Friday, May 21, 2010

When in Rome...

When you think about it, most of us are fishes out of water.

Few of us ever get to work in our hometowns. We often end up in faraway places, where the culture and the people are different. And sometimes trying to fit in is a difficult trick.

It was (and still is at times) hard for me. I think people from the New York area and the Northeast in general have it the worst because we're so different. We're edgy, impatient, talk too fast, and can get in your face at times. My sarcastic sense of humor didn't play well in some places far from the Big Apple. And over the years I've heard, "We don't care how you did it in New York" more than a few times.

It can be frustrating trying to fit in when you're a long way from home. "What do you mean, you never heard of pastrami? Fuhgeddaboudit."

If you are the fish out of water, you really have to almost bury your heritage while you're trying to fit in. Sometimes you're sent to cover something that seems truly bizarre to you but normal to the locals. (Like when I was sent to cover a tractor pull.)

The practice of telling viewers where you're from doesn't do you any good either. They just see you as a carpetbagger, yet another outsider who is just passing through town on the way up the ladder.

Then there are the people in the newsroom who are locals. They'll resent the fact that you have absolutely no intention of staying, as you consider their city just another town. To them it's special. It's home.

So remember, when hopping around the country, you're a guest, both in the newsroom and on the air. That attitude will do wonders if you're trying to fit in.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Agent contracts: You need a lawyer for those, too

Last year two of my clients got offers of representation from the same agency and sent me the contract to check out. (I'm not a lawyer, but I have seen a bunch of these.) Anyway, same agency, but one client would have been charged two percent more than the other.

Hmmmm. What does this tell you? It should tell you that agent fees, like anything else, are negotiable.

There are no regulatory agencies out there to check on agents. I could hang out a shingle today and call myself an agent. I don't need a license.

Before I get going, let me preface this by saying some agents are wonderful people who truly care about you and your career path. Others are simply in it for the paycheck.

So, if you're offered representation by an agent, here are some things you need to know:

-First, you'll need a lawyer to review any agency contract. Some are iron-clad deals that would take an act of congress to break. Suppose you sign a three year deal and find out six months down the road that the agent has done nothing? Guess what, unless there's a clause in the contract, you're stuck.

-Note that the commission you pay is based on your gross salary, not your take home pay. Six percent, when factored after taxes, is more like ten percent.

-You'll need to have specific parameters in the contract. Some agencies will charge less if you find a job on your own. For instance, if they find you a job, you owe six percent. If you meet some ND at RTNDA and get hired, you might owe three. Or you might owe six anyway. Check the contract.

-When presented with the commission rate, do your homework and find what other people are paying. You'll find out pretty quick if things are standard or negotiable. Remember, there are no laws as to what agents can charge.

-Determine the process by which you can end the agreement. Some agencies have a thirty day notice by which either party can end the agreement. With others, you're stuck.

-Determine what happens if you end the relationship and then get a job at a station where the agent previously sent a tape. While this sounds like the agency should automatically get paid, some agents send tapes everywhere, which means they can always say they sent a tape.

-Make sure you'll get regular reports on where your tapes are being sent and for what openings.

-Make sure the agent knows what you will and will not accept. Some agents, after sending out tapes for a while with no results, start pressuring clients to take anything in order to collect a commission.

-Check references. You'll find all sorts of people in the "moving on" section on Pick up the phone and ask people if they are happy with the service they received. And how much commission they're paying. Also, ask if their calls or emails were returned promptly. Nothing is worse than an agent who doesn't call back.

-Don't be afraid to ask former News Directors or NDs you meet what they think of certain agencies. I can think of some agents that I loved dealing with and a few others who were so obnoxious I refused to deal with them. If you hire a "shark" be prepared to have certain doors closed.

-Beware the agent who signs just about anyone. If you're three months into your first job and get a call, leave skid marks. These people often box up dozens of tapes and send them out in response to openings. They're just hoping to get a commission if the ND hires one of their people. I can't tell you how many horrible tapes I've seen from people who are represented by agents.

-Consider the agent who takes the personal approach. I love those who call and say, "I see you're looking for a female anchor, and I've got one whose personality might work with the guy you've got." That shows the agent has done some homework and is really trying to make the perfect match.

-Note that an agent is not a psychiatrist. Calling an agent just to say, "Get me outta here" just wastes the agent's time that could be spent working the phones. On the other hand, perfectly acceptable to touch base every few weeks to see where your tapes are going.

-Finally, do you even need an agent? That's a question that's hard to answer. Many people have gotten great jobs on their own, and some agents have great connections. But bear in mind that unless you're going to be making more than $50,000, you're probably not worth the trouble to an agent.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Contracts: How long is too long?

Most of you probably got out of college having absolutely no knowledge of contracts, things like "out clauses" or terms like "liquidated damages." Unfortunately that left some of you stuck with iron-clad deals that trap you in small markets for a ridiculous amount of time.

When I hear of rookies being forced to sign three year deals, it makes me angry. Because there's no way anyone with any sort of talent needs three years at an entry level station.

Then I hear of reporters being offered, get this, four year deals for second jobs. Have people lost their minds? Do they really expect anyone to sign something like this?

Bottom line, if you're hunting for your first job, don't sign anything longer than two years. For any other job, if the contract is longer than two years it had better have an out clause.

Different rules apply for anchors, as longer contracts are needed for the station to promote stability on the anchor desk. But if you're a young reporter, there's no need to sign your life away for three years or longer.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Six degrees of natural sound

Most of my new clients have a similar problem; lack of natural sound in their packages. So I'll get some new packages with some nat sound changes, but very often they are the wrong kind of changes.

It occurred to me that most of you probably don't know there are different degrees of natural sound. Just throwing in a two or three second break doesn't cut it if you're using nat sound in the wrong way. So lets look at all the different types of natural sound.

-Nat sound underneath: Okay, this is the most basic. When you lay down your b-roll, you need to have the sound at a level that the viewer can hear it. Very often rookie reporters have the sound turned off when laying b-roll, and the result is a voiced-over segment that's just way too quiet. Even if the natural sound is the sound of nothing happening, we need that white noise.

-Nat sound / sound bite: If you think natural sound has to be stuff like birds chirping or a contractor hammering, well, guess again. Words can be natural sound. Let's say you're shooting a baseball game and a fan yells, "Let's go Mets." While technically that can be a sound bite, you are going to use it as nat sound, like this:

nat sound / "Lets Go Mets"
Voiceover: "That hasn't been heard very much at Mets games lately, as the team is in the middle of a losing streak."

You can also use something like a few words from a political speech as a nat break, and then "write out of" the break, like this:

nat sound / "We must protect the environment..."
Voiceover: "That's a popular sentiment with both Democrats and Republicans, in light of the Gulf oil spill."

nat sound / ambient sounds: Anything you can hear if you just stop talking. Cars roaring by, train whistles, a dog barking, cashier swiping a credit card, etc. These are great for short nat sound "pops" which is another term for very short natural sound breaks. And you can use a ton of these in a package and not eat up a whole lot of time.

nat sound / used to answer a question: Let's say you have a community that is being kept up at night by train whistles. You might use nat sound this way.

Voiceover: "All you have to do to find out why people in this neighborhood are sleep deprived, is listen..."
nat sound / train whistle

nat sound in lieu of a sound bite: Where is it written that a package needs to have a sound bite? Ever see a photo essay? It's a collection of great video and natural sound.

Remember, you don't need to stick a microphone in someone's face to get a sound bite. You might get an angry comment at a political rally, or during a city council meeting. Though it is natural sound, it can work just as well as a sound bite.

nat sound fade before the video: This is something very subtle, but shows you really know how to edit.

Many nat sound breaks are very abrupt, and simply edited in a simple cut that is butted up against a sound bite. The result can be jarring. Why not start your nat sound before the sound bite ends, fading it up slowly, then fading it up quickly when you actually take the matching video. Let's go back to our train whistle example:

Sound bite / resident: "Every night that train roars through town at four in the morning, (start fading nat sound up here) blaring that whistle. It takes me an hour to get back to sleep.
nat sound / train whistle, faded up full

As you can see, you can do all sorts of wonderfully creative things with natural sound; you're not just limited to quick little breaks. Once you learn to think of natural sound being just as important as your video, your packages will rise to the next level.