This is the story of a recent college grad who landed her dream job. It's also a story about how that grad -- Megan Tan, who is now 25 -- became something of a case study herself by effectively inventing her own future. There is a third wrinkle in these details: How in a percolating media landscape the millennial generation is creating a new commercial space for the relatively new form of journalism we know as podcasts.
After graduating from Western Kentucky State in 2014, Tan came face to face with the classic and vexing question a million college seniors this year will face upon graduation: What was she going to do with her life?
Instead of turning to Linkedin, Tan figured the place to start would be to showcase her skills to potential employers. She was a photo journalism major, and she had served as an intern at WNYC's highly regarded Radiolab. The logical move would be to showcase her recently acquired professional skills.
“I wanted to do radio, so I just realized that in order to show people that you can do something, you have to prove it,” says Tan. “So I was making a portfolio essentially, and I thought that could speak louder than anything else.”
So I just realized that in order to show people that you can do something, you have to prove it.
Tan's idea was to produce her own podcast, and submit it to iTunes to demonstrate for prospective employers that she had the level of audio chops required for a paid full-time job in the real world.
But a funny thing happened to Tan as soon as she hit iTunes. Before she could showcase her talents to a skeptical radio world, her podcast began to take off. Called Millennial, Tan's podcast was an immediate hit.
Through social media and word of mouth, Millennial quickly amassed a loyal following. Soon, big-name traditional media outlets were giving Millennial rave reviews: The Guardian called Millennial “insightful,” and Tan “more likable than anyone in Girls”; The Atlantic rated Millennial 15th on it’s list of “The 50 Best Podcasts of 2015”.
Tan drew her material from the day-to-day struggles of her young-adult life. Or, as she describes it, “what people never teach you, how to maneuver your 20s.” Each episode is about 30 minutes long, and is produced in the closet of Tan’s apartment in Kittery, Maine. “Closets work really well, actually,” explains Tan. "Just add a few pillows to control the sound."
An Ohio native, Tan's audio manner is matter of fact, fortified with an appealing -- and approachable -- sense of authority. She's the friend who doesn't know it all, but is sufficiently savvy to know how to synthesize her own ups and downs into a reasonably actionable personal battle plan.
Success caught Tan off guard. “There are over 300,000 podcasts out there, so the expectations for it to actually do well were really small, it didn’t even cross my mind that it would do well,” says Tan. “I thought it was just a place for me to say, this is what I want to do.”
The ordinariness of Tan's subject matter is the key to its appeal: How to discuss finances with your boyfriend, How to digest advice about buying a used car, How to network for your career. How to do this. How to do that. Deceptively simple. The art, of course, is in the telling.
How easily is it for other other young journalists to replicate Tan's success? Possible, but not probable.
Right now, the podcast industry is experiencing more than a blip in popularity. Podcasts are quickly becoming one of the most popular forms of audio entertainment. An Edison Research study found that 36 percent of Americans (or about 98 million people) have listened to a podcast; up from only 11 percent in 2006.
Kerri Hoffman is the CEO of the Public Radio Exchange (PRX), an online marketplace for the distribution of public radio programming and of top podcasts such as This American Life and The Moth Radio Hour. According to Hoffman, the fundamentals and the data indicate that podcasting is poised for long-term growth.
“On a number of levels, we’re seeing more money shift in terms of broadcasting: a real influx in producers, more content and podcast training, and a lot of attention from advertisers,” says Hoffman.
Millennials make up the largest group of podcast listeners, and they’re eager for binge-worthy content that they can listen to whenever they like.
“Today there are about 2 billion smartphones in the world -- essentially radios in everyone’s pocket,” says Hoffman. “Companies like Netflix, Youtube and Spotify have taught consumers that everything should be available on demand. Young people especially want to be curators of their own experience.”
The industry is ripe for entrepreneurs to enter, but with hundreds of thousands of podcasts now available on iTunes and Soundcloud, Hoffman says it's not easy to produce a profitable podcast.
“Today’s podcasters, if they’re trying to make it on their own, they have to have a whole variety of skills: marketing, fundraising, social media, and business – not to mention they have to be excellent audio sound engineers, and they have to have a unique story to tell.”
Tan’s skill set mirrors Hoffman's checklist. But more importantly, she has a voice and story line that resonates with her audience. As a result, Tan was able to transform her avocation into her vocation.
Now, producing Millennial is Tan’s full-time job; her brief stint as a Portland waitress is over. But once Millennial achieved traction, Tan felt like she owed it to herself to commit. “I felt like if I didn't nurture the opportunities, they would pass me by. So at this point it feels like, buy the ticket take the ride," says Tan.
I felt like if I didn’t nurture the opportunities, they would pass me by. So at this point it feels like, buy the ticket take the ride.
Authenticity is the key to Millennial's success. Tan supplies raw narration to the trials and errors of young adulthood in a warm and reassuring tone that many find relatable: "I feel like so much of what Megan Tan touches on in her stories are relatable to me," reads one iTunes review. "Brave voice that can make folks in their 20s know they are actually doing OK, as well as some of us older folks who go through life transitions," reads another.
Without years of experience, the support of a network, or expensive audio equipment, Tan effectively made a career for herself as a long-form documentary journalist. Clearly the talent was there, but Tan dared to be lucky.