Notes from a Black First-Time Third Coaster. 

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There still so many things I do not know. I am still teaching myself radio/audio lingo, still smiling and nodding, willing my eyes not to glaze over when veterans strike up conversations with me about equipment, technique, format, reach. And I haven’t quite figured out the stubborn resistance I feel to immersing myself in this culture.

A year in, I still feel content in the wading pool; I may never deep-dive.

I attended this year’s Third Coast International Audio Festival, in part to test that reticence and to challenge it. It was my attempt at immersion therapy: go, engage, become.

Third Coast was my last of five audio/public media conference/festival visits this year, but it was the first I attended as an off-duty participant. The others I was invited to by AIR as a panelist or presenter. I could tell that the vast majority of the crowd had long wanted to be there, felt affirmed by their presence among peers who wanted, largely, what they did. I quite enjoyed proximity to them, but I never felt like one of them, not fully.

When you enter a professional field because you have won a competition, the experience of learning about that field is different than if you discover it of your own meandering accord. It is the difference between being set up on a blind date and meeting the love of your life spontaneously in the aisles of the bookstore or supermarket. The blind date may be a forever-match but there is often  an element of doubt, borne simply of the particular circumstance. You are here because your presence was suggested and now it is up to you to decide if you are wanted or welcome. And it is also up to you to decide if you are desirous and welcoming.

That takes time.

When I was making the first season of The Rise of Charm City, I was rapturous about the possibilities of public radio and podcasts. I was thoroughly enamored and this oblivious to the culture’s many flaws and challenges. I thought I knew them, anyway; public radio shares a boundary with print media — and I know its limitations well.

In the few months since our first season wrapped, the rosiness of my new world has wilted a bit. This isn’t due to any artistic love lost. If I could, I’d devote copious time to producing and learning to produce deeply personal, high-concept projects. I’d do it to the neglect of other art/work-related things (and I have done a bit of that, if I’m being honest).

My unmoored feelings have more to do with all that I still do not know and will have to teach myself and/or spend a great deal of money being taught, if I am to keep ambling down this professional path. And speaking of financial responsibility, I’ve had time to realize how closely an indie career in audio production resembles my experiences with freelance writing and adjuncting. Together, the three fields form a lovely fishtail braid but, depending on the month, they may not be able to feed me.

Production is creative and inspiring and when I am among audio producers and employees at all levels of public media, I always get the sense that I am with people who wholeheartedly believe in the power of their work to guide the course of our culture. They are doing the arts work many public school districts have defunded. They are educating adults whose curiosity about life experiences other than their own is insatiable. I deeply admire that kind of social largesse. I contribute to it as much as I can. I am also always looking for ways for my daughter and I to live beyond the imminent possibility of personal financial collapse.

So there’s a tension here. It always exists when I enter spaces of relative privilege. I rarely feel unwelcome — quite the opposite — but I do often feel that my presence — as a Black woman, deeply financially indebted to institutions of similar privilege, for the degrees they conferred, which grant me access to spaces like Third Coast in the first place — is fraught. I can’t seem to just go and abide and relish. I always feel like I’m in white professional spaces in response to something, to solve something, to contextualize something. I am there for all the people who can’t be, there to learn what I will now have an imperative to teach. And that — the constant awareness of it — is draining.

What I know is that 700 people attended this conference this year and I didn’t have to search the room for people of color; they were all around me. I know that some of them — myself included — were there precisely because white people in positions of hiring and grant-funding power intentionally sought to bring them into the profession. And I know others were there without any institutional invitation; they are the door-kickers and the builders of their own infrastructures, solving representation problems without waiting for big media companies to even identify mis- and under-representation as problems.

Public media is moving its needle. Third Coast, by extension seems to be working hard at a greater level of inclusivity. That should be acknowledged and appreciated. It is also still exclusive of a lot of the people it should include and we can’t stop pointing that out, either.

Last year, I was tasked with creating a public media project that would reach audiences that public media does not typically reach. A year later, it’s difficult to measure how successful I’ve been at that. I am more confident that I produced work that represented that audience fairly and sought to avoid treating them merely as subjects on whom I’d report and to whom I’d never return. For me, that is just as important. And I can’t help but wonder if it would be, if I weren’t Black or a woman or a mother or someone who lives near, if not in, the communities I cover.

As far as I can tell, public media still struggles with hovering over rather than drilling down. And there are many reasons for that, none of which are uncomplicated. (For more context on what I mean here, see the tweets below.) Podcasts, liberated as they are from some of the journalistic constraints of other public media outlets, can go a long way toward addressing that gap. If people of color can afford to produce them. If public media works both to invite and retain them. And if people like me are willing to leave the wading pool, willing to give the arranged date a real shot, rather than succumbing to the same disillusionment that prices and pushes us out of other fields of work and study.

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An addendum: I was about two paragraphs from finishing this when news of Gwen Ifill’s passing broke. I’d be remiss if I didn’t say: black women have always been willing to pioneer these fraught spaces, to absorb the first wave, to stand firm while their white colleagues try and fail and try again to become truly inclusive, truly validating of our experience and what it brings to our reporting. I wouldn’t be able to have my angst-filled, lofty musings about my really expensive trip to an audio conference and what it means (or doesn’t mean for my professional future) without Gwen Ifill and all the women like her taking their rightful place in institutions that don’t always or immediately acknowledge that rightfulness at all. Love to her and hers — and safe passage. May we ever honor her invaluable contributions.

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Postcard from the Inside.

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“Why do you write like you’re running out of time?”

Dear Reader,

Day upon day I awaken both thrilled and exhausted, my nights all beset by the disquiet of ideas and anxiety. As it turns out, I am no better at sleeping soundly when I am fulfilled than when I am frustrated. This is the life I had conditioned myself to avoid, convinced as I was that I couldn’t handle being “busy” — at least not in the typical Western, capitalist tradition of busyness. And if that meant that I wouldn’t earn much — either in money or in accolades — I’d just have to learn to live with less.

To brace for this, I had spent years telling myself that I would be fine earning and living below my true ability because I was not particularly ambitious, nor was I roused each morning by an agitating pressure to impress others and outdo myself. I wanted contentment, not an interminable climb. I was working just enough, in positions that allowed for anonymity and flexibility. Any bouts of real striving were selective and intermittent.

But I suppose I’ve always known that was a lie. The Lie, really. The biggest self-betrayal is the one that persuades you to live unambitiously. I am neither minimalist nor mediocre. I have never been content with less than I’m capable of creating or earning or becoming; I am just averse to that creeping sense of mania I feel when I stretch forth my hand too far, grasping at things that will require unending restlessness and fierce self-competition if I ever hope to reach them.

I have only been producing radio for four and a half months, but it’s already quite clear that this was what I was avoiding. This job has confirmed both what I find terrifying and what I could be capable of. Just as writing — my lifelong calling (and I say that devoid of hyperbole or delusion of grandeur) — had become staid and dead-end for me, a Sisyphean cycle of essays and small checks sliding up and down an ever-mounting debt, I learned that I could do more. I learned that writing isn’t all I can do, that I’m not doomed to it. I learned that pursuing a life as a black woman who was raised lower-middle-class isn’t some sort of lifelong punishment. And I needn’t spend what’s left of my 30s wondering where I went wrong and what I should’ve studied that would’ve left to a less financially, creatively frustrated existence.

I just needed to allow myself full access to the expanse of my imagination. I needed to urge myself closer to its edges and dare to believe — as I had as a child — that invisible opportunities lay beyond it.

Right now I reside in one of those once-unseen provinces, one of those worlds I had yet to dream up a year ago. I go out every day and meet people and want things and make decisions that affect far more people than myself and my daughter. I manage a budget. I manage a project. I will myself to be a less timid, less ingratiating version of myself. I try to remain more kind and more generous than most jobs require us to be in this country where people are so often reduced to their bottomline. I try to be more responsible with long trail of paper, to treat the numbers on it as though they’re decipherable. I pretend until I don’t have to.

The effort is exhausting. But what I can tell you is that I have never been happier in my professional life. With the exception of last year, when I was a freelance essayist, I’ve never felt as creatively uncertain or emotionally depleted. And without exception, I’ve never been prouder of the work I’m doing.

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I never know how I sound when I’m describing a life transition so I hope you’ll forgive me any slips into melodrama. I’ve just always found it difficult and lonely to work temporary, contractual jobs and much of my professional life has been comprised of that work. The older I get, the more isolated I feel leading a life where benefits and retirement planning seem a distant fever-dream, and I know a growing demographic of people, especially creatives, are experiencing this. And to have that compounded by the physical isolation freelancing can foster is especially difficult. I write things like this to commiserate and encourage and to compel those in this position to reconsider the parameters of their skill set. Apply for new sorts of work. Learn an unfamiliar form of storytelling. Deepen your curiosity, if need be, and overcome the prison of your own quickest, reactionary thoughts on the issue of the day. Grant yourself the luxury of time and investigation.

For as long as you can, awaken thrilled and fall asleep depleted.

P.S.

  • As the opening gif may’ve suggested, I’m super-into the Hamilton cast album as of last weekend. Since then, I’ve tried to maintain a modicum of chill about it, but it’s been hard. I’ve been bitten; I am smitten.
  • We’re five episodes into Baltimore: The Rise of Charm City. You can listen to them all here. Please take a moment to rate and review us on iTunes; it really matters.
  • The show was featured and I was interviewed on WAMU’s The Big Listen, a broadcast about podcasts.
  • I’m recapping WGN’s Underground for Vulture.
  • I’m still a once-a-week contributor to The Washington Post’s Act Four blog.
  • That’s officially all I can handle. My plate is full to overflowing. My cup runneth over.

I Don’t Know What the Weather Will Be.

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This post is titled after a Laura Mvula song of the same name, because she’s my current musical obsession (I’ll get back to that in a minute). But it’s also apt because the year’s end is nigh and, though I am starting every day bursting with anticipation and ending each day, full — of anxiety or accomplishment or some amalgam of the two — I really don’t know what’s coming. That doesn’t scare me in the way it did for most of this year because, now, I am always certain that something is coming. As a freelance writer, things were typically more precarious and largely left to my sense of ambition on any given day. The weight and panic of trying to secure work left completely immobile some days.

Now, at least over the next seven months, I have a long-term project to execute. No day is fruitless. I’m never frozen. It’s refreshing, but shifting professional gears again is frightening, too.

Producing an audio program is different than the work I’ve done as a freelancer for print/written media. As a writer and a borderline agoraphobic, I’ve tended to write things that required the least amount of interaction with others. I didn’t leave home when I didn’t have to. And I was loath to consider myself a reporter of any kind. With Baltimore: The Rise of Charm City, the radio show/podcast I’m developing with AIR and WEAA, I have to go out — a lot — and when I’m not actually going out, I have to be making plans to go out. Not only do I have to talk to people, but I have to learn something I’ve spent years — decades, really — avoiding: leadership.

There’s no place to hide, especially not in towers of lofty ideas or behind hanging tapestries of language. As a radio producer, there are always directives to create and to give — and even when every instinct inside me signals that I should defer to someone else or to take instruction rather than to give it (I still do this whenever I can; you can ask my collaborators about that), I have to force myself to the fore (and then challenge myself to stay there).

I have help with that. We’ve built a small production team that includes two civic-minded young women I hired with audio and video documentary experience and one radio vet and organizer with a passion for the city of Baltimore. The general manager at the radio station has been supportive beyond anything I could’ve hoped for or imagined, despite how busy she is. And whenever I work in their offices, everyone seems excited about our project.

My production team is a mix of assertiveness, confidence, knowledge and emerging skills. Where I’m timid, someone else is not. When I have a firm idea/show concept, someone does whatever they can to help me execute (and improve upon) it. When I’m unsure about how to proceed, someone offers a ton of great leads.

It’s a good time to be starting at square one on something. I’ve been 36 for one month. It’s the first year I’m spending on the backside of my 30s; I’m officially closer to 40 now — and there are so many underdeveloped social and professional skills I still need to strengthen. This project will help. At its end, I hope to know how to record and edit my own segments, to be able to better gauge which direction an interview needs to take (in the moment I’m conducting it rather than in retrospect), and to develop a project management style that’s at once collaborative and confident. I also just want to overcome my anxieties about meeting new people, being around a lot of people at once, and asking any number of those people a lot of probing questions.

I’m hopeful.

Our ideas are only as good as our ability to execute them. Our execution is only as good as our ability to pivot, adapt, accept feedback, delegate, and recognize our own limitations and our collaborators’ strengths.

Last Thursday night, three members of our team went out on our first big night of recording for the show’s first episode (about the history and future of Shake and Bake Family Fun Center), slated to air in mid-January. I was scared going in and my heart raced the whole way home, but it was worth it to hear people talk about things they cherish: their faith, their childhood hobbies, their memories of Baltimore’s thriving black businesses and safe, open communities up until the late ’60s, their $400 skates, their ability to teach their children or grandchildren to skate, just as they learned to as kids. There’s something magical about good memories and how they animate a face, how recounting them makes the years that have etched themselves into forehead and cheek fall away. I get to watch that happen nearly every week for for the next seven months.

I’ll probably be as surprised as any listener will about how each episode turns out. That’s part of the thrill of it: the discovery, the surprise, the trial and the error, the vanquishing of fear. But I can’t wait to make it all come together. I can’t wait to remind myself that my abilities aren’t as narrow as I’ve defined them for myself and that my potential can still press beyond its long-set perimeter.

I’m also hoping to approach writing differently in the new year. It’s already nice not to have to rely on essay-writing as primary income. And it’s refreshing to be able to call myself something else for awhile. Being a “professional” writer is a realized dream and the goals I had for a career in writing and/or editing have needed adjusting for awhile now. I’m very fortunate to have an opportunity to make those adjustments now.

For those keeping track, I’m still a weekly contributor at Washington Post’s Act Four blog. I’m no longer a weekly contributor at New Republic (though I do still hope to write there from time to time in the future; it’s a very cool publication, both in print and online). And though I don’t anticipate pitching much in the first half of 2016, while the radio show is in production, I’m always open to it.

In the meantime, the upcoming launch of Baltimore: The Rise of Charm City was written up in Baltimore magazine. It was the first time I’d had a professional photo taken to run with an article.

Photo credit: Christopher Myers
Photo credit: Christopher Myers

Back to Laura Mvula: she’s incredible and I can’t believe I just found her albums two weeks ago. But I immediately started making up for lost time by learning and Acapella-ing her songs. This is probably the best of my efforts, taken from the chorus of “Diamonds“:


Runner-up, this from “Father, Father“:

For fun, here’s a longer attempt at that one, with a cameo from my daughter, who really doesn’t respect singing-with-bathroom-acoustics alone time.