Life and Times of a Chase Producer

I just started doing some freelancing again, pitching story by story. Who I am working with will be revealed in due course once the first new story is published. (Promise! I’ll post it here).

As I wait for phone calls from potential people to interview, I am thinking back to my chase producing experiences at the CBC. I always try to go back to the methods I developed while I was there to keep my productivity up as a freelancer. It was a time when the expectations were high, and the pace somewhat crazy. The things I learned at CBC have helped me support my growth as a journalist. Here’s what I did and what I learned in that intense time.

The example I am using here is from the time when I was chase producing for a regional current affairs program, similar to the local shows you’d hear from your local CBC stations in the morning, at noon or the 4-6 slot. Those shows are a mix of interviews, music, news and weather reports. Most of the interviews were 6-7 minutes long and we usually had 4 interviews in the course of an hour.

Here is the way my day would unfold:

8:30 – story meeting with the producer, the program host and the researchers and associate producers – 5 new story pitches were expected each day from each of us. So I constantly had to be on the lookout for good stories. Usually two or three of those five were chosen as topics to ‘chase’ (hence the term ‘chase producer’). They wouldn’t all have to be for the next day’s show — the producer would designate which ones he wanted for which days. Sometimes they were for the next day. And, if there is a very time sensitive story, it might even have to go in today’s show two hours later. And, sometimes the stories just didn’t pan out. C’est la vie. If I stick to this plan, my success record was pretty good.

9:00 – 3:00 The chase begins. My time was mostly spent doing research to determine the most suitable guests, including phone numbers. Potential guests would be phoned to check out their suitability and availability to appear on the show. Lots of waiting around for phone calls to be returned. If the potential guests didn’t call back, I’d call the next suitable person on the list.

In between waiting for phone calls, I developed story ideas and did research for new ideas to be presented at the next day’s story meeting. The show was mostly comprised of single interviews, so I was generally looking for one guest per story.

So I phoned. And emailed. And phoned and emailed. Rinse and repeat. Some days were easier than others. Vacation time, like March break and Christmas, made it harder to book guests. If it looked like a story I’d been assigned wasn’t going to come in for the next day’s show, I talked to my producer to let him know we needed to change course. If a story wasn’t coming together by 3:00, I usually quit chasing it and focused on something that looked more likely.

Generally, it was expected that at least one story I was working on for the next day would pan out. Many days I had two stories ready to go (which, if we already had enough for the next day’s show, the extra one could usually be scheduled for the day-after-tomorrow show). If the stories were fairly easy, I could do three a day. But that didn’t happen too often. On days when I was working on subjects that were more complex, I only did one.

The bottom line was — an occasional day when a producer didn’t have a story for the next day was generally acceptable. But it better not happen too often. That’s why was always a good idea to have extra stories my back pocket almost ready to go. (I remember one memorable days when somebody else’s guest bailed fifteen minutes to air time. The producer dropped a 15 minute interview on my desk on a reel of tape and told me to find a good 5 minutes and have it ready in 20 minutes to go to air. I did it. I’m proud of that.)

3:00 – With my guests confirmed for the next day, the last part of the day was spent preparing background notes, scripts and questions for the host. Do you ever wonder how a program host is able to know so much about so many things and sound so relaxed with all the people they’re interviewing? Most of the time, the research staff has prepared the materials for them. The host uses the materials prepared by the production crew as the roadmap for the interview. The background notes gives the host the larger context so they can make the interview their own. If, for example, the host gets caught in traffic and show up late, they’ll still sound totally in control of the materials as though they did the whole story themselves.

5:00 And then I went home, still looking for story ideas all the way home. And the next day it started all over again.

And now, in my freelance practice, I try to keep the same flow. The key is to be working on several things at once. Keeping new ideas flowing, trying to stick to deadlines, but understanding that things don’t always pan out. But, always having another story in the wings so everything doesn’t come to a grinding halt.

This was from a time before there was social media. My rhythms are slightly different now but basically the same. The secret to success is having more ideas than I can use in various stages of readiness. And that way, I stay on top of things without panicking about the prospect of dead air.


Why You Need to Add Podcasting to your Media Mix

1. Because we are in The Golden Age of Podcasting. More people than ever are listening to podcasts. (Source: Edison Research – Podcast Listeners in the U.S. In 2008 there were 46.8 million. In 2012: 75.4 million. And listenership has grown even more since then – check out Edison Research’s 2015 report on the podcasting consumer.)

2. Because people relate very well to the intimacy of The Voice. That’s always been the biggest strength of radio — people relate to radio personalities like you’re a best friend. Podcast hosts can achieve the same effect .. it’s not a rare occurrence to have listeners tell podcast hosts — “I feel like I know you”.

3. Because podcast listeners are very loyal. Studies have shown time and time again that once you’ve engaged a listener with your podcast, they keep on listening to future episodes. This builds relationship between you, your listeners (potential and current clients) and your business or organization.

4. Because podcast listeners have higher incomes than consumers of other media formats. According to Edison Research (The Podcast Consumer 2012), 1 in 4 podcast listeners have incomes of over $75,000.

5. Because listenership grows over time, and people will listen to your back episodes. It’s not like radio where a program is over once it’s on the air. There is lasting value from each podcast you produce.

6. Because your listeners can take a podcast anywhere. You can do different things at the same time with your eyes and ears. You can’t watch a video when you’re driving. Or knitting.

On the production side .. they’re not hard to create .. and they’re fun.

7. The technology is much less finicky than video. We all love video, but figuring out video sample rates, image sizes and file formats is enough to drive a person crazy. With audio, there aren’t as many technical variables. It’s easier to learn and get started.

8. You can edit a lot more precisely than you can on video. Say you’re editing a conference video and the person on the stage says “um” and makes long pauses between words. In audio, you can tighten up the presentation to make it sound better. If you do that with video, you’ll get stop motion animation.

9. You can get an excellent recorder for less than $200. You can even use your smartphone or tablet. And there is some great software out there you can use to get started for absolutely free.

There are many more reasons why podcasting is a good thing to add to your media mix. Want to learn how? I can help. Either in person or long distance …

Podcast Intros and Extros – Best Practices

I listen to a lot of podcasts. It helps me keep up with all the different podcasting styles out there, and I’m always thrilled to find a new podcast to subscribe to.

I sometimes listen to them on the treadmill or when I’m out for a walk. It’s a different experience than listening on the desktop with show notes in front of me. Here are some of my best practices re: intros and extros to make sure your listeners have all the info they need in your podcast.

a) Assume that your your listeners won’t have the show notes in front of them. There will be a a general description, but not much detail. Some podcasters dive right into the content without an intro. This works when the listener has the website open in front of them, but not well when your podcast is automatically downloaded by subscribers onto their mobile device. So, my recommendation is that your podcasts be complete and self contained so they can stand on their own without the show notes. This also works out well if some of our radio friends hear your content and want to put it on the air. Broadcasters love it when everything is ready to go for them and they don’t even have to write a script.

b) theme: a very short, standard intro (possibly with a bit of podsafe music) will help your podcast be recognizable. It is your signature beginning .. when listeners hear it, they’ll know it’s your podcast. So when they’re previewing content on their ipod when they’re in the gym, or listening in the car, they’ll know right away it’s you. And a theme with music makes you sound so organized and professional.

c) calls to action: if you have promos, or website information, or other ways you’d like listeners to respond, put it at the end of your podcast. You want to get into your content right away, not ask your listeners to wait while you read a whole long list of things. It slows down the pace of the listening experience, so get into your content as fast as you can.

These themes and scripts don’t have to be long. Shorter is better. I recommend that your standard theme be less than 30 seconds long. And the spoken intro to individual episode can be as little as 3-4 sentences. What’s important in the intro to each episode is: Who your guest is, who you are, what you’re talking to your guest about, and why the subject is important. Give your listeners a reason to keep listening instead of requiring them to get into the piece so they can figure it out themselves. Because a many of them won’t. They’ll stop listening. Especially if they don’t have show notes in front of them.

d) And finally — don’t forget to say goodbye. And repeat who you’ve been talking to so they don’t have to go look it up. And this is where you can suggest email links, tell listeners about other shows or other promo points.