Isabelle Roughol's illustration on how to plan a podcast

Isabelle Roughol's sketch on how to plan a podcast.

Isabelle Roughol has not gone quietly into this global pandemic. Quite the opposite. Each week she produces an episode of her podcast Borderline from her current home in London. Recent episodes include an interview with Canadian anthropologist Wade Davis on his nerve-hitting essay in Rolling Stone about the battered American image; a conversation with a Seattle-ite mom leaving the United States to provide a better life for her children; and a discussion about uncrossable borders with an Australian ex-pat prohibited by stringent quarantine laws from returning to say goodbye to her dying father.

Isabelle Roughol

Isabelle Roughol

With so much of the planet grievously impacted by COVID-19, if there was ever a perfect time to launch a transnational media project serving a worldwide community, or as Roughol sometimes calls them: “defiant global citizens,” maybe it’s now.

However, as 2020 dawned, Borderline wasn’t even in Roughol’s imagination, much less in the works. She had recently left her high-level management job at LinkedIn, where she had worked for seven years. “I had zero idea what I’d do next,” she said in an email.

A French citizen, Roughol came to the U.S. as a high school exchange student in New Jersey. She returned to earn a journalism degree from the University of Missouri, where she embarked on her “mostly anglophone” career. After a stint at the daily Missourian, which is the j-school’s teaching newsroom, she became a reporter for the Cambodia Daily in Phnom Penh, and then scored a temp contract as a foreign desk editor for Le Figaro in Paris. When that expired, she freelanced her way into a job at LinkedIn just as the company was beginning to build its editorial team in 2012. Roughol helped the company grow from four to 70 editors. Promoted to lead LinkedIn’s international development, she moved Sydney, Australia, and later to London, eventually becoming the right hand to the editor-in-chief.

But by late 2019, she was ready for a new opportunity. While she was casting about, COVID exploded and the world went into lockdown. Or, as she’s put it, “the world went nuts.”

I went into what I thought would be an innocuous sabbatical weeks before the pandemic.

What to do? Maybe, as the wisdom goes, draw on what you know. Roughol combined her entrepreneurial mindset with her journalistic values to develop a podcast for and about global citizens. Her episodes tackle issues of global identity through geopolitics, as well as intimate issues pertaining to home, belonging and identity. “If you leave home to get home,” Roughol says in the trailer for her first episode which launched this past June, “Borderline is for you.”

The Pivot

In our new series, journalists talk about managing career disruption. Find out what happened to Chris Jones, former senior writer for Esquire, and how a young journalist was cut out of newsrooms then found her way back in.

To make it viable, Roughol serves as the entire staff of Borderline for now. She’s host, sound editor, distributor, and, happily, interviewer. The latter, especially, gives her a chance to draw on her journalistic training, which she’d been missing. To supplement her non-income, she’s also a consultant, offering courses on media strategy and newsroom leadership. As she wryly noted: “I believe they call it a portfolio career.”

A sure thing? Time will tell. But having found her niche as a journalist serving border-straddlers like herself, she’s relieved to have found “a sense of direction at last.”

We asked her what brought her to this juncture, and what lessons she’s carried with her.

What was the biggest challenge you faced during the disruption to your career?
Ha, which one? I’ve likened my career to constantly running ahead of a tsunami. (I realize Chris Jones talked about “outrunning collapsing ground” in a previous Pivot interview. There’s a pattern here.) I graduated from journalism school into the global financial crisis and the collapse of newspapers, and then I went into what I thought would be an innocuous sabbatical weeks before the pandemic. Every newsroom where I’ve worked has had layoffs or been shut down since.

I had to allow myself to no longer want the things I’d worked so hard for.

At LinkedIn, I had found high ground. I learned, I was challenged, the people were incredible… and it was safe from the tumult. It took me the better part of two years to accept it was time to go. There was no rational justification for going back onto low ground, except that I didn’t want to be safely doing the same thing forever. I never did. That’s what I love about journalism; it lets you enter infinite worlds.

The hardest part is accepting not just that the world is changing, but that you are. I had to allow myself to no longer want the things I’d worked so hard for. It was the case for every pivot I’ve made, and never more than the most recent one. It humbled me. But once you gain that clarity, everything else comes much easier. In my experience at least, the interior journey is more of a challenge than any external obstacle.

What has surprised you most, and what have you learned from it?
Perhaps what I’m doing right now. I’d listened to podcasts for 15 years, but I never put much thought into starting my own. I didn’t leave my job to be one of those solo newsletter/podcast operations you keep hearing about. I just wanted a rest. I think I was properly burned out. I had no idea what came next. Maybe eventually write a book, and return to a real job when my savings ran out. I wanted nothing and I didn’t think I had a creative idea left. Then one morning, the idea came and with it the energy to pursue it.

When I work on Borderline, time disappears. I skip dinner and only stop when sleep wins. If you told me in April I’d feel this way in October, I wouldn’t have believed you. I learned that the dark patches do end, but there is no shortcut through them. It softened me in a good way. In my 20s, I didn’t have a minute for people who weren’t striving. Now I know life is long… Pardon the accumulation of clichés. I only say this because I know it would have helped me to hear it.

What elements of your journalistic craft/values have you been able to hold onto, and which did you find you could let go of?
This pivot is a return to my roots in many ways. I’m reporting, interviewing, writing and editing more than I had in ages. I was rusty at first, but I reconnected with the joy of it. I’m also learning a whole new layer of craft in audio as a solo producer.

I refuse to choose between art and business.

I was always a bit militant about defining my role at LinkedIn as that of a journalist; our industry can be pretty close-minded about who gets that label. But in recent years, I had spent a lot more time on strategy and hiring than producing. I’m super grateful to that experience for all the skills you hardly get in typical journalism jobs — leading people, building products, running a business. I use those muscles every day on Borderline, which I approach as both a storyteller and an entrepreneur. I refuse to choose between art and business.

Who or what helped you most during the transition?
It’s always people. Too many to thank. I tend to make decisions on guts, but I like data to back me up. I had back-to-back Zoom calls long before that was a thing. I learned that what I was feeling was far more common than I knew. I’m especially grateful to women who helped relieve me of the feminist guilt that comes with leaving a fast-track corporate career. Many who’d pivoted before said it was the best thing they’d ever done. Now I can say the same to the next girl who comes knocking.

My editor-in-chief, Dan Roth, was an unwavering sponsor during my time at the company and even when I chose to leave. We had very open conversations. He was a once-in-a-lifetime boss and the main reason I stayed as long as I did.

Now in the podcasting world, it’s the same. I find people to be very generous with their advice and experience. That’s how I like to work — collaboration over competition, always. There are enough people tearing journalists down from the outside. We can’t do it to one another. If you want to launch your own version, come in, the water’s warm. Reach out for help.

What plans or priorities do you have going forward?
I’m all in on growing Borderline. I’m clear-eyed about the reality of making a living from a solo media enterprise; I think there are going to be a lot of sore heads in the so-called “creator economy” in a few months. My choices now are subsidized by years as a workaholic in the tech industry, and that’s a privilege. It can’t last forever unless I make Borderline a viable business.

Consulting will likely always be a part of the equation, but I also resent it taking me away from what I’m creating. It’s a hard balance most small businesses will know. It’s hard to see more than a couple months ahead this year, but I’m at peace with that. I have a to-do list worth several months of work on my desk right now. As long as it makes me feel as good as I do now, I’ll keep at it.


Julia Shipley is a freelance writer and frequent Storyboard contributor.

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