Today, I spoke to Tamara Keith, who joined NPR in 2009 as NPR’s newest business reporter, covering the latest trends in housing and consumer spending to new developments in the ongoing financial crisis. She also hosts and produces “B-Side Radio,” an hour-long public radio magazine and podcast. In this interview, Tamara talks about how she got her job, why she started her website for her personal brand, and more.
How did you get your cool job at NPR as a reporter?
The short answer is: years of hard work, good timing and a little luck. The long answer plays out over 15 years and involves a family road trip, following love and a global financial crisis.
The summer before my senior year of high school, my family went on an epic road trip. We started in California and stopped in nearly every state, visiting more national parks and tourist traps than you can imagine. At the time I had just started writing a column in the local newspaper and was also trying to figure out where to go to college. So, I wrote letters to all of my favorite NPR hosts asking for advice. I sent along a copy of my column too.
All I was really hoping for was a little advice and maybe a tour of the NPR studios when my family drove through Washington DC. What I got was some excellent advice, and an offer to become an essayist for Weekend Edition Sunday. I continued to do essays for NPR until I was mid-way through college. At that point, I made the switch from first-person writing to reporting with an internship at KQED in San Francisco.
I ultimately got a real paying gig at KQED as a producer/director, then transitioned to reporting when I opened the station’s Central Valley Bureau in Fresno. From there I spent 9 months reporting in Columbus, OH (followed love conveniently just as Ohio became a battleground in the 2004 presidential race), then came back to California and worked for KPCC and KQED.
Then in 2008 I followed love again, this time to Washington DC where my husband was starting a fellowship at the National Institutes of Health. When I arrived in September 2008, I had no idea what I would be doing. I thought I would freelance and hoped maybe just maybe I could get a little work at NPR.
Well, just as we were pulling into town, the financial crisis hit its peak. NPR needed extra reporting manpower, and I was available. Over the next year, I worked as a temp at NPR and Marketplace and last December actually got an official staff position.
And that long-winded answer isn’t even the half of it.
Why did you start a website, tamarakeith.com? What was your strategy with it? Has it helped your brand?
I initially started tamarakeith.com as an online resume. I think a lot of journalists (and job seekers in general) do that. I was able to showcase my work on the site and could send links to potential employers. I’ve actually taken down my resume since I am no longer looking for a job. So, the initial strategy, of using the site as part of a job search has worked. Now I am attempting, very slowly to transition it to something that would be interesting to the occasional person who hears a piece on NPR and googles me.
A while ago, I started blogging on the site, though not as consistently as I should. It allows me to share some behind-the-scenes insights about the reporting process and to highlight some of my favorite pieces. There’s also a feed on the site that displays all my most recent stories, which makes my parents happy.
As for branding myself, I hate to say, I’ve never really thought about it. My work isn’t really about me. It’s about the people I interview and the stories they share with our listeners. It’s a real thrill to have a conversation with someone about a story they heard on NPR, where they recount the details and retell it with excitement…and yet they have no idea it was a story I reported.
How has your job as a reporter changed in the past few years? Where are you going for information these days?
When I started reporting, the Internet had already arrived. I truly can’t imagine reporting without the help of the web. I can’t even remember the last time I dialed 411 to get a phone number. In recent years, social media have come along and changed the way I do my job. I find Facebook to be so useful for finding sources that I’m not sure how I did it before. In particular, Facebook is a great way to find “real people” who can help bring a story to life. Policy debates and economic data are valuable and important, but people make them real.
When it comes to finding information, I am still a fan of traditional media websites like wsj.com, nytimes.com and of course npr.org. There are some blogs that I visit regularly. I find twitter only somewhat useful. Facebook is a good place to crowd source, in addition to finding folks to interview – but it can also be an amazing time suck. Another wonderful place to find information is incredibly old fashioned. Just talking to people is still the best way to learn and find ideas.
When selecting an expert source for a story, what do you look for? How do you find them?
There are tons of experts out there, many equally smart and insightful. Because I am in radio where the spoken word is very important, a key factor for me is finding a source who is a good talker. I’m not actually looking for someone who speaks in 10-second soundbites, rather someone who can break down complicated issues in a way that is engaging. I also like to find experts who have a personal experience with the issue they are talking about or in some other way are willing to allow themselves to be humanized. Talking heads may advance a story or contribute an interesting fact, but I want to interview people who will draw the listeners in.
I often find people through web searches. I’ll look at other articles or pieces where they’ve been quoted to get a sense of whether they may be a good interview. And unfortunately, I often end up going back to the same people over and over again. There are some people who are just really good, and when you’re crashing on deadline, it’s an easy phone call.
One thing I will say is that I get a ton of press releases and e-mails from PR people offering up experts. Often it seems like they have no idea what my beat even is. They pitch topics that aren’t even close to anything I have covered before. One I remember started with the line “how are you going to keep your teenager occupied this summer?” It was something like that. Well, I don’t have a teenager. Heck, my dog isn’t even a teenager.
I’m sure they’re getting paid for every e-mail they send, or perhaps it’s a case of hope springing eternal that the pitch will resonate with someone who receives it. But for me, these unsolicited and often insistent aggressive pitches are a real turn off. The pitches that I respond well to are the ones where the person contacting me knows what I cover, maybe even references a recent story and then suggests a possible expert.
For aspiring reporters, what lessons can they learn from your career?
I got an early start, and was occasionally lucky but I think my career followed a pretty traditional path. I did my time. I started out with an entry level production job. I moved to less-than-desirable locations and as a result got experience I never would have gotten in a larger market. Most of all, I worked very hard, never assumed I was owed anything and threw myself into every job I ever had with an eye on how to prepare for the next step.
“I got a good piece of advice 2 years ago from an editor: make yourself indispensable.”
Another thing I would suggest, be open to feedback and criticism. Build a thick skin early and demand tough edits. There is so much to learn from editors and colleagues. Even people at the top of their fields can continue to improve and learn from others. I feel very lucky to have had so many wonderful mentors over the years. And it all started with asking for advice.
Oh, and if you want to get into radio, check out these technical tutorials some friends and I wrote up: http://www.bsideradio.org/?cat=47
Tamara Keith joined NPR in 2009 as NPR’s newest business reporter. Her coverage spans the business world, from the latest trends in housing and consumer spending to new developments in the ongoing financial crisis. Keith has deep roots in public radio, and got her start in news by writing and voicing essays for NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday as a teenager. After earning her a journalism graduate degree from the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley (where it was reported she was the youngest person to ever enroll), she went to work for NPR station KQED’s California Report, where she covered topics including agriculture and the environment. She is the recipient of numerous awards, including a first place trophy from the Society of Environmental Journalists for “Outstanding Story Radio.” In her spare time, she hosts and produces “B-Side Radio,” an hour-long public radio magazine and podcast. She is a recreational triathlete and half-marathon runner.