3 Takeaways from Shadowing a Professional Journalist

“We have you going on the radio in the next segment to talk about John’s little brother,” radio host Geoff Calkins told me.

Are you kidding me? You want to put some 19-year-old kid on the air in front of all of your listeners on ESPN radio? This has to be a joke.

“Alright, let’s do it,” was what actually came out of my mouth.

Why was I in the 92.9 FM radio station with one of the most well-known sports radio shows in Memphis? How did I even get here in the first place? Calkins, an award-winning sports columnist for The Commercial Appeal, is one of those journalists you might only know if you had the privilege of growing up in Memphis. Listening to him on the radio and reading his moving articles every week as a kid, he inspired me to start writing and telling stories of others. He would never tell you this, but he is the voice of Memphis, especially for sports fans.

John Martin, the producer, co-host, and whose brother I was about talk about, told me not to sound afraid before we went on the air. How could I not though? Having never been on the radio, they were just going to toss me in there like a first-time boxer in the ring with Floyd Mayweather. At the same time, however, the adrenaline rush thrilled me.

“We have a very special guest in studio today,” said Martin, “His name is Jonah Baer. He’s a proud graduate of White Station, and he also went to school with my younger brother. Jonah, you brought to my attention that you have a story about my little brother.”


About a year and a half ago, in the middle of my senior year, I decided to email a guy, Calkins, who I’d looked up to for years as a sports columnist and a radio personality at the Commercial Appeal, to ask him a few questions. In 2011, he inspired me with his writing on the Memphis Grizzlies historic playoff run. I could always see myself doing exactly what he does.

When I emailed him, I was stressed about what major I would choose in college: whether it would be journalism or something more practical like business. I searched The Commercial Appeal website, found his email address and sent him a short message about who I was and if he could answer a few questions. He replied in less than a week, to my surprise, and we’ve been emailing back and forth ever since.

After asking him about an internship this summer with The Commercial Appeal, he told me that they usually don’t have interns, especially if they’re as young as me (an upcoming sophomore in college). However, he said that he could bring me in the studio to shadow his radio show for a day. I’d take whatever I could get— a chance to talk with Calkins one-on-one and see his show in live action for even a couple hours was time well-spent. I had zero intention of actually talking on air.

So here I was, sitting in the studio chatting and learning from Calkins and Martin about everything from the changing newspaper industry and radio to our families and the recent Grizzlies draft night. Here I was getting ready to talk on the radio and tell a story about Martin’s brother, who I used to eat lunch with everyday in middle school. If you want to hear the story, click here, and skip to the last 15 minutes of the show. This experience changed my view of journalism and opened my eyes to the different opportunities that are at my disposal.


Three Things I learned from a Professional Journalist:

  1. You don’t NEED to major in journalism.

    This is not to say that it’s not good to major in journalism for some people. The connections you make can be extremely valuable now and in the future. However, for most people, it’s not worth it today. With so many online blogs, new sites, and websites, it’s much easier to make a name for yourself today than it was, say fifteen years ago.
    Calkins told me that the most important thing to learn if you want to be a professional journalist is the experience: writing for your school newspaper and landing internships at various news firms and websites. Use your studies, whatever it might be, to enhance your writing. Being well-rounded, and having the skill to adapt to the evolving industry is key for getting a job in journalism today. You can learn as much, and probably more, from experiences than you can from simply learning in the classroom.

  2. Local radio is more informal than you would think

    The show was starting in 20 minutes. Calkins paused the conversation; he needed to discuss with Martin what they would talk about on the show today. While they had a plan of what speakers would be on the show, they needed to figure out they keep point they would talk about. Have you ever thought about what goes on behind the scenes as you listen to a radio show? I imagined to be a very well-structured process, and, to an extent, it is. However, for this particular show on this particular day, they planned out what they were going to say minutes before it started.
    For example, take me. They had no plan until the show actually started to throw me in one of the last segments. Before the show even started, I told Martin the story I had about his brother. For some reason, they must’ve thought it was interesting enough to go on air, so they just went with it. You have to be flexible to be on the radio.

  3. Do what you love to do.

    Calkins never told me this directly. In fact, when I asked him in the past what he thinks about entering the journalism field, he actually told me that it is a tough field to crack with thousands of blogs, like this one. However, I think that’s why it’s much easier to enter now. Employers can easily look at my blog and see my writing rather than having to send in a full portfolio. I could even start my own website venture by simply sitting at my computer like I am right now. Becoming successful in the news or media can take root in many ways.
    Attending Harvard College and Harvard Law and becoming editor-in-chief of the school paper, Calkins thought being a lawyer after college was the right move for him. After realizing that law was not where he wanted to be, he attended Columbia Journalism School and never looked back.
    The point I’m trying to make is that you need to pursue what you truly want to do. Despite the inevitable challenges you will encounter alone the way, you have to learn how to overcome these and embrace them to reach your ultimate goal.  You can’t enter a career just because you will be making a lot of money. Do what you were put here to do, and great things will fall into place.


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