If black girls are magic (and indeed they are), Baltimore writer Stacia Brown is a high-level magician. She lends her nuanced, smart voice to The Washington Post's Act Four blog, as well as websites like BuzzFeed and Vulture—offering her takes on things such as race, pop culture, and motherhood. She's also the creator and producer of the bi-weekly radio and podcast series "Baltimore: The Rise of Charm City," which airs Fridays on WEAA 88.9.
On "Baltimore: The Rise of Charm City," Brown offers a new twist on stories that could be old hat to people here in the city. Her show on Hampden, titled 'Where There's a Mill, There's a Way,' mixed together issues such as immigration, industry, and race to show how the neighborhood as it stands now came to be. An earlier episode took on the Baltimore skating institution Shake and Bake Family Fun Center.
"I thought everybody was going to know Shake and Bake," she says, sitting in Red Emma's. "But when we found the founder, he started telling us stuff that…was just completely new to me and I just thought as I was listening to it 'people need to hear this.'"
"I'm always surprised in the middle of an interview when I'm really, really remarkably compelled by something that I thought was going to be rote information."
She says that she never knows how each story is going to unfold, except that they are going to have three distinct sections.
"They start with the oldest history and progress to younger people talking about modern-day issues happening at that location, if possible," she says.
And how does a show come together?
"Lots of hours. And I didn't know it was going to take this many hours. When I pitched this to AIR [Association of Independents in Radio], our funding organization, I said it was going to be an hour and they were like 'it's not going to be an hour,'" she says, laughing. "They were like, 'we would strongly urge you to scale it back to at least a half hour.'"
She says that she spends close to 40 hours a week working on each show.
"I have to drive out to Morgan [State University] to do the narration, and record promos and to conduct the interviews and to travel to that stuff, to write the script, to do the transcription, to do the marketing, so it's all a lot of work and the marketing part of it is a hard part because we don't have strong numbers on how many are listening by radio or by SoundCloud or by iTunes."
That's a lot of effort for a project that might not even be around next year. The program is only funded until July 31. That means Brown has to hustle to find new funding or find more writing work. The hustling is something that Brown talks about a lot when she talks about her career. She says she has learned to become a kind of one-woman promotional team. It's a skill she began working when her freelance career began to pick up, about three years ago.
"Definitely had to develop it," she says. "It's very hard. It's hard to repeat yourself…like, 'by the way, I wrote this thing, read it.' Repeating yourself gets you new people. It's awkward; I don't enjoy it but it's gotta be done if you want the visibility."
Freelancing and working as a creator without the relative safety net that comes with a full-time staff position is tricky work. Brown is doing it, but she's in full knowledge of the toll it takes.
"You don't really have a long life as a freelancer," she says. "If this is your only means of income you'll probably burn out. You'll need to get full time employment with benefits and all of that…it's just mentally taxing, emotionally taxing. It's a lot."
She says she's done a lot of writing about her personal life, especially about her life as a single mother, but it's not something she's as interested in doing anymore—both because the wages paid to freelancers can be woefully inadequate and because it's difficult to make a living by making your personal business so available to the whole world.
"You're mining your personal experiences and your heart and trauma for $150. And you have to keep coming up with stuff like that. If you are a personal essay writer, that's all you're doing is writing stories about your trauma, your childhood trauma, your college years, whatever you're dealing with now. I mean, your whole life is being parceled out to people and you're being underpaid to talk about it. I'm uncomfortable with that."
Writers are notoriously underpaid for their work, and Brown says that it can be demoralizing.
"It makes you feel like everything that you trained to be able to do, all the time that you spent in school and all the time that you spent writing well, nobody really cares about it," she says. "That doesn't mean anything to people."
What she does like to write about these days is television. "Sometimes I write about pop culture because I like pop culture," Brown says. She just finished recapping the John Legend-produced slave drama 'Underground' for the website Vulture. But her time is in limited supply these days, so it's hard to balance her writing work and her work on the radio.
Brown says that she enjoys working on "Baltimore: The Rise of Charm City"—perhaps even more than she thought she would. But she is realistic about the fact that it might not last forever.
"I am [more happy in radio] but I can only afford to stay in any job that pays me, so if I have to do this without any economic financial support or backing I couldn't do it," she says.
"At this point it's just about doing things that I'm proud to put out into the world and also being paid well enough for those things to live in a happy, comfortable life. This job, until July, will provide me that opportunity and after that I will be looking for other work that provides me that opportunity."