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Career Spotlight: Alan Montecillo, Illinois Public Media

Alan Montecillo combines his work as a producer at Illinois Public Media with studying for an MLIS degree. In this edition of Career Spotlight, Montecillo talks to us about how he got into audio, how his favourite podcast set him on the path to his current job, and the privilege dimension of the volunteer/intern hustle.


Hot Pod: Tell me about your current situation.

Montecillo: I’m the senior producer of The 21st, a daily, live, hourlong news talk show produced by Illinois Public Media in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. (Okay fine, it’s Monday to Thursday). We air on five public radio stations across northern and central Illinois, including the state’s largest non-Chicago cities like Springfield, Rockford, Bloomington-Normal, and Peoria. I’ve been here since February 2017.

We cover anything we can tie back to Illinois, whether it’s politics, the arts, science, or really anything that we can credibly say affects Illinoisans in some way. I’m also a master’s student at the University of Illinois School of Information Sciences, studying for an MLIS degree.

HP: How did you get here?

Montecillo: In college, I did a weekend-long Radio Bootcamp run by Planet Money’s Robert Smith. But I didn’t really pursue radio until a couple of years after that, at about 2015 or so.

I was back in Portland, Oregon, after spending a year working in higher ed in Singapore. I knew I didn’t want to go back to higher ed, but I also didn’t have much of a plan beyond that. I did, however, listen to a lot of podcasts, and often I’d use them to fill many of those empty spaces between jobs that can feel like an eternity.

Eventually I realized that I liked audio enough that I should actually try and give that a go. So I started volunteering at a bunch of small, non-profit stations in Portland for a few months, including KBOO Community Radio, XRAY, and Portland Radio Project. I also launched a monthly public affairs show on KBOO focusing on Asian-American issues.

Then one day, I went to a Portland meetup for one of my favorite podcasts – Death, Sex & Money. I met lots of interesting people (including Anna Sale, of course). I also met Julie Sabatier, a producer at Oregon Public Broadcasting’s talk show, Think Out Loud. A few days after the meetup, Anna forwarded along a posting for an internship at OPB. Turns out Julie had sent her the listing and asked if she could pass it along to me. So I applied, and eventually worked at Think Out Loud for a few months as an intern.

A few months after the internship, this guy named Zahir Janmohamed sent me an email saying he liked my work at KBOO and wanted to talk about a podcast idea he had about race and food with a chef + writer named Soleil Ho. That idea became a podcast called Racist Sandwich, and for nearly a year or so I was the show’s first producer and editor.

All the while, I had been applying to salaried public radio and podcasting jobs left and right, because none of those things I just mentioned were enough to financially support myself. I didn’t think I’d move to central Illinois for my first public radio job, but the team, the show and the job were just the right fit for me.

Almost all of my audio journalism experience has consisted of producing interviews/conversations, actually. It kind of happened by coincidence. If I had applied for an OPB internship at the news desk instead of the talk show, I might be filing spots instead of producing long segments. But I think producing fits me really well, so I’m glad it turned out this way.

I should also note that during a large portion of the volunteer/intern hustle, I was relying on financial support from my parents in some capacity. That privilege really bought me the time and space to work on my skills, think about what I wanted, and network with people who fit my interests. So I’ve been very lucky in that regard.

HP: What does a career mean to you?

Montecillo: I have a feeling that it’s always going to change. But right now, it’s about two things. First, at a really basic level, a career means having the resources to buy the flexibility I need, when I need it.

For example, I’m a US citizen but my parents live in the Philippines. In fact, the vast majority of my family lives in the Philippines. Lots of us, I suspect, have many loved ones who are far away from us. A career that doesn’t give me the flexibility to see them on a regular basis isn’t a good career, no matter how much I enjoy the craft of it. So much of this is about tangible resources like salary and PTO, but it’s also about finding workplaces that encourage you to be a person outside of your professional life. That’s really important to me.

Second, I think I just want to be useful to people who actually need what I’m providing for them, if that makes sense. When I was at Racist Sandwich, it felt like the interviews we had were filling a need for a lot of people. That felt good. Now, I’d like to think our show provides high-quality news and conversations for an enormous part of the state of Illinois that really needs it.

So in a radio context, I want my work to be focused on producing clear and honest conversations. And I think every topic deserves clarity and honesty, whether it’s a complicated government policy or an intensely personal story. I also appreciate the qualities that working on a talk show forces on me: empathy, yes, but also consistency, calmness under pressure, and the ability to trust your team members.

HP: When you first started out being a person, what did you want to be?

Montecillo: When I was a small person? An NBA player. We didn’t have PBS or other local English language children’s TV in Hong Kong, so instead I grew up watching my dad’s NBA VHS tapes from the 80s and early 90s. One of them was a series with individual player highlights set to 80s music, which was a pretty hilarious way to get introduced to lots of American songs.

In high school, I thought I’d work in politics on a campaign, or perhaps for an elected official. I was a West Wing kid.

HP: When you look around at what’s going in podcasting these days, what are you thinking about, paying attention to, seeing?

Montecillo: Pretty much every new daily news podcast pitch goes something like “the news is just CRAZY, but WE’RE here to help you understand it!” So, I’m wondering whether that’s actually happened or not. Have daily news podcasts (a) helped their audiences (or perhaps new audiences!) understand the news more deeply than they would otherwise, and (b) has that depth translated into meaningful civic engagement? Has anyone studied this yet?

HP: What are you listening to these days?

Montecillo: I rotate between some of the national daily news podcasts, and lately it’s been Post Reports and Today Explained. I also listen to The Lowe Post and Kotaku Splitscreen when I need to give my brain a rest and just think about my non-radio hobbies for a minute.

Also: Bundyville. Listen to Bundyville.


You can find Montecillo on Twitter here.