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Notes on Skills-Gap Anxiety

Here’s a tidbit I learned a few years ago: Audie Cornish and I went to the same college. This was striking to me, given that the college in question doesn’t have an audio program, or even a sub-concentration within journalism or communications. I haven’t actually met Cornish, nor did I interview her for this piece, but from what I’ve learned about her trajectory, I felt a sort of kinship in how we both found our way into the medium of audio all the same, especially the particular way it appears to have happened: largely outside the classroom, bumping up against people and extracurriculars that helped us figure it out.

If it weren’t for certain chance encounters (in my case, through an internship that my NPR-loving landlord persuaded me to pursue at our local public-radio station, and in Cornish’s, through student radio, according to this college alumni video), it might not have been possible to know that producing podcasts and radio stories as a profession was an option, let alone possible to figure out how to do it. This may very well have been true for other people who came up around the same time or earlier; after all, it was only recently that the audio job market became as robust as it is today. There has been plenty of educational instruction for more fundamental skills like asking questions and fact checking — skills, by the way, that could also apply to non-journalism jobs — but when it came to formally learning the technical ins and outs of audio production, there were just fewer opportunities.

It should come as no surprise for you to know, then, that when I was offered my first full-time audio production position a year after graduating, I felt really underqualified. Six days before starting the job, which I’d so badly wanted and couldn’t believe I’d secured, I dialed in to a mentorship call I’d signed up for through Digital Women Leaders, hoping that the person on the other end would just sprinkle me with all the skills I felt I didn’t have. That person was Rachel Rohr, the director of training and service for Report for America, and when the two of us chatted, I took a ton of notes. But I suppose I might’ve been equally fine if I hadn’t, because, to this day, what stands out about our conversation was her insistence that, since I could tell stories, I already knew what I was doing. And thank goodness, because that was about the only thing I was sure I knew how to do.

This sentiment — that you could produce reasonably good audio, even if your technical training was largely DIY — is one that I truly hope becomes more ingrained in this community. The industry has grown a lot in the four years since I graduated, but it will likely take time for the institutions that spit us out into that industry to catch up. I have a feeling there are still lots of people like me out there. So, as an exercise for both myself and them, I wanted to get this down in writing, and a few weeks ago, I called Rohr back.

When the two of us first spoke, back in 2018, I’d already been researching and writing for several years, just as Rohr had been when she pursued, and got hired for, her own first job in the audio industry. Rohr joined WBUR in Boston in the late aughts as a young print journalist in the midst of a recession who looked at her professional prospects and vowed to be flexible. Though she’d never worked in the medium before, she convinced both herself and her eventual bosses that, even as a relatively green writer, she already had the nuts and bolts in place to tackle this different but related medium. And not only did they believe her, she was right: She’d already honed the ability to identify and tell stories, which was more or less at the core of audio reporting, too. Hence the kernel she passed along to me.

“I applied with not very high hopes that I would be hired,” says Rohr. But after Googling the differences between print and audio reporting — and blurting out her findings to her interviewers in response to them asking her what made her think she could do this — she figured, “I did have the skills that they were looking for, and they were willing to train on the editing and the software.”

Almost a decade later, Rohr urged me to have confidence in how my own reporting and writing skills had prepared me to tell a story in a new medium, and while I did have this other fear that the audio-engineering experience I could claim, however rudimentary, would give my new coworkers the impression that I could handle all the technical stuff, Rohr’s experience still mapped onto mine: When I did need help with equipment or programs, people stepped in.

It also turned out that, even as I was exposed to work with more complicated sound design or that brought in high-profile guests and actors (and also began to produce more complex work myself), Rohr’s advice about the centrality of a story still rang true to me. Good production or a big budget couldn’t hide a boring or messy subject.

In the three years since I spoke with Rohr — and evidently in the nearly two decades since she learned this firsthand — the idea of storytelling being the most fundamental element in a production has been the throughline for me. It has shined a light on all the planning and thought that goes on behind the scenes of audio, it makes me grateful for the reporting techniques I did gain in college (or otherwise scrambled to acquire on the job), and, importantly, it transcends genre.

“I’m using ‘story’ as a proxy for continuing to be engaged, that it’s moving me along,” says Rohr, who’s quick to anticipate questions that arise when she shares opinions on this topic. “In fact, most of what I listen to is not really narrative.”

As an example, chatcasts that hook you and keep you listening are likely doing so because of something other than cool music or an expensive microphone, even though, Rohr says, those are the kinds of elements many early-career audio makers fixate on and worry they won’t know how to use. Behind a great chatcast is likely the dynamic, give-and-take energy between hosts, or perhaps a producer with a solid vision of where a conversation started and where it should lead. Either element, within the framework of her advice, could be considered the “story.”

Rohr, of course, doesn’t want anyone to walk away from a conversation with her thinking that all the other steps of making audio aren’t important. In fact, it’s quite the opposite, in her mind. Things like leveling volume and composing original music take so much craft and care that, frankly, it’d be a waste to expend them on content that isn’t pulling its weight.

“The story is going to make or break it. You can’t sound design your way out of an uncompelling story,” says Rohr. “I would consider that almost like polishing a turd — which is not a phrase I invented but that I enjoy saying.”

At the end of the day, Rohr wants people to first have their basic storytelling skills in order, which may or may not already exist from previous work experience. After that, there are so many more things one can learn. “It’s a whole lifetime ahead of you of getting better at the craft,” says Rohr.

I, for one, am always seeing ways that I’m getting better, and it certainly hasn’t hurt to remember that I not only had some foundation for the world I eventually entered, but that I’d sharpened the same core skills as the one Audie Cornish eventually came to use on All Things Considered, and within those same hallowed halls.