The Doc Project

12 habits from a highly effective freelance audio producer

The freelance life is not an easy life — it's a constant hustle with no guarantees, but if you are self-motivated, obsessed with sound & stories and have an insatiable curiosity, then maybe this is the life for you too! Freelancer Veronica Simmonds shares some of her hard-earned tips and advice.

Heyo! It's me, Veronica Simmonds, your friendly neighbourhood indy radio producer. I make all kinds of audio-based projects. Like this doc for CBC Spark about 3D printing memories, and this one for Soundproof on ABC about a clock repairer who doesn't believe in time. I also make interactive web projects like this ode to lake swimming. And I have this odd podcast where I braid hair on the radio it's called Braidio (obviously).

The fine folks at The Doc Project reached out to me as someone who has been doing the freelance radio thing for some years now. I got in to radio first at my community station CKDU in Halifax and then once I was hooked I leveled-up at the Transom Story Workshop where my radio heart exploded in a million directions and I've been making radio in every way that I can ever since. The freelance life is not an easy life - it's a constant hustle with no guarantees, but if you are self-motivated, obsessed with sound/stories and have an insatiable curiosity then maybe this is the life for you too!

I'm no expert and I really am making most of this up as I go along but here are some nuggets of wisdom that I've amassed along the way. I hope that you can find something helpful in here and that you go on to make some wicked radio docs so that I can listen to them when I'm walking around.


1. Always be pitching

There's two ways to come up with pitches - one is to get a crush on a show you really like then seek out stories you think they'd be in to. The other is to come upon an amazing idea for a piece and then seek out a venue you think could fit it. In either scenario you need to be thinking of stories all the time.

As soon as something you encounter in the world gets you asking questions, write those questions down, then research and see if other people have already answered them. If not, or if there's still more to say about it, and you have found some good talkers to populate the piece, craft a pitch and send it off. Maybe get a friend to look it over first but you don't have to be too precious about it. In order to really make it freelancing you will need to make a lot of stories so don't spend too long on one pitch. Once you know it has legs, pitch it and then start thinking about more stories and then pitch those. Forever and ever amen.

2. Be honest

I was going to call this rule 'Always Say Yes' because when I was starting out this was my only mantra. When I was offered work I always said yes and this always led to more work and it was a good place to start. Now that I'm a bit further along though I might adjust this mantra to be more about balance.
Veronica Simmonds (Andrew Budziak)

When you are just getting going as a freelancer you are going to be following rule #2 and pitching up a storm. Eventually some of those pitches will be picked up. Sometimes if you're lucky maybe two or three will be picked up at the same time and then will come a time where you need to be honest with yourself about what you can reasonably achieve in a given period of time. Be honest with yourself about how long it will take you to line up your interviews/transcribe them/write a script/make a draft. Be realistic and be honest with your editors about when you can have stuff to them. You don't need to be a madwoman! It can all be done just be honest to yourself and your editors about what you can do and then plan accordingly.

3. Reach out

Find your people! Connect with other radio hustlers on Facebook groups and forums, join AIR, Tweet at the people who's work you like and once you have some radio pals, ask them for help. Ask people to look over pitches or put an ear on a rough cut. And then do the same for them. Being independent doesn't mean being a silo. There's so much to gain from connecting with each other and so much to lose if we hole up and get competitive and weird.

4. Hindenburg

There are a lot of different editing software systems you can work in. It's true that Pro Tools is industry standard for many shows and that certain jobs you get might want you to know how to work in PT but if you're just getting started and you don't really want to over complicate your work-flow, Hindenburg is a cheaper more accessible option that will really do everything you need!

5. Know thyself

Try to really pay attention to when and where you do your best work. Are you a morning guy? Night owl? When you're at home are you scrolling social media instead of cutting that tape? Which coffee shop is close and quiet? Figure out what works for you and then plan accordingly. I'm a morning worker so I try to wake up early and do the work that really needs my brain; then when I start to slow down, I change my scenery, head to a coffee shop or library to revive the work energy. Find out what works for you and then do it!

6. Move

A lot of people forget that our brains are actually part of our bodies and bodies don't like to sit for 12 hours editing on laptops. GET UP AND MOVE. Run. Swim. Play a sport of some kind. This will be 100,000 times more effective as a procrastination tool then changing your profile pic or scrolling on Twitter. I solve all my problems in the pool. Your body is your radio friend!

7. The kit

If you are going to be a radio freelancer buy your own kit. I went a long time borrowing from friends and renting but once I had my own gear my life got soooo much easier and it paid itself off in about a month. Get a good shotgun mic, digital recorder, xlr cable, and headphones. I'm assuming you have a computer, if not maybe get that too? I use: Rode NTG2 microphone with a dead cat, TASCAM MKII recorder, Skull Candy headphones.

8. Hydrate!

If you are feeling nervous and stressed and a little scared you probably have not drank enough water. Get a really big jar, fill it with water then chug it. Refill that jar and take it back to your desk.

9. Organize your files

As soon as you get home with tape, name it in a way that will make sense in the future then put it in a well named folder. You can come up with your own system, find what works, but having some combination of a persons name and the date and the reason you interviewed them will really come in handy in five years when you want to find it!

10. Back up your files

Now. In two places.

11. Pester for money

Don't be scared to bug people who owe you money. Bug them kindly and with curiosity at first but if it's been over a month you are allowed to be Rihanna.

12. Pay it forward

If you follow all these rules you will be a big fancy freewheeling freelancer in no time. Soon up-and-coming freelancers will send you e-mails asking you out for a coffee to pick your brains. Go to that coffee. People did it for you when you were a radio baby.