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July 21, 2020, 8:30 a.m.

With masks and sanitized mics, podcast pros tiptoe back into in-person interviews

Plus: “The H&M of audio drama,” Apple News Today, and Gimlet’s accessibility lawsuit.

Editor’s note: Hot Pod is a weekly newsletter on the podcasting industry written by Nick Quah and Caroline Crampton; we happily share it with Nieman Lab readers each Tuesday.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 267, dated July 21, 2020.

Hey everybody, Caroline here — Nick’s taking a break this week, so this edition is largely coming to you from me and some excellent contributors. Let’s get into this one.

When should in-person recording resume? Back in early March, the audio industry moved quickly to adapt to the remote working practices required by the spread of coronavirus. We covered some of the practicalities of this in this newsletter, back when producers all over the world suddenly got very familiar with the inside of their closets.

Five months on, ideas about what constitutes “safe” working practices have diverged. Infection rates now vary greatly from country to country and region to region, so while producers in New Zealand or Hong Kong might feel able to begin venturing out into the field again, that isn’t necessarily the case in places like California where lockdown restrictions are being reimposed.

One of the ways that I’ve been monitoring this is via the various radio and audio listservs in the US and the UK, which prior to March were always lively with posts looking for freelance producers to record interviews and tape syncs all over the world. After months of total silence on this subject, I’ve noticed in the last week or so that some of these job postings are reappearing. How can publishers and freelancers tell when it’s safe to record in person again?

Everybody needs to do their own research on this. If you are contemplating a non-remote recording, consult the official advice for your region, build in plenty of time for planning, then use caution and common sense to evaluate the risks. Have open and honest conversations with everybody involved, and respect others’ views about safety even when they’re different from yours.

AIR has a comprehensive and evolving set of guidelines for freelancers navigating recordings during Covid-19, which includes information about how to sanitize microphones and headphones, keeping distance while interviewing, and wearing a mask at all times. However, with audio work, situations aren’t always as cut and dried as rules like this might suggest.

Amanda Hickman, managing director of AIR, told me over email that although the organization recommends that guidance from OSHA and the CDC should inform most decisions around when to record in person again, there are always situations (pandemic or otherwise) where reporters work at their own risk in situations that OSHA would not recommend.

“There are steps you can take to minimize risk while covering an armed conflict or natural disaster, but that isn’t the same as being safe,” she said. “And Covid-19 is unique in that it can spread between people who have no idea they are carrying the virus. So we’re not just talking about keeping the tape syncer safe, we’re talking about making sure we don’t introduce a potentially fatal virus to an interview subject’s home.”

In addition, Hickman highlighted a really important aspect of this work at the moment — the extra labor involved in following safety precautions. “Anyone sending a syncer out right now should be taking into account the added work of making that tape sync safe, when negotiating rates…There’s no one-size-fits-all rate adjustment we can recommend, but producers should expect to pay more for a tape sync right now,” she added.

That added work might include sterilizing equipment after each job or sourcing extra long booms for recordings, or in some more extreme situations taking a Covid test and isolating for two weeks before meeting the interviewee to minimize the risk of transmission further.

One of the few tape sync call outs I saw recently on the UK audio listserv UKAN came from Graham Hodge at the Cup & Nuzzle production company. When we spoke over the phone on Friday afternoon, nobody had yet responded to his call for a freelance recordist in El Paso, Texas, but he did tell me about a successful tape sync they had done recently in Los Angeles.

That interview was with Marthe Cohn, a 100-year-old Holocaust survivor and spy who served behind enemy lines in World War II, and was for the latest episode of Cup & Nuzzle’sTrue Spies podcast. During lockdown, Cup & Nuzzle had been sending microphones to contributors to record themselves, but that wasn’t going to work in this instance, Hodge explained. “[Cohn] didn’t have the expertise to set herself up with a microphone or even really record into a phone, so the only way we were going to do it was to use a trusted local producer and satisfy ourselves that she could set up the recording safely. And luckily, she’s brilliant, so it happened,” he said.

The producer in question was Anny Celsi, who told me over email that although she hadn’t done any in-person recordings since mid-March, she felt the chance to meet someone like Marthe Cohn couldn’t be passed up. “A week before the interview, I went to a drive-through testing site to get tested for coronavirus. Given Marthe’s age, I wanted to take every precaution,” Celsi explained. “The test was negative, but to be extra careful I severely limited my social interactions for the next few days. Per recommended protocols in producer circles, I sterilized all my equipment and used a brand-new microphone cover, and I wore a mask the entire time I was there.”

The interview took place in a “small and cramped” office at Cohn’s home, so Celsi was in close quarters with Cohn and her husband for the three or so hours it took to record the interview. “When we finished, she invited me to stay for tea and cake, and they showed me around their house….My only regret is that my phone ran out of juice by the end of the interview, and I wasn’t able to get a picture with them,” she added.

This was one of the few “old style” in person tape syncs that I was able to verify as taking place recently while working on this piece. However, lots of other producers got in touch to tell me about the adaptations they are making to record in person as circumstances change. The majority that I heard from were staying completely remote for now, but Natalie Steed of the Folk on Foot podcast explained that she’s using a long boom for outdoor interviews, freelancer Mark Cotton said he was going to use radio mics for a socially distant conversation for the first time this week, and Rosa Eaton of Cube Cinema Radio Hour said she had managed by leaving a recorder on a wall outside and walking away so that the interviewee could stand by it and speak. Lots of documentary makers said that remote or down the line interviews really don’t work for their projects — there’s no substitute for being able to read a subject’s body language and capture their physical presence in sound.

BBC producer Amanda Litherland, host of BBC Radio 4 Extra’s Podcast Radio Hour, told me that she is now largely recording back in her usual central London studio — she lives by a noisy train line and working in her wardrobe at home was becoming unsustainable in summer heat — but she is recording alone, with all guests calling in remotely. She has done one in-person interview, with Chrystal Genesis of the Stance podcast, where they met in a park and each recorded themselves on their own equipment while sitting at a safe distance.

Ian Wheeler of Talkhouse said that his colleagues and contributors have actively preferred remote recording. “We’re finding that everyone across the board (especially our predominantly musician and filmmakers base of podcasters) would like to continue recording from home, perhaps because the music and film industries are hit particularly hard, and these types of creators are especially wary of getting back into confined spaces,” he wrote in an email. “My team has ultimately preferred recording remotely and, at this point, I’m not sure to what extent we’ll capture audio in proper studios going forward once there is some kind of ‘return to normal.'”

After spending a few days immersed in this subject, I came away with two main observations.

First, there are probably far more in-person recordings happening now than is immediately visible online. Calls for tape syncs might have all but vanished, but freelancers with existing relationships to production shops are still being offered this work.

Second, the question of resuming in-person recordings is a pretty polarizing one. In that sense, the audio industry seems to be mirroring the situation with mask wearing and safety precautions more generally right now: there are a lot of different views out there, and plenty of people are convinced that their way is the right one.

Nick’s note. Hey folks — I’m supposed to be on vacation from Hot Pod, but I’m dipping here briefly to set up this next piece.

One of the more curious things that have popped up on my radar recently is the proliferation of new, seemingly well-funded podcasts that often feature screen actors as top billing. It’s an obvious outcome of institutional players from other media finding their way into the podcast ecosystem, but I wondered how the core community of fiction podcast creators — typically independent — feels about this trend.

So I thought I’d commission and edit a piece about it. To do the job, I turned to Wil Williams, a podcast writer and creator who knows the ins and outs of the fiction podcast world way better than I do.

Here we go:

Why are indie fiction podcasters suspicious of fiction projects from better-funded studios? [by Wil Williams]. Over the past few years, there’s been a growing tension point within the fiction podcast (or “audio drama”) industry. It’s the one that exists between the long-standing community of scrappy independent creators — which usually builds shows on a shoestring budget, sweat, and tears — and a newer batch of better-funded studios like QCODE, Parcast, and Gimlet, which typically assembles projects with well-known screen actors in the roster.

To a large extent, this tension is a variation on the dynamic that’s become increasingly present in podcasting more broadly for a while, but it’s still worth asking the fundamental question. These better-funded studios seem like a great way to boost the industry’s reach; after all, big name actors like Patti LuPone and Tessa Thompson can attract new listeners who might not otherwise try out a fiction podcast. More listeners means a bigger pie, which means potential value for the native community of independent fiction podcast creators.

So why do indie podcasters seem so suspicious of studios with hefty financial backing?

The problem is layered. Some of this has to do with the actual question of quality. It’s come to light that most large studios make fiction podcasts with the purpose of selling the IP for adaptation in other more lucrative media, like film and television. This podcast-to-video pipeline is made explicit with recent deals like the partnership between Blumhouse and iHeartMedia. A Blumhouse representative confirmed that the purpose of this partnership was to test IP in a less expensive medium before taking it to video.

The end result of these operations are shows that feel to me like the H&M of audio drama: fast fashion meant to sell, not last.

Rashika Rao — my colleague from Radio Drama Revival, an audio drama interview and showcase series — recently spoke to me about her lackluster experience with QCODE’s The Left Right Game. “I think a fundamental misunderstanding is that podcasting is TV lite,” she said, when we spoke last week.

Rao went on to highlight a more crucial disparity: the fact that the potential for better product quality and actual work opportunity for seasoned fiction podcasters are not being realized by these better-funded studios. She notes the frustration felt by the skilled members of the indie fiction podcast community as they struggle to get by, while seeing these studios hire professionals from other media to do jobs they could do, and do well.

Not only does this allow little upward mobility for people within the industry, it also results in a poorer product, she argues. “Indie audio dramas tend to have a much better concept of sound design and music use than [non-indie] stuff I’ve heard, and I wonder if that’s because [non-indie] studios are hiring people who have only done these things to go with visuals before, which is a related but still different skill set.”

Greater Boston’s Jeff Van Dreason said, “[Larger studio projects] get more attention because they have bigger budgets, resources, and stars, but I wouldn’t want that to be what defines this art form, because it’s capable of so much more.”

This concept also applies to casting decisions. Many of the podcasters I interviewed for this piece agreed that having a big-name actor on a project is a major selling point for audiences, and that there’s no reason not to use that in the marketing. But they also argued that the problem arises when those names are the only selling points.

“Personally, it doesn’t excite me when I see ‘starring XYZ blockbuster superstar.’ Screen acting and voice acting are two very distinctly different arts,” said Sam Mbatha of String Cast Media.

Jordan Cobb of No Such Thing Productions concurs, giving her perspective as not just a writer, but an actor as well. “My issue isn’t with who’s in the role or how famous they are,” she said. “My issue is when companies sacrifice the story for the sake of getting a little better PR by casting someone famous over someone who is talented or better suited to the role, but less well known.”

Mimi O’Donnell, Gimlet’s head of scripted content, pointed out that well-known actors aren’t really coming to the podcast game for the money: “Our budgets are certainly not comparable to TV productions, so the talent that we work with are not getting compensated at the level that they do for on-screen roles. My sense is that actors gravitate toward scripted podcasting for its versatility. Actors can be creative, tell the stories they’re passionate about, and perform in the convenience of their own clothes. No hair and makeup!”

Lee Davis-Thalbourne of the Melbourne-based Passer Vulpes Productions offered a different perspective on the podcast-to-video pipeline. “In the Australian context, this is something that a few state film organizations have been investigating, although the context is quite different,” he said. “Some boards — Screen Canberra being the one I know about — have been investigating using audio fiction podcasts as a way for indie filmmakers to create art with less risk with the idea that successful audio fiction may provide funding for film. Remember, the Australian film industry is heavily dependent on government grants, not corporate funding, even for those productions coming here from overseas.”

He continued: “In both U.S. and Australian contexts, though, I feel the main concern anyone should have is the question of whether gatekeepers from other industries can establish themselves in our industry.”

And herein lies another dimension to the tension: control.

The discussion of how podcasting has a comparative lower barrier of entry to film and TV has a different edge when it comes to fiction podcasts. It’s cheaper to make a chat podcast between friends than a talk show, say, but it’s astronomically cheaper to make a space opera as a podcast than a blockbuster film. This doesn’t just make podcasting attractive for large studios. It also makes podcasting attractive to queer creators, BIPOC creators, creators with disabilities, and especially creators who hit different intersections of those identities.

While fiction podcasts certainly aren’t perfect and have plenty of work to do, it’s a community that has largely carved out room for representation. Underrepresented voices create the stories that are important to them, which usually means they include underrepresented characters. This attracts underrepresented listeners, who often later become creators. At this point, if a fiction podcast’s cast and crew aren’t largely QPOC, eyebrows are raised by both fans and much of the audio drama community on social media — unless it’s a larger studio. As with any other medium, it’s expected that the places with the most money are the least likely to focus on underrepresented voices. Instead of pushing boundaries, there’s a closer adherence among these players to the status quo.

“We’ve seen how the rest of the artistic world treats stories, and there’s something incredibly special in the independent audio drama community that allows marginalized voices and new, non-traditional stories to have their breathing space,” said Cobb. “There’s a lot of gold in these hills, but if larger studios want to take advantage of that, I think they’ll need to be very careful not to crush those new, beautiful, and sometimes very fragile ideas and voices into the mold of what everybody else is already doing.”

Still, there are some bigger players that have appeared to take representation seriously. Kevin Christopher Snipes‘ The Two Princes is a Gimlet fiction podcast that centers queer youth and was produced in partnership with The Trevor Project. Snipes says he was “very fortunate” in Gimlet — and Mimi O’Donnell specifically — being excited by the queer love story in the podcast. “In fact, the show’s queer-friendly plot was a definite selling point,” he said.

When asked about this specific tension between indie and non-indie fiction podcasting, Snipes responded: “Sadly, there’s no easy and instant solution to this problem, because it’s not just a problem in the entertainment industry. The lack of representation in media, as well as the lack of funding to support projects that champion diverse voices, are symptomatic of American society’s overall devaluation of black, brown, queer, and trans people in general. As long as black, brown, queer, and trans lives are regarded as less valuable and more disposable than straight, white, cis lives by our government, corporate, and religious institutions, the entertainment industry will follow suit.”

One last aspect worth exploring in the relationship between independents and better-funded studios is the question of crossing over. That is, whether indie podcasters would ever partner with large studios. To that question, there is more or less a consensus: yes when it comes to starting new projects, no when it comes to an existing project.

Lilith, of Ghostpuncher Corps, said: “I have plenty of grand ideas that I could make with serious resources behind me. I’ve also got plenty of talents that I could flex in a big budget setting as a part of a team. Someday I’d love to. If I were honestly approached by one of the big names I mentioned before, I would bring in ideas I’m not precious about, nothing close to the heart, nothing I’ve got feelings for…If any major studio wanted to touch my existing work, I’d tell them to come back with a warrant.”

The main concern? Ownership over the intellectual property, and how controlling a studio with substantial finances would exert control. Mbatha described his terms as “very strict.” “It would be more of a collaboration than a buyout,” he said. “I keep full creative control, I chose my team and all that good stuff. I would want access to their resources like studios, marketing, advertising — you know, ‘the machine.'”

Cobb, Lilith, and Van Dreason also said that, even with their suspicion of large studios, it’s important that the suspicion shouldn’t be extended to the indie podcasters who do get the opportunity to work with large studios. Having suspicion, Lilith said, “doesn’t mean turning our noses up at success, but it absolutely does mean guarding off against forces that do not have our best interests in mind, even if it means losing a short-term payday.”

Examples given were Lauren Shippen, who created The AM Archives for Luminary and Marvel’s MARVELS, and Paul Bae, who worked with Shippen on MARVELS and has secured a multi-podcast deal with Spotify. Instead, it was emphasized that these creators are the success stories that large studios can bring into the industry — because it means independent creators are actually being paid.

“I’m going to tell these weird stories no matter what,” said Van Dreason. “And it takes so much work and time. If someone is willing to compensate me for that work and time? I’m certainly not going to immediately say no.”

Wil Williams is a podcast journalist and creator. They are a co-founder of Hug House Productions.

Apple News Today. Caroline here again: Apple has announced some new audio features for the Apple News app and its subscription layer, Apple News+. These include a new daily “audio news briefing” called Apple News Today hosted by Apple News editors Shumita Basu and Duarte Geraldino, audio versions of featured stories in the app, and local news for the Bay Area, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco (with coverage of other places being introduced down the line, we’re told).

Although this move has been written up in some places as Apple launching a competitor to The Daily — The New York Times pulled out of Apple News entirely last month and in March acquired Audm, a company that makes audio versions of written features — it’s probably best seen as an example of using audio to promote the use of existing Apple products. These features will be available in English on the Apple News app in the U.S., with listeners in places like the UK, Canada, Australia, Germany, Sweden, and France able to receive Apple News Today via podcast feed.

Gimlet accessibility lawsuit. Gimlet Media is the subject of a recent class-action lawsuit for failing to make its podcasts accessible to the deaf and hard of hearing. Plaintiff Kahlimah Jones argues in the complaint, filed in New York, that Gimlet’s output violates the Americans with Disabilities Act because its shows don’t have closed captioning. Jones has brought similar cases in the past against companies like Skillshare and Peloton.

Closed captions, or subtitles, are not the same as transcripts — the principle difference being that captions are timed to appear as content plays, rather than being a separate entity that can be read alone. Although plenty of podcast publishers (including Gimlet) have made welcome progress in recent times toward providing more transcripts for their episodes, I’m not aware of any podcast apps that yet support closed captions for podcasts in the way that, say, YouTube does for video.

Show notes.

  • Spectacular Failures from American Public Media and Lauren Ober returns for season 2 on August 3.
  • Get Wired, a new weekly show from Wired magazine, dropped its first episode this week.
  • ZigZag, the “business podcast about being human” from Manoush Zomorodi, has returned for a fifth season and is now part of the TED stable. Zomorodi, of course, is the host of TED Radio Hour and recently dissolved the partnership with producer Jen Poyant that had been responsible for the first four seasons of the show.
  • In Vulture, Nick has an interview up of Ty Harper, the host of the CBC’s This is Not a Drake Podcast.

Photo by Rafał Rudol on Unsplash.

POSTED     July 21, 2020, 8:30 a.m.
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