Q&A with Joanna Kakissis, NPR correspondent

Joanna Kakissis is a journalist based in Athens, Greece. She covers Greece and Cyprus for NPR, and she has written for Time magazine, Foreign Policy and The New York Times. She has also worked as a reporter for The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C. In this interview, conducted by email, Kakissis talks about working as a freelancer and making a transition from newspapers to radio.

Q. Describe your job with NPR. What is your typical workday like?

A. I’m a freelancer, but I cover Greece and Cyprus for the network. The best way to describe the job is a super-stringer.

My typical workday begins in the morning, when I scan the news for developments. I usually do one or two “spots” (short 40-second news shorts) and also write a short daily advisory to the editors in Washington. Then I spend the rest of the day working features, unless, of course, there’s breaking news. I try to do at least one feature a week.

Q. Before going into radio, you were a reporter at The News & Observer. What was that transition like?

A. The transition was difficult because I taught myself radio.

I’m a much better writer than talker, so writing conversationally — and for a voice that I’d never tested for public consumption — was a challenge at first. I had a hard time learning to write in and out of tape (actualities and ambience) and using ambience that was compelling rather than audio window dressing.

Also, aurally illustrating economic stories is a real challenge. It’s much, much easier to write compelling stories from war or conflict zones because the drama is so immediate and vivid.

But in Greece, it was all about anti-austerity protests, which, after a while, all sounded the same. I mean, I could write a protest story even before the protest happened. Protests here are that predictable.

That’s not to say people in Greece aren’t suffering. Post-austerity Greece is a very depressing place.

But how can you illustrate that honestly, without veering into what one colleague here calls “crisis pornography,” or the blanket depiction of Greeks as hungry victims fighting for free potatoes at food handouts. People here are indeed very stressed about making ends meet — the unemployment rate here is nearly 28 percent, higher than during the U.S. Great Depression — but you have to show nuance and universality, not just “exotification” of the poor (to steal a line from one of my favorite journalists, Katherine Boo.)

Finally, just explaining the eurozone/IMF bailouts themselves was (and still is) a challenge. How do you make a compelling story out of jargon like loan haircuts, and how do you explain this to your audience without boring them and yourself?

The Planet Money team, a joint production of NPR and This American Life, are true pros at translating economic jargon into beautiful, funny, lucid storytelling. I used their scripts to try to teach myself to write shorter, funnier and more conversationally about macroeconomic developments. They are the gold standard.

Another reason the transition has been hard is that I’ve always enjoyed letting my story speak for itself and hiding behind my byline. It seems based on my entirely unscientific survey that many print journalists who transition well to radio are extroverts with big, driving personalities.

Having said all this, I do think radio has improved my writing for print. My style is more spare and lucid, with vivid verbs and concrete descriptions.

Q. You’ve also worked as freelance reporter in Europe for The New York Times and Time magazine, among other publications. What is the editor-writer relationship like in that situation as opposed to working together in the same newsroom?

A. When you’re a freelancer, you have to pitch stories that big outlets like the NYT and Time may not take on the first try. You’ve got to build relationships with editors by crafting pitches that are deeply reported, original and compelling.

Even so, if the story is hot, like Greece was for a while, you will get hordes of staffers coming here wanting to do the stories themselves. You’re never an equal partner because you’re a freelancer, and you just have to accept that.

Having said that, I enjoyed writing for Time and found that the editors and staff writers there treated me with respect. I did very little work for the NYT in Greece (a friend of mine, Niki Kitsantonis, is the stringer here) but my few experiences there were very good too, especially when I worked on a story about Bangladesh that the international edition of the NYT splashed on their front page. 🙂

Q. Many of my students are NPR listeners and readers, and some have been interns there. What advice do you have to student journalists who want to do what you do?

A. If you want to be a foreign correspondent, get a Fulbright and travel to the places you most want to learn about. Write for every outlet you can think of, even if they pay very little (which most of them do).

The world of foreign correspondence is increasingly becoming a place for people with elite backgrounds, but that shouldn’t stop you from making a go at it if you’re just a regular kid without a financial safety net. If you can’t afford to spend two weeks reporting and writing a story that will pay you something like $150, then get a grant (like a Fulbright or a Pulitzer grant) to support you.

Learn a language in high school and/or college — Spanish, Arabic, Farsi, French, anything! Read up on the history, culture, and literature of the place you want to base yourself.

Open your mind and your heart and use your young brain as a sponge to take it all in. Be a critical thinker and step out of your safety zone.

If you want to learn radio, I highly recommend attending a course, which I never did. One of my favorite reporters at NPR, East Africa correspondent Gregory Warner, an absolute master at fresh, counterintuitive and deeply moving narrative radio storytelling, attended the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine. There are other courses too, and also great online resources like Transom and the Public Radio Exchange (PRX).

In the meantime, listen to radio stories. Listen for structure, audio scenes, and the universal theme behind the story.

NPR is a great source of great radio storytelling, of course, but so is PRI’s The World (especially the work of the great Rhitu Chatterjee, who also did a stint on NPR’s science desk, as well as Monica Campell and Marine Olivesi). Marketplace is brilliant at condensing complicated economic news into punchy, informative stories. And This American Life (Nancy Updike, whoa!) and Radiolab are the gold standard of long-form radio.