You start listening to the “Man 20-keli” (“I’m twenty-something”) radio show, and you instantly feel better. We’re surrounded by a lot of negative mediocre journalism. Karolis, who is twenty-something himself, is creating a new wave of storytelling. He’s not posting eye-catching headlines and yet his ratings are consistently going up. Who said positive journalism is dead? Karolis is a proof that we are hungry for more. We met to chat about his career including the early beginning, stress, money, projects, goals… everything and anything we all silently go through and need to talk about more.
What does your day at work look like?
In a nutshell, it’s chaos! I like it this way though. I usually spend a day in one radio station and the next day in a different one. I always wanted to do things that genuinely interest me. For example, I don’t think I would feel happy writing for one newspaper 5 days a week, so no day is ever the same. Overall, I am curious to find out what makes young people tick. I’m also a music journalist so I get to write about the topics I Iove in various publications both here and abroad.
On a slightly different note, it’s quite interesting to me how other people may perceive my work. What do you think I do?
That’s a good question and one that’s on my mind before each interview. It’s common for our generation to have more than one job, gig-economy has definitely changed the way we work. You and your show have inspired me to come back to Lithuania. By the way, “20-something” is a very good name!
Isn’t it? The name wasn’t my idea. I told the story of how the name came about on the first “20-something” show. Marija Kavtvaradze’s film “Man dvim keli” (“I’m 20-something”) tells a story about a group of youngsters wandering around Vilnius. They go to different bars, and each time they go in - one of them doesn’t like something and so they leave immediately in search of a new place. The morning comes, and after going around for hours they find themselves completely clueless about what to do next.
The movie itself was made by people in their twenties, so it’s a beautiful metaphor that depicts how young people struggle to make decisions. I really liked the idea and I thought it would make a great name for a radio show focused on young people and their lifestyles. I asked Marija if I can use it and she happily said yes!
Radio was dying, but then came back pretty much out of nowhere. Listening to your honest conversations with people helps bring awareness that there are many like-minded individuals out there. The way they perceive work has changed and it kind of makes you feel like you’re not alone. Freelance work can seem intimidating, but once you see others successfully doing it, you feel empowered and encouraged to try it too. I think the message goes a bit like: if they can make it, you can too.
Simply put, the idea of the show and why it exists is to inspire people to do work that brings them joy, that makes them feel part of the community.
"Shared philosophies and ideas can bring people together. Even complete strangers can find a common ground and encourage each other. Success stories in the Lithuanian media make you feel isolated and stuck in time. You start to feel unmotivated, and to break away from it you search for people that inspire you to get up and follow your gut."
I don’t look for famous success stories. I am much more interested in finding characters that live interesting lives that are not known to many. If I interview a 23 year old, I treat them as a mature individual who is part of the society at large. There is no hierarchy in the conversations. The purpose is to talk about things that matter - the future of Lithuania, education, work and do it with people that have something to say.
How did “20-something” start?
Before starting it, I was already hosting a radio show on music. After some time, I felt that I needed to do something else, I was in search of new ideas. Music has always been an interesting topic and it allowed me to meet amazing creatives coming from different industries. There weren’t many stories out there about people like that and I wanted to do something about it. The station liked my idea and suggested I apply for funding to get a kickstart. The show is definitely more educational than commercial, so we needed a bit of extra financial support. The funding wasn’t big though, it lasted for a few months only. But with each episode, the number of listeners grew...
Tell me more about your own beginnings. What did you study and what did you do afterwards?
Music has always interested me. I kicked-off a collaboration with the Lithuanian Music Association quite early on and soon started working there. My focus was mainly geared towards promoting music-related projects. I replaced a guy who was the idea-man behind a radio show on music, so that’s how I ended up hosting the show. It was an interesting way into the world of radio. The usual path is quite hefty. It involves tests, voice training and stuff like that. I remember I did a few shows on music while at university and, at least in the eyes of my lecturers, they didn’t go that well. So I always thought that doing a radio show was not my strength exactly, but since I got it, the opportunity was too good to decline.
I remember when they brought me to the radio station and introduced me to everyone for the first time. The intro went something like: “Meet Karolis, he will be the new host for the show”. The head of the radio was slightly shocked and not exactly happy. I told her that I have a bit of experience and radio is something that interests me. I really appreciate that they gave me the chance. I made a lot of mistakes in the beginning. I still do. I am not a typical radio host. I’ve been largely influenced by foreign podcasts and radio shows. My voice is much calmer, faster and I am not as articulated. I don’t put pressure on the people I interview either. If you are a fan of NPR (National Public Radio in the States), you will probably enjoy my shows too. If not, I may sound different compared to most other Lithuanian radio hosts.
When you start your own project, and have an idea which you’ve put a lot of effort into, fear usually creeps in. Especially when you’re having a calm moment, the impossibility and scope of your project starts scaring you! What if it fails? And the probability it will is huge, isn’t it? I feel it every day with “Ka zmones dirba visa diena”. That said, the joy of doing it suppresses the fear, but I am not gonna lie, it scares me a lot. Do you feel this way too?
I definitely do. When I listen back to my first shows, I feel embarrassed... What the hell was I doing in that moment? Why couldn’t I formulate that question properly? Even now I still feel that I haven’t reached a level where I’m fully confident. My biggest influencers, like I mentioned before, are American radio hosts. When I compare myself to them I feel like a ‘DIY’ guy. As if I am cheating… That said, it’s pretty good to do shows here in Lithuania. There is a lot of space for you to experiment and be creative. A lot of precious freedom.
What’s one thing you would tell yourself when you were starting out?
I know that what I am doing does good for society. I do what I believe in and so my motivation is genuine. This is one of the reasons why I have never worked in a PR agency where you have to do things you wouldn’t necessarily stand for. I know it wouldn’t feel right, even though the pay would be much better. What I currently do feels right, I support new ideas that fuel positivity. I cover topics such as LGBT, feminism… Topics that are still avoided here in Lithuania. The educational aspect of my show definitely drives me to do better each time.
When you look at your work this way, it’s much easier not to lose motivation. Especially on days when you feel tired and kind of think, “What’s the point….”
True, when you’re properly freelancing your timetable depends on you alone. I have two radio shows that happen on exactly the same day twice a week and once a month I have to submit an article to Verslo Žinios (Business News), everything else is up to me. It’s tricky when you plan to get up at 9am, but you work from home and don’t actually have to be anywhere. Nothing will change if you snooze for an hour or so and nobody will tell me off. It’s hard to always keep yourself in check and it’s easy to start drifting.
I remember when I still had a job I was always running late to meetings. The rule was that the next day you brought something sweet or savoury to apologise. I used to carry full bags of the apology treats to the office but at some point I just stopped and thought, “This is ridiculous.” Later, the company agreed to let me switch to freelance. Overall, it’s really hard to create your own routine. I sometimes work until really late at night and then let myself sleep the next day. This has negative side effects though, as the week becomes chaotic and it’s hard to get back into the rhythm. I sometimes think that if I had a strict routine, I’d feel a lot less stressed.
Sometimes, when talking to students or people wanting to work for themselves, it’s quite clear that finding clients seems to be one of the hurdles that may stop them from trying. For me, money would never be the main reason to start working on a project. The beauty of working for yourself is that you get to choose what sort of work you do, so it never gets boring. Not that I have heaps of money and financial security… But boredom kills you. Slowly and surely. What advice would you give to people who are looking for their first clients?
I remember my own experience… I would always be the first to approach an editor, but I wouldn’t ask for a job straight away… If I had an idea, I’d share it first. Going in and having something to offer is key. That was the story with Delfi (popular Lithuanian news site, editor’s note). I thought that there was a lack of analytical articles on music. Lady Gaga was having her first gig in Lithuania at that time and it was kind of a big deal. I took some time and wrote what it meant to the Lithuanian music scene. I sent the piece to the editor at Delfi, they liked it and published it.
I don’t write that much for them today, but I still get asked to write a piece from time to time on music. I think that it’s important to show motivation and approach people first. Unpaid work shouldn’t scare you either. Lithuania is not that big, there aren’t that many people and in journalism.
"It’s important to find your own niche, write a lot and create a demand for your work. Eventually people will find out about you."
There’s a saying about our generation: ‘We see a dream, but not the hill.” Very often we lack patience. When we get a job, we’re not planning to work there for 20+ years. To be honest, even two years seem quite a lot! We hate bureaucracy - it instantly kills our motivation…
I’ve learnt to find joy in the little things. I’m not sure what the best way to say this is, but I don’t have a main goal. I care about staying happy and doing interesting work. I’m not that fussed about what “interesting” is either, there are unplanned changes happening in my career pretty much 24/7. I’ve spent the last autumn in Germany, working at “Deutsche Welle” office. I wrote in English, which I always wanted to do. Another wish was to write for a large international magazine, but it’s not like I’ve spent ages looking for one to write for - a friend of mine saw that they were looking for journalists from the Baltic region and showed it to me.
I sometimes think that maybe I should have one big goal - like getting published by the New Yorker. I just did an interview with an illustrator Karolis Strautniekas and he said that the New Yorker was his dream for a long time. He kept working towards it until it came true. Although, thinking about career goals, my genuine motivation is to do what I love and keep it sustainable.
When you work on a big project you give it all your heart and energy. To a point, you almost forget about other stuff, like looking for new clients. Also, managing new business is a proper job and takes up loads of time. Often after completing a project and getting paid I start to feel a huge void inside. Especially, if there’s nothing else to follow, that void can grow into a financial panic attack!
Like it or not, money is a big motivator. I moved to Vilnius 9 years ago and it gets more expensive every year. I guess I earn more too, so it balances things out. I think most of us feel that way. Living in big cities makes you work a lot and a huge chunk of your income goes into covering the basic needs.
"Going after your dream can become both a luxury and an obstacle between what you do and what you’d rather be doing! I don’t have that luxury either and need to pay rent every month. Emotionally, I try to encourage and support myself instead of beating myself up. Also, new opportunities come naturally, so there’s no need to try and force them too much."
Sometimes you don’t even know you really want something. I just spontaneously bought tickets to a film festival in Berlin and now it’s become a huge motivator. It’s important to have small things you look forward to. Sometimes when you think of a huge goal and then try to go chase it, it gives you a constant sense of dissatisfaction with what you already have. I genuinely believe you should try to simply be happy and make sure those around you are too.
What’s the best way to start a project?
I’m not sure I can give any sort of constructive advice on that. I guess there are people out there who calculate everything and properly strategize. I’m not one of them! Even thinking about “20-something”, right at the beginning I had maybe 5 hypothetical people to interview. I sort of knew there are loads of other creatives out there, so I figured I’ll be ok. I definitely didn't have a plan B or something like that, I just wanted to give it a go, so I did.
So right from the beginning you didn't think, “This is going to be huge”?
(Laughs) No, definitely not. My motivation usually goes something like: “Is this going to be fun to do?” If the answer is yes, I’m up for it. Also, I think it’s much better to look at stuff as if it’s a game. Look for opportunities around you. Find one, say yes and simply go do it.
"I never look for reassurances or guarantees, I just do it. I also don’t have a five year plan. Actually, I don’t even know what I am going to do in 6 months."
If one day I start thinking, “Hmm, I’m not enjoying this anymore” I’ll change something.
When you just start working for yourself, you say yes to everything. At some point you need to start saying no as well…
Sometimes it’s obvious and you should just cut it short. Although, only recently I started to actually say no to stuff. It’s a learning curve. Also, I’m starting to lack time. Even if I want to work on a project, I can’t do it due to other commitments. I then try to keep the contact for later and maybe work with the person or the team in the future - there’s no need to be arrogant and pretend you’re too busy to reply. Also, if I can’t do something, I try to recommend somebody else. It’s good to share instead of keeping it all to yourself. Sounds funny, but my current personal goal is to learn how to chill.
Exactly! When you’re freelancing it’s super hard to keep a work-life balance. If you don’t force yourself to stop, eventually you end up running around like a headless chicken not actually creating any value.
It’s definitely one of the main issues. I’m not that good at it either. You always think you can do more and it’s really hard to properly relax or go on holiday. I start stressing out quite quickly, so it’s really important to understand what the best practices to keep yourself sane are and then learn to apply them daily. At least I’m trying to!
Written by: Rasa Jusionytė
Photos: Justė Kulikauskaitė
Proofing: Rima Sofia