Issue 238,  published December 10, 2019

Career Spotlight: Kate Osborn, VICE Media

Ever since I wrote about VICE News’s podcast about the Chapo trial last year, I’ve been interested in what Vice is brewing, podcast-wise. What better way to find out more than to hear from the person heading up the audio operation? Kate Osborn also gets extra props for being the first Career Spotlight participant to record her answers as audio and send them transcribed, complete with time codes. Such dedication to the format.

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Hot Pod: Tell me about your current situation.

Kate Osborn: My current situation is that I am the global director of audio for VICE News and VICE Media (yes apparently we do write it out in all caps). So… it’s kind of a ridiculous title.

But what that means is that I head up all things audio — and that mostly means podcasts right now — across all of the places that Vice is, which is many, many countries. So I’m responsible for helping develop and think through how to make really good podcasts in a bunch of languages now. Japanese, Spanish, German, Dutch, maybe Portuguese soon. Could be cool to do one in Chinese soon as well. Or Korean, we’re also talking them out. But you know, a lot of my day to day is working on the pods that we have here in the United States. And there are a whole bunch of those.

I’m kind of always thinking about how much time do we have to make this better? I notoriously rewrite openings of episodes right before they air, which is a bad habit, frankly. And I’m often thinking about what can we do as our team (that we’re slowly but surely building) that other folks and other shops maybe can’t do, or how do we do it differently or in our own voice and in tape. So I am always thinking in terms of verite and ways in which we can script less. And do much more showing than telling.

So that’s that’s what I spend a ton of time thinking about is, you know, what kinds of things should only be an audio and can only be… I often ask myself — are we losing something about the rigors of audio if anything and everything can be an audio story? So the question for me is what moods and descriptions and intimacy and truths can be brought to an aha moment that only can be done in audio as opposed to the “crutches” of visual content. I say that a little bit jokingly because that sort of brings me to my career arc….

HP: How did you get here?

Osborn: So I am not necessarily a gold star radio person. I have dabbled in the dark arts…of, excuse me, video and film and TV. My first love was radio. And when I was in college, I worked in community radio and learned for the first time what it meant to be creative. You know, I did photography and art and dabbled in other things like any good white chick in college. But I didn’t feel particularly like a creative person.

And when I was taught to record and then cut audio in Pro Tools, it felt like my version of creativity somehow. It just immediately felt really exciting to me. And I wanted to stay doing that and had done some really cool projects while I was in college. But the advice then was, “Hey, you want to work in radio, go move to a very small town somewhere in the country and maybe, maybe you can work your way back to D.C. or New York or L.A. to the the bigger hubs for NPR.”

And I grew up in New York, in the Bronx. That was not something that I was necessarily willing to do, let’s say. TV work and documentary work was aplenty. I got offered a job at PBS to work with Bill Moyers. I worked on a weekly show kind of right away, first, a documentary for him. And then a weekly show at the gate doing news.

I always say I didn’t go to journalism school, but I went to the Bill Moyers School for Journalists. And at that shop, I worked with three generations of journalists and I learned all of the stuff: how to pull documents with a FOIA request, get transcripts from subcommittee in Congress, look for earmarks in legislation…that kind of old school, I guess, shoe leather type stuff.

And also did a ton of travel for him around the country. From there I’ve woven in and out of TV news nightlies, weeklies, investigative and feature documentaries and then found my way back to radio. I was working at WBUR in Boston for a time. And that got me back to being able to find a way of making ends meet and doing radio. The whole podcast boom has made that increasingly viable, to be honest. And, you know question three…

HP: What does a career mean to you?

Osborn: I don’t know. I don’t think that I ever had a “Here I am at point A I want to get to point D by X year of my life.” I’ve always been really driven by opportunities and new challenges. And I think that part of the motivation for me personally in being a journalist and being in audio especially is the ability not to be bored and to be always learning new things and being humbled by people’s experiences that they share with you and learning how to do a better job. And you mess up and then you have to try again and try to make it better. (Especially in audio where you are constantly solving problems — how do I explain something or conjure the right image when can’t just show it to you but also without being pedantic and cloying?) For me, that’s a career. Constantly learning and trying something new and trying to do it differently the next time.

I tend to be sort of mission driven, about journalism and its role in the world. And it’s not to overly inflate its importance, but, you know, making sure that we’re not wasting money to make something that doesn’t necessarily have resonance or impact or reflect back to folks what we’re feeling.

So to me, my career is is about change, but also about making sure that, whatever project I’m on has some form of impact. I think that I don’t necessarily even know where I’m going to go from here, you know? I don’t know that there’s somewhere on the horizon, a point, X, Y, Z for me. It’s a dynamic career.

I will say that I’ve had a lot of friends and colleagues leave the profession in the last couple of years, in part because of being burnt out, in part because they’re sick of screaming maybe into an overly crowded void or feeling like consolidation of the media is intense and impacting their lives and also how they make a living. But I’m very bullish about the news and audio.

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

Osborn:  I think I said at my kindergarten graduation that I would be a veterinarian. There was certainly an interest and desire for me to be in the medical profession from my family, my dad being an ER doctor, my mom a midwife. I thought about it. I was interested.

But, you know, there is a reality to what we do every day that you don’t know about before you actually have a job. You’re thinking more about your identity and what it’s going to say about you and less about what is it that you actually do everyday. And what are the actual environments that you’re in all day and are there windows? I recognize the blessing of being able to choose.

HP: What are you listening to right now?

Osborn: I mean, isn’t everyone listening to Jad’s Dolly Parton podcast? I know I am. And I’m rapt and I think it’s really fucking good.

I’m also listening to Rough Translation which has a Ukraine mini series out right now. I haven’t finished it yet. I also want to give a little shout out to the Secret Lives of Black Women, which is a great new pod and the Reno season of The City. I’m just getting started and I’m really loving it. Can’t forget to include the recent Nadia Reiman produced episode of TAL “The Out Crowd.” And I also think that You Must Remember This is doing a very good reality check on Disney this season.

HP: What’s the most unusual thing your work has lead you to?

Osborn: Well, a bunch of stuff. But the most recent would probably be to a morgue in Ciudad Juarez in Mexico. We were trying to get a sense of just how intense… to provide a visceral and stark way of communicating the massive death rate that that city has gone through unfortunately, many times. But the time that we were referencing back to was some very extreme cartel violence a couple of years ago. And there is a doctor in that morgue who by necessity has had to come up with a way to essentially — reanimate is not the right word — but to essentially take very desiccated bodies and bring them a little bit more back to identifiable life.

And we went to do an interview with him and I knew it was going to be pretty intense, but it was physically overwhelming. So if you want to hear that, that’s in the Chapo podcast. That is in all the places you get your podcasts.

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Kate isn’t really on Twitter, so here’s her website.