at big institutions, that's a common bond. They know that you've undergone a certain level of training that they don't have to worry about with you. I think having that base level training, having met that threshold, is really important. For the network and for being able to have that credibility, I would recommend going to graduate school. I don't think that everybody has the luxury and I don't think it's necessary. And, I also believe, very strongly, that if you're not being offered a good scholarship package, I don't think it's an opportunity you have to take, at all. I think you can be an incredible journalist without ever having gone to a big name journalism school or studying journalism. At the end of the day, in journalism, the most important thing that employers look for, or that will get you credibility or other job opportunities, whether those are freelance opportunities or traditional job opportunities, is a portfolio. You need to have good clips in recognizable places. Whether those are online publications, whether those are projects that you started on your own that got some press from a recognizable publication. Or, whether that's a Masters or an undergraduate degree from a well-known institution. Or, the endorsement of a person in the field, who has credibility. You need, kind of, something saying, this person is legit because the field has such a low barriered entry. Anybody who has a computer can become a blogger and start putting things on a blog online. Anybody who has three pieces of equipment, a recorder, a microphone, and headphones, can go out in the street, record interviews. Use free editing software and put together something that they can put out as a podcast. It becomes more imperative that you have something saying that you're more legitimate than just the average person who's doing this as a hobby. That you're a journalist, not just a hobbyist. I made the leap from grad school to Sirius. Things felt pretty smooth. The hardest part of that was actually moving to New York City and learning to build a community. And, feel at peace in New York City as a kid from Los Angeles. Then, things went pretty even keel after that. Although, I did starting feeling like, okay, I don't know if I'm built for a traditional nine to five job. I think that was a nagging feeling always. And I was like, am I just being an entitled millennial? And, thinking that I'm not built for a traditional nine to five job? Or, can I actually, do I actually have the work ethic and the discipline and the ability to make money off of doing something on my own. When I started my podcast, I had the security of a regular job and a regular steady pay check. So, it didn't feel that hard. I just knew I was exhausted all the time. And, part of the reason I decided to make the leap was just that level of exhaustion. I didn't think it was physically possible for me to keep doing both things at once with the podcast becoming more legitimate and getting more attention. Once I made that leap, that was one of the hardest things I've ever dealt with in my entire life. I totally felt like giving up. I thought I should just apply to other jobs and I did apply to a bunch of jobs. And, then, I just was applying on the internet and I knew if I was applying on the internet, I wouldn't really hear back from a lot of places. If I wasn't actively pursuing and calling people and meeting with them. So, I think I didn't actually want a traditional job at that point, I wanted to give this a go. But, there were moments where I felt like this isn't the right thing. I thought about going back home to L.A. and staying with my parents for a bit. And, you know, just kind of not producing the podcast anymore. At some point, I was like, okay, I'm just gonna try. If I actually took the time to do this thing, then I can try for like a week. Right, for like one week, I can try to just live the freelance live and pitch articles and work on the podcast and try to get people to buy products that I'm making. So, whether that's like a podcast or an article or a story or whatever. And, once I started working, I started getting that validation that I needed to keep going. I think some people will go from college to an internship to a per diem associate producer job in radio. And, then either work in public radio or hustle really hard and work for a for-profit radio company like This American Life. Or Serial or Gimlet or Sirius XM or Wondery in Southern California. Or, someone will do any number of those things. And, then start their own podcast. Or, they will start pitching podcasts to brands and companies and institutions. And, it just depends on, kind of, what works out for different people. Or people will go a completely different route and not do it on a podcast basis. But, instead, pitch stories to different places. So, they'll pitch a story to NPR and then they'll pitch a story to the New York Times. And, then they'll pitch a story to, you know, The Cut from New York magazine. And, they'll get published in one or more places, they'll build relationships. And, then from there, they'll have kind of a regular stream of stories that they're doing on a monthly basis. And, then, once you've become kind of established as a freelancer, especially, in a specific topic area, people will reach out to you to write about that. And, then you can start negotiating higher rates on a story by story basis. I don't think the path is very traditional. I think that's kind of the luxury of this profession is you get to define how you want to do things.
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