Issue 299,  published March 30, 2021

Expanding the Editor Pipeline

The motivation behind Edit Mode, a seven-week training program from the Association of Independents in Radio (AIR)’s SoundPath learning platform and the Editors Collective, is simple and straightforward: There’s a huge demand these days for story editors with tangible experience working on narrative audio projects, and there’s simply too little supply to match it.

The individuals who make up the loosely organized Editors Collective — Julie Caine, Jen Chien, Leila Day, and Casey Miner, who came up together as a cohort at KALW in San Francisco — began to notice this gap a few years ago, which primarily manifested through a growing volume of inquiries throughout the audio community. These inquiries sought story editors to work on the many narrative projects popping up in the wake of the podcast boom: people who could improve the shape and structure of a multi-part serial, consider as many angles and perspectives, assess and account for key blind spots. And according to Chien and Miner, who spoke with me over the phone last week, that gap appears to have persisted well into this day. “It still seems like there’s nowhere near enough story editors to meet the need,” said Miner, who nowadays works as an independent editor.

As a result of this market dynamic, competition for people with such capabilities has grown dramatically over the past few years. This is said to be especially true for story editors of color, whose perspectives I imagine have only become increasingly recognized as crucial in the wake of the many, many, many media workplace reckonings in recent memory. “I can only speak from my own experience, but as someone who identifies as a person of color and an audio editor, I’ve been recruited many times… and talking to other folks at this job level and description, it sounds like people are getting poached and recruited from all angles,” said Jen Chien, who currently works as the executive editor at Lantigua Williams & Co.

There are many factors that contribute to this dearth in talent supply, but in my mind, two factors stand out above all. The first has to do with opportunity. Prior to the (very) recent rise of podcasting, there were simply very few opportunities to consistently work on narrative audio projects, as broadcast radio wasn’t a terribly efficient facilitator of such programming. Because there was little work, there were few opportunities to gain story editing experience, and because there were few opportunities, there was little chance for supply to take proper shape. And what confluences of opportunities, work, and supply did happen in the pre-podcast age tended to amass around the same kind of person. This should be an old nut by now, but here’s Miner listing out the characteristics of that archetype: “Coastal, upper middle class, white, college educated, probably from public radio.”

The second factor is the fact that, even with the increased demand for the skill set today, there still seems to be little opportunity to get new hands dirty with that kind of work. My sense is that much of this is the result of risk aversion: Publishers aren’t typically eager to give people with little-to-no story editing experience the chance to work on a story, generally opting instead to lean on the few people who do have substantial audio editing credits (or in some cases, importing experienced editors from other media industries, who themselves probably come out from similar demographics). But because there’s a tendency to allocate opportunity among already experienced hands, newer hands won’t get as many chances — if not any chance at all — to take shots on goal. Consequently, this results in the editor class being extremely concentrated and the pathway towards increasing the supply of narrative audio editors considerably cloudy, even when it comes to those with the closest proximity to such opportunities (i.e. those who already work within audio publishers). It’s one of those annoying infinite loops: You can’t get more experience if you don’t already have experience, but you can’t get experience without experience.

Which brings us back to Edit Mode. Here, the idea is to provide a hands-on, mentor-centric training program that gives participants the opportunity to work on a story that will ultimately get published, thus giving their resumes a tangible editing credit that they can use to qualify for more editing jobs. Put simply, the program seems positioned to function as a vessel that can take on some of the risk from publishers — mitigating their aversions in part by relying on experienced mentors — to spread more editing experience around to more people, and in doing so, contribute to the expansion of the editor pipeline while bringing a more diverse group of people into the mix.

(I should say: This isn’t the only editor training program that’s popping up right now. At this writing, Neon Hum Media is in the middle of staging its own editor bootcamp led by Catherine Saint Louis, who I interviewed in an early episode of my dearly departed Servant of Pod podcast about the role of podcast editors.)

It should be noted, though, that Edit Mode is principally geared towards people who already have some experience with narrative audio work. While this may structurally keep out a lot of fresh hands — after all, it’s probably the case that only certain kinds of people have been able to access such work so far — the reason for this is intimately tied to how the program is designed. “You’d need some familiarity with the form to get the most out of the training we’re planning,” said Chien. “We’re also trying not to have too great a spread in terms of experience level, as it would be tough to tailor the workshop across too broad a brush.”

Speaking of which, the program is built around two main components. The first is the instructional stuff: intensive classes, workshops, and seminars that take place over three weekends meant to get some clean hands dirty. The second is oriented around networking: Working editors from around the industry are brought in to guest-teach classes and provide one-on-one mentorship. Such mentorship, by the way, is itself a mechanism for career advancement: After all, people tend to hire people they already have some shared experience with.

The reality of that dynamic also grounds another aspect that’s central to the program: an emphasis on a cohort model, which in some way is meant to evoke the experiences that the four Editors Collective members had coming up through KALW. Each cohort is kept intentionally small, around ten people (who will each be given a $1,000 stipend, FYI), and while that might seem to run counter to the philosophical enterprise of growing the pool, that concentrated focus is described to be an expression of how the collective interprets the overarching pipeline problem. “Even though it does mean less access, keeping groups to a smaller size allows for a real community to develop that will help people as they move on to their careers,” said Chien. “A lot of hires really do come down to who you know. That’s just a fact of life.”

She added: “It’s a type of exclusivity, but it’s also an attempt to build an ongoing network, which is why we’re hoping to keep this going beyond this one cohort.” On that note, the collective has secured funding for one more cohort after this debut workshop, but that’s all they have guaranteed from AIR for now. They’re hoping to get more funding, perhaps from other partnerships, to support future iterations of the Edit Mode program.

Whether or not there will be more cohorts in the years to come, there will at least be twenty more people running around the podcast industry with one more tangible credit, some more confidence, and a new professional peer network to help tackle the editor gap in the audio business. This, in turn, will hopefully complicate the impulse on the part of employers who might believe the editor pipeline “just isn’t there yet.”

“We can’t tell companies who to hire, but we can try to make that pool bigger,” said Chien. “We believe people are ready. They just haven’t been given the chance yet. We want to give them that extra lift to push their head up and say, ‘I’m ready, and I’ve proven it.’”

Applications for Edit Mode are open until April 2, and the program starts on June 5.

I run this thing.