Discover more from The Audio Storyteller
Going it alone 🐝
Should you go freelance? Views from both sides
Welcome to The Audio Storyteller: tips and ideas for audio producers. Subscribe to get the full list of jobs and training straight to your inbox.
Hi there audio storytellers,
To freelance or not to freelance? That’s the question facing many audio producers at the minute. This edition we’ll hear views from both sides: freelancer Nicolle Galteland and CBC veteran Neil Sandell weigh in on the benefits of freelancing vs a full-time permanent job.
First up, Nicolle, who’s a (happily!) freelance journalist and audio producer. Her work focuses mostly on public health including the opioid crisis and health system disparities.
How did you build your freelance career?
I went to graduate school for journalism, graduated in 2018, and started off with a couple of internships. I was producing a podcast for the department of Global Public Health at NYU, and then got an internship at WNYC working on some of their narrative podcasts.
From there I pretty much went straight into freelancing. I started off doing tape syncs, getting a sense of how audio recording works. And then I found gigs mostly through the listservs.
My first gig was with the show called Finding Fixes, which is about the opioid crisis. From there I went to Last Day with Lemonada, which was a much bigger profile production.
I feel like it’s been a very slow process of gathering context, building a network of people that know my work and I can talk to and potentially have opportunities to work together. And now it feels really good that my network is strong enough that if I do have a gap in my schedule coming up, I can reach out and have a fair level of confidence that [clients] will respond and there will be work. I have maybe half a dozen contacts I can reach out to, and it’s enough to keep me busy.
Does that feel like stability?
It feels like more stability and security. It still doesn’t feel to me as stable or secure as a full time job. But I feel like every time I work with a new team or on a new project, it chips away at my imposter syndrome a little bit. It’s one more little piece of evidence that this is working!
Did you map out the trajectory of your career or was it more a case of feeling your way into things and making contacts?
I worked a few other jobs before I found journalism; I worked at a nonprofit and was a teacher before that. I had an explicit intention to try freelancing, to see if I could make this type of career work for me. I liked the flexible schedule, and I’m most engaged and excited about my work when I feel like I have some ownership over it. I like that freelancing gave me the chance to pick and choose projects, pick and choose teams, as well as have time to work on my own side passion projects.
As far as mapping out my whole career trajectory, that’s something I revise kind of constantly. Most of the active planning is in the three to six month range.
What are some of the other benefits of being freelance vs full-time?
I think one of the most fun things is just getting to work with a bunch of different people. I sometimes feel like a little bumblebee, cross pollinating good ideas. It feels really satisfying to go into a team and be like, ‘Oh my gosh, you guys use Descript in this way that I’ve never seen before’. And then when I'm on my next project, I'm like, ‘guys, check out this cool way you can use Descript!’
It’s also just really nice to meet people and get a bigger network. Being able to see what cool stuff everyone’s doing and bring it into my own work is really nice.
Sometimes freelancing can be quite isolating, but it sounds like that’s not been your experience?
That’s a really good point, because I’m not necessarily producing my own pieces and pitching them to outlets. I'm more finding teams that need a producer and coming on for a short term contract.
In general, for narrative podcasts, the team is pretty tight. So as a producer on a narrative show, I'm invited into the Slack channel, and I'm able to talk to people a lot and really collaborate on the project. I think it would probably feel really different if I were doing that all in isolation, like trying to pitch a final product.
How has it been to develop skills as a freelancer? On the one hand you’re working on lots of projects with different teams, but maybe there’s less formal professional development or support than in a full-time permanent role?
Going into different teams is a chance to absorb good techniques and skills from the people that I'm working with. But I do feel like there's less direct education than maybe I would have that at a full time job. I feel that most in the technical audio editing side of things, like sitting on Pro Tools and being like, Wait, how do you do this thing?! I sometimes wish I had like a senior engineer that I could just poke and be like, this isn't working! Having that sort of transfer of knowledge a little bit more organically would be so nice, and I do feel like I missed that.
But I think for the scripting side of things, I do get a lot of feedback. It’s all there on paper and my other producers and editors read it and let me know how they think the story is developing and that feels pretty supportive.
Do you see any other cons to a full time permanent position?
Something I see in some of my friends in various fields [who are in full-time roles], is feeling a little bit stuck in their jobs. And something I feel like I've benefited a lot from, coming in and out as a freelancer, is every time I enter a new contract there’s another chance for me to renegotiate my rate, and re-establish what level of work I'm performing at.
It's really nice to be able to work with a client at an associate producer level, and then leave for a little while and come back and be like, I’m a producer now – and soon I’ll be a senior producer. It’s easier to advocate for those roles because I’ve been moving around. And if I just stayed at one organization the whole way through, I feel like that progression might be a little bit slower.
How do you approach writing your resume as a freelancer?
I treat my resume as blocks which I swap in and out based on the position. The way I have it structured right now is freelance audio producer for the last however many years. And then list out the projects that I think are most relevant to the project that I'm applying for. I try to keep it really short. It's one page.
I have a couple of six-page versions of my resume that have everything written out, and I can just sort of like, copy and paste and shuffle around so that I'm either highlighting my technical experience, ie mixing and adding sound design, or my reporting and scripting – [those are] the two focus areas that I tend to shift between.
When you’re looking for new contracts or clients, how important is the subject matter of the show vs the company culture? What are the factors you’re weighing up when you’re looking for work?
Subject matter comes first – and then format of the show. I prefer to work on narrative shows, compared to a straight interview show. The topics that are going to be covered [are also important]: my educational background is in public health and international relations, so stories in those areas definitely pull me in more.
I don't feel like I've turned down as many opportunities just for culture. It's more like, once I've worked with the team then I know if the culture is great, and then I'm more excited to try to go back to them in the future.
It can also be hard to get a sense of the company’s culture from job descriptions.
Yeah. I mean, one thing that I would look for in terms of red flags would be really vague descriptions of the responsibilities or a sense that the client doesn’t have a sense of how long things take. That’s not going to be a good fit for me.
Freelancers can sometimes find it really tricky to turn down work. Have you said no to a job, and why?
I have said no to a few things. At this point, I am starting to say no to things that aren't in my topic areas of interest. I want to develop these beats, and I want to stay focussed in this area.
How do you maintain your values when it comes to the kind of work you want to make – have you had to make compromises?
I feel like I’ve been fortunate that most of the work I've done has been with teams that are already pretty aligned with my values. I don't feel like I've had to do a ton of push back on people.
That's maybe one of the benefits of the [subject] areas I’m choosing to focus on choosing to focus on. People don’t tend to produce hour-long episodes about violence in the prison system unless they already have ideas about why it’s important to tell that story. I guess it just doesn't feel like conflict – it feels like collaborative iteration most of the time.
What advice would you have for producers who want to go freelance?
I think being kind to yourself when things aren't looking like they’re working out, especially financially. It's taken time, I've been doing this for several years now and still feel like I'm pretty early in the process of feeling financially stable.
Just like not losing hope. I really believe that if it's something that you keep doing, if you can hang on and keep going at it, that there are quite a lot of opportunities out there and it is possible to make a living doing this. The technical stuff will come. If you just keep doing the work, you will get better, and you'll get to a point where your skills are valued.
Now Neil Sandell shares his path from freelancer to staff producer at CBC, then back to freelancer again — and makes the case for working in a big organization.
I’m old. I don’t particularly think of myself as old. But I began my career literally cutting tape with grease pencil marker and razor blade, sending faxes, and sourcing contacts with a phone book. I’m no spring chicken. I started freelancing by making short field pieces for my local CBC station. They offered me an entry level journalism position. I stayed, working my way up, down, and sideways over 25 years.
I left CBC in 2014 - left Canada, in fact -- to move to Nice, France. My aim was to make documentaries -- projects I wanted to do, not had to do. So far, so good. They’ve found an audience (and sympathetic commissioning editors.)
I liked freelancing, though I found it lonely. But I also liked working in the MSM. I want to make the case for working in a larger organization.
1. The daily grind builds core competence. If you have to edit a meandering interview by an indulgent presenter every day, you learn quickly. You learn story structure, how to judge tape, what makes a good interview. Book a panel discussion for live radio, and you learn how to choose guests, compose voices, conduct a pre-interview, prepare a question line. Doing this day in, day out makes you better. And that builds a foundation for everything you do later.
2. On the job learning. As a former teacher, one thing you see in a classroom is that some of the best learning happens when kids teach each other. Same goes in a production unit. You learn from colleagues, often informally. You learn craft skills, project management, how to organize work flow, and how to negotiate. You learn by screwing up and doing better next time. You learn your limits. You learn how and when to say no.
3. Networking. Some colleagues become friends, but many more float in and out of your life. However, they still remember you. They can still help you with contacts, job referrals, and references. They can act as sounding boards and feedback givers. They might even become collaborators one day.
4. Working on shows in different formats helps you figure out what you like doing.
5. A regular pay cheque allows you to plan your life. When I signed on at CBC, I felt a weight lift from my shoulders. I had internalized the freelancer’s stress of always hustling for the next gig. It was wonderful to feel unburdened. Believe me, I get that employment can be precarious. I’ve worked on shows that were cancelled out of the blue. I’ve seen colleagues lose their jobs in cutbacks. But still...
6. You can find out if you like being a boss. Freelancing doesn’t offer that chance. You can build competence as a manager - through opportunities, but also modelling good bosses and figuring out what makes bad bosses suck.
There were lots of downsides to working at CBC - the internal politics, the glacial decision-making, a few bad bosses, getting stuck program units that didn’t fit. As they say, CBC is the kind of place where they stab you in the front. But you learn to navigate through troubled waters. That's worth learning, too.