Cary Barbor had a successful career working in the magazine industry for 20 years. She had devoted most of her adult life to the industry, but in 2008 with magazines facing difficult times and Cary’s interest in the industry waning she decided to explore other options. After some self-reflection and exploration she realized that she wanted to get into radio, but also was acutely aware that she did not know anything about the technical side of putting on a radio show. She knew that in order to learn all she could about radio, she would have to start at the very bottom. So, she swallowed her pride and became an intern in her 40s.
Margit Detweiler told a brief version of Cary’s story while she was on a panel at a conference I was at last fall. I approached her afterwards, and she encouraged me to reach out to Cary to hear about everything in more detail. I was intrigued by the fact that Cary had felt so passionately about radio that she was willing to put herself at the bottom of the totem pole to learn what she needed to in order to move forward in her life. She shared with me some of the lessons she learned along the way and how she eventually came to create her own podcast where she talks with authors about the books they write, appropriately titled Books and Authors.
In 2010 you made a big switch career switch when you left a successful career to be an intern at a radio station. Can you talk about your process of getting to that decision and why you made this move?
I was an editor and writer for mostly women’s magazines for pretty much my whole career. I went to school for English and got a masters in English. I am also a fiction writer. I was always looking for something to do where I could still write my fiction, which is not easy. It was a decent living and it was interesting. Around 2008 the industry was starting to crumble, and I was getting bored and burnt out. All the articles anymore at women’s magazines are like the 10 Best blah, blah, blah. I was wondering how many more days I could do this. I was working at More Magazine, which I really love. I was working for an Editor-in-chief who it was my dream to work for. She finally hired me, but then she left almost immediately.
Not part of your plan!
No! Then this other Editor-in-chief came in who I just wasn’t on the same page with. In my opinion it went from being a really smart, savvy, intelligent magazine to just being one more women’s magazine. She didn’t like me either, so it was a two-way decision! I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do and a friend who had gone to a career coach said, “Oh, you’ve got to talk to this guy! His name is Alan Fried.”
He is at Career Intervention, and he was really humble and really good. In his appointment with me he said, “I’m not going to help you write your resume, but I’ll help you do the emotional work.” It’s more of a spiritual thing. It’s not like, do 3 interviews and get back to me. It’s more like, what is the fear that is holding you back? He said, “All things being equal, just make your fantasy list of where you want to work.” The first one I wrote down was WNYC. I would love to work in public radio. I had done a lot of radio when I was a magazine editor, and I was often the source where they would call and say, “tell us about…this article” or whatever. I always loved it. I thought that would be fun. I started investigating and saw that they had an internship program at the Studio 360 show, which focuses on creativity. I applied, and I got it. I thought, “I am so old!” I was 42 or 43 at that time. I had just got married (so many changes that year). Luckily, I had been working all of those years and had savings. I got married, and my husband was working. I always feel like I have to say that I know not everybody can do that, but I worked for nothing for a year.
Do you think if you hadn’t got married that you still would have taken that leap?
I probably would have, yeah. I probably would have done it differently, like kept up more freelance or something and had a little bit more of an income. In some ways I was much more of a risk-taker when I was single. When I got married I felt like I had to be more responsible. I thought, “Oh, I’ll have to explain this to my husband.” It’s not just me who has go without income for a year.
So, I took the internship and that was really when I needed Alan (the career coach) the most. I was so freaked out because everybody was like 22. Even the staff was really young. It was a culture show, and I just didn’t get all of the references. Like, I didn’t know who the band was that was playing or what they were talking about. It was good, though, it was like it shook me up. I had to learn all of the skills of the audio stuff. It’s very similar to magazines, but you are talking and telling the story. You need to find a good source. I knew how to interview people and how to get a story out of someone, but I didn’t know how to do the technical stuff. It is not my forte’ at all. Some of the younger people there were really nice and helped me but that was the hardest part – my pride really kept me from asking for help for a long time.
Internships are like a barter system, where I’ll give you my labor for free and then you teach me. I felt like they weren’t holding up their end. It was more like just go open the mail. That was a little bit of a disappointment. What came out of that, though, was I was next to another show, The Leonard Lopate Show, which was a show I was a big fan of. I befriended the staff over there and when my Studio 360 thing was over I then went and did an internship with them. It was 5 months with 360 and then I went over there and they were much more, well, they just threw you into the deep end…which was great! That is what I needed. They really let you make radio.
I bet that’s really what you have to do to truly learn radio. You really can’t just stand on the sidelines and watch – you have to do!
I give them a lot of credit because I would never turn my show over to someone without experience, but they do that with everyone. That show was much more my speed. I just had more of an affinity for what they were covering, and I think their audience is probably a little older. Their executive producer just has this method of just giving you an assignment and on Day 2 you are talking to the host and producing a segment. So, it was completely terrifying but it was great and just what I needed.
It is great to have a person like that who is willing to take chances. It can make such a difference.
Exactly. I made a ton of mistakes, of course, I didn’t know what I was doing. You try. You do what you can. I came up with this thing where I was going to make one big mistake with every show and I would. In the beginning I would get so freaked out that I would go and cry in the bathroom. Then I thought, okay, you’re new at this. Even though I was in my 40’s I was new at it.
You had gone from being pretty established at something where you knew what you were doing and you probably didn’t even realize how comfortable you were in that because you had been doing it for so long. Then you go somewhere and intern, and you feel like you are 18 again. Even though you are not, and have all of your past experiences to help you, you still feel so vulnerable.
Yes. It’s almost worse or harder than being 18 (at least for me it was) because I had that pride of having a certain level of expertise and suddenly it was gone. It was like, no, you don’t know what you are doing! You do have all of those life-skills, though. You do know how to talk to people, you know to show up on time, you know about all of those other things that you didn’t know at 18.
I ended up working at that show for a year and freelancing. I wasn’t there full time, just a couple of days a week. I got great experience, though, and I really loved it. Another difference is that the second one is a live show and the first one was a taped show. So, the taped is much more technical and wonky. The live show I really loved. I thought it would terrify me to work on a live show, but I found that I really loved it. That was another great surprise where you prepare and then wind it up and let it go. There are going to be unexpected things, but I kind of like the factors that you can’t control instead of it being this perfectly edited thing. After about a year at that show somebody from Martha Stewart Living Radio called over there and said they were looking for a producer and did they know anybody. The Executive Producer recommended me. So, I got the job and that was really great.
Although, it was very low paying, I must say. I kept saying that I couldn’t believe I had chosen a field that was even lower paying than the magazines! I mean, at least I was able to make a decent living at the magazines but at this, I just couldn’t believe how low paying radio is, but I loved it.
What was the best experience working on that show as a producer? Did you feel as though you had officially made the switch to radio?
I have to say that it was such a thrill to learn new stuff. At that time the Martha Stewart stuff was kind of small, and so I was a right-hand woman to this other woman who was just great. She was probably like 10 years younger than me, but she had probably been doing this her entire career, and she was really good and smart. She was great to work for. She let me try anything. She just let me do what I could do and trusted my judgment. It just felt so lucky to be placed with her, because I could have been placed with a million other people. So I learned a ton from her and, again, it was live radio.
It was at the SiriusXM studios in midtown in the McGraw-Hill Building. We had a daily show from 1-3pm and it was Martha Stewart, so it was a lot of food, crafts and lifestyle shows. I got a ton of experience booking guests, because it was a daily show and learned how you prepare the hosts before each show. I then pitched them my own show, which was about interviewing authors about books. That was in the summer, so my boss let us do a special in August – doing one on each Friday of that month. It was really incredible, but I was pretty surprised she was going to let me do it! Being an on-air host was a whole new experience, but it worked out really well.
Well, you were not afraid to ask, and I wonder if that is an advantage you have with years of experience under your belt. Maybe at 22 you wouldn’t have had the confidence to just ask?
Well – it was also the confidence to keep asking, because she did say no a couple of times. Whenever we would have a hole in the schedule, I would be like, “What about my book show?” I also learned so much from the engineers, who really taught me so much about the technical stuff. I was able to do it for about a year until the station closed down at the end of 2012 due to some of the business problems with Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, Inc.
It felt like I chose another field that was going down the tubes with all the various radio stations that are closing down! So, I thought – the technology has changed now to the point where I can do this myself. I can do a podcast, and I don’t need to have a whole studio. So, that is what I have been doing! I try to do 3-4 interviews a month with authors of new books – mostly fiction, but some non-fiction. It is mostly the same as the show I was doing when I was on-air with SiriusXM, but now I just go to them instead of them coming to the studio. I have all my equipment – my mics and my digital recorder, and I can download and do everything from my little laptop – which is so amazing!
So you invested the money in buying all the equipment?
Yes – but I didn’t want to spend a lot of money since I didn’t have a job. So, I just started out with a little digital recorder. I had this one really bad experience where the woman I was interviewing just grabbed it from me and was holding it the whole time. One of the cardinal rules of radio is that you never let the microphone out of your hand or control – so this made me realize that I needed to invest in real microphones! I went straight from her apartment to B&H and bought some. It is also the psychology of taking yourself seriously, and I knew I had to get better equipment. So, I came up with a budget on my walk over to B&H and was able to get two standing mics. The sound is remarkably better! I also belong to this group, AIR, which is the Association of Independents in Radio, and it consists of a bunch of people that I can ask these questions of. I have a couple other friends who do podcasts and while we all are kind of flying by the seat of our pants it is really nice to have that community.
There is something about being able to have that face-to-face energy and connection with others that makes a big difference. Doing something like a podcast can be isolating, so building that community around you must be important?
You are trying to figure everything out by yourself, and then realize, “Oh that person has already figured this out. I can just ask them!” A lot of it you do have to figure out yourself. I feel like most of the first year, that is what I was doing. I have another friend who is not a podcaster, but a blogger, and every Monday we email each other our to-do lists. I have to get everything together to email to her, so now I have these lists that I can look back at – and see all that I have learned. For example, in the beginning I didn’t even know how to use the software – so I taught myself how to use it. Now it all feels like second nature, but at the time I had no idea!
It is really important to be able to look back like that and see all the progress you have made, because sometimes we can’t see that in our day-to-day work. The reflection is important!
Sometimes if feels like there is so little to show for the year, in some ways, but in other ways when I look back at those lists there is a lot to show for it! I was also lucky in that I had relationships with the publicists at the publishers from my past jobs and worked to keep up those relationships over the years. So they pitch me ideas, which is extremely helpful. I’m amazed at who they will allow me to interview!
I would imagine that most authors are just excited to talk about their book and are appreciative to have someone interested in what they have created!
I think that is true. And authors get very little marketing support these days, so they are grateful in that regard.
Do you charge for your podcast?
I don’t. I tried that, and no one really went for it! Now what I am doing to try and make money is having sponsors. So it follows the public radio model – the show is free, but you get a sponsor to sponsor the show. I am working on growing my audience, so I spend a lot of time working on figuring out how I do that. I also do some live events – for example I teach a workshop at the New York Society Library for authors on how they can talk about their book. I go there to write because they have a big writers program there, so I pitched it to the woman who runs the writers’ program. Many times authors don’t necessarily know how to talk about their book and it affects interviews. So it helps to coach them on how to talk to the media, as it can impact their sales.
I also did a live interview with authors at Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn. I really think that live events are just another way to bring in people who might not have known about the podcast. So, I am trying to come at it from all sides and see what works! It is really hard though, when you work alone. I so wish that I had a team of people who could be investigating and researching for me. One day I feel like, “I have to work on getting sponsors!” then the next day it will be like, “No! I have to work on getting grants!”
Yes – it can be very hard to go from working for a company or organization where everyone serves their purpose to having to do everything on your own. There is no way you can be good at everything, but in the beginning you have to try to be a jack of all traits! Do you have any tips on how to manage that balance?
Having an accountability partner (like my friend the blogger) who can talk you off the ledge from time to time helps! We meet periodically, too, just so that we can talk things through. We both worked in magazines and we both left our jobs around the same time, so we are on the same page. I really do struggle with that balance, but I try to really organize my week in that Monday list. I break it out into the creative part of the podcast, the business part of the podcast and my own writing, which I am still doing. It is hard though, because no one notices if I do it or not. So you have to be very self-directed, and you just don’t know if you are headed in the right direction or not – which to me is the hardest part. I wish I had a crystal ball! I don’t mind doing all of this grunt work if I know it is leading to something, but my fear is – what if it doesn’t lead to anything and I am just treading water here for no good reason?
The not-knowing can be the hardest part!
It is. I have another friend who has a podcast about women in the workforce. She had a show where she interviewed a woman who started her own business and it is fabulously successful now. I listened to it and found myself getting jealous, but then she casually said that it took about three years to get it up and running. Then I was like, “Oh – I’m in that three year period!” It helped to hear that, but when you are in it, it just feels eternal.
Yeah – that three to five year period where you are building something is a really important piece of the story that we don’t always hear about when someone becomes a successful business owner. But it is important for people to hear about the realities of those 3-5 years and all the work that goes into it.
We definitely don’t hear those parts, because they aren’t all fun. Not everyone wants to hear that I’m full of anxiety, making lists of my lists of my lists and I don’t know which one to do first. I never thought I would say this, but sometimes I do wish that I had a boss that could just tell me, “This is your priority – get this done first.” As much as I hated that, sometimes I crave it! But, I am very grateful for the opportunity. I feel like it is such a luxury problem and feel lucky that I can even try it. I am mentally prepared that it might not look like what I think it is going to look like. I would love to have a weekly podcast with an author of a new book, but it may be more like live events or who knows what – I just am going to try to stoke all the fires, meet all the people I can in the field, gather all the information I can, and try to remember that the externals are changing.
What is your dream for Books and Authors?
My hope is for it to be self-sustaining financially as a weekly podcast, with the capacity to do live events, as well. Even to have an event series would be wonderful. When I first started I wrote down all my big goals, and think it is important to refer back to those when you can.
It can be hard to remember those bigger goals when you get so into the day-to-day minutia of running something. With that, you can sometimes be pulled away from the things that attracted you to do this in the first place – how do you connect back to the bigger dream when you start feeling as though you are getting pulled away from that?
Well, it is keeping that bigger vision in mind. It is envisioning it with a wider audience, and thinking about how to get a big company to sponsor it. Because for me the best thing in the world to do is just talking to writers, reading the books, doing the interviews. That’s a blast, so if I can keep doing that then I’d be really happy. Plus, as a writer, it keeps feeding me because I feel like it is a master’s class in talking to all of these writers about how they do it.
You are still writing – so do you ultimately want to publish your own book?
I do, but I think that is on a parallel track with doing my podcast. I don’t think it has to be one or the other.
I agree! I think that as humans we have multiple interests and shouldn’t have to pick one over the other. If possible, it is worth going after all that might interest you. It is hard, but totally possible to focus on more than one thing at a time.
And that is what I mean – I try to keep that in my head that it doesn’t have to be this exact thing, but might be something related to this. I’m trying to always be open to that because I know there is a good chance that could happen. I just want to use these skills, and maybe it isn’t exactly what I had outlined in my head in the beginning.
Have you had any moments in this process where you were like, “Um – maybe I’ll just go back and work at a magazine.”?
Yes!! Oh my god! Not magazines, but often I think it would be so much easier to just go get another 9-5 job. But…it’s not so easy to just get a job these days, either! It is not like the old days when I could call up a recruiter and have a job in a month. What I did to fend off that particular anxiety was to sit down and figure out what dollar amount I was comfortable burning through to do this, and if I am not self-sustaining by the time I get to the bottom of that pot then I’ll re-explore and reevaluate. So, that makes me feel a lot more comfortable because then I am not counting every penny or feel like I can’t go out to lunch – I can run it as a business and see where I am in 6 months. It helps with the anxiety, but it still creeps up on me weekly.
But, overall, it has been so much fun. I’ve been able to meet so many different people. I try to go to different conferences when I can, and learn what I can about the business side of all of this – as it is not my forte. But you also don’t have to be a genius to do it!
What has been one of your biggest successes in your process?
I think getting the opportunity to do a live event at the bookstore – I was so excited about that. I didn’t know how I was going to make that happen but I met someone at a conference and then pursued it in a couple of different ways – it took awhile to make it come to fruition. It was something that I wasn’t sure was going to happen, but it did! I also have to say that Twitter has been really helpful with making connections. It assisted in getting to know people in the book world. I curse the fact that I have to spend so much time on social media to get the word out, but I do feel that I’ve gotten something out of it, too. It is amazing how it has the power to knock down the walls – people I could never get to talk to in the “real world,” I can reach and talk to on there.
So if someone is sitting at a desk job right now and would love to get into radio or just be doing something different then what they are doing at that desk job – what would your advice to them be?
I really think the first step is to start talking to the people who are doing what you want to be doing. I think it is really easy for us to fool ourselves into thinking, “Oh that career would be great.” You project onto the idea. I feel like the internship I did was that realization that it wasn’t exactly what I thought it was going to be. I tend to be a “ready, fire, aim” person, who jumps in and then realizes that I should have checked it out more or asked questions. I don’t think there is anything wrong with how I did it, but I think it is also really helpful if you can find people who are really candid and honest. Someone who can give you an idea of what your path might be – I think that is really helpful. And people are so generous with their time – especially if you can find the right people to talk to who will give you an idea of the ups and downs. Something that looks fun and glamorous from the outside might really be super tedious and not something you really want to do. So take some time to find out what the reality of that job or career is – not just what you think it is all about.
Notes of Reflection:
- Humble pie can be good for you. Cary could have totally dismissed her desire to go into radio with the notion that it was too late in her life to learn something so new and foreign to her. But she didn’t. Instead she recognized that going and being an intern for a year was what she needed in order to move forward and be able to do something that she knew she would really enjoy. So often, as adults, we are too afraid to conquer something completely new because we of the risk of being vulnerable. Cary wasn’t afraid to take a chance, learn all she could from her fellow 20-something year old co-workers and take a step “back” in order to move forward.
- Cary says that having to admit that she didn’t know something to her younger co-workers was sometimes challenging. Yet she did it. It is a good reminder that age is not a dictator of knowledge. We can learn a lot from those who are younger than us and it is important that we are not blinded by someone’s age. Be open to learning from all that are around you and be self-aware enough to know what you do not know.
- Ask for what you want. Cary is a wonderful example that if you are willing to ask for what you want, you might just get it! She went after the internship and when it wasn’t as fruitful as she had hoped, she approached another radio show about working with them. She then became a producer and realized that what she ultimately wanted was to be talking to the guests. So she asked for her own show – several times before she finally heard, “Yes.” It doesn’t hurt to ask. “No” is the worst thing you will hear, and just the experience of asking makes the next question all the easier to ask.