Industry Insider: The Booker

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Industry Insider

Name: Laura Lee

Title: Managing Editor

Company: The State of Things, WUNC

“I came to the news radio business by a long and winding road,” says radio journalist Laura Lee. In Washington, D.C., she worked in international and civic education, politics and law, but it was during an opportunity with a media consultant that she found her future career path. Part of her duties included assisting on a political show broadcast on Sirius/XM.

“My work on that show planted the seed; I loved the pace and variety of radio production,” she says. She packed her bags and went back to get a graduate degree at the University of Maryland’s Journalism School. “I became what I jokingly called, “NPR’s Oldest Intern.” But starting over paid off and she eventually worked for two NPR shows—All Things Considered and Talk Of The Nation. Today, she produces informative and entertaining segments for WUNC’s “The State of Things.” We get the scoop on her job.

Was working in radio your dream?

Radio journalism was not always my dream, but when I look back, I see signs that it was the right path for me. As a kid, my cousins and I would get together and write up stories and print a family newspaper and deliver it up and down the street where our relatives lived.

Tell us a little bit about what your day looks like.

When I first wake up, I read whatever news has happened since I last checked my phone (usually not that many hours earlier!) At work, we start with a 9 a.m. meeting to brief the host, Frank Stasio, on that day’s show and answer any questions about that day’s production. We also look ahead to upcoming segments later in the week. Then I meet with editors to learn what the reporters are working on and to share what is coming up on “The State of Things.”

The rest of the morning is spent editing scripts, or if I am producing a segment, writing a script. I’m also listening to audio that we might use in the show. Then we write, edit and tape the promos and the billboard (the one minute teaser you hear at the top of the hour). The host reads all the show copy to me and then we make any changes we think are required.

During the show, I am in the control room overseeing the show and communicating with the host about facts that need to be checked or questions we may have overlooked. When we take callers, I also decide which calls should go on air and at what point in the conversation.

In the afternoon, we meet again to share our feedback and to prep for the following day’s show. I also make assignments for future shows and work with producers to help them shape upcoming conversations.

How do you find guests for your show?

I tell every guest that he or she is an expert in what we do because our work—at a basic level—is having conversations. Everyone does this every day. The trick is to think of it as a conversation and not think about how many people are listening. I also coach guests to “tell it to me like you would tell it to your mama.” No one calls their mom and gives a long, boring, formal description. You would tell your mom the most interesting parts and you would do it in a way that gives her enough background that what you are saying makes sense without drowning her in details. We are also really lucky because our host, Frank, is a pro at making people feel comfortable on-air.

What are some of the challenges of your job?

One challenge of my work is finding balance. I want to make sure that we are always thinking about presenting the many sides of a story, particularly a news story. An inherent difficulty in hearing many voices is that a “he-said, she-said” debate does not make for interesting radio, so we have to find ways to hear different perspectives while maintaining a civil and engaging conversation.

Another challenge is pace. We create a live show every single day so there is not a lot of time for second-guessing. I love working under a tight deadline, but it is also a challenge.

What happens if a guest cancels at the last minute?

It is a lawyer answer, but “it depends.” If she is canceling because of a logistical problem, like she can’t get to the studio, we try to create a workaround like putting her on the phone or finding another studio in another city. One of the beauties of radio is that no one can see you. When I’ve had guests tell me they can’t get dressed and to a studio on the tight deadline I need, I’ve told them to just go in their pajamas.

Fortunately, guests rarely cancel at the last minute. We have had situations where the guest is in a different location and the connection drops. In those instances, we either run out into the newsroom and grab the closest reporter to jump in and tell us what he is working on, or we try to give Frank enough information that he can talk until we get the connection reestablished. We have an online chat with the host from the control room so we can communicate about what is going on “behind the glass.”

Who have been some of your favorite guests so far this year?

We interviewed Raleigh Defense Attorney Wade Smith, and he was delightful. I was struck by how optimistic he remains, even after decades of working with people accused of some pretty terrible crimes. And Jim Avett, father of the Avett brothers, was hilarious. He was incredibly honest and genuine.

What are some of the lows of the job?

The lows of the job are few. As a colleague says: “The clock is not our friend.” We only have an hour a day to cover the many diverse items we want to discuss.  The other “low” can be that working in the news business means seeing some of the worst of humanity. I worked on breaking news at NPR when the Newtown/Sandy Hook shooting happened, and I’ll never forget having to temporarily “turn off” my emotional response about children being killed at their school and just focus on getting the facts on air. I’m lucky because we get to cover a lot of positive news on the show as well, but it can be draining to talk about some of the worst problems facing society.

How about highs of the job?

One of the highs of the job is getting to meet exceptional people daily—and I have an excuse to ask them questions about their lives. Another highlight is our incredible team. It takes a special kind of person to work in a live setting, and I’m fortunate to have a team full of them. Any one of them will jump in at a moment’s notice and do whatever we need done to get the show to air. And even in pressure-filled moments, we share a lot of laughs.

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