I know you’re a writer. But you’re also a human being who needs to eat, sleep under a roof, and travel. So I recommend multiplying your income streams by adding radio and maybe even television to your bag of tricks.*
When you talk to NPR, as you should, having sent them a packet offering your services, you should also talk to CNN**. Ask NPR what kind of recorder and microphone you should carry to gather broadcast-quality actuality (a radio-industry term for the live sound you hear in a report — interviews, explosions, chickens clucking, etc.) Ask, too, how to get your sound to them and write down their instructions in detail.
Margaret went on a junket organized by the the government of Angola, which was eager for the world to know that it still held the town of Cuito Cuanavale in its long ground war against the South African Army. At one point, Margaret had to cross a river on a rope-and-slats footbridge and, bless her heart, she kept her tape deck running with the microphone sticking up out of her shoulder bag. On the tape — which ran on All Things Considered and for which she was paid well, you can hear her feet rattling on the slats, her breathing hard, and then, suddenly, voices yelling frantically and the whistles and booms of incoming artillery rounds. Great actuality, as they say in the biz. It would have made great television, too, but broadcast-quality cameras weren’t small enough then to tote around.
Google “smallest broadcast-quality video camera” and see what pops up. (This is what comes up today, but six months from now could be different.) Show the list to the people at CNN with whom you’re negotiating permission to call collect and whose email addresses you are collecting. Ask them what they’d like you to carry and get detailed instructions for getting your footage to them.
I can hear you now, saying, “but I have no experience in either radio or television!” Let me tell you another story:
On that same trip to Angola,*** Margaret met a nice man named Noel Grove, who was a staff photographer on assignment for the ne plus ultra of photojournalism, The National Geographic. She asked him: “What’s the secret of NatGeo photography? and he replied “F8 and be there.” (F8 on a camera is the most basic F-stop, the one at which you’re apt to get approximately the depth of field of a naked human eye, good for a quick shot and for freezing action. You’d use different F stops for artistic effects; F8 is plain Jane.) The important part of Grove’s advice, though, was, “be there.” You may have no television experience, but if you’re on the scene when disgruntled elements of the FARC attack the presidential palace and you have the footage that nobody else has, you’ll be golden. This is why you want the smallest and lightest audio and video recording gear you can get — so that you’ll have them with you all the time. Be there.
* It must also be said, if mumbled disgracefully down here, that certain stories are better told on television than in print. When the space shuttle blew up or the shock-and-awe bombing of Baghdad began, did you run to your newspaper? No, you hastened to CNN. No medium is inherently more legit than the others. People get information all kind of ways and it’s a privilege to to feed the public’s right and appetite to know with as many tools as you can muster. Just because you sent CNN footage of the attack on the presidential palace doesn’t mean you can’t also write a 4,000-word think piece about it for The New York Review of Books.
**Here’s how you, a total newbie in television, should approach CNN: Call the main number in Atlanta and ask whoever answers the phone to switch you to the Latin America desk. If the person says that CNN has no Latin America desk, say this: “I am an independent correspondent based in Bogotá, Colombia, to cover Latin American news. To whom should I offer my services?” When you reach that person, ask for an email address or, better still, a paper mailing address and send your packet to that person. I promise you that nobody will hang up on you. CNN needs eyes everywhere. Then send your clips-and-resume packet.
*** Yes, I did do some reporting in Africa, too. I wasn’t in Angola with her because I am a physical coward. War reporting? Me? No thank you. Send Margaret.