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. 

Saturday, July 5, 2014

The Letter That Kicked Off A Radio Career

As NPR's Tamara Keith steps into the Weekend Edition Saturday host chair this week, she looks back to a letter written when she was 15 years old.

» E-Mail This

from Tamara Keith


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


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.


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.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Column 2: Finding America

When I came through the door of the Hanford Sentinel and said I wanted to write a column, the editor I spoke with agreed to let me try it out.  I'm pretty sure he figured he was signing up for a one off deal.  I had different ideas.  So, a couple of days after my first column ran, I sent him another one.  This one charted the course for weeks of columns to come.  Basically I used this column to tell the paper and the readers they'd be hearing from me weekly.  Amazingly, the Sentinel published it too...and another 28 after that.

Finding America by Tamara Keith (June 1995)

Chevy Chase did it. So have the guys from Easy Rider (a cult turned main stream film that came out in the 60’s. It starred Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson, and Peter Fonda.). But it somehow seems different with my family. The great American family vacation can be a pretty scary thought. Movies like National Lampoon’s Family Vacation, Lost In America or Easy Rider have glamorized the idea of crossing America in (or on) a motor vehicle.

For the next six weeks I will be putting up with my little brother, motion sickness, unfriendly locals, and strange insects (I’ve heard Texas has some really huge misquotes) all on the quest to find America, or what’s left of it.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Column 1: There's Nothing to Do in Hanford

In the summer of 1995, I started writing a column for the local newspaper in the relatively small town where I grew up.  The paper was the Hanford Sentinel, the town was Hanford, California - population 30,000.  At the time, there were by far more cows than people.  I was 15 years old and about to start my senior year of high school.  For the next several months I will be posting the columns I wrote for the Sentinel and later the the Fresno Bee.  Some of the columns are pretty bad, like this one, my first.  But they get better, I swear.  They also clearly reflect a 15-year-old me.  I was cocky, and clearly thought myself both more intelligent and cosmopolitan than I actually was (oh yeah, and I also loved parenthesis). But that's what it's like to be a 15 year old writer with limited editing.

There's Nothing to Do in Hanford by Tamara Keith, June 1995
We are constantly complaining that there is nothing to do in Hanford and as far as I can see these complaints are valid. Right now there just isn’t anything to do. Though the future is looking promising in terms of recreation centers, it would be nice if the community could produce some places for us to hang out right now.

A few years ago everyone was excited about Hanford getting a new mall. Mall rats from miles around swarmed to the newly built “hang-out” spot. However the novelty has since worn off and even the most loyal mall lovers can only spend a few hours there before being overcome by the stark white walls and “muzak.” There are three forms of entertainment in the mall other than shopping (and I consider that more like torture than fun); the movies, the food court, and Aladdin’s Castle. The movies and food are great, but out of the question if you are low on funds (which most teenagers are) and the arcade is another challenge. Overrun by sticky fingered, dirty faced, glassy eyed 9 year old Mortal Kombat fiends, that jingle when they walk (their pockets are full of “get out of the house quarters”). That’s just not my idea of a fun time, especially since I have the home version of Aladdin’s Castle in the room next to mine with my little brother and his friends.