Ian Pickus remembers seeing the want ad and thinking, “this might work for a while.”
It was seven years ago that the Saratoga Springs native and University at Albany grad began working part time at WAMC/Northeast Public Radio as the producer for “Morning Edition.”
Soon after, he landed a full-time gig at the station, and rose through the ranks to become WAMC news director in March of 2013. Now, he can’t imagine doing anything else.
A 2003 graduate of Saratoga Springs High School who went on to get his undergraduate degree and master’s in English from the University at Albany, Pickus keeps tabs on a news team that covers the Mohawk and Hudson valleys, as well as a wide swath of New England.
He also produces various programs at the station, such as “The Capitol Connection” and “Congressional Corner,” and can occasionally be heard filling in on the air as a substitute host for “Morning Edition,” “Weekend Edition” and “The Roundtable.” For nearly four years, he has hosted his own trivia show with Mike Nothnagel at 6:25 every Friday night.
Writing rather than broadcasting was Pickus’ primary passion when he was growing up, and he spent a lot of time as a college student working as a sportswriter for The Saratogian newspaper.
When he’s not working these days, Pickus is listening to music, watching sports or moonlighting as an ad hoc journalism professor at UAlbany.
He is also a big fan of the television program “Jeopardy,” and in 2011 earned his way to a spot on the show, where he finished a close third.
Q: Was WAMC your first job?
A: I had done a lot of freelance writing for The Saratogian throughout college, and was working on finishing the thesis for my master’s and looking at the employment pages for a job. I was lucky. I was sort of between school and work, and had another month before I would have to enter the wilderness and maybe become a waiter. I saw an opening for a part-time position as “Morning Edition” producer so I applied. The thing I love about this place is that they let me learn as I was going. I was pretty green, but they nurtured me, and working on “Morning Edition” prepared me for taking on more responsibility. It really was my very first job. It was a great opportunity and I got a lot of support.
Q: What’s an average day as news director at WAMC?
A: When you become news director it’s about managing the daily crises and solving all those problems that come up. My job is to step in on air when necessary, and sometimes I’ll fill in and do an interview for “The Round Table.” When I took over from Katie Britton in 2013, this was already a well-oiled machine.
We have some very talented people here with a great institutional memory, and we can be heard on the edges of Montreal all the way south to the edge of New York City. To the west we can be heard in Utica and to the east we go past Springfield, Massachusetts. The scope of our coverage is vast, and at times it seems overwhelming, but when it gets humming it’s pretty impressive.
Q: Would you be interested in leaving public radio for a commercial station?
A: This is a very unique place to work. When I started here I had been a fan of the station, and then I quickly realized that WAMC really does the kind of things that I wanted to do. That’s not a knock on any other station, and I don’t want to sound high and mighty, but I feel like there’s an art to what we do and a lot of meaning behind it.
During our fund drives, so many people tell me how they consider us their lifeline to the outside world. That’s very gratifying to me. As a producer, where else can you hear a story and block out two minutes of time for it, and then say, “no, we should devote more time to it,” and then the story becomes six minutes long. Being able to do that is very gratifying.
Q: What were some of the best stories you’ve worked on recently?
A: We did a special eight-part series on student loans that ran in December that’s a good example of the things we’re able to do here at the station. Running up to the election last year we had another series on the vote, taking a close look at all the angles on why people vote the way they do. We looked at the local elections of 2013, when the turnout is typically low, and I think that was a really important series for us to do.
I know a lot of people tuned into that to learn more about their elected officials. Another great story was Lucas Willard’s great feature on the guy with the largest jukebox collection. That was a tour de force of audio mixing, and fortunately at WAMC we had the time to go the extra mile with the story.
Q: In 2011 you went through a long process to earn an appearance on “Jeopardy.” What was the experience like?
A: Playing on the show was a longtime dream come true, but it was highly stressful and a bit of a blur. I’ll always be disappointed with the result, but I’m glad I took my shot. Everyone tells me just getting there is itself an accomplishment. The more time that passes, the easier it is to accept that’s true.