Let’s talk about 💰

Money is generally considered a taboo topic – especially for women and especially in the workplace. So what I offer here is my 💸 history and my experience negotiating salary and fees over time.

Talking about money is uncomfortable and sensitive and awkward. I don’t like to do it and I have never been a good advocate for myself (though I’m trying to change that.) In this post I’m going to talk about it. And I’m going to get specific.

A few things to note: Even though I’ve hired lots of people and negotiated lots of salaries, I’m only going to talk about what I’ve earned. Also, I’m not going to talk about what I’m earning in my current freelance contracts. While I would like to see a lot more transparency around rates and salaries, it’s not my place to reveal anyone else’s financial business. But perhaps my past experience navigating the public media income landscape will help some of you.

There are some great resources already out there for this sort of thing. The best public resource I know of for navigating rates in public media is AIR’s Rate Guide. The AIR team has done extensive research to set the industry standard for all levels of production talent. I share this link with anyone who asks about public media rates, and I’ve been using it as a guide as I navigate my renewed freelance career.

I’ve also been sharing this tweet thread from Misha Euceph which clearly lays out the general misconceptions around podcast rates and tries to set the record straight. It’s a couple years old but it’s still relevant and I appreciate Misha’s righteous frustration. More people should talk about this openly.

There’s also a bunch of great media out there on this topic.

  • I’m pretty obsessed with Jonathan Menjivar’s new podcast – Classy.
  • Of course there’s the now classic Death, Sex, and Money with Anna Sale.
  • I love this book by Stacey Vanek-Smith – Machiavelli for Women. It’s filled with great storytelling and practical advice, especially for negotiating salaries.
  • I also loved this book by Stacey’s (and my) former colleague Jacob Goldstein – Money: The True Story of a Made-Up Thing.
  • Plus this newer podcast from Maya Lau – Other People’s Pockets which she calls “financial voyeurism.” Highly recommend.

I’m sure there are lots more. Leave your recommendations in comments.

I’m especially interested in the mindset different people bring to discussions about money. So before I get into the dollars and cents, I think it’s important to understand where I’m coming from financially. Here are the basics of my financial upbringing.

My mom’s parents were German Holocaust survivors who landed in Queens in the 1940s where my mom was born and raised. Her father made his career in the lumber business. Her mom sold Avon products for awhile but was mainly a housewife. My dad’s family emigrated from Eastern Europe to New York a generation earlier. His mom was a Kindergarten teacher and his dad was a photographer who died young. My parents both went to NYC public schools and met at SUNY Albany. I was born and raised not too far from there. My mom was a public school French teacher before she went into business with my dad. When that business went belly up, she went back to teaching. My dad did a bunch of things before landing in the insurance business. They shielded me from most of the details (and the drama) of family bankruptcy. (You can read that story here if you’re curious. It’s a pretty good one.) I still don’t totally know how they paid for me and my brother to go to pricey private colleges (with loans and work/study jobs, but still…). But once we were out of school, we were basically on our own financially. Bottom line – no trust fund here.

I’ve worked for as long as I can remember – first at my dad’s store, then babysitting, then at the Cinnabon at our local mall. Once I got onto a more career-oriented work path, I was driven to succeed, but I never had expectations of earning a lot of money. My parents taught me and my brother to “live within our means.” And perhaps related to that, I never developed expensive taste or dangerous shopping habits.

I paid my own way through grad school and dug my way out of student loan debt with a relatively high-paying non-journalism job in Silicon Valley. My initial offer there was $60K / year – far more than I’d ever earned before. And when they booted me after 3+ years I was making $80K. They had a generous raise policy. (You can read about my job loss history in my previous post.)

When I got back into journalism in 2007, I had to reset my expectations about what I could and should be earning. I decided to set my freelance hourly rate somewhere between $50-100 / hour depending on whether I was working for a for-profit or non-profit. And because of my Silicon Valley contacts, I was able to find a nice combination of both. One of the best things I achieved as a freelancer in that first year was to land a steady part-time role making a podcast for The Science History Institute called Distillations. (I know many of you worked with me on that show!) That became my anchor project and provided me a steady income for more than six years. I did a handful of other freelance projects during that time, but Distillations was my main source of income.

Note: I got married to a public school teacher in 2006 which came with the added benefit of stable health insurance. I can’t overstate how helpful that has been in navigating my freelance finances.

Between 2007 and 2014 I averaged about $30K / year. My best year was just under 70K. My worst year was just under 12K.

Late in 2014 I moved on from Distillations to take my first Executive Producer role. This was a full-time freelance contract, and I was paid $90K / year. I don’t remember how that rate was determined but it was obviously a huge step up for me and it didn’t occur to me to negotiate. That job turned out to be one of the most challenging of my career – not because of the content, but because of a truly terrible boss. After just over a year in that job I had had enough, and I left to seek other opportunities. The money had been good, but no amount of money would have made me stay in that situation, so I reentered the freelance market seeking a good team, not necessarily a good rate. The way it worked out, I got both.

My friend and colleague AC Valdez was working at Slate at the time and he recommended me to his colleague, Laura Mayer, who was seeking a lead producer for a top secret project with Panoply. (Spoiler: it was Revisionist History). I won the gig. And when it came time to talk money, I received a shock. They were offering me $12,500 / month to make this show. I have no idea how they came up with that fee. Maybe this was the start of the podcasting “dumb money” trend. It was far more than I ever expected to earn for podcast production. They did not have to twist my arm. I said yes, and for the first time in my life, I had more money than I knew what to do with. Don’t get me wrong – I worked for that fee. A lot. And I put a lot of it into savings because I knew it wouldn’t last – it was only a freelance contract after all.

The show turned out to be a big success, and when it came time for season two, the powers that be at Panoply offered me a full time job as a Managing Producer. I didn’t actually want a full time job. I liked freelancing and I was finally earning a good living. Plus I didn’t want to give up my autonomy. But I did want to make a second season of Revisionist. They offered me $90K / year. As a freelancer I was earning the equivalent of $150K / year. Granted, that was not a year-round salary and I had to take out taxes and expenses. But I could also do other work in the months I wasn’t working on Revisionist. I was still on my husband’s excellent health insurance plan and I wasn’t about to give that up. I had also been pretty good about putting money into a retirement plan. So all I was getting by joining the staff was the stability of full-time work (or so I thought). Luckily I had the wherewithal to negotiate up some. Remember I had been making 90K at my last executive producer gig two years earlier, and that was before I made a hit show for Panoply. I was also expected to manage people in this new gig. I ended up with 100K, and the flexibility to work from home most of the time.

In retrospect I’m pretty sure I could have negotiated harder – either to earn a higher salary or to remain as a freelancer. But I didn’t do that, and for the next 2+ years, I made two more very successful seasons of Revisionist, started learning how to be a manager (not easy!), and helped launch a bunch other shows. Don’t get me wrong – it was a good living. But when I next had the opportunity to really negotiate – I went for it.

That opportunity came in 2018. Panoply had laid off all its content makers, and very soon after that, our Revisionist History host called to ask me to join him on a new venture – what was to become Pushkin Industries. I was going to be employee #1, he said. And I would be helping build their production department from the ground up.

My first move was to call all the highest-level producers I knew (all women) and get a ballpark estimate of what they were making. This was awkward, but I wanted to do my research and I didn’t want to sell myself short. Everyone I spoke with graciously shared their salary range and appreciated the effort I was putting in to receive fair pay for this very big job. Then I took the highest number I received and added $25K. Because WHY NOT? I knew they wanted me – no needed me – for this job. And this was my one chance to ask for a big number. I did not get what I asked for, but I did get $200K – nearly double what I had been making before.

For the next four years, I received cost-of-living salary increases and generous bonuses, but I never asked for a raise and I never received one. Instead I put all my effort into trying to get raises for my staff. My salary when I left was $214K.

Now that I’m freelancing again, I’ve taken a massive pay cut. And it’s taking me a little while to reset my salary expectations back to where I was when I first started freelancing. On the one hand, I know I’m at the upper range of experience and I should command a reasonably high rate based on that. On the other hand, most of the clients I’m working with now are non-profit organizations and independents. Not to mention whatever weirdness is going on with the economy and the downward shift of the podcast industry in general. But as I do my fee negotiating, I’m trying to use the sum of what I’ve learned up to now.

Here are some things I’ve figured out:

  • Do your research: Go onto glassdoor. Study the AIR rate guide. Ask friends in similar positions what they’re making (maybe over drinks?). Try to get as much information as you can about the organization or client’s budget. Go into your negotiation feeling confident that you’ve done your homework.
  • You only have one chance to negotiate for the first time: Whatever you land on when you are first hired is pretty close to where you’ll stay, even with year-end raises. In my experience, it’s difficult to get substantial merit-based raises unless you threaten to leave for a competing offer. It’s not pretty, but it’s the truth.
  • Decide how much you want the gig: If you really want it, figure out your bare minimum for taking the job. Ask for more, but be ok settling for less. Be genuinely ok with it. It will never work to be in a job where you’re resentful that you’re not making more money. And don’t expect that you’ll be able to negotiate up later. Of course you should ask, but again, where you start is your only guarantee.
    • If you don’t really want it, ask for a lot of money! It’s ok to get paid for your troubles. And if you don’t get what you ask for (or close to it), walk away. There are lots of different reasons to take a job. Money can most certainly be one of them. But if you don’t really want it and you don’t make good money, that’s a bad combination.
  • You can negotiate for things other than $$: Take some time figuring out what you want to get out of this job, and then figure out if there might be some possible perks other than $$. Maybe a job will allow you to get a foot in the door with a person or organization you’ve been eyeing for a long time. Maybe it’ll allow you to try out a new skill. (When you’re new at something it will naturally take you longer to do it, so your rate will inevitably be lower. That’s ok!) Maybe your gig will allow you flexible work hours you can reserve for a personal project. If you can’t get to a rate you feel 100% good about, see if you can negotiate for fewer or more flexible hours. Or maybe you’ll have the opportunity to train on a new piece of equipment, or you’ll be able to take a reporting trip to a place you’ve always wanted to go. And with that flexible schedule you can take some time to do other projects or non-work-related things. Money is just one part of your calculation.
  • Get to know how long it takes you to do things: The only way to figure out a fair fee for any freelance job is to have a sense of how long that job will take you. It doesn’t matter whether you’re paid per word, per episode, per hour, day, week, or month. Maybe you’re a slow writer but you can figure out a production schedule in a matter of hours. Maybe you already have a lot of contacts in a given field so your research will go relatively quickly, but you’ve never done a narrative show before so you’ll have a bigger learning curve there. SPEND TIME asking lots of questions about the job, clarifying the expectations of the manager and other team members, and analyzing your own availability and skill level for this particular gig. Negotiate your rate based on what you figure out.
  • Business is business – it’s not personal: This is the hardest lesson I’ve had to learn. (In fact, I’m still learning it.) Managers or CEOs are not trying to underpay you or short change you. They are trying to run a business, and, in many cases, turn a profit. That means, often, they will pay you as little as they can get away with. This feels deeply unfair, but as much as I hate to admit it, it’s not evil. It’s just business. The best CEOs/managers/businesses will do their research and figure out fair rates and then exceed them in order to demonstrate how much they value their employees and their work. But the truth is, the only one who is really going to advocate for a fair rate for you is YOU. (Unless you’re part of a union, but that’s another post for another time.)

In the end, figure out what you want out of any given job. Figure out what you need to survive. Negotiate hard for what you know you deserve, but also know what you’re willing to (happily) take. Don’t be afraid to walk away if you can’t get there. And finally, know that each negotiation – and each job – for better or worse – will get you closer to where you want to be next time.

If you have advice or fee/salary stories to share, please leave a comment or drop me a line. I’d love to hear from you.

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