LAILAC in Freelance Media Production (feat. Charlotte Gartenberg)
Alumni Aloud Episode 61
Charlotte Gartenberg received her PhD from the Graduate Center’s Latin American, Iberian, and Latino Cultures (LAILAC) program. She is now a freelance writer, editor, translator, and podcast producer based in New York City. She is the executive producer of Get the News with Gretchen Carlson.
In this episode of Alumni Aloud, Charlotte talks about her experiences as a freelancer and discusses how she established and marketed her services, networked her way into contractual jobs, and found a passion for podcasting.
Listen to the episode below, download it, or stream it in Apple Podcasts or your preferred podcast player.
VOICE-OVER: This is Alumni Aloud, a podcast by graduate students for graduate students. In each episode we talk with a GC graduate about their career path, the ins and outs of their current position, and the career advice they have for students. This series is sponsored by the Graduate Center’s Office of Career Planning & Professional Development.
CARLY BATIST, HOST: In this episode, I talk with Dr. Charlotte Gartenberg. Charlotte received her PhD from The Graduate Center’s program in Latin American, Iberian and Latino Cultures or LAILAC. She is now a freelance writer, editor, translator and podcast producer. She is also the Executive Producer of Get the News with Gretchen Carlson. During our interview, Charlotte discussed her experience in establishing and marketing herself as a freelancer, shameless networking, and exploring opportunities in different types of media.
Just start with what you’re doing and how you found yourself doing this from when you graduated from the PhD.
CHARLOTTE GARTENBERG, GUEST: Well I’m Charlotte Gartenberg. I did a PhD at CUNY Graduate Center in Latin American, Iberian and Latino Cultures. I finished and defended in 2018. I did my whole PhD utterly convinced that I wanted to be an academic. I mean die-hard was going to be an academic. Filling out that CV to be an academic. And for a year after the program I was adjuncting. I was adjuncting at Hunter, I was adjuncting also at Columbia. I was teaching a Master’s course, I was teaching lots of Spanish language. So I was like, “ok I’m going to do it” and I applied to probably, I’m not exaggerating, sixty jobs in a year and a half, academic jobs. And it was very, very demoralizing. *laughs* So even before I finished the PhD it was like the sprinklings of like, “well what if I want to do something else?” And like what even would I do? So The Graduate Center’s career center was incredibly helpful to me. And one night, I was like, “ok, I’m getting closer, one more year of applying.” And my husband was like, “you’ve thought about it, why don’t you try doing something else.” And so that was one of many moments of revelation of like, I want to do something else, but I have no idea what.
So made a lot of lists and went on all of these like alt-ac career websites and did all the little tests. And you make lists of what you’ve learned. I mean the things you learn as an academic especially in the humanities, what do you learn? You think you’re being developed to be a teacher and an intellectual and a thinker. What are the concrete skills you’ve learned? You’ve learned to write, you’ve learned to edit, you’ve learned to look for information, you’ve learned to do masses of masses of research and synthesize that information. Those are really essential skills that can be applied to very many things. So it was a process of like making a list of ok, I’m good at other things. Like there’s other lives to be had out of this life even though I just spent the last eight years thinking I was going to do one thing. And also being in an environment where getting a job was a question of catching the only ship in the harbor. Especially now as academia is going through this moment of reckoning. So first it was a process of figuring out what I was good at and what I wanted to do.
And at some point, probably about a month into that, I started applying to podcasting jobs. Because to me it combined a lot of the writing, presentation, synthesis of a lot of information. It was, it seems to be one of the places where long-form journalism is alive and well. Where you get the skills of research and synthesis and writing for a larger audience. Part of the other reason I came to podcasting was, I was having an ethical dilemma about what academia is. The solution I could help provide for the problem I was seeing. I want there to be more ways for academics, especially in the humanities departments, to have lines out. Be bridges out. What are the fields that are related to academia that aren’t going to be an intellectual, going to be a writer, going to be a teacher. And that’s like, museums, public programming, lectures and to some extent podcasting. So how do I become a bridge for people with specialized knowledge to speak to a general audience. Not just people who have a buy-in because they’ve paid to be in this class, or have a buy-in because they pretty much already agree with you, or they have a buy-in because they’re there to yell at you and basically tell you they’re smarter than you are. But it’s a lot of put on academic departments to be like, “you gotta do this.” With all of the promises you have with your time as a professor, how are you supposed to learn how to do something you weren’t taught before? Which is reach out. And so I thought in podcasting that’s a place where I could be a bridge. And so that was like high-minded inspiration.
The low-minded inspiration was, I didn’t want to leave New York, I was tired of being an adjunct, I wanted to actually make money, and I wanted to not be alone in a room by myself. I wanted to be working with other people. So my husband sent me an email and he’s like, “apply to this internship at WNYC.” So I, at 33 years old with a PhD in hand, speaking multiple languages and having a giant chip on my shoulder, applied to an internship at On The Media and they accepted me. And I did this like week-long podcasting school, not through On The Media, through a place called Union Docks that’s in Brooklyn. And I met a bunch of people there and I did the internship. From there to what I’m doing now… So that ended in December of 2019 and I started looking for jobs. Started getting little freelance producer bites. And then there was a global pandemic, so I was in the middle of a career transition in the middle of a global pandemic. Another skill that people underestimate about PhD’s—if you do a PhD, you have to learn how to be productive in unstructured time.
GARTENBERG: Which most people don’t learn!
GARTENBERG: The pandemic happening just after I like, you know I got my foot in the door in public radio New York. And then the pandemic happened and it sort of exploded that momentum. But also because of the like forced stop, I spent time doing creative things that it turns out that I’m really, really good at. Like it turns out I’m a good writer and I was doing a lot of that. I started doing these little audio essays and like adding you know, sound effects and sending them to my friends because I had no idea what to do with them. I just started to like make things. The ability to like put ideas together in that way and the writing, a lot of that came from my PhD days.
BATIST: So where are you at right now?
GARTENBERG: So I since January have been editing a podcast called An Acquired Taste. I tell them it’s like a girl chat show where I tell them it’s like listening to two of your cleverist girlfriends get drunk and read the Internet while remaining miraculously organized. So I edit them and I learned all new programs, I can use ProTools now. Amazing! And then on top of that I was still looking for freelance jobs. I made like a website to be a writing coach and then through utterly relentless networking. And I would say, as a piece of advice to anybody leaving anybody, just network! That’s how anything moved forward. I got this job that’s sort of started already. I’m writing and producing a daily news podcast for a new podcast network. It’s like a start-up podcast company called Quake Media. So I’m writing and producing a daily news show that’s fifteen minutes long. Which like is very, very random to me because I did a PhD in Latin American Jewish literature. I wrote about haunting and ghosts, the way people remember the Holocaust from Argentina and Mexico, like very esoteric. And now I write a daily news show that’s largely centered on American politics, for a very well-known and respected journalist.
BATIST: So is this kind of what you’re doing largely now or do you have like other jobs? Is this like a specific timeframe?
GARTENBERG: Ok, so I have a lot of opinions about the gig economy but, being a freelancer is you know, you hustle a lot. You get to make your own schedule as a freelancer in the same way you get to make your own schedule as an academic. Which is, the job you do now completely exceeds the boundaries of all 9 to 5 in your brain. *laughs* But now, the whole time I was looking for work I really wanted something that was 9 to 5 that had benefits where I was like in an office with other people. That’s obviously not possible because of quarantine and because of the gig economy. But the jobs that I have now, one is a year contract and one is like a rolling contract. Those things have regular publishing and due dates, so they’re consistent and ongoing and they amount to something like a 9 to 5. When I had more scattershot freelance stuff, that was always a balancing act, like you’re constantly scheduling. And mounds and mounds of like unstructured time to write your dissertation in and it eventually needs to get done. And also while you’re writing your dissertation you’re teaching and you’re trying to do conferences and you’re networking still and you’re trying to progress your research. So you already know how to juggle all of those balls in the air.
As a freelancer, you definitely need to be able to do that. And now for the particular work that I’m doing now which is writing and producing, having a lot of balls in the air and remembering everything and making sure everyone else around you knows everything so they don’t drop something they’re supposed to be juggling. That’s pretty essential. When I had more scattered projects it was like, “ok I have two weeks to do this so I’ll probably do it on this Monday and it’s just a lot of scheduling. It’s not glamorous. And it’s not like, “oh I’ll go work from Hawaii” or “I’ll take time off whenever I want.” It’s like, that’s not at all what it is like. I had to write my own vacation into this contract that I just signed. I was like, “sorry you want 260 episodes in 52 weeks?” What do you want me to do on Christmas? I’m not even Christian and I’m worried about Christmas.
BATIST: So for a lot of the earlier ones, are these like positions you applied to or do you reach out to people who you think might have it, like how do you find these?
GARTENBERG: Like how the f*** do you get work as a freelancer. Networking. You contact everyone you know and this was very hard for me. You know, start to package yourself. I made this website as like a writing coach. But even in that, I was unable to define specifically enough the value added. And so I was constantly having phone calls with people who knew people. Like, “oh do you know somebody who may be able to talk to me about this?” And so I would talk to people under the auspices of like informational interview and get their advice and then sometimes they would throw me work. Most of the work that I got, I got work as a translator. I got work as… one of the things I was going to be hired for was to do research for a guy whose doing this sort of road trip type thing. And that was through a girl who I went to Jewish summer camp with, knew a guy who knew a guy, who was willing to talk to me about their job. And like, oh as long as we’re talking about what I do, I’m actually looking for producers.
I got onto listservs that were specific to podcasting. And over the summer there were a lot of jobs put out on those. And actually through that listserv is how I ended up with the godsend that is the two girls that I work for. An Acquired Taste, major plug, very good podcast. Very fun. And they’ve been so supportive. So that was sort of a lark. That wasn’t because I knew a guy who knew a guy, that was, they hired me. The thing writing this daily news show was somebody that I met who has a podcast called Family Ghosts, so I went to his launch. And I went up to him at his launch and was like, “what you’re doing is amazing, let’s get coffee, I need to tell you why what you’re doing is amazing.” But because I had formed a really good relationship with him and I kept texting him, people would ask him like oh you know, do you know someone good for this show that I’m doing or that show that I’m doing. And this fell in his lap and I was like, “I’ll take it.” Daily news sounds really scary, fine.
BATIST: Did you ever think about going into potentially the more formal publishing industry?
GARTENBERG: Yes, I started with publishing. I started when I graduated college, I went abroad and then I came back and I interned for a literary agency. And when that internship was ending they sort of set me up with other people that I might talk to. And I remember interviewing at a place, sort of another literary agency publisher type place. And they said, “well why do you want to work in publishing?” And I gave this very romantic, grandiose answer about the power of literature and the woman was like, “this is publishing.” She’s like, “sounds like you want to be an academic.” So that’s how I ended up in academia. *laughs*
BATIST: How did you find your selling point or like how do you price yourself as a freelancer and determine services and things like that?
GARTENBERG: That’s a super relevant question. That’s a constant question of like, “how much do I charge? How long is this going to take me to do? How much will someone actually pay me to do this thing?” And translation was a brutal one for that because it’s like you’re paying per word so you have to calculate how long it will take you. Different things will take different amounts of time. Another thing that I did was I signed up for one of these like fiver type things. Where you put a profile on a website and people find you that way. I haven’t had a ton of money come through that. But through that I did a lot of editing of cover letters, resumes, grant applications, applications for universities, Master’s theses, stuff like that. So for that, they had a set price for that but they take 50% cut. So you have to calculate how long you think it’s going to take you. I looked up things all the time. Like oh well what’s the going rate, like how many cents per word for like an academic translation. And then I started doing more editing and doing the podcast stuff. I looked up you know, Air, which is an organization that supports podcasters and radio. They have like rates that you should be applying, that you should assume for different levels of experience and different titles. But then it started to be like, well what is an hour worth to me?
GARTENBERG: And it would always spill over, you’re charging for an hour but it’s going to take you an hour and a half. Also as a freelancer your tax rate is 15% to begin with. So say goodbye to 15% anyway. But ask for more than you think you can, would be my initial like salvo at that. Do your research, see what the going rate is and then ask for a little bit more. Because there’s a process of negotiating. The job that I just got, we negotiated the contract. If you know a lawyer, always have a lawyer look at the contract, it’s just good practice. But the short answer is: ask for more than you think you’re worth, be willing to come down, look up what the going rate is, and then especially if you’re at the beginning, suck it up, and just, you need the experience, you need to be employed.
BATIST: Definitely. You had mentioned you had joined a bunch of listservs. And there’s like some sort of an association of freelancers or something like that?
GARTENBERG: There’s an association for freelancers, I never joined that. I have the distinct advantage of being married to someone who has a much more conventional job title and works for a very large firm. So we have benefits through him. And this is some of the conversations that are happening around freelancing especially on these listserv’s that I’m on is like, the way a lot of these things are structured is, you can only try to apply to these things if you are young enough to not really have any dependents and maybe still be living with your parents or off your parents. Or if you’re married to someone and your job is basically an extra job. So as the gig economy pushes us all towards freelancing, there’s less and less safety net. Something like the Freelancer’s Union is trying to provide those safety net. So Freelancer’s Union is a good idea just so you really get a sense of the parameters that you’re taking on because you’re by yourself. Which is not to say that you can’t handle it, you can. You did a PhD, you can handle it. But it’s more complicated.
BATIST: Yeah, for sure. What were some of those listserv’s that you joined then that were helpful?
GARTENBERG: I’m on New York City Public Radio, I’m on something called Ladio, there’s one called Gaydio.
BATIST: Fantastic names.
GARTENBERG: *laughs* Yeah, Ladio is spelled L-A-D-I-O. And then for the translation, there’s like Emerging Translators Network and they have an American and a European branch of that. I started signing up for newsletters, Study Hall is a good one for people who want to work in news media or print media. And that tends to have a lot of cross-over with podcasting. Hot Pod is another newsletter. I signed up for something called Tanya’s Tips which also would list jobs. I mean I’m telling you, the networking is crazy. I ended up on the first listserv, I was sitting in a coffee shop. And I was sitting next to this girl with big headphones and she was clearly editing. And this was more than a year ago. And I was like, “What are you doing? Who are you? Why are you cutting audio? How does that work?” And I just started like chatting with this girl and she’s like, “I’m going to put you on this listserv. They advertise jobs and they give you advice.” So like the reason I ended up even finding any of these, was I talked to a perfect stranger and was like, “What are you doing? How are you doing that?” Self-promotion is a big thing. Because that’s sort of what we need to have a little bit less fear of right now. It’s a strange balance of like humility and not being in everyone’s face and people are dealing with a lot and they don’t want you to like be in their face like, “I’m doing this thing, look how great I am!” But how do you get shameless about that? And especially like there is also these inflections of being a woman in doing that. If you’re transitioning careers and you’re trying to find a way, shame is a useless emotion.
BATIST: What would you suggest to students, not necessarily that are looking at freelancing but are exploring other options as you were doing? What kind of advice would you give them to help navigate that minefield of options and opportunities?
GARTENBERG: There are so many pieces of advice I would give. The first piece of advice is breathe. You’re going to be ok. You are very talented. If you’ve made it this far into doing a PhD, you are capable. Another thing I would say is, academia teaches you to build towards a goal that you kind of know the shape of. And there are a lot of narratives of success in the US where like you gotta figure out what you want and grab it. And a) that’s not the only way to be successful, and b) you might not know the shape of what you want yet. You need to free yourself up to saying yes to things you didn’t even know existed. And just because you don’t have this goal that you’re working towards, it doesn’t mean that you’re not going to be excellent at something eventually.
GARTENBERG: And that you’re not going to love that thing eventually. Be willing to try. You don’t know what you’re going to do, you don’t know what it’s going to teach you so like be willing to try things. You know like have a standard, but be willing to try things. You might have to be a 33-year-old intern with a PhD.
BATIST: Have you thought about going into like journalism more formally and being a writer as opposed to the post-writing like editor or producer or things like that?
GARTENBERG: So one of the things I was looking at was like how to get published as a writer in my own right. Because I keep a blog called Lit Fuck. Basically it’s like these high-minded analyses of fairly low-brow culture. Because I mean that’s part of media literacy. Whatever you’re watching, it’s still doing something to your brain. So I wanted to, and I still do want to be writing in my own right. And writing in my own voice and speaking in my own voice. And maybe that’s like a podcast to do in the future or maybe that’s to get published as a writer. So that’s still in my mind. The funny thing now is, I’m being paid to write. The editing I do for the Acquired Taste girls I’m not writing. But my other show I’m writing script, I’m being paid to be a writer. Which is crazy to me. But also makes total sense because I’m a very good writer. So yeah, the podcasting is cool because it’s editing and producing and writing, so I like that. And now I’m freelancing and it’s fine, it’s grand. I’m actually making like a full salary. I’m making more than my friends who are still in academia are. But I think I learned, and I’m still learning, some really valuable lessons about what it means to be resilient. But like resiliency looks like trying over and over and over and over and advocating for yourself over and over and over again.
BATIST: Yeah, very good point. So any final thoughts or advice for current students or tips?
GARTENBERG: I think my advice is like while you’re still doing the PhD, explore other harbors. Other harbors have more boats in them. And it doesn’t mean you’re not going to end up in the academia boat, you might. But like it will be a lot of stress off of you if you at least have in the back of your mind that you are more than the person doing a PhD and that there are more definitions of success than the one you’re having at school. I would also like to say I am immensely grateful to The Graduate Center. And it made me not just a better thinker but a better person, going there.
BATIST, VOICE-OVER: That’s a wrap for this episode of Alumni Aloud. I want to thank Charlotte for sharing her experiences as a freelancer. Remember to stay tuned for more episodes of Alumni Aloud, published every 2 weeks during the fall and spring semesters. Subscribe on iTunes and you’ll automatically be notified of new episodes. Also check out our Facebook, Twitter and career planning website at cuny.is/careerplan for more updates from our office or to make appointments with our career counselors. Thanks for listening and see you next time!
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