Robin Hilton produces and co-hosts NPR's All Songs Considered. Before joining NPR's team, Robin co-founded a non-profit production company called Small Good Thing. He has also worked as a composer (who created scores for Center Stage, National Geographic, and the documentary Open Secret), English teacher, emergency room orderly, blackjack dealer, fruitcake factory assembly lineman, and government translator, as well as a senior producer and assistant news director for KANU and WUGA (two NPR member stations) and contributor to NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
Below, Robin offers advice to covering live events as a journalist, explains what goes in to the production of a radio show and provides insights in landing a job with NPR.
Based on your experience covering different music festivals, what tips would you give to journalists covering live events? (How do you find the peace of mind you need to assemble a cohesive story? Do you arrive with a plan or let chance events and meetings dictate the focus of a story?)
It really depends on the festival, but in general it's good to have a plan going in. For something like South by Southwest, I map out all the shows I want to see before hand and figure out where all the venues are in relation to each other. I intentionally overbook myself because it gives me added flexibility. If I miss an act at one stage and time I can hopefully catch them later. Or if I don't like a show I've committed to I can always bail and sprint over to one of my many backups.
That said, the best stuff is almost always serendipitous. You basically just walk around and see what's going on. You talk to people, get them to tell you their life story and how they ended up there. Often bands that aren't on any official bill will show up anyway and play in the street or on a sidewalk somewhere. I've discovered a lot of great bands that way.
The best of both worlds is to have a plan, but to make one that allows room for discovery. Instead of scheduling an interview with a band to ask them the same questions they've been asked a million times, have them meet you at a show *they're* excited to see. Get them talking about the music they love and how they came to it. You'll get a lot more interesting stories and they'll like talking to you a hell of a lot more than if you ask them how this new record is different from their previous record, or one of the many other similar questions they're tired of hearing.
By the way, you should always prepare for interviews - do your homework, research, etc. But do NOT have a list of questions that you simply read through. An outline of things you want to be sure to hit is fine. But what you really need to do is LISTEN to the person you're interviewing. Just have a conversation and be curious. Let their answers lead you naturally to the next question. Way too many reporters/journalists simply run through a list of questions they already know the answers to. Nothing good ever comes of that. At least, nothing original ever comes of that.
Many people are not aware of everything that goes into producing a radio show- what do you actually do as co-host and producer of All Songs Considered (aside from speak in front of a microphone)?
I get asked this question a lot and never know how to answer it succinctly. The simplest answer is that a producer is someone who makes stuff happen. Someone has an idea (or you have one of your own), and you do all the coordinating, writing, phone calls, whatever to make it happen.
Most people think I sit around listening to music all day. The truth is, that's the smallest part of my job. Most of my time is spent on the phone or on emails or in meetings with lawyers, publicists, venues, stations, co-workers, etc. hammering out deals to webcast live concerts or getting permission to play music on the show that isn't out yet. It's scheduling studios in three different states and making sure everyone shows up where and when they're supposed to. There's a surprising amount of paperwork I have to push around to make stuff happen. Another person at NPR and I have been producing our Newport Folk Festival coverage that's about to happen and it's just a logistical nightmare - a thousand moving parts that all have to fire at the right time or it falls apart. We're coordinating a small army of people, making sure everyone knows what they're supposed to do, when, where, etc.
I mean, it's not the salt mines. But it's not as romantic or breezy as a lot of people assume.
Does working with a member station significantly increase one's odds of getting a job with NPR someday? Would you recommend that track to someone who wishes to work with NPR as a journalist?
Back in the day, you'd grind it out at a member station for a few years. If you were sharp enough (or lucky enough to have a great editor guiding you at the station), and took a little initiative, you'd file stories with the network in DC, get on Morning Edition and All Things Considered or one of the weekend shows. You'd do this for a while and get to know some of the editors at NPR. Then you'd reach out to one of the shows, like Morning Edition, and offer to fill-in for them over the holidays. Everyone wants off for the holidays and the network's always looking for temp people to cover shifts. So they'd promise you maybe two or three week's worth of work. You might get the graveyard shift, working Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year's Eve, etc. If they loved having you and thought you rocked it, they'd maybe offer you another three weeks, or maybe even three months of work. And if they still liked you after that they'd keep offering you more work in three-month chunks until one day they made you a permanent employee.
That is precisely how I wound up at NPR. It's also how Steve Lickteig (co-founder of Small Good Thing and Executive Producer for Weekend All Things Considered) ended up at NPR.
These days, anything is possible. We've taken tons of people right out of college with almost zero experience just because they were super smart with a lot of drive and determination. A lot of our interns end up full time employees. The head of NPR Music, Anya Grundmann started out as an intern.
The number one thing that's going to get you hired at NPR or anywhere else is gumption. I see way too many people who think they should be rewarded for showing up. You have to do something that shows you have ideas and know how to make them happen. You have to be fearless. Bob Boilen, co-host and creator of All Songs Considered, never worked in radio before coming to NPR. And he wasn't a journalist. He worked in a record store and played in a band. He basically walked by NPR every day and would stop in and ask if they needed help with anything. They eventually relented and asked "Have you ever cut tape before?" Bob said "sure!" He hadn't, but he figured it out without pestering people with questions. This went on for a while. Then one day they asked "Have you ever directed a show before?" Bob said "No." So they said "You'll figure it out." They threw him in with the lions and Bob figured it out.
Fearlessness. Gumption. Determination.
I said I got to NPR the old fashioned way. I did and it landed me at Morning Edition, where I worked on news. How I got to All Songs Considered is another story.
I put in three months at Morning Edition, and while they offered to extend me again, I had to get back to my life in Athens, GA. I had a wife and a cat and a house there.
Not long after I got home, the All Songs job opened up. I didn't know it at the time, but they had an inside candidate they were already planning to give the job to. So I applied. They had to at least go through the motions of interviewing and considering other candidates, and the fact that I had some relative radio experience and had put in time at Morning Edition got me a phone interview. During the interview I offered to drive up to DC to meet with everyone face-to-face the next day (a ten-hour drive). It was no skin off their backs, so why not? That night I stayed up until 5 in the morning and completely redesigned the All Songs Considered site. I had taught myself html years earlier and knew photoshop pretty well, so I put together a working site demonstrating how I would make it look, how I'd change it, what I'd do with the show, etc. Once I was in DC, I met with everyone and gave an interactive presentation to show my ideas. All of which is why they gave me the job instead of the inside candidate.
You've got to have ideas. And you've got to demonstrate that you know how to pull them off. And you can't show fear. Better than that, just don't have any fear. There's no point to it anyway. Just focus on the thing that you love and the fear will go away.