We tore up our podcast schedule. Today we’re scrappy & immediate.

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All the awful things about the coronavirus crisis are obvious — from the economic calamity and disruption of social distancing to the virus itself.

But for podcasters, there are opportunities as well challenges. When the pandemic erupted, our team at “How Do We Fix It?” had to react in a hurry. We tossed our spring program plans into the trash.

Our weekly solutions journalism podcast does interviews about constructive ideas aimed at making the world a better place. Instead of carefully constructed shows worked out weeks in advance, we’re winging it, booking guests one or two days ahead. Many authors, journalists and thought leaders have time on their hands, and are easier to get. Scrappy and immediate is the order of the day. Quick turnaround time is essential.

The same is true for countless other content creators.

We are all being constantly surprised. And we have no idea how this thing will end. A Pew Research Center poll finds that the coronavirus outbreak is having profound impacts on the personal lives of Americans. Nearly nine-in-ten U.S. adults say their life has changed in a moderate or major way.

Listening and viewing habits have changed. A new survey by the research firm, Podsights, says that the big fear among podcast publishers in the early days of the pandemic “was with fewer people commuting, we would see a massive decrease in people listening to podcasts.” But the results are mixed. While some shows have taken a dive, audiences for news podcasts are up by as much as 30%.

We run a podcast consulting business. At the end of February when the economy tanked, the fear was that our clients would trim their sails and shy away from making new commitments. As a consolation prize, I thought, maybe I’d be able to make a dent on the tower of books on my bedside shelf.

Instead, we’re busier than ever.

Along with countless others, we found new ways to work remotely. We learned how to record up to four people on separate audio channels — something we’d never tried before. The challenge was to make it quick and easy for guests to jump on the line and speak with us.

Companies and causes alike are in fast forward mode — searching for new ways to say something of value. Some are launching brand new podcasts, while others are producing them with a greater sense of urgency. Deadlines have gone from weeks to days to hours.

The corporate leadership podcast that we produce needed a 72-hour turnaround on an interview with a prominent CEO.

A cable TV company that we work with has turned their weekly podcast into a daily show about the pandemic.

Common Ground Committee, a non-profit group that brings together politicians and public servants prominent leaders, had to cancel public events. Instead, they put podcasts on the front burner, and are working an urgent new series of shows that address the current crisis.

Politicians and thought leaders are finding new ways to communicate. Andrew Yang launched a new issues-based podcast. So has Joe Biden. The now-certain Democratic Presidential nominee faces the daunting prospect of being shunted to the sidelines: ignored and disregarded before the convention. “Here’s The Deal With Joe Biden”, launched at the end of March, might help him stay relevant.

The Biden campaign said it will expand the conversations to beyond the pandemic. The shows are unscripted and allow for the possibility of surprise.

Many brands are in a Biden boat, facing a “WTF happened to my carefully orchestrated communications strategy” moment.

Podcasting during this crisis may help them deal with a gut-wrenching challenge, allowing them to face into the wind and demonstrate how they’re committed to the communities they serve.

Richard Davies is a podcast consultant with DaviesContent, and co-host of the weekly solutions journalism podcast, “How Do We Fix It?”

Simple storytelling and the Radiolabification of podcasting.

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I hate to dump on “The Daily”.

Apart from editing and producing our own shows, this brilliant New York Times podcast takes up more of my listening time than any other.  For news junkies, “The Daily” is part of our weekday morning routine. The show’s genial and ever curious host, Michael Barbaro, is like a friend at breakfast time.

So I take it personally when something is not quite right.

Recently, on several “The Daily” documentary episodes, a bit too much production has been getting in the way of the narrative. The informal, often intimate approach that is unique to podcasting,  is occasionally replaced by a more careful and rehearsed construction.

One example came this week in an otherwise gripping episode about the chaotic Trump Administration zero-tolerance policy that led to 2,000 migrant children being separated from their parents.

At one point, the sound of  the computer keyboard can be heard as New York Times national immigration reporter Caitlin Dickerson discusses her emails seeking information on the children from the Department of Homeland Security. To my ears, this was distracting, adding neither information nor enhanced atmosphere. Several other soundbites and mood music tracks also got in the way of the compelling narration.

On “The Daily”, the Times reporters are the stars. Let them unpack their deep understanding of the beats they cover without too many interruptions.

Perhaps you disagree with me or think that this is a trivial quibble. But it’s part of a broader trend in podcasts made by companies, where teams of producers and editors often spend many hours crafting a single episode.

Perhaps they take their cues from “Radiolab“, the critically acclaimed, two-time Peabody Award-winning science and philosophy podcast and public radio show that began life on WNYC in 2002. Over the years, Radiolab’s inventive, playful use of sound has been a delight to listen to.

But maybe the show’s influence on fellow podcasters has become too great.

When podcast creators lack the deep skills of Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad, rich, textured sound can be turned into a formula. Some well-written podcasts are burdened by the overuse of ambient sound and music.

This school of complex, layered production can sound precious, and be a barrier to understanding. A podcasting friend of mine from South Asia, who learned English as a second language, calls it confusing. Perhaps that’s because she didn’t grow up listening to the distinct sound of American public radio programs and documentaries.

Usually, spare is best. What makes podcasting and audiobooks so penetrating and memorable is the presence of a single human voice in your ears, telling you a story.

Often that’s enough. Intimacy requires nothing more.

Richard Davies is a podcaster, consultant and media coach. He runs DaviesContent.

 

Hey, Hillary! Tell More Stories.


By most measures Hillary Clinton had a pretty good night in her first debate with Donald Trump.  But something was missing.

Her disciplined performance may have convinced wavering voters to be somewhat more comfortable with the idea of her as President.  Clinton’s cool, calm demeanor contrasted with Donald Trump’s repeated interruptions and bluster.  She was also successful in getting under his skin.

However, Clinton did little to overcome her two biggest negatives: likeability and trust.  Neither did Trump.  Both are still disliked by surprisingly large numbers of voters. 

In the two debates to come, the breakout candidate could be the one who tells the best stories.

Clinton’s strongest moment on Monday night came right at the end of the 90 minute debate, after many may have turned it off.  She raised the case of former Miss Universe Alicia Machado, who Trump had called “Miss Piggy” and “Miss Housekeeping.”

She made it personal. Her remark struck home because it was about a woman who many viewers could relate to.  

Same thing when Clinton talked about her late father and his work as a drapery maker. 

“Donald was very fortunate in his life and that’s all to his benefit. He started his business with $14 million, borrowed from his father,” she said.  “I have a different experience.”

In podcasts, the most successful moments are often the most intimate. When podcast guests share something unrehearsed, unexpected or emotional from their lives, they lift the curtain on they are and establish trust with the listener. 

All too often Clinton talks about “it” – policies and programs – while her opponent talks about “me” – himself.

Donald Trump could also be a much better storyteller. And given his extraordinary success in building his brand, it’s surprising he doesn’t know this.

Instead of talking about the “rigged system” in the abstract, Trump could share stories of the working class Americans he speaks for, who’ve seen their living standards decline in recent decades.

In the weeks to come, a personal touch potentially would have a far greater impact than his angry attacks on illegal immigrants and free trade. It would also counter the impression that Trump lacks empathy and is obsessed with his own success. 

Ronald Reagan understood this trick all too well – much to the frustration of his liberal opponents.  In debates and speeches, he always had a good tale to tell.  Skeptical voters who’d been warned that Reagan was a shallow extremist would ask themselves: “How this man be mean or out of touch when he was such a good storyteller?”

It was of Ronald Reagan’s great secrets. But then he was an old radio guy. He knew the stuff that today’s podcasters learn along the way.