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March 17, 2020, 10:54 a.m.

Coronavirus has left a lot of podcast pros recording in their closets

We round up some of the best advice for how audio hosts and producers can adjust to the new social-distancing reality — from public radio stations and big studios to independent shows and freelancers hoping their next check still comes in.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 250, dated March 17, 2020. I guess we’re calling it The Coronavirus Issue.

More so than anything else in a very long time, the global coronavirus pandemic is a total event against which almost everything will be reorganized, whether by virtue of its immediate effects on daily life or its longer-term economic impact.

You can bet your ass we’re taking all of it very seriously here at Hot Pod, as any reasonable assessment of the situation finds the risks and danger very real, immensely consequential, and utterly apathetic to whether you believe in them or not.

And, I should say, we will also be taking you very seriously as well, as always. However you’re feeling, however you’re dealing with things, however you’re strategizing for these anxious times — we will be here to recognize, witness, and document you. Sure, ours is a strange and still-emerging community, but it’s an unambiguously tangible one with livelihoods to preserve, people to serve, and work to do.

In that spirit, this week’s issue is packed with things we hope you will find helpful: a picture on how various teams are shifting their workflows and priorities in response to social distancing measures; a view on how several independent podcasters are processing the volatility of everything; and some tips and resources on working from home.

I’m writing this intro shortly after the White House issued new guidelines for containment, which recommend against gatherings of more than 10 people. Such guidelines, and every one that comes after that, will likely result in subsequent changes in the preparedness plans that will be presented in this issue.

One more thing before we get started: We’ll continue to gather information and publish as usual, no matter how long these conditions persist. My inbox, text messages, and Twitter remain open for your news bites, questions, ideas, and anxieties, or if you just want to swap jokes. Okay, let’s jump in.

Battle tactics for the pandemic-prepared workplace. First of all, shouts to KUOW’s excellent Battle Tactics for Your Sexist Workplace podcast — apologies for copping the title, it just stuck in my head and I couldn’t help it.

Anyway, speaking of KUOW — the public radio station in Seattle, the first U.S. city to get really slammed by the virus — I’d like to kick things off by plugging this Current piece by the station’s news director, Jill Jackson, which lays out recommendations for how newsrooms should approach the outbreak as it reaches their communities, based on their hard-earned experience.

The whole thing is definitely worth checking out, but I’ll highlight one specific fact: On Tuesday, NPR gave station leaders a list of best practices that includes the recommendation that reporters should be given the right to veto an assignment if it feels too risky for them. In my opinion, this practice should be adopted well beyond the public media community.

Meanwhile, radio and podcast production teams around the country have begun implementing COVID-19 preparedness plans. They tend to revolve around shifting to remote work arrangements, limiting in-office time to essential production personnel, suspending nonessential travel, and maintaining a good flow of communication with staff to keep everybody on top of latest developments, best practices, and further information resources.

If you work for an organization that hasn’t yet developed a comprehensive preparedness plan (or is in the midst of doing so) — or if you simply would like to see what another team is doing in order to bolster your own policies/confidence — you should most definitely check out the preparedness plan made by the Bay Area-based team at the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal podcast. Annie Chabel, the team’s chief operating officer, very generously made those plans publicly available through a living Google Doc, which you can find here.

The global pandemic is exceedingly fluid, obviously, and plans like these explicitly recognize that reality. Specific policies may come with stated end dates — Reveal’s work-from-home policy is said to be in effect through March 27, for example — but they’re couched within the expectation that those dates may, and likely will, be revised as the situation develops. (For example, last night the Bay Area was put under near-lockdown by officials in six counties — though the order explicitly declares “newspapers, television, radio, and other media services” as “essential businesses” exempt from some of the shelter-in-place rules.)

Reveal is also working to increase the flexibility of its leave policies to accommodate however conditions may change for the individual situation of every worker. Again, this should be a widespread approach, in my opinion.

To state the obvious: The organizing principle here is risk management. For some, this has meant canceling or pushing back major community campaigns, as has the Los Angeles-based Maximum Fun, which has postponed MaxFunDrive, its recurring fundraising effort. That team will instead reallocate its efforts into alternative means of engaging its community. “During the next couple of weeks, we’re going to do our best to be extra available to you,” wrote Maximum Fun founder Jesse Thorn in a blog post announcing the postponement. “We’ve got some streaming events planned, some social media stuff. We know a lot of folks are isolated right now and we want to help provide comfort in the ways we know how.”

Southern California Public Radio, a fellow Los Angeles-based organization, paused its spring member drive after the first day. It’s a tough decision, but I’m told that member response has nevertheless been positive, with people donating online.

On a production level, SCPR has started limiting in-community host reporting. Meanwhile, reporters are being issued boom mics when they’re sent into the field, with the idea that the equipment would allow them to keep the recommended six-foot distance. The organization has also cancelled public events through the end of the month, with the expectation of extending that policy through April. Office work is limited to essential production personnel, and the station is preparing to broadcast entirely from remote locations should its headquarters be later found contaminated.

Minimizing studio time is a common focus. “We’ve been planning for this inevitability for the last few weeks, unfortunately,” Laura Mayer, chief operating officer of the New York-based Three Uncanny Four, tells me. They’ve already adopted a full work-from-home plan, developed by operations director Nuna Ali Charafeddine. That plan includes providing recording kits to producers and hosts who need them, along with efforts to set up a bevvy of at-home technological workarounds.

The shift to a remote workflow also involves keeping continuity in certain workplace processes and expectations. For Three Uncanny Four, that means maintaining all regular meetings, starting a Slack channel for staffers to flag their whereabouts, and committing to existing deadlines. Still, though continuity may be the goal, there will be differences. “My cats will be making appearances in video calls, and everyone is going to have to deal with it,” Mayer said.

Meanwhile, I’m told that the Vox Media Podcast Network has completely stopped using its owned-and-operated studios and shifted completely to a remote workflow. The emphasis is on remote recording with hosts and guests wherever possible, the provision of remote engineering support and recording equipment when needed, and an on-going exploration of cloud-based recording solutions to further solidify the distributed workflow. They’re not anticipating any production delays, even as they expect to record under surreal circumstances. “I will be interviewing FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel from my closet on Monday,” said Nilay Patel, editor-in-chief of The Verge and host of the Vergecast, when I checked in on Friday. (The interview did indeed take place; here’s the resulting episode.)

(One note of further context on this one: Over the weekend, CNN’s Reliable Sources reported that a Vox Media employee has since tested positive for the virus, which resulted in the closure of all its offices in the U.S. and abroad until further notice.)

In downtown Brooklyn, Slate, which operates an extensive portfolio of frequently publishing podcasts, has implemented a set of best practices designed around the challenges of their network size. (Those were assembled by their operations team, which includes operations manager Asha Saluja and technical director Merritt Jacob.) Those plans again involve distributing recording equipment to everybody, along with efforts to teach everyone how to self-record in home environments with sufficiently adequate sound quality.

One particular challenge is the production of daily podcasts, which are already tough to pull off under regular circumstances. Slate currently operates two in their portfolio: What Next with Mary Harris and The Gist with Mike Pesca. This is how the What Next team describes their arrangement:

Mary will be recording on a normal recorder, but then will also have earbuds in attached to her phone to be dialed in to hear the interview with producer and guest also on. Because she’s recording in a closet, which is small, to communicate with producers during the interview, the plan is to have a computer on a small table about a foot or two off the ground, and then a desk directly above that with the audio rig on it. The team is also developing a contingency plan around substitute hosting.

“What Next’s political editor Mary Wilson had a makeshift studio outfitted as well in case she has to take over hosting duties for Mary Harris should schools close and Mary Harris, who is the mother of two, needs an assist while managing the many parts of her life in these uncertain times,” they added.

The Gist is also adopting similar work-from-home arrangements, though Pesca is being set up to occasionally record in the office studio by himself. To minimize the number of people in the studio, Pesca learned how to record his own sessions, set up the control room, and manage the studio himself as he records a guest. “The office isn’t contaminated and one guy in an empty office is still social distancing,” he said. “Mostly I will be recording from home though.”

(If you’d like another case study in remote production when it comes to a daily news podcast, check out the latest edition of The Daily’s Friday newsletter, which lays out how they initially experimented with their setup last Tuesday before ramping up by the end of the week.)

Speaking with various teams about their remote arrangements, a common thread was a general acceptance that audio quality will likely take a hit under these conditions. Tracking in less-than-studio-silent recording environments; relying on phoners instead of sending someone out to tape sync (and thus risk exposure/transmission); attempting to rapidly brief non-audio-professional guests on how to produce clean self-recordings on their end (e.g. using the Voice Memos app on their iPhones, among other solutions); getting comfortable with relying on home setups for what may potentially be an extended period of time — these are things they’ll have to live with to help prevent the worst. “Our audio quality will suffer, but health and stopping community spread is most important,” said ThreeUncannyFour’s Mayer.

Then again, perhaps there’s a marginal silver lining to be found in these drops in audio quality. These are deeply irregular times, and less-than-perfect audio quality may well be something that communicates the humanity of all the podcast and radio folk working to get their shows out in these extraordinary times. It could be a piece of meta-recognition, an indication that we’re all going through the same thing. That might be small consolation, but it’s consolation nonetheless.

Coronavirus update: indie edition [by Caroline Crampton]. I’ve been reaching out to independent podcasters, hoping to understand a bit better how the measures being taken in response to the spread of coronavirus are affecting them. While the implications of social distancing and quarantine will be felt by everyone, no matter where they work, being independent or working freelance often comes with greater precariousness. That was the universal theme of all the conversations I’ve had about this: Audio freelancers and small companies alike are worried both about what social distancing will mean for their business in the short term — and what an economic downturn will do in the months to come.

The main thing I heard is what you’d expect: Interviews and tape syncs are being cancelled all over the world as people move to avoid in-person contact. Lots of studios are either shutting down completely or moving to operations-only situations, meaning guests from outside can’t come in to record down the line. Producers who were relying on prompt high-quality recordings now need to postpone interviews and educate guests in using remote recording tools. (Many people raised the extra time this all takes, which is an issue if the project is being paid at a fixed-fee rate.) People are also considering mailing tech-savvy guests cheap USB microphones, which suddenly seems like a not-unreasonable thing to do.

At this stage, a lot of work is being postponed rather than cancelled, as is planned travel for reporting. And it’s all happening pretty fast, with shows going on hiatus or pushing back new seasons day by day. For those with long-term contracts, this kind of pause is frustrating — but for those working on a day rate or per project, a production schedule shift can mean extra months before getting paid. (“No recording, no invoicing,” is how one hardhit freelancer succinctly put it.) I heard a couple of heartening stories of people being paid in advance of postponed work, and I hope there’s more of that to come.

The expected economic downturn that comes with the coronavirus is also already impacting freelancers. Kristofor Lawson of Lawson Media in Melbourne, Australia, told me they’d had branded podcast contracts delayed and ad inventory cut before social distancing began, as their clients were already feeling the effects. “I’d put the impact of these at around $35,000 AUD. Not a lot compared to bigger companies, but enough to make a significant dent in our small operations,” he said.

Those audio businesses that have a brick-and-mortar competent such as a studio or coworking space have also been hit hard and fast. Michelle Durant, who helps run Chelmsford Community Radio in the U.K., explained: “Our once-bustling coffee shop, which usually helped cover some of the costs, is a shadow of its former self, and the small businesses we work with are also impacted. Footfall is down everywhere. Advertisers are hard to come by or want stupidly cheap deals.”

Aside from difficulties with recordings and brands pulling out, one of the biggest areas of podcasting to be affected by all this is sports. As I’ve written about before, in the U.K., football shows make up a big chunk of the larger independent market — and now that pretty much all professional football is suspended or cancelled, there’s a big gap in the schedule for those shows.

Freelancer Tom Whalley, who works with Radio Stakhanov on shows like Football Ramble Daily, said they’re not decreasing production in spite of this: “Still loads of stories to talk about, stuff from this season to look back on, football and cycling films to watch, classic matches and bike races to rewatch, literature to talk about. We’re gonna keep the content coming and get the community as involved as possible.”

I’ll end on that note: Plenty of people I spoke to talked about community and routine, and how they wanted to keep making their usual shows as far as possible to help listeners feel normal. Which is really great. But there are also a lot of freelancers who’ll be seeing much smaller paychecks over the next few months, and we have very little sense of what longer-term impact that might have on the industry.

Moving on… I know there’s a fairly large segment of the Hot Pod readership with deep experience in work-from-home arrangements and distributed workflows. After all, on one hand, podcasting has long been the domain of DIY broadcasters, and on the other, the radio producer community is rich with office-free freelance mercenaries well-versed in the independent life.

The next two sections were chiefly constructed for folks who are relatively new to the work-from-home production life, or who are getting reacquainted. But hey, who knows, maybe you’ll get something out of them too.

First up, assuming that lots of folks are going to become incredibly familiar with the cracks and creases inside their closets, I reached out to Rob Byers, audio mixer and engineer extraordinaire, for tips on improving your closet recording setups. Currently, Byers is director of broadcast and media operations at American Public Media, and in the past, he was a production specialist with NPR Training. (He also worked on Criminal, which is how I originally found him.) Here’s Rob.

I heard you record in closets [by Rob Byers]. After a long few days of whatever this nightmare is, what I’m about to write about feels so…inconsequential. That said, I know it will help those who are doing good work reporting on this crisis. So here goes.

There are a few easy things you can do to help get a good sound when recording from home. First, figure out how you’ll mitigate environmental noise — like air-conditioning systems, street noise, or your neighbor’s dishwasher. Most of the sounds inside your house will be easy to silence (turn off the AC or the computer with the loud fan), but you won’t be able to seal out noises from outside.

No off-the-shelf product will block outside sound, unless you have a real vocal booth with a fancy name like Ermentrude (!). Put distance and walls between yourself and the noise. An internal room with no windows is a good option — the quintessential closet-turned-voice-booth. You’ll probably end up with a “boxier” sound in a closet, but that’s okay — it’s still better than hearing the neighbor binge-watching Netflix next door.

Now that you’ve found a quieter space, you need to deal with how it sounds. Odds are you’re in a bedroom, living room, or closet with a bunch of hard surfaces like walls, picture frames, or hardwood floors. These surfaces reflect the sound of your voice back to the microphone, which creates a “roomy” sound. Recording studios have acoustic treatment made out of soft materials to absorb and reduce reflections. You can mimic this. Find soft things in your house (say, your devalued collection of Beanie Babies) and put them around your microphone and your voice. Make a large pillow fort around the microphone and talk into the fort. Or drape a heavy blanket over you and the mic (shout out to Ari Shapiro!). Just get something soft and absorptive around your voice and the microphone to separate them from reflective surfaces. You will find this generates a more intimate sound, even if you’re in a small space like a closet.

Here’s a video of the rig I built in my closet (props to whoever can guess the name of the stuffed bear). If you can spend the money, there are a couple of products that work really well, like the RealTraps Portable Vocal Booth. They look better than a bunch of pillows, but they aren’t terribly affordable.

If you’re lucky enough to have different kinds of microphones, now’s the time to try them out. Your primary field mic or the mic you use in the studio might not be the best choice in your scrappy home-recording setup because it can capture the sound of those reflections so accurately. I won’t make a specific mic recommendation, as there are too many variables in choosing a mic (the recorder you’ll use it with, budget, purpose, etc.). But if ya got ’em, try ’em.

One other thing: Learn the location of your mic’s “null point.” This is the angle at which the mic picks up the least amount of sound. You can use the null to your advantage by angling it toward an offending sound.

Okay, two more things. One, I think our listeners will be more forgiving of a rougher sound right now — give yourself the permission to go with what you have. Two, there’s something really lovely about sharing DIY home recording setups, especially in this moment. Reach out and ask what’s working for other people! Share your photos with me on Twitter and maybe we’ll put together a 2021 calendar.

Quick thanks to my colleagues Corey Schreppel and Michael Raphael for helping me with this. Please take care of yourselves.

Before we move on, I highly recommend complementing Rob’s tips with this Transom piece by Jeff Towne, “Recording During the Coronavirus Pandemic.”

All right, next up: some tips for working from home, courtesy of the great Helen Zaltzman, host of The Allusionist and Answer Me This.

“I think I was built for working in solitude,” said Zaltzman, when I asked for her work-from-home tips. “It hit me hard at age 25 that I didn’t want to work in an office.” She’s been living nomadically for the past few years, and is currently anchored in a seaside town somewhere in the U.K. Here’s Helen.

Solitary refinement [by Helen Zaltzman]. First: GET DRESSED. In something with a bit of structure, i.e. not sweatpants; wear something that instills some self-respect. You could even try out some more fun or avant-garde looks than you’d usually wear and haven’t had the nerve to try out in public yet, since nobody’s going to see you. Even if it feels silly or unnecessary, a little interest is like a small visual treat to yourself.

Second: Have a few buddies in a similar situation where you check in on each other. Message or FaceTime, separately or together. Even if you don’t do similar jobs, you can be accountable to each other for Getting Shit Done. Maybe you need a sounding board for your thoughts.

Third: If you don’t need to keep to a particular schedule, consider when you’re best at doing certain things. For example, I’m shit in the mornings, so I save them for boring or basic tasks that don’t require much creative heavy lifting — or that’s when I do what other people might save for the evenings (socializing, watching TV, reading the internet).

My best hours for getting more demanding work done are 3 to 7 p.m. or thereabout. The really creative stuff tends to happen 10 p.m. to 3 a.m., though I’m too old to handle the late nights any more. But anyway, if you can, program your work so it hits at the times when you’re more likely to be in a productive headspace.

Fourth: Install the application SelfControl and block as many forms of communication and amusement as you can for an hour at a time.

Meanwhile, in Vulture. I wrote about the emerging cluster of coronavirus podcasts that have popped up over the past few weeks, as the story evolved from global concern into straight-up pandemic.

I tried to string together a few different ideas in this writeup, including: its apparent similarities with the impeachment pop-up podcast bump; how the daily-news-podcast infrastructure has felt really effective in proportionately scaling up as the coronavirus story grew more urgent; and how one of the more interesting things to observe is the way in which various niche-subject podcasts and personality-driven podcasts with sizable followings are tailoring the story to their specific communities.

I found that last thing particularly interesting to watch. Three examples that continue to bounce around in my head: The Ringer’s film podcast, The Big Picture, building an episode around how the coronavirus is affecting the movie business; the folks at Forever35 pubbing a special mini-episode yesterday featuring epidemiologist Caroline Buckee and Jelena Kecmanovic, founder and director of the Arlington/DC Behavior Therapy Institute; and the Joe Rogan Experience, widely believed to be one of the biggest podcasts out there, which brought epidemiologist Michael Osterholm on the show last week.

But the biggest thing I sought to highlight in the piece was the experience you get if you search for “coronavirus podcasts” in the search engines of Apple Podcasts and Spotify, the medium’s two biggest distributors. What you get in return is a very mixed bag in terms of credibility and reliable information, which poses significant risks when it comes to something like a pandemic. It’s the classic tension of podcasting’s open publishing roots: Anybody can publish, which means that anybody can publish.

Three non-coronavirus things.

(1) The 2020 edition of Edison Research’s Infinite Dial study will drop, as scheduled, on Thursday. Here’s the save-the-date for the webinar.

(2) I interviewed P.J. Vogt about that instant-classic Reply All episode, “The Case of the Missing Hit.”

(3) The various adventures of Eleanor McDowall are always worth checking out. Her latest project, Field Recordings, features audio makers standing silently in fields or things that can be subjectively deemed as fields. Check it out.

Okay, that’s it, folks. Keep well, stay safe, and wash your hands.

Illustration based on photo of a much younger Ira Glass (of This American Life) performing in 2009 by Ricky Montalvo used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     March 17, 2020, 10:54 a.m.
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