An Interview with Sarah Abdurrahman

Sarah Abdurrahman - The Nod

Sarah Abdurrahman is Senior Producer of The Nod from Gimlet Media. Before joining Gimlet, Sarah was a producer with WNYC’s On the Media. She is the recipient of a Gracie Award, a Front Page Award, and was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists. We caught up with her in Long Island City, where she told us about her journey from WBUR newsroom intern to podcast showrunner.

Steinert-Evoy: One reason I wanted to talk to you is because you’ve had such a range of experience. Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get involved at WBUR and why radio? 

Abdurrahman: As an undergrad I studied radio, television, and film. I thought I was going to be a filmmaker. Then I got more into photography, and in grad school I took Media Studies. My first job out of grad school was actually working as a photographer. But when I moved to Boston, I couldn’t find any photography work. In school, I always really enjoyed audio production. I thought maybe I could focus on that; so, I started in an internship in the newsroom at WBUR. And while there, I started talking to people at On Point. When my newsroom internship ended — it was kind of funny — I started an internship at On Point but then started freelancing in the newsroom. And this whole time I was working at a café.

Steinert-Evoy: People don’t talk always about that, their day jobs, their café gigs; but everyone does it.

Abdurrahman: Yeah! That was my life for a while. But it was getting to the point where if I didn’t get a full-time job soon, I wasn’t going to be able to keep doing audio. That’s an unfortunate thing: if you’re not able to do unpaid work, you’re just not going to be in the industry. And that’s why you don’t see a lot of people of color. That’s why you don’t see a ton of people of diverse backgrounds working in audio. It’s hard. I would go open the cafe, work a shift, then go to the radio station. Or sometimes I would do the opposite, like when I was working the Morning Edition shift. I’d have to go at like two or three in the morning, finish that shift at noon, go to the café, close it and then just go back to sleep. And that was the life! It prepares you for a high stress environment, for sure.

But yeah, I was freelancing in the newsroom and interning at On Point. And when the internship ended I started doing freelance work for both of them. Some months later, I started as a temp at On the Media. I was a temp for six months and then I started working there. I was there for about five years.

Steinert-Evoy: As a producer and reporter for On the Media, you often reported on other people’s stories, but one of your most powerful pieces is actually your own story. Can you talk about working on “My Detainment Story or: How I Learned to Stop Feeling Safe in My Own Country and Hate Border Agents,” and how it was different from the other projects you had worked on?

Abdurrahman: I felt very empowered by the fact that I was in a position where I could report that. It was very unfair for the people who this happens to everyday, and they don’t have a platform. When these [border agents] were messing with us, they had no idea that I was a journalist. They had no idea that I could go and report on this whole thing. They treated us like crap. Most people will be treated like crap, but they have absolutely nothing they can do about it. I remember going back to work the day after I got back. My old boss used to call me unflappable; that was my description. I am a very low-anxiety person. Working in a high-stress environment never phased me, and they looked at my face and were like, “What happened to you?” They could tell. And I wasn’t even going to say anything about it.

I think it’s important to do what’s close to you, to do what you know, because that’s what people want to know about, even if it’s obvious to you. When stuff like this happens to you on a regular basis, you don’t think it’s newsworthy. You don’t think it’s something you need to talk about, but when you see the outrage on other people’s faces, you think, “Oh, let me go explore this.”

Iremember one time, while we were working at On the Media, I was talking to PJ Vogt, and he was working on this story on a guy who had been the subject of FBI surveillance, and PJ said, “The guy was so chill about it. It was so weird.” And I said, “Well yeah, when it happens to you all the time you don’t really pay attention. The FBI came to my house the other day, just asking to talk.” PJ was like, “What? Why didn’t you say anything?” And I said, “Because. If you’re a Muslim person in this country, people are surveilling you; people are trying to talk to you; they’re trying to get information out of you. It’s normal; so, you don’t even think you need to tell people about it.”

That’s why it’s so important for people who are historically underrepresented in the media to be in the media, because these things that are so obvious to them, and so a part of their everyday; if other people knew about it, they’d be outraged, even if you’re not outraged on your own behalf. That’s how you function in life. You train yourself not to be outraged. It was interesting working on that story. They were shutting me down at every turn when I was trying to reach out to Customs and Border Protection and the Department of Homeland Security. I wondered if they would have shut me down in the same way if I hadn’t also actually had that experience. If I was just a reporter.

One of the most tense moments of tape in that is when I’m talking to this press officer, and he just keeps giving these non-answers, “I’m gonna have to get back to you on that. I’m gonna have to get back to you on that.” On the one hand it’s frustrating, because you’re not getting any answers. But on the other hand, that’s one of those places where audio really helped more than if it was in print, because hearing his silences is so telling. I think that made a really powerful moment.

Steinert-Evoy: I listened a piece you reported from Libya, and it seems you travelled a lot when you were working for WNYC. What was that like?

Abdurrahman: It was really like being in a master class. Going on a one-week recording trip with Brooke [Gladstone], you just learn so much about field reporting, about editing, about approaching stories, about approaching interviews. It was amazing. Then you also learn the logistics of field reporting, of finding a local stringer, and of setting up interviews in a country where you don’t know anyone. Safety. Lots of times you were going into places that were a little bit chaotic. When we went to Cairo, I was really scared of getting shot, or being in a place where a bomb went off, and Brooke wasn’t scared of that at all. But she was terrified of crossing the street, and I wasn’t scared of that at all. One time I went to Libya on my own, but they were very open to me reporting a story from there, so I was able to stay a few more weeks and do my own personal story after the revolution there. In that five years, I gained so much experience and so much knowledge. It was just great.

Steinert-Evoy: Now that you’re the senior producer on a podcast, how is your work different? Has your role changed?

Abdurrahman: On the spectrum of creative to more logistical types, I consider myself to be on the…well, I don’t want to say less creative, but I know I’m on the side of meeting deadlines and pushing people to be pragmatic. So I think while I do hope to do more reporting one day — that’s not something I consider done — in my current role I feel like all these skill sets merged into one another.  It’s actually one of the reasons I was more interested in doing audio than TV or film. In those fields everybody does a very isolated task. When you work in audio production, you can wear a lot of hats.

Steinert-Evoy: You’re expected to wear a lot of hats. You have to be able to know how to edit and report. But we still have these titles: editors, reporters, and producers. Could you talk about the differences you see?

Abdurrahman: It’s so hard to say. Even within Gimlet, it varies by show. So outside of that, I can’t even imagine how much variation there is. I’m sure there are hosts out there who have never opened ProTools and who have never opened a script. And then I’m sure there are hosts out there that are in every part of the process from top to bottom. On The Nod, our hosts are also producers. They might not produce at the same time commitment as other producers because they have other duties — they have to record ads and do live events, and they have to host the show — but they do a significant chunk of our production work. They can pull tape and make assemblies and write scripts, which is great. It’s like having two other whole producers on the team. But I have no idea what the standard is. Which is part of the thing: there is no standard.

Steinert-Evoy: How would you describe your role?

Abdurrahman: For me, it’s being a showrunner.

Steinert-Evoy: I’ve never heard that term used in audio, only in TV.

Abdurrahman: I haven’t either, but I started using it recently to describe myself because I am making sure the show is running. I have to tell myself that because so often I just want to sit down, open ProTools, and start cutting things. But it’s not a good use of my time at this point. I still do that, but I can’t be doing that all the time. In order to keep a weekly show running, it takes a lot of planning, a lot of staring at a calendar. You have to figure out the balance between people having enough time to do good work, but not having so much time that they waste it. Also, part of maintaining a schedule is making sure we all have a life. The Nod takes a lot of pride in the fact that we all get to go home at night.

Steinert-Evoy: With The Nod, you’ve found a way to make a show that consists of two hosts talking, but that also includes highly produced pieces, which is great because you feel like you know the hosts.

Abdurrahman: We try, you know, because they’re so great. On top of that, Brittany [Luse] and Eric [Eddings] used to run their own independent podcast called For Colored Nerds. And part of what was so great about that, and why Alex Blumberg first approached them, was that their friendship and their dynamic is so wonderful. People always say, “Oh my God, you guys sound like friends.” And it’s like, yeah, they are. They went to college together. They actually are best friends. You can’t really fake that. And they’re both so game to mess with each other and be funny, and at the same time be so smart. I feel very lucky to be on the same team.

Steinert-Evoy: It’s definitely a show where you can tell everybody working on it is excited to be there. As a last question, do you have any advice for people trying to break into the industry?

Abdurrahman: Quality is always going to rise to the top. You don’t have to worry that you’re going to be overlooked. There are a lot of people around, sure. But if you’re somebody who is good to work with, the world is small enough that people will start to know. So I think the thing is to focus on your work and how to be stronger in your work. Obviously, that doesn’t mean be a hermit. But the networking side of it is not going to get you a job. Just focus on the work. That’s really the only thing that’s going to make a difference.

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Sophia Steinert-Evoy is Podcast Review’s interviews editor, and she also works on The Organist podcast from KCRW and Citations NeededShe is based in Brooklyn, NY.