Friday, February 20, 2015

The Letter That Kicked Off A Radio Career

Over the summer, I got a chance to guest host Weekend Edition Saturday. It was one of those moment where you realize your life has come full circle, which can be both overwhelming and very cool (and it was). The regular host, Scott Simon, started a tradition of sharing a personal essay each week. Sometimes it is about his family, sometimes about news events or some goofy story that he's able to riff on.

When I sat down to write my first essay as a guest host, I knew there was only one piece I could write. It was about the letter I wrote to Simon (and a number of other NPR personalities) in 1995 when I was a teenager. It was a letter that started me on the long and winding road that is my career in radio.

Here is that letter, complete with punctuation errors, grammatical problems and embarrassing turns of phrase. I have to say I am most embarrassed by the mean things I said about my hometown and my high school counselor. The town did/does have a lot of dairies but my high school counselor is a truly wonderful person who helped put me on a path to success (so I'm assuming I was just trying to be funny by being mean). 


Dear [NPR Personality],
Hi, I am a 15 year old high school senior, and I need help.  I write a weekly column in my local newspaper and I need interesting stuff to report back from my “Trek Around America” this summer. 
            I included a copy of my next column to give you an idea of my style.  I also put in a tape (copy) of a “NPR type” story I put together for a college English class I took last summer.  It’s obviously not up to your professional standards, but I did my best with the primitive equipment I had to work with. 
            You see, my fondest desire (right after being an MTV VeeJay Chick) is to be a reporter for NPR.  I really need some career advice.  Living in a town where 80% of the population have four legs and udders and the high school a nationally recognized milk tasting team , I need some outside help. 
            I don’t have a clue about good colleges for communications majors, or even if communications is a good major.  If my high school counselor had known anything about career choices she probably would have picked a different one for herself. 
            I will be in Washington DC July 3, 4, 5, and 6.  If there is any way possible that I might get some time for you to mentor me I would be thrilled.
            You can get in touch with me at:
- My Father’s answering machine (he checks it daily) (209) XXX-XXXX
- cell phone # (209) XXX-XXXX
- We will be staying at the Best Western Arlington and Tower and you can leave a message for me there (703) XXX-XXXX
           
            I know your schedule is very busy but I really need to get a leg up.  Thanks for your time and the insights you regularly provide me with.

Sincerely,


Tamara Keith

The Biggest Mistake I've Ever Made?

I'm not sure this is truly the biggest mistake I have ever made. But it still pains me to think about it some 15 years later.

A lot of people wonder who picks the music that comes after the stories on NPR. The answer is the director of the show. Sometimes there are little jokes hidden in the songs, to give the knowing listener a chuckle. Always the goal is to pick a song that hits just the right tone to transition from one story to the next or to take the show out to the credits.

My first real job in public radio was directing a show called The California Report. There was a daily 10 minute broadcast and it was my job to make sure the date on the credits was correct and to pick the music, among other things.

I love listening to music, but finding the perfect song wasn't ever my strong suit. At some point I isolated a bunch of short clips of instrumental music I could use on a regular basis. Rather than label them with the song name or the artist, I labeled them with things like "6 seconds, peppy." There was one I labeled "sad song 10 seconds."

There was one show that was particularly terrific. I remember the stories being really strong, especially one from (I believe it was him) Kai Ryssdal, who was a KQED reporter at the time. He had witnessed the execution of a prisoner at San Quentin and wrote beautifully about the man's chest moving up and down as he took his last breaths.

To transition to the next piece, I pulled out my old standby "sad song 10 seconds."

I thought the show was perfect! I was so proud of it. And then the e-mails started coming in. Listeners wanted to know if the person picking the music was trying to be funny. They made very clear is was NOT FUNNY or clever and actually was rather offensive.

Why? Because it turns out the song was called "Better Off Dead."

Friday, February 6, 2015

How I Found My #PubRadioVoice (Spoiler alert: I'm still working on it)

At NPR, on air and online we’ve been having a conversation about #PubRadioVoice. It started with this essay from Chenjerai Kumanyika and then continued online.

I have been talking on the radio for 20 years now, and I am still struggling to find my #PubRadioVoice. I am not the only one. This is tough stuff.

I started my public radio career when I was fifteen years old as an essayist for Weekend Edition Sunday. Here is my very first essay:



The show’s producers and host invited me to write and read essays about my teenaged life because they wanted the voice of a teenager on air. There was no real pressure to sound like a grown-up or to sound authoritative in any way. I was just talking about what to wear on the first day of school, taking my driving exam, dating drama, etc. Still, I was a bit of a mumbler at the time and there’s no room for a kid you can’t understand on the radio so I tried to speak clearly.

When I was still a teenager, I got an internship at KQED radio in San Francisco and was lucky enough to do some on-air stories right out of the gate. I don’t think anyone told me “kid, you sound 19, work on sounding like a grown up.” But there’s no way I was going to go on the radio doing a story about homelessness sounding like I was talking to a bunch of other 19 year olds. So, I worked hard to sound more grown up. This was also in my writing.

My insecurity meant not much of my personality made it into my pieces. Maybe a little bit, but not much. I also bought a bunch of suits and wore glasses even when I didn’t really need them. I wanted to be taken seriously and I was doing everything I could to make that happen.

I spent probably 10 years trying desperately not to sound like what I was, which was a young woman from California, with an occasional southern twang I blame on my mother who grew up in Texas and speaks full-on Texan when on the phone with my grandmother. I went through more voice training sessions than I care to remember with high priced professional coaches (paid for by well-meaning employers). I underlined words for emphasis and tried to get the squeak out of my voice. After one coaching session I started trying to channel Marilyn Monroe. I don’t know if any of it really helped.

For years I felt like I knew how to get amazing tape, I could write a script I was proud of and get the facts straight and then I destroyed it when I voiced the story. I thought everything I did sounded terrible. It was so frustrating.

And then at some point I realized I had been making a terrible mistake. My stories didn’t sound right because they didn’t match up to the voice I heard in my head when I was writing them. The thing that was missing from my reporting was: me. Now I’m not arguing I have an amazing personality that listeners need to hear. But the people who I admire most, who I enjoy listening to the most are the people who just sound like themselves on the radio.

So, basically I’ve spent the last 10 years of my career trying to undo what I did in the first ten years. I write differently now, more conversationally and with shorter sentences. I have fun whenever possible (I like to think of it as adding pieces of flair to my stories). And when I am in the recording booth laying down my voice tracks I try to imagine myself talking to a friend or my mom. Generally I just try to forget that I am delivering the news.

People used to tell me “I heard you on the radio and I didn’t even realize it was you,” and I took it as a compliment. Now I take it as an insult, a well-intentioned insult. I just want to sound like myself on the radio, whatever that means. Maybe a slightly smarter, slightly more confident, authoritative version of myself who enunciates.

The other day a colleague tweeted some advice a correspondent gave him as he was about to track a story, “none of that I’m a cool 28-yo Californian guy stuff.” I wanted to shout through the internet “don’t make the mistake I made!!!” Instead I tweeted back “actually, I’d argue a little of it is important.”

What I meant was I want to hear that 28-year-old California guy on the radio, and I think our listeners are better for it too.

Monday, December 22, 2014

An Open Letter to Young Journalists

This didn't start out as an open letter. In fact, this is taken pretty much directly from a note I sent a young journalist with whom I occasionally exchange e-mails. But I feel like it's a really important thing they don't teach in journalism school or intern orientation. So, here it is: don't be a pain in the ass.

And now I am going to offer you some unsolicited and random advice that is really really important. But I offer it because I want you to succeed.  
People who are easy to edit go far in life. I don't just mean coming in with a polished product. I mean greeting each edit as an opportunity to get better at the craft. Realizing that you don't know it all, that there's so much you can learn and that a good hard edit is the best way to do it. Not pushing back hard on things that don't matter. Realizing every word you have written is not golden. Letting an editor kill one of your babies (a beloved piece of tape) or if you really, really don't want to let it go offering some other way to make up the time or otherwise tighten the piece. 
Edits can be negotiations. But they should never be battles. Resist all urges to be defensive. Treat every editor as a mentor. Sometimes this is hard to do, especially if you don't actually have a ton of respect for the editor. But realize you can learn something even from a mediocre editor.  
Now, I'm not saying you should just roll over if in the course of an edit your editor suggests adding a phrase you would never write or say. And certainly if a factual inaccuracy is introduced, stand up for your journalism. But these cases are rare. And there is always a way to push back without being a jerk about it.   
This is my personal philosophy now. I am a freakin' White House Correspondent and I don't know it all. My editors make me better every day. And part of my job as a reporter is to make them feel good about their work by being edited with grace. Seriously. Editors get their job satisfaction from making us better. It should be a pleasant experience for them.  
Back in the day, I produced a podcast B-Side and I also worked with a lot of interns. I edited a lot of people. The people who were somewhat unpleasant to edit, or fought over every word or came off like they knew it all...I've watched their careers derail. Not a single person who I edited who I thought "damn, I didn't enjoy that and I'd rather not edit them again," not one of them has had a successful career in public radio or even journalism.  
It matters. A lot. How you interact with editors and colleagues now could well be more important than anything you write.  
I believe I made it as far as I have because I am agreeable, I make sure editors know I want to be edited and I appreciate what they do...and because I sometimes bring baked goods to the office. Being good isn't good enough.  
Off my soap box. 

Sunday, April 13, 2014

How not to screw up one of the most basic jobs of a radio producer/intern…Also known as everything I did wrong when I was first starting out.

This is known in the radio world as a tape sync or double-ender. Here’s how it works: The interviewer is on the phone asking questions, while you’re there in person recording the interviewee. Think of yourself as the human microphone stand.

When I was first starting out in radio, this was a quick and easy way to make money, and also an excellent way to meet people in radio I hoped to work with as peers. You know, an awesome opportunity to make a great impression, unless you’re me. In my case it was an awesome opportunity to find new and different ways to screw up this oh-so-simple task.

Here’s a short rundown of my most terrifically bad and embarrassing mistakes.

Being late/getting lost/parking in a tow away zone:

I was late for a tape sync in the South of Market neighborhood in San Francisco. I would have been almost on time, except there was no parking. So I just kept circling the neighborhood, hoping to find a spot on the street. Finally, a van pulled out of a spot and I swooped in. I got out, couldn’t find a parking meter, noted a small yellow sign indicating it was a loading zone and rushed off to record the interview. When I got back to the spot, my car was long gone, because it turns out the city of San Francisco is serious about guarding its loading zones. Towing fees: $150, payment for the tape sync: $50. Lesson learned: Priceless.

Letting the batteries die:

It was the summer of 2000 and Ralph Nader was the Green Party’s nominee for president. The host of the show I was working for (in the most junior capacity possible) was going to interview him remotely, while I served as a human mic stand across town. I brought along an intern to show her how it was done.

I pulled out my brand new recorder, got set up, held my microphone just right and started recording. A couple of minutes into the interview I looked down and the digital recorder was completely dead. No letters or numbers on the screen. Nothing.  It turns out the recorder was faulty, and although I had charged it for hours, it didn’t charge up its rechargeable battery.

I had to stop the interview and replace the battery. As I fumbled to replace it, the host on the other end of the line was so angry, I am quite certain Nader could hear him yelling.

They had to completely restart the interview, because the recorder also erased the recording…just for good measure, I guess.

Nader was totally gracious. “I don’t understand these newfangled devices either,” he said with a warm chuckle.

I sure showed the intern.  Though, it turns out I showed her how it isn’t supposed to be done.

Forgetting to send it in:

The interview I recorded at the Levi’s corporate headquarters in San Francisco started like any other. This time I actually was on time, and found a parking space on the street without much trouble.

A reporter from Marketplace, based in their Washington, DC bureau, conducted the interview over the phone, while I recorded. He e-mailed me the address to send it to along with a Fed Ex account number. I was supposed to send him the recording right away (this was before reliable fast FTP sites, and I physically had to send it to him) as is standard with all tape syncs.

Instead, I put my recording gear in my bag, tossed it in the trunk of the car, drove home and never thought about it again. That is, until I got a call from the reporter asking for the Fed Ex tracking number because he hadn’t gotten the tape yet. You know that sinking feeling? That one that comes when you’ve screwed up terribly and there’s nothing to do but admit it.

I rushed to a Fed Ex office and sent it to him overnight. Unfortunately, his story had to be delayed.  I was afraid I would never work again, certainly never for him, and probably never for Marketplace either.

Almost exactly 10 years later, I was temping at Marketplace in their DC bureau when I realized that reporter whose story I temporarily screwed up was sitting in the office right next to me. We were colleagues. I finally got up the nerve to ask if he remembered a tape sync that went terribly awry, and the unprofessional producer who forgot to send him the tape. He didn’t. And thank goodness for that.

What should you take from this?

Please learn from my mistakes. And don’t repeat them.

Realize that you will probably screw up at some point along the way. It’s just a given. Even the easy parts of making radio are pretty hard.

It is possible to recover from catastrophic mistakes and somehow become a White House Correspondent for NPR (one who is very forgiving).


Sunday, April 24, 2011

THIS is NPR

Recently, the promotions team at NPR asked us to write up little 25 second pieces about why we work at NPR (or something like that).  So, I wrote about being trapped in the back seat of a very small Subaru listening to NPR (KCRW at the time) while sitting in traffic on the 101 or the 405 or Forest Lawn Drive.  That was the beginning.  Then when I was older, my parents would actually discuss the stories with me - not just the content but the production.  Then there was the Marantz professional tape deck my dad got me when I was 11 or 12.  I still use the RE-50 microphone that came with it.

I suppose my career path was inevitable.  And I feel incredibly lucky that it's all worked out this way. Here's the final product, at 25 seconds of it.


 

The photos in the video are me when I was a kiddo randomly sitting on a small battery operated car, me interviewing Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour about the BP oil spill, and me in Haiti shortly after the earthquake.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Journalist in Residence

This fall I'll spend the better part of a week at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism as a "journalist in residence."  I swear it hasn't been that long since I graduated from the J-School.  Well, if I do the math, I guess it has been nearly a decade.

I can't really explain how excited I am to visit the school, meet the students and hopefully share some of the things I've learned over those 10 years.   Most of my time will be spent in classrooms, but there is one public event planned.  Here's the official description:

The Big Story: National Public Radio’s Tamara Keith

When: Wednesday, October 6

Reception: 5:30 PM
Lecture: 6:00 PM

Where: North Gate Hall Library

NPR Reporter and Journalist-in-Residence Tamara Keith discusses radio journalism, the challenge of covering disasters, and NPR’s transition in the digital age, while outlining her experiences covering major stories ranging from the world financial crisis, to the earthquake in Haiti, to the BP oil spill in Louisiana.

...

Let's hope those improv comedy classes I've been taking pay off!

Friday, December 25, 2009

The Other Tamara Keith

The other day, I got a message on Facebook from myself. Well, at least that's what it looked like. I had gone 30 years thinking I had a completely strange name that only my hippie parents could come up with. I suffered through all the mispronunciations and misspellings and mocking from kids who thought my name was similar enough to "Tomorrow" to sing.



But it turns out there are several Tamara Keiths out there, and one of them went through the trouble of finding me. My friend Rob Sachs thought this was so funny he decided to do a podcast all about people who have the same name.

[audio: http://podcastdownload.npr.org/anon.npr-podcasts/podcast/510065/121486714/npr_121486714.mp3]

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Learning to Make Latkes



If there was a Tamara's Greatest Hits album, this story would be on it.  Luckily for all of you no such album exists.  Learning to Make Latkes is a funny little story - and more like a personal essay than anything I've done since my teenage years as an essayist for Weekend Edition Sunday.  Here's the audio from the version of the piece that aired on The California Report:


The story was also featured on the NPR Holiday Favorites album.

This may be the ultimate parable of Jewish cooking tradition. Growing up Methodist in a small, central valley town, my first introduction to latkes was through my college boyfriend, Ira, when I went to visit him at his parent’s house in L.A. during Hanukkah.  The whole house had this distinctive scent of grease and potatoes – and it was sort of fishy.  The potato pancakes Ira’s mom and sister made were terrific.  They were crispy and warm and dunked in apple sauce for that perfect balance of grease and fruit.