Internet Work and Invisible Labor: An Interview With NPR’s Linda Holmes

by Anne Helen Petersen

This interview series aims to make the “invisible labor” of web production visible. Over the next few months, I’ll be talking with a wide variety of content producers, exploring the dynamics of their own form of web production, how they mix that production with their “real” lives, and the various forms of gratification they receive from the work that they do. In short: how do you do what you do, and why do you do it? Talking about the realities of labor isn’t narcissistic, per se. It’s political, it’s progressive, it’s feminist. It’s also totally fascinating.

This week I talked to Linda Holmes, editor of Monkey See, NPR’s pop culture blog. Feel free to pose additional questions in the comments.

Let’s start big picture. How has your job changed over the last decade? What’s now in your job description that never would’ve been ten years ago?

There are some helpful, flexible media skills that I’ve developed, with the increasing and valuable help of outstanding support. When I started this job in 2008 — and I think this surprises everyone except people who were blogging in large organizations at that time — I touched the code a great deal, to put in and size photos and stuff, and that was only five years ago. I never touch code now, ever, but I can do a lot more with photos and video. The tech teams here have worked like crazy to come up with systems that mortals can use easily, and they’re very, very good at it. So on the one hand, I do more myself, but on the other hand, I rely on other super-talented people to make it possible and easy for me to do my own production.

And social, of course. I mean, social media is your life if you do this kind of work. Social media is what makes you self-sufficient. The better established you are in social media, the less you have to ask other people to help you promote things, which in a large organization with lots of great content to promote, is an amazing and liberating thing. There are times when there’s not really a news-based urgency to something I’ve written, or when I’ve written something particularly weird, when I don’t really hit anybody up for promotion of a piece until I see how it does on Twitter. That helps me prioritize what to ask our editors to promote on the homepage or to the (huge) Facebook feed, or whatever. Because if it’s too weird for my Twitter feed, it’s probably too weird for the homepage.

As the editor of a blog, what’s your role in managing its voice and “brand”? How much time do you spend with each piece that’s not your own?

I try not to be too touchy about the branding of the blog itself, because I do want there to be room for lots of kinds of voices, including and especially ones that don’t sound like me. As long as the voice remains accessible, I leave a huge amount of room, or I try to. As for other people’s stuff, there are pieces that come in that I spend many hours editing, and then there are posts — I had one by our intern Christina Cauterucci recently about the movie Hocus Pocus that was like this — that I barely touch at all, that go almost straight from the other person’s draft to the site. That piece basically went up exactly as Christina gave it to me, so you can imagine what a kick it was to receive it. Mostly, the best thing I can do for branding is to write the stuff I feel strongly about and support the writing of other people I think are great, and to keep an eye out for my own blind spots and try to address them.

Expanding that point, what does a “normal” work day look like for you?

I do a TON of reading of other people’s work, and I usually start that day with some of that. Read a lot, see whether there’s anything newsy I want to cover, and bang out anything that I wrote in my head in the car. (I have a long commute now, and it’s not unusual for me to arrive at work with most of a piece roughed out in my head that I thought of in the shower. I wrote a thing about getting old recently that was made exactly that way.) The rest of the day varies enormously based on what I’m working on, what I’m editing, what’s happening with the podcast and special projects and so forth. Off and on through the day, people stop by and chat with me at my desk, and I usually take at least a few minutes to get up and go have a stimulating conversation with somebody I like. (That might not be work. That’s just because I have a lot of friends here who are hard to resist socializing with.) I have a very hard schedule to pin down. I’m not particularly good at imposing structure on myself; that’s something I’m working on. I’m very improvisational, probably to a fault.

I do make time during the day to catch up on TV sometimes, which is very lucky. Not everybody has the freedom to do that on the clock, but I certainly have the freedom to do some of it, so that keeping up doesn’t devour my whole life.

And in the evenings, I’m sort of absorbing stuff on background. TV, Twitter, all that. I’m always kind of swimming in the same world I work in, except when I’m specifically out with people, socializing. I try to shut it off, but it’s hard.

I empathize with that idea so completely — I find myself grateful for situations that force me to turn off entirely, whether that’s dinner out with a friend or a weekend in the woods. Otherwise, I just find it so hard to force the off switch.

So what about the podcast? Podcasting is a lot harder than it looks — especially good podcasting. What kind of planning and preparation goes into each episode?

Well, we’ve been very lucky, because we got to mostly wave our hands at some very smart audio people, especially our original producer Mike Katzif, and say, “We’ll talk and you push buttons and fix it up.” We were almost that ignorant, originally. Like when we first did it, I went around the table and introduced everyone, because I was too dumb to realize people needed to introduce themselves so that the audience could figure out who was who. I mean, that’s Radio 101. Not even. It’s Radio 1.01. But we were all writers, really. So we lucked out HUGE, because we’ve always been able to borrow wisdom and production from actual producers, and we got to worry about the conversation and the tone and the chemistry. It’s no lie that people at NPR — and people in radio generally — love sound, and if you want to do any sound-based project, no matter how seemingly low-tech, they will do it more lovingly than anyone.

Now, we start talking about topics in the middle of the week for the following week. Sometimes that’s easy, sometimes it’s tough, sometimes we have to line up subs if somebody’s out, and sometimes it relies in part on whether we have time to do “homework,” like see a movie. We typically nail down the topics by Friday, and then we tape on Monday. We aim for one sort of newsy topic and then one that’s more general, or more of a special thing like a quiz. I write all the quizzes, so those are some work. I do a fair amount of prep, I write the introduction, we all bring notes, and then we tape for about an hour for a show that usually comes in around 45 minutes. And the producers go to work on it: they cut it, they clean it up, they add clips, all that. Later, we make time to listen to a draft of the show when it’s ready to make sure there’s nothing we want to ask to have clipped out or changed, the production folks encode the audio, it goes out over the podcast feed, and I write the blog post. That all happens between late Monday and early Friday. It really is a lot of work, and we don’t even do the audio production. And the goal is to make it feel like you walked into a conversation that’s as spontaneous as possible. Which, in fairness, is also partly true — the folks who are on the show are all people I would sit around and talk to anyway, and that includes every guest we’ve ever had.

As I said above, you’re one of my favorite presences on Twitter. How do you conceive of its presence in your job, and is that any different than your “life”?

That’s really kind. Yeah, those lines are very, very sloppy. I mean, my Twitter account is pretty clearly personal to me (it’s not like somebody else tweets from it when I take a vacation), and I feel free to be like, “I’m having wine. I’m cold. I’m traveling.” It’s really important for my job to be active in social media, but that’s not exactly doing my job. It’s kind of staying conditioned for my job.

I’ve said a bunch of times that the best thing about the kind of job I have is that I’m always partially doing what I enjoy, even when I’m working, and the worst thing is that I’m always partially working, even when I’m doing what I enjoy. I think at some point, you just kind of get to the point where you’re at peace with that fact, and as long as you’re happy and you’re not burning yourself out, you’d be a fool not to realize that it’s a very fortunate way to live.

You’re always so gracious when it comes to talking with us plebes, too. How do conversations with others, whether colleagues or fans, fit into the way you value Twitter?

The best thing about the kind of job I have is that I’m always partially doing what I enjoy, even when I’m working, and the worst thing is that I’m always partially working, even when I’m doing what I enjoy.

Well, that’s crazy to me, because I see myself less as gracious with plebes and more as preposterously fortunate to sit around having people be, for the most part, really nice to me, which most people don’t experience for just working at their jobs. I mean, I’m doing what a lot of other people are doing: I’m working earnestly away at something I find really rewarding and very much want to be good at, and the fact that people — like, random strangers — want to participate in conversations with me where they’re usually really thoughtful and pleasant, I mean… that’s certainly nothing that requires graciousness on my part.

As for colleagues, the other writers I know on Twitter have been absolutely key to sort of integrating me into kind of my (in horrible business-speak) horizontal community, I guess. My vertical community is NPR, where I know people who do radio, who do marketing, who do programming, who do music, news, all kinds of stuff. My horizontal community is everybody in a given week who can imagine writing a serious review of a piece of popular culture. And then maybe my third dimension is the readers and listeners. This theory is not fully cooked, I admit.

I had a comment on the blog one time where somebody said, “I can’t believe someone gets paid to write this blog.” Which obviously, you know, I knew how he meant it, but my comment back to him was, “I KNOW, RIGHT?”

Is there any such thing as “life/work balance” when you’re a pop culture critic?
For me there is, up to a point. The closest I can come to work/life balance rules for myself: be a happy person, make some time for other things, don’t burn out, don’t sit and look at your phone during conversations with people you’re close to.

How do you deal with the assumption that your job is easy or silly? I feel like this is particularly pertinent given the assumption that your job is proportionally funded by taxpayer dollars.
Well, I think there are a lot of people who care deeply about art — especially about NPR’s long tradition of caring in a really thoughtful way about art and books and music, which predates me by decades — who get a little jumpy about pop culture coverage, particularly with an element of humor, because to some people, that means “let’s all talk about actresses who look fat and celebrity divorces.” So all you can do is build trust, over time, and prove to people that you’re not just mucking around for the sake of mucking around. I mean, the broader world of pop culture coverage has brought some of this on itself, and the many people who aspire to do it in a smart way have had to be a little bit patient about letting that perception fade. Ultimately, you have to rest on your work and hope it’s enough. There are certainly some people who will always see what I do as easy/silly/whatever simply because of what it is, and while I still have a million things to learn, I have pretty much learned to let people stomp around being (in my opinion) stubbornly wrong about what I do without gnashing my teeth over it. A lot of it comes from love: love of NPR, love of art, love of public media generally. I strain not to take it personally.

Apart from monetary compensation, what makes all the internetting and behind-the-scenes labor worthwhile? Why, in other words, do you do what you do?

It’s terrible that I don’t have an answer that’s more sophisticated than this, but I love my job, and I love where I’m doing it. I really do. NPR has been really great about letting me be sort of funny and weird and also just turn into a big firehose of sincerity when it’s that kind of day, and they don’t seem to squint at that at all. I’m at the point where I have a ton of freedom, and I talk to really cool and fun people all day, and I work on a great team of folks who work in arts on the digital side. And I love the fact that I get up from my desk and walk ten feet and run into people who are just intimidatingly, toweringly smart — not just our hosts and reporters, but producers and librarians and editors and designers — and interns, who will one day own us all. Put me around smartypants, wonderful people and give me a lot of freedom, and that’s my ideal day.

Previously: An Interview with The Fug Girls

Photo via seattlemunicipalarchives/flickr.

Anne Helen Petersen is a Doctor of Celebrity Gossip. No, really. You can find evidence (and other writings) here, and you can read the Scandals of Classic Hollywood series here.