Radio production is an art, and it is one that NPR has arguably mastered. The non-profit’s bread and butter is creating compelling experiences through audio alone. But what’s the secret behind NPR’s magic? Leigh Burmesch, a member of the Communication Leadership programs’s Cohort 14, got some first-hand experience in public radio as the digital intern for KCUR, an NPR affiliate in Kansas City, Missouri.
I was excited to interview Leigh for two reasons: I wanted to learn more about her experience at an NPR affiliate, and I had just moved to Seattle from Kansas City myself. As a local, I wanted to hear about her experience in my hometown. I was definitely curious about how she found out about KCUR, what the application process entailed, and what drew her to the internship.
Taking the Leap of Faith
Burmesch said she has long been a fan of NPR, and had dreams of becoming a multimedia journalist for NPR in Washington D.C. She claimed she would move anywhere for NPR, and when she was looking for internships this past summer, KCUR was the only NPR affiliate that offered a digital internship. She knew she had to pursue it.
KCUR has a long history in the Kansas City community, and began as an educational and news outlet in 1957. Originally staffed entirely by student volunteers, it became one of the first NPR radio stations in 1971. In the decades since then, it has continued to serve Kansas City and the surrounding community by providing music and commentary on political and social issues relevant to both national and local interests. Notable hosts on the channel have included Kansas City broadcaster Walt Bodine, former LIFE magazine editor Bill Shapiro and political columnist and University of Missouri–Kansas City professor Steve Kraske. KCUR has also hosted nationally broadcast programs such as Cyprus Avenue and Fish Fry.
Burmesch was fairly lucky to come across the internship when she did. She found out about the summer 2015 internship in mid-April and sent in her application just before the deadline. She was accepted by the end of April. To apply, Burmesch wrote a cover letter and provided links to videos she had created and a link to her website. She also made sure to follow up after sending in her application, which helped secure a phone interview. The rest, as they say, is history.
Honing Radio Journalism Skills is Trial and Error
Learning more about audio and being forced to focus her time honing her audio skills was one of the most valuable experiences of the internship for Burmesch.
Like many students in the Comm Lead program, Burmesch is interested in pursuing videography. However, her experience at KCUR forced her to fine-tune her audio skills. Burmesch said working with audio had been the most difficult part of her multimedia classes, and she tackled those difficulties head on at KCUR.
“You just have to be willing to play around and make a mistake or two,” Burmesch said. “It’s the only way to learn new equipment or programs.” Her coworkers proved to be great teachers, and she learned to overcome some basic audio recording and editing problems.
She met many reporters who started out in print and then transitioned into radio, which gave her the confidence to learn and pick up audio skills. Producing audio stories requires a different approach than writing for print.
“Writing for the radio is different than writing for print in that it’s much less formal,” Burmesch explained. “You have to think more conversationally.”
Stepping Out of Your Comfort Zone Can Lead to Rich, Surprising Stories
Not many people — especially West Coasters — know what to expect when they visit Kansas City. Burmesch, a fellow Midwesterner, wasn’t sure about the culture of Kansas City, but she was pleasantly surprised with all the city had to offer. Being thrown into a new experience forced her to interact with locals and meet new people, which she frequently did through producing stories. She also got to know parts of the city that not even the locals knew much about, such as the piece she produced on little-known Kansas City neighborhood of Harlem.
She said beginning the piece posed its own challenges because it was hard to find much information on the small community. Burmesch had arranged to meet one of her sources, Art Homer, in a church parking lot in Harlem. When she arrived it was raining and everything in town was closed, so she did the interview with Art in his truck with him driving around.
“He took me on a tour of Harlem, his hometown, and shared his memories of growing up there,” Burmesch said. “It was a fun and much more casual way to interview someone, and it’s a technique I want to use again.”
Interactions like this helped Burmesch step outside of her comfort zone and connect with locals, and they also added depth and richness to her stories. The piece was her favorite she completed during the internship.
In addition to the friendliness of the people, Burmesch was surprised by how much there was to do in Kansas City. She said she found great art fairs, events, museums, and many cultural events and activities, and best of all, much of it was free. She enjoyed finding hidden gems in the city, such as the Arabia Steamboat Museum, and summed up Kansas City overall as having “good people and cheap rent.”
An experience is a great experience when it takes you in a new direction and forces you to consider alternate paths forward, and Burmesch said the opportunity allowed her to experience a whole new world of storytelling she hadn’t before. She added, “My internship at KCUR gave me the opportunity to ask questions, get feedback, and experiment with recording equipment.”
Working with audio used to intimidate her, but she says she can now see herself pursuing it professionally. She says she admires how sound can help someone visualize a scene, and concluded, “This experience will undoubtedly help me as I make a short documentary for my Advanced Multimedia Storytelling course this quarter and as I begin to look for multimedia jobs.”
More information about the internships offered by KCUR can be found on their website.