Crafting a Career in Journalism: Print, Online & Radio
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
What happens when the show broadcasts?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.