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Career Spotlight: Jen Chien

The Editor as Midwife.

This week, I reached out to Jen Chien, an all-rounded reporter, producer, and editor primarily based at San Francisco’s KALW station. She wrote about her extensive professional past before getting into audio, how she views her work as an editor, and the differences between a story editor and a mixing editor.

Hot Pod: Tell me about your current situation.

Jen Chien: I’m currently the managing editor for the news department/Crosscurrents at NPR member station KALW in San Francisco, where I also host and lead an arts coverage/live event/community media training project called Sights & Sounds. I also edit for the independent podcast The Stoop, and earlier this year took on editor/managing editor duties for a new podcast from Lantigua Williams & Co launching at end of August called 70 Million. It’s probably too much work at the moment, but I am excited and stimulated by all of it, and all of the projects are things I believe in: lifting up and amplifying under-heard voices, journalism as public service, working with and for badass women of color… I also currently have a kid in preschool, which is much more expensive than I thought it would be, so having “too much” work right now is financially the right move.

HP: How did you get to this point?

Chien: Before I was doing all this editing, I was a reporter/producer for KALW, and for Making Contact, an independent syndicated half-hour show made in Oakland and distributed to radio stations all over the place. I’ve freelanced a little bit, too. Before that, I was a postmodern dance theater performer, a massage therapist, teacher of yoga, dance and creative writing, an art model, bartender, bunch of other things. I didn’t get into radio/audio until my mid-thirties. I always like to say I fell into journalism through the side door. I was an obsessive public radio listener for many years, and would sometimes fantasize about having chosen a different path and gone to journalism school etc, but it always seemed completely unrealistic. Then one day (almost a decade ago), I was in rehearsal for an aerial dance performance and learned that there was a radio reporter there to make a piece about our show.

It’s funny, I now work with this person at KALW — she’s the great reporter and editor Lisa Morehouse (shout out to her awesome new podcast, California Foodways). Back then, I had never met a real person who worked in this field, and I was super excited. She asked to interview me, and I asked her if I could interview her back, about her job. I found out that she also hadn’t followed a traditional path, and had learned her skills through internship opportunities. That conversation made the whole thing seem much more real and achievable, so shortly thereafter I started an apprenticeship at KPFA in Berkeley, then started volunteering at KALW, then the amazing Holly Kernan, then news director at KALW, offered me actual paid work at it, and I just kept putting more and more into it, until suddenly I was a journalist. And now I’m in management. I’m grateful for all the opportunities I’ve been afforded, but up until a couple years ago I still sometimes would think to myself, “What am I doing here?”

HP: What does a career mean to you, at this point?

Chien: As I said, I kind of feel like this career happened to me just as much as I made it happen. I feel like I’ve just been “following my bliss” as we like to say in Northern California — or at least following my intellectual and creative interests. I am lucky to have had supportive family throughout, chose to live in my hometown of San Francisco, and somehow been able to make enough money even with the less lucrative work choices I’ve made. I feel like even though what I do right now doesn’t fit my previously-held identity as an artist, making audio is an inherently creative and collaborative endeavor, and I love those aspects of it the most. So I make sense of my varied jobs and experiences through that lens — that I’ve consistently chosen work that is collaborative, creative, that allows me to constantly learn new things, and to hopefully put something good and useful out into the world.

HP: When you started out, what did you think you wanted to do?

I definitely wanted to be a reporter producer, wanted to make the stories, interview the people, have my voice be the one on the air, etc.

I actually didn’t understand the role of an editor in making audio work at first. I had come from the world of dance and performance, where you might bring in an “outside eye” for one rehearsal right before the performance, just for some final notes that you might listen to or might ignore completely. The hands-on editor-reporter relationship was hard to get used to, but ultimately I found it transformative. I loved the feeling of support and teamwork, and having someone who was also invested in making the piece good, but was holding the big picture while I worked the details. I wanted to have an editor to edit my life!

HP: Could you walk me through a little more about what it means to be an editor?

Chien: I’m both a story editor and a managing editor. The first part means I work on individual stories, usually between 5-30 minutes in length. Generally I’m working with sound-rich, multi-voice reported features, sometimes non-narrated. They range from more hard newsy to arts-focused to personal storytelling. The managing editor part means I also have to do things like manage schedules, calendars, sequence of stories within a particular show (for radio) or a particular season (podcasts), a little bit of HR-type stuff with reporters, help with making new hires, help determine big picture coverage/assignments, and send and receive s—loads of emails.

Being an editor is not the sexy part of making radio/audio. It’s like when people dream of being in a rock band, they don’t want to be the bassist, they want to be the lead singer. Once I started editing, though, I found such great satisfaction in the work. Even if we don’t get the glory of the byline or being the literal voice in the listener’s ear, we help form the backbone of the process of making great audio. I enjoy problem-solving and troubleshooting narrative structure, I like getting perfectionistic with line edits, I love the feeling of satisfaction when a reporter feels like the story is becoming what they dreamed it would be, but couldn’t quite get to on their own. Being a parent of a young child, I’ve also found it more practical to be an editor than a reporter, as I’m not beholden to interview subjects’ schedules or having to go record something exactly when it’s happening. I get to help shape the story with a little more control over my own schedule (usually).

The metaphor I like to use (I’m not sure, but I maybe stole this from another excellent colleague, Julie Caine) is that of the midwife. If producing a radio story is like giving birth to a baby, my role is somewhere between the hardline, technical focus of the doctor, who’s only thinking about getting that baby out on time, regardless of the mother’s comfort or desires — and the gentle, client-focused approach of the doula, whose mandate is to ensure the mother has the best, most comfortable experience possible. As the story midwife, my overarching concern is to ensure a healthy baby, happy parents, and that everyone involved is able to achieve their highest potential. Sometimes compromises have to be struck, and the midwife is the one having to make the tough decisions when it comes down to the wire. I like being both a hardass and a nurturer, often in the same meeting/edit.

One thing that I think people often don’t understand is the difference between a story editor and a mixing/engineering editor. There is a difference between being able to do something like cut a single interview down for content, versus shepherding a possibly longform, multi-voice, multi-scene, complex narrative feature story through ideation, reporting, scripting, mixing, giving feedback on draft mixes, etc. The skills are definitely related, but I think with the explosion of single interview-based podcasts, the term “editor” can get fuzzy. My definition, or the one that I think captures what I personally do, is more of a traditional public radio feature editor role.

HP: What should I be listening to right now?

Chien: There are too many things I really like and admire to list them all, but beyond things I mentioned above, here’s a short list off the top of my head:

OFFSHORE, The Intersection, On the Media, Reveal, How Did This Get Made?, Stuff Mom Never Told You, Studio 360, The World According to Sound, The Treatment, Reply All, Off Book: The Improvised Musical Podcast, Racist Sandwich, Heaven’s Gate, Larry Wilmore: Black on the Air.

You can find Jen Chien on Twitter here, and here’s her KALW bio page.