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Coronavirus Is Changing Podcasting, Fast

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More than anything in a very long time, the global coronavirus pandemic will reorganize all our lives on a major scale, whether it’s the immediate effects on daily life or its longer-term economic impact. Podcasting is no different. Shows are drastically scaling down their studio time, production teams are increasingly shifting to remote workflows, public radio stations are postponing their pledge drives, and independents are bracing for hits to their business models.

Here, a look at how the podcast world is handling the crisis.

Risk Management

On Tuesday, NPR provided station leaders with 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 — a practice that should be adopted widely beyond the public media community.

Meanwhile, production teams around the country with considerable staff sizes have begun implementing COVID-19 preparedness plans. Those plans tend to revolve around shifting to remote work arrangements, limiting in-office work 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.

The global coronavirus pandemic is an exceedingly fluid situation, obviously, and a common characteristic of these plans is an explicit recognition of that reality. Specific policies may come with stated end dates — the work-from-home policy for the Center for Investigative Reporting, which produces Reveal, is said to be in effect through March 27, for example — but they are couched within the expectation that those dates may, and likely will, be revised as the situation develops.

To state the obvious: Risk management is the major organizing principle in these efforts. For some, this has meant the suspension of major community campaigns, as in the case of the Los Angeles–based Maximum Fun, which moved to postpone the MaxFunDrive, its recurring fundraising effort. That team will instead reallocate its efforts to 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 issued boom mics when they are sent into the field, with the idea that the equipment would allow them to keep the recommended six-foot distance. The organization has also canceled 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 completely broadcast from remote locations should its headquarters later be found contaminated.

The Social Distancing Begins

The focus on minimizing studio time is a commonly held one. “We’ve been planning for this inevitability for the last few weeks, unfortunately,” said Laura Mayer, chief operating officer of the New York–based Three Uncanny Four. That team has already adopted a full work-from-home plan, developed by its director of operations, Nuna Ali Charafeddine. That plan includes providing recording kits to producers and hosts who need them, along with efforts to set up a bevy of at-home technological work-arounds.

Stitcher, which operates the popular comedy-podcast network Earwolf, has asked its employees to work from home and to make plans for show recordings on a case-by-case basis. For some podcasts, this means recording virtually. For others, it means delaying release schedules or holding production for later in the spring. Meanwhile, shows that absolutely require studio time, like the revered Comedy Bang! Bang!, will be limiting the number of people in the studio.

The shift to a remote workflow also involves maintaining continuity of normal workplace processes and expectations. For Three Uncanny Four, that means keeping 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,” said Mayer.

Meanwhile, the Vox Media Podcast Network has completely stopped using its owned and operated studios, shifting to a remote workflow. Its efforts are based on an emphasis on remote recording with hosts and guests where possible, the provision of remote engineering support and recording equipment when needed, and an ongoing exploration of cloud-based recording solutions to further solidify the distributed workflow.

(Quick 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 persistently publishing podcasts, has implemented a set of best practices designed around the challenges of its network size. (Those best practices were designed by its operations team, which includes operations manager Asha Saluja and technical director Merritt Jacob.) Similarly, those plans involve distributing recording equipment to everybody, along with efforts to teach everyone how to self-record in home environments with sufficiently adequate sound quality.

The Daily Podcasts Adjust

A particular challenge involves the production of daily podcasts, already tough under regular circumstances. Slate currently operates two in its portfolio: What Next with Mary Harris and The Gist with Mike Pesca. This is how the What Next team describes its arrangement:

Harris 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,” the team 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.”

Reduced Audio Quality

Among more than a few production teams, there is a general acceptance that audio quality will likely take a hit under these conditions. But they also view the cost as a necessary one. Tracking in less-than-studio-silent recording environments, relying on phoners instead of sending someone out to tape sync (and 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 the things they have to live with to help prevent the worst.

“Our audio quality will suffer, but health and stopping community spread is most important,” said Three Uncanny Four’s Mayer.

Then again, perhaps there is a marginal silver lining to be found with these drops in audio quality. These are deeply irregular times, and less than perfect audio quality may well be something that communicates the humanness of the myriad podcast and radio folk working to get their shows out to supply their communities 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 a small consolation, but it’s consolation nonetheless.

What About the Indies?

While the implications of social distancing and quarantine will be felt by podcast-makers no matter where they work, being independent or working completely freelance often comes with greater precariousness. And that was the universal theme of all the conversations we’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 we heard about is what we would expect: Interviews and tape syncs are being canceled 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 that 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 — plenty of people raised the extra time this takes, which is an issue if the project is being paid at a fixed-fee rate. People are also considering posting 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 canceled, as is — of course — 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 moving can mean extra months before an expected invoice gets paid. (“No recording, no invoicing,” is how one hard-hit freelancer succinctly put it.) There were some heartening stories of people being paid in advance of postponed work; hopefully, there’s a lot more of that to come.

The general economic downturn that is coming with the spread of coronavirus is also already impacting audio freelancers. Kristofor Lawson of Lawson Media in Melbourne, Australia, said they 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 component, such as a studio or co-working 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. 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 canceled, there’s now a potentially 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.”

When interviewed, plenty of these podcasters spoke about community and routine, and how they wanted to keep making their usual shows as long as possible to help listeners feel normal. Which is really great. But there’s also a lot of freelancers who are going to see much smaller paychecks in the next few months, and we have very little sense of what the longer-term impact of that might be on this industry.

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Coronavirus Is Changing Podcasting, Fast