Crafting a Career in Journalism: Print, Online & Radio

Visit with Elizabeth and other alumni in Washington, D.C.

For Elizabeth McMahon '96, journalism has combined many passions: writing, vocal performance, and learning. Her master's degree in journalism focused on broadcasting.

As a radio producer, what do you do?

I pitch ideas I’d like to see on the show to the host Kojo Nnamdi, and I find the right people to talk about the show’s topic. Then I write the script. For an hour show, that would be a good ten pages of questions and answers. The great thing about this show is that anything is fair game as long as it's really interesting to talk about.

What happens when the show broadcasts?

Elizabeth
After writing wire copy for Radio Free Europe and reporting for the Wall Street Journal, she returned to American University in 2006, not as a student this time, but as a radio producer for the Kojo Nnamdi Show at NPR affiliate WAMU 88.5 FM in Washington, D.C.

It’s a funny job, because you spend all this intellectual time diving in, whether it’s science or music. Then on the day of the show, you welcome the guests, make sure they're comfortable and set them up with microphones. When the show starts, I sit in the control room and monitor the feedback we're getting from our listeners, whether it's emails or phone calls. Our audience tends to be pretty verbal.

How did you explore journalism as an undergrad? You had considered a few other career options, including vocal performance and psychology.

Most undergrads know how important internships are. Even though Illinois Wesleyan did not have a journalism major, I knew that I had to get experience outside of the Argus. So I interned at the local news/talk radio station in Champaign, IL., my hometown. I also had the unique benefit of growing up with a journalist in the family. My mother was a long time reporter for the Champaign-Urbana News Gazette.

I took advantage of the Washington Semester Program at Illinois Wesleyan, which sent me to American University in Washington, D.C. for a semester focusing on journalism. At American, I got my first real taste of the broadcast world through an internship at a weekly children's television show. Once I was back at Wesleyan for my senior year, I knew I wanted to pursue a career in broadcast journalism, so I applied to Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. Attending Medill ultimately sent me on a trajectory overseas.

Elizabeth had an internship at a TV station during her Washington Semester Program.

Where did you work after graduate school?

I started my journalism career in 1997 in the Czech Republic writing wire copy for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. We wrote news about what was going on in former Soviet bloc countries and Russia. I also spent a year writing for Prague's English weekly, The Prague Post.

After I left Prague in 1999, I came to New York City and joined the Wall Street Journal. They brought me in to incorporate more visual elements, charts, and graphs to the paper. I also did my own reporting and writing for the Journal, and then became a full-time reporter and writer for WSJ.com.

I married my husband in 2001 and then transitioned to Washington, D.C.

"Whether it's blogging or establishing yourself as a voice on social media -- perhaps you're compelling podcaster or a witty Tweeter -- people will take note of how you're doing it and whether you're attracting an audience."

Looking back, what are some highlights of your career?

When I was working at the Wall Street Journal, our building was located across from the World Trade Center. After the 9/11 attacks in 2001 the Journal was blown out of its offices. We all came together and produced a paper which then won the Pulitzer prize several months later. So that was a highlight--a scary highlight--of my journalism career.

Any advice for someone who's considering journalism?

Requirement #1 for journalism is that you have to love to learn, because journalism is all about learning.

But also you need to just get to work. There are so many examples of wonderful journalists who started in the mailroom and that still applies today. Or internships -- whether it's at your local newspaper, radio station or even a communications office.

Elizabeth was a staff writer for The Argus at Illinois Wesleyan, while majoring in psychology and studying Spanish and voice, too.

What is special to you about Illinois Wesleyan?

The welcoming atmosphere and personal attention that I received from day one. And it's got a wonderful academic reputation. It's the whole package.

My twin sister and I went to Wesleyan together and — strange but true— we ended up with the same major. We had a separation problem. (laughing) We finally "broke up" in graduate school, which is good.

But we both love Wesleyan and we roomed together. And we both had a wonderful experience.

Do you recall a particular class or professor from your IWU time?

A perfect marriage: radio and singing. Elizabeth first majored in vocal performance at Illinois Wesleyan, and studied voice all four years. She still sings, and her recent chorale experience led to a show about Handel's Messiah —one of her favorites among the shows she's produced.

The faculty in the music program and especially Dr. Sam Scifres. I learned an incredible amount about singing and music from him.

The Spanish program was also important to me, and I particularly enjoyed classes by Carmela Ferradáns. Spanish is something that I use to this day. I'm requiring -- pushy mother that I am -- that my children take it from a very young age because Spanish is incredibly important in this country. I hope that my children acquire a love of languages, as I did.

What topics have stayed with you since your early reporting?

I come from the middle of Illinois and my family owns a farm. For more than three decades my mother was an agriculture reporter for the local newspaper. I really tried at the Wall Street Journal to make that topic my own. So whenever I could, I wrote stories about farming, agriculture, and the business of farming.

Here at WAMU, music is definitely a preference that goes back to my vocal performance background. I'm a member of the Capitol Hill Chorale and just this weekend we did Mozart's version of the Messiah. Who knew that Mozart re-did Messiah to fit his own times? When we started rehearsals, I whipped out my notebook and took notes about all the interesting things I was learning about Messiah from our conductor.

I was nervous to pitch that show idea to our host, Kojo, because I thought “Who is going to be interested in talking about Messiah for 40 minutes?” But I did my research and he went for it.

Talking about food is also fun for me. I produced a show about turmeric and how healthy it is for you. It seems strange, but you can talk for a good 30 minutes about turmeric. You really can!

Interviewed at WAMU offices on the American University campus.