Millennial Podcast and the Vulnerability of Cultural Workers

Millennial is an amazing podcast that besides being heartfelt and entertaining, clearly shows the vulnerability of the cultural workers from the experience of her host and sometimes others’ stories that she shares with her listeners. Dr. Amanda Coles highlights in her lecture Cultural Work and Cultural Workers (May 2016, University of Melbourne) the constant exploitation of students in internships and fellowships, self-exploitation by working excessive hours or demanding too much, the loss of some benefits like health insurance and pension, income insecurity, socialising as part of getting a job and unhealthy states of mind that derive from these situations. The following post will show Millennial’s process, drawing attention to the ‘unglamorous’ side of the so often considered ‘cool’ creative labour.

Megan Tan was born and raised in the United States, she considers herself –in her own invented terms– a ‘whingaporean‘ (white and Singaporean.) She graduated recently from Photojournalism and Spanish from the Western Kentucky University and decided to start a podcast on what nobody tells you about how to manoeuvre your twenties. She identifies herself as a millennial and she discovered her passion for radio storytelling while she was at uni.

It could be said that her podcast began as a ‘do-it-yourself’ initiative to demonstrate her abilities as a radio producer with the aim of getting a ‘professional’ job in the future, or as she romantically puts it “to be paid to do something that I love.” Megan Tan literally started her project working from her closet in Portland, Maine (US) and after a year and a half, she finally got where she wants to be, professionally, for now.

SPOILER ALERT – What follows will summarise what happens in Megan Tan’s life and her podcast. (I know it is long but it is completely necessary to make my point, besides, I am sure it won’t be boring as you will feel completely related with some –if not most– of the situations.)

The podcast begins when Megan finishes college and moves back home (as 85% of graduates do, according to her research.) During the first week of ‘being back,’ she realised home wasn’t the same and moved in with her boyfriend Ben, an independent video producer. Although every episode of the podcast has a theme, it is still very personal, recording conversations with friends and family, sharing experiences and confessing fears. Through the 18-episode millennial journey Megan works two jobs in hospitality and retail to pay her bills, commits to her podcast and listeners, rejects a professional job in L.A. because she does not want to do news or move across the country, shares that she is afraid of getting ‘stuck’ as a waitress, travels to NYC to meet with colleagues in the radio world who might help with a job and discusses anger and resentment over her partner’s successes. She eventually gets emails offering sponsorship for Millennial and struggles figuring out how much her work is worth, applies to a well-known highly competitive radio fellowship and compares it with The Hunger Games, is selected as a finalist for the fellowship and travels to New York to compete with other 6 people; Megan is rejected for the fellowship, cries, gets obsessed with trying to understand what went wrong and takes time to get over it.

While she gets over it, Megan travels with her boyfriend to Mexico to help him with a documentary and discusses what it means to ‘grow up,’ gets a call back from a professional job application in a local radio station, after the interview she is unsure if she fits the company, she gets the job and shares the excitement of having a real job for the first time with a team and benefits like health insurance. Later she gets interviewed about her podcast (for another podcast), talks about the meaning of marriage, makes an episode about a long-distance relationship love story between two women while discussing students’ debt, talks about the political climate, racism, and cultural assimilation in Lewiston, Maine. Megan also buys a second hand Prius with her savings destined for something else and asks for her first loan (of USD$2.000), she shares how exhausted she is for working crazy hours to get Millennial done while working full-time, discovers that her professional full-time job does not make her feel the same way Millennial does,  finds out that Millennial was ranked number 14 in the Best Podcasts of 2015 by The Atlantic and feels like quitting. Megan fears what this resignation might mean for her future career but decides to quit her professional full-time job, cries again, commits to making Millennial her full-time job and celebrates her ‘move out of the system.’

Then Megan registers Millennial as a business, contacts an accountant, gets her own health insurance, increases her productivity to have more sponsorship spots, which equal a steady income, but feels  guilty for not meeting her own new deadlines and while being her own boss, she feels like she is working more than ever. Megan talks about her loneliness, the need and importance of a team as part of the job but the impossibility of paying a decent salary. After a year and a half, Megan feels that she has a solid project, pitches Millennial to several radio stations with relevant quantitative information about the success of her podcast and gets interested replies, only to realise how her project could change by executive decisions, doubting the power that she’d have over Millennial. Finally, Radiotopia (an independent network with the aim of reshaping public radio, which supports independent podcasts producers) contacted Megan Tan to support Millennial and make them part of their network as they are. 

At this point this sounds like a modern Cinderella story where the perfect and dreamed stakeholder noticed Millennial and gave Megan the support that she deserves, promising to love her and her project as they are. It could be said that Megan found herself in a situation similar to the talent manager that discovers the indie band in a trashy gig or the actress waitressing at a restaurant, a story that has been strangely romanticised (which Hollywood have made sure that is part of our collective memory.) But what needs to be acknowledged is that Megan was actually working when creating her podcast, that if she were working in a different industry she wouldn’t have had the need of proving to the world what she was capable of, she would have been paid from day one and she would have saved a lot of economic and personal distress. (To make the point clearer please watch this amazing  two min video campaign related to issues in the advertisement industry.)

The development of Millennial and the honesty of Megan Tan will continue to shape the perspective of entrepreneurial individuals and cultural workers of this generation and will continue to shape Megan’s dreams, her personal and professional path.

David Hesmondhalgh and Sarah Baker study the experiences of the cultural workers in three different categories:

  1. Pay, working hours and unions
  2. Insecurity and uncertainty
  3. Socialising, networking and isolation

They discuss abuse of junior workers and their dehumanisation in an environment where everyone is replaceable, aspirations and expectations that often lead to blame and disappointment, working excessive hours and completing tasks out of stipulated responsibilities and the idea that working in the arts and cultural sector is not ‘real work.’ They argue that the ‘do what you love’ model leads to self-exploitation and the motivations for working in such conditions are usually non-monetary rewards like autonomy, community and recognition. Hesmondhalgh and Baker discuss freelance work, unions and their association to trouble; the struggles of negotiating a fair pay when desperately needing a job, socialising after work hours as part of keeping their network alive and exclusion for missing social events. They perfectly describe the difficulties of reaching a work-life balance and establishing personal relations and/or a family when consumed by work or isolated as a freelancer. Finally, they question the language used in creative industries policies, claiming the need for a deeper look at their socio-economic consequences in the sector. Out of this list, here is almost nothing that Megan –as many other cultural workers including myself– have not experienced.

After listening to every episode of Millennial and reading Do What You Love and Other Lies About Success and Happiness, I dare to say that millennials (or generation Y/people born between 1980 and mid-90s) are just doing what can be done with a ‘Do What You Love’ brainwash in the current economically, politically, socially and environmentally unsustainable world still ruled by extreme capitalism overseen by previous generations and powerful individuals with only money in their minds. Nevertheless, the tide is changing and I would dare to say that the DWYL model and its painful consequences have also helped to move away from monetary rewards for money’s sake and to look for value in other dimensions more appropriate for life.

 

I hope this post makes you listen to Millennial (because you would fall in love with audio storytelling) or read Do What You Love and Other Lies About Success and Happiness (because it is an amazing read that everyone should do,) or bothBut I am happy if it just gave you a different perspective, made you think of stuff you haven’t thought about, or made you click that ‘follow’ button in the bottom right corner of this page. I promise next entries won’t be as long.

Image downloaded from Radiotopia’s publicly available Press Kit.

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