The Modern Creative
How Freelancers Can Succeed: Ande Schurr talks to TV presenter and reporter Simon Pound.
In a world where parents are still pushing their children to follow prescribed career pathways, Simon has found a different formula: follow what is interesting to your audience and the money will come.
"You know how some people are technically interested in taking something apart and putting it back together again? Well I'm culturally interested in how the world works and I like to try to take it apart and try to put it together again."
His eight years of volunteering on 95bfm developed Simon's reporting and interviewing chops and since then he's partnered with ad agencies as a freelance copywriter, developed ad campaigns across different mediums with his new production company Satin and Lace, helped set up his partner's new fashion business, is a father to new twins and he’s currently helping produce the TV show of the Smoke Free Rock Quest. To anyone fond of the saying 'idle hands are the devil's workshop', I suspect the devil will have difficulty pinning Simon down, as he just doesn't do 'idle'.
Simon, you seem busy and connected. You've worked for TVNZ, C4, Radio NZ, 95bfm along with the FQMEN and REMIX Magazines. What does it take to get to your level?
I think it's just saying "yes" to a lot of stuff. Pretty much, the life of a freelancer is to take every job that comes. I'm a good believer in saying "Yes" and finding a way to do it.
You meet lots of people, get lots of really good connections and see how they do their job. Part of it is that, in order to make a living as a freelancer, you have to be open to lots of different stuff as well. I naturally have a lot of different interests but often you can do one idea and do it on a lot of different forms.
One example is with a story on an amazing Wrestling League that comes out of Kingsland. There were a bunch of guys doing American style WWF and they put on shows at YMCAs and did their own TV show that played on Alt TV. It was low-budget, home DIY video with them doing these amazing feats of physicality - as good as the WWF guys but just not as slick and weird. Slightly weird but not as weird.
So I did a story about them for Media 7, that I directed and reported on, about their media show. Then I wrote a story on them about their personalities for Remix magazine and then I did a radio thing on it as well. So in each different media, there are qualities that lend it to story telling. You can do great stuff where you show the amazing wrestling on the telly; you can really get into who they are on the radio interviews; and you can really talk about your impressions in print.
You are listed on The Pond, an online agency for freelance copywriters and creatives. Where does this fit into your TV, radio and print work?
I work as a freelance copywriter and creative conceptor and that is a totally different area again from what would be more a journalistic craft. So it's different skills but often the same 'media soup'. What we're trying to do with our Satin and Lace production company - a partnership between me, Mikee Carpinter and Director Warren Green - is bridge that gap.
You know, traditionally, (in TV Production) we've made stories that people then put ads around, and people then sell ads. But rather then interrupting a television show to play an ad, why not have that whole television show presented by the brand? Being able to tell stories on behalf of brands is where I think everything is going. The copywriting and the media production are heading into the same area.
Is it a matter of time, or are there other factors that play, in the rise to popularity for a presenter?
I think you're as good as what you've done. I spent years working for free on bfm. I spent 8 years of volunteering at 'b', loved it and got to meet a lot of really interesting people who were interested in doing stuff and from that I got a job on TVNZ's Agenda where I did media commentary and learned about TV production and then for the last couple of years I’ve been on Media 7. That was great because every week you'd meet and talk to new people. So just doing lots of stuff; by working all the time and trying to do a good job people keep asking you. (Hopefully!)
What is the allure of working on Radio?
The best things about bfm is that you make shit happen. That's the coolest thing about that station. You could ring up and talk to anyone in the world and say "I'm calling from bfm in NZ, can we have a chat". And as a result I talked with people like David Irving, the holocaust denier, and he had no idea if bfm was the biggest thing in NZ or not so he said 'yeah, sure'. We talked with people like him and also Theodore Dalrymple, who's a conservative writer and very influential. He is a really interesting thinker and influential kind of conservative writer in places like the City Journal; really big bikkies if you are a nerd like me.
You also talk to musicians like Peaches and the Flaming Lips guys. It shows you that if you are interested and you want to push for it, you can talk to anyone and learn from anyone.
Did you have a regular job to support you while volunteering at bfm?
I was a student and then I was working in a bar, which ruined my student-dom. Then I was at TVNZ's Agenda. Agenda was great - I just took a day off work to do bfm stuff.
Do you feel you've been repaid for your volunteering work?
Yes. I don't think it comes down to doing things because they'll pay you back but rather because you're interested in things. You see people who get jobs in places that they want to be in; they've turned up to the place, and said "hey, I like what you're doing, can I come and work for free and learn from you". And then if they like you they will want to employ you. If they find it works out. That's how it works with production companies, Television, Magazine, Radio stations, pretty much anywhere creative. If you go up there and show you are interested then good things will happen. But it's not a simple pay-off. You do it because you like what they're doing. Especially somewhere like bfm because there just isn't the money.
You are a freelancer but you've started your own company?
Yes. Obviously you don't do work that is totally against one and other, but the thing about being a freelancer is that you have to take lots of jobs. Ours is a very loose company. Basically we just want to work with good people so when good projects come up we'll work together but the whole time we have our own things happening.
Why is your company called Satin and Lace?
I live in Sandringham and down the road there is this wonderful old disused brothel with 'Satin and Lace' on a greying sign out the front, and I thought "Wow!" We could just move in there, throw around some ammonia and just clean the place up a bit and start trading. This is our commercial arm, we want to be able to make things for brands and advertising agencies that want branded content made so we thought ‘if we're going to be commercial we may as well be whores!’. And I thought we could just move into an ex-brothel and it would be awesome but we went in there and it was pretty bad. Street kids had been living there and the landlord wanted heaps of rent so in the end we just took the name!
Has the recession had any impact on your thinking or practice?
The biggest effect on my practice is having had twins two years ago, I'm in a single income family of four. I've just helped set my lady's business up and you just have to work lots; that's all.
You present yourself with a consistent high level of energy on your shows and outside them too. How do you maintain that?
The biggest problem with on-camera stuff is that I have too much energy on-camera and it can be distracting from the message when you're looking at the presenter and you're going "why is that bastard bobbing" and "why doesn't he sit still" and "what's with the nodding". You know, you watch yourself back and of course you have to be yourself but you don't want to be so tic-ridden that you turn people off. My producers have looked at my efforts and had stern words to me about keeping my feet still and arms at my sides but, after about 8-9 years of people trying to fix it, it's still broken.
Your Media 7 show seems to appeal to both young and old: serious issues presented with lots of energy. How do you see it?
The coolest thing about TVNZ 7, where I've worked for the past 2.5 years making things for them through [production company] Topshelf, is that the station allows you to do things because the things are interesting - it's not ratings driven, not commercially driven. Media 7's brief was to demystify, comment on, hold to account, explain and cover the activities of the media. It was just this wonderful brief where we could do anything. We didn't have to have just attractive people, we didn't just have to have the latest news, we could cover all kinds of things. The reason there is such a wide breadth of what I did, is because there is this wonderful wide brief.
Did you intend to have a career as a TV presenter?
Radio is the thing I like the most. If I could choose one thing it would be a weekly radio show like an interesting Saturday morning show where you talk to film makers and authors and people and politicians and those who are contributing to the debate. Radio is fascinating. You have great conversations with people. You can really be part of interesting cultural conversations. It was from doing radio that I got into presenting things.
Presenting was just a vehicle in order to talk to interesting people. That has led on to writing, which was a vehicle to talk to interesting people and for TV, you're there on behalf of the viewer to find out interesting stuff. So I only feel comfortable presenting when I'm there for a reason that is useful to the viewer. It's a great skill to be a presenter who is interesting in and of themselves but I think that my presenting is much more about trying to find out about what is interesting in other people. So I'm more of a conduit than an end result.
So you prefer to introduce something of interest to the viewer rather than 'being' the show itself?
The kind of presenters I find most interesting are like the BBC's Louis Theroux. He is a presenter because he's finding interesting stuff out as opposed to Jason Gunn who is a traditional presenter. It's a great talent what Jason Gunn can do but hosting Dancing with the Stars is not something that would be interesting as a presenter to me or that I’d be any good at.
I like sharing the knowledge of what people are up to. The funny thing is you have more control the further you are away from the camera. Like when people say "why did Petra say that" on the show What's really in our food and attack her choices in a way, but it's like, well, Petra was doing a very good job. She came along and read a script that had been written for her. She didn't choose the stories, do the research, it wasn't her choice, she came along and did what she was told. If you're the producer, even though you don't get seen, you have more control.
But you wrote the content you presented for Media 7, so you got a lucky break?
Yes that was a wonderful job in that you do get much more freedom. Being in a non-commercial space helps that.
How do aspiring presenters translate their interest in people and stories into the busy life that you have?
You just go and do it. It is the key to everything. If you think that you'd like to interview people, the barriers to entry are so low. You can get a camera that can be used to upload video to the internet, that will be of a perfectly acceptable quality, for $500. You can go and record an interview with someone interesting, edit it on iMovie or other bundled software that came with your computer, and put it all together in a way that only TV stations, with millions of dollars of equipment and years of experience, could once do.
So just do it and if you have any spark, someone will find a way to employ you.
Tell me about the relationship that you have with money.
There's an idea set, that says "either work for full price or for free". It's a really nice idea. You have to value what you do so you either work for free, because you want to get somewhere, or, you value your time otherwise people won't pay you for meetings or prep time or all those kinds of things. You have to be very careful delineating ahead of time what's paid for and what is not otherwise you'll get in trouble afterwards.
It's horrible having conversations about money but a very simple practice at the start of a job is saying 'ok, well this looks like 5 hours on the night and 3 hours of prep, my rate is this, what do you think?' will solve your money troubles in advance. Assumption is the mother of all muck-ups, If you think things will be OK then they won't be. You have to sort it out ahead of time.
You have to be patient. People will take ages to pay you sometimes and you just can't take it personally. Remove the feelings.
What qualities are most needed to succeed in your type of work?
Because most of my work is about finding good stories you have to be curious, you have to ask lots of questions, you have to be interested in what people are up to and have some idea of what other people will find interesting in a story. You have to be curious and be enthusiastic about what other people are up to. And that is probably the thing that caries through with everything I do. I'm really enthusiastic about ideas and what people get up to, and curious about why things happen and why people do the things they do.
You know how some people are technically interested; taking something apart and putting it back together again? Well I'm culturally interested in how the world works and I like to try to take it apart and try to put it together again.
What observations have you made about freelancers over the years?
What I think is really cool about freelancing - and I found this when I got into television production - is that because you only get employed if you do a good job and you're easy to be around then everyone is really nice to be around and does a good job. It's not like that in the rest of the working world. When people have job security they can be difficult bastards. In freelancing you have to either be the most amazing person in the world for your speciality, or , you have to be pretty good at it and pretty good to be around and have a good attitude.
The most amazing thing with freelancers, especially in television, is that they never say - "no, that's a stupid idea". They always look at whatever idea comes and say "if we have enough money and enough time we can make this happen". The question is 'how much time, how much money and how much to you really want these things". It flipped the whole world of work on its head for me; that you could be in an industry where people just wanted to get things working.
For television and film, the only reason they get employed is because they are useful, good at their job and nice to be around. You can say to a film crew "that mountain is in the wrong place" and they will dig it up; given enough time and money. A director will say "that tree has flowers" and before you know it there are flowers all over it. It's just so cool that the freelance mind-set, is "just find a way". That is what I like most about the film and TV industry.
What educational route would you recommend for an aspiring presenter or reporter?
Having an area of interest is a good thing to develop. If you're interested in film, become really knowledgeable about film. The way I see media going, it is much more about niche groupings. So being a generalist is useful but if you want to get ahead, find something you are really good at and that way you can potentially get international work.
If you're a presenter and you want to make, say, music documentaries then you should spend a lot of time around musicians. Identify what kind of stuff you want to make, for free or cheap, then find a way to make it for free or for cheap. Work out where you want to be and then work backwards down to the very bottom to get there.
With such a limit of openings for presenters on TV shows, since we only have a few channels, are you saying try and replicate on your own efforts what you want to do on TV?
Yes. Along the way you will learn stuff that is helpful for you in other ways as well.
Describe the relationship between crew and talent?
There's a crazy division between crew and talent. It would be a very good thing from a very early stage to try and learn some useful things, even if it's carrying the tripod around. There's a term for talent, they're called Pony's and you know, Pony's are pretty useless so making yourself useful is a good thing to do. Another good thing to remember is that the word Reporter is three-quarters porter - so make sure you get helpful carrying things!
Finally, do you find that having a family has helped you as a freelancer in terms of remaining balanced and motivated?
It has certainly helped get things done. I don't muck around or procrastinate because the sooner you get things done to the standard required of the job, the sooner you can do the things you want to do with family. It's been a great organiser and has totally put a dent in my drinking and that made everything more reliable and good.