Career Story: Documentary Film Producer At A Public Television Station

Documentary Film Producer At A Public Television Station

Job Title: Documentary Film Producer

Type of Company: Public media. We try to make educational television and other media that is both fun to watch and informative.

Education: BA in History, Harvard University

Previous Experience: I've worked at WGBH in Boston for most of my career. I started out working for the history series "American Experience," learning production and working my way up the editorial ladder.

I worked as an Associate Producer for several years in the mid-1990s for KQED, the PBS station in San Francisco. I've also worked doing research and grant writing for independent film producers.

For the past several years, I've worked for NOVA, the PBS science series based at WGBH in Boston. I've done a lot of research-development and grant writing, and also served in a management job for a year and a half. I'm currently one of the producers on a physics miniseries we've started to make.

Job Tasks: I see my job as that of a translator. I research interesting things that are going on in the world, then translate them for folks who don't have the time to do the research themselves. In this way, I try to enrich people's lives just a little bit, by shining a light on cool stuff they might not learn about otherwise.

My current project is a good example. I've spent years talking to some of the most brilliant and accomplished theoretical physicists in the world, in order to make a miniseries for PBS. I have no formal science training, but I try to use this to my advantage -- after all, if I can't understand the science after months of research, what chance does the viewer have?

Research is an important part of every project, but I get to wear other hats as well. Learning how to make films -- shoot interviews, live action scenes, use animation and archival images, etc. -- is obviously a skillset all its own. I'm always learning and expanding that set of tools, which then get applied to the next project, about an entirely different thing. Creativity is important, but so is basic stuff like working with a budget, being organized, have good people skills, etc.

I wouldn't say that every day is different, because many days are similar to each other. But I will say that each project moves through different phases, so the pace and nature of the work does change over time. Plus, each project brings with it a different subject matter - sometimes very different - and a different set of co-workers. Both of these allow you to learn and grow as a professional, so it never gets stale (at least not as much as most other careers, I would imagine).

Best and Worst Parts of the Job: I would say that the best part of my job is that it's intellectually rewarding. I get to learn all about interesting things (mostly history and science) that are happening in the world, often at a very detailed level. Then, working as part of a team, I have to figure out how to best communicate what's important or interesting about it to a general audience. Usually, that takes the form of a television program, but I also have written lots of grants (for funding these projects), Web sites, and other things.

I would say that the worst part of my job is its inherent uncertainty. Though I've been fortunate to have steady work, not have to move, limited travel, etc., it's not always the most stable or family-friendly job in the world. Most people I know do have families. But it's highly competitive, and funding is always limited, so if making big money or having long-term stability is really important, documentary production is probably not the right career for you.

Job Tips:
1. Start at the bottom and work your way up. Getting any kind of foot in the door is the key.

2. Networking is crucial. If you impress the people you work with, they'll recommend you to people they know. That's the best way to keep working, and develop a resume that speaks for itself.

3. Be flexible. There's always something to learn that will make you better, even in the worst jobs. So try to focus on the positive and get the most out of every opportunity. People like to work with people who have that attitude (goes for any profession, I think).

Additional Thoughts: I think curiosity is the single most important quality for my profession. If you're truly curious about the world, you'll probably enjoy it and be pretty good at it.

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