Adapting digital output for a pandemic

How arts organisations can keep up with the world

This week The Writing Life podcast hit 100 episodes. I’ve been producing this podcast at the National Centre for Writing since mid-2018, which has turned out to be fortuitous.

(practical tips on how to produce a pod can be found down below, if you’re taking your first steps)

Luck is when preparation meets opportunity, as someone clever once said, and the pod perfectly demonstrated that as we descended into the hellscape that is the year 2020. As our physical venue at Dragon Hall in Norwich was forced to close due to lockdown, we were left with an amazing programme of writing events that no longer had a home.

Dragon Hall, usually a vibrant hub of writers

Unknowingly, we had been preparing for this situation. Over the last four years the National Centre for Writing has significantly bolstered its digital outputs, upgrading and improving what it already had and introducing new digital strands. Simultaneously we’d been incorporating digital working internally, primarily to aid transparency, information sharing and productivity. This was driven by an organisational desire to embrace new technologies and audiences but, as Covid-19 fastened its grip around the Earth, it proved to be our way of navigating through the crisis . We were able to transition to remote working relatively painlessly and, critically, maintained our connection to the public.

Face-to-face workshops shifted over to our VLE, which was already running online courses. We launched a new writing and reading community on Discord to help people keep talking. Educational resources were transformed into free online material, ready for school holidays. Major author events, such as one featuring Jenny Offill, transitioned effortlessly over to being podcasts. Our City of Literature strand of the Norfolk & Norwich Festival was reborn as an online experience, featuring podcasts and interactive sessions that didn’t so much try to replicate the physical experience but reinterpret it for its new venue.

The podcast was central to much of this, especially at the start of Covid-19 lockdown. Being a weekly show, it became a way of providing continuity at the start of lockdown, while other aspects of our programme were being retooled. The podcast didn’t have to worry about reinventing itself for the new digital-only reality and was able to carry on as normal, even while we radically shifted how we recorded and edited behind-the-scenes.

Aside from being useful to the organisation as a regular piece of content which could move effortlessly into lockdown life, it also delivered a weekly slice of normality for listeners. When restrictions first hit the UK — and other countries — it was a stressful, difficult, anxiety-inducing global moment. Very little was known about coronavirus, nothing like this had happened in living memory, and every single person was being forced to radically reinvent their daily lives. The regular podcast show was something of a lifeline both for us in terms of our work and for listeners. An island of normality in a sea of weird.

That said, it was also an opportunity to address lockdown life head-on, in a way that wasn’t as easy for our other projects. Each week we could provide an update on how Covid-19 was affecting our work at the centre, and also offer a personal insight into how we were all coping behind-the-scenes and at home. We were very open about the different challenges of producing the podcast from home rather than in the office, and discussion with our guests inevitably had to address the elephant in the room.

The first podcast that was produced entirely during lockdown was a fantastic interview with Jenny Offill. Jenny was supposed to be doing a UK tour to celebrate the launch of her new book Weather, but found herself instead stuck back in the US. Joe Dunthorne was originally to be the host of the live event at Dragon Hall, so we linked him up with Jenny for an online chat. The conversation naturally turned to the strange events that were unfolding.

Much of the digital work what we do aims to be ‘evergreen’ — content which doesn’t date and will aways be useful to writers. I want an episode of our podcast from a year ago to be as interesting as the latest one. Covid-19 demanded a shift, as ignoring it was at best ridiculous and at worst irresponsible. Demonstrating to listeners — many of whom are writers — that it was OK to struggle with the ‘new normal’ was essential.

The podcast was able to carry and support major events which would ordinarily exist in physical, face-to-face formats. Owen Sheers announced his new International Literature Showcase selection (which in itself was unexpectedly timely, being about questions which will shape our future), while Sam Winston and Max Porter were able to introduce a highly visual art installation. With so much art and entertainment halted, it was exciting to be able to continue parts of the programme in this form.

Mid-2018 when we launched the podcast seems like an entirely different time. By the time Covid-19 hit we’d already established the show, figured out many of the kinks and built an audience. It meant that our lockdown-forced episodes weren’t trying to start something entirely from scratch, but were building on a year and a half of work.

The lesson there is that if you haven’t already started making a podcast, now is the time to consider it. Most on-going digital programmes are slow burn things, building over time. You won’t usually see results until months down the line, so waiting until you need a podcast to deliver your content — such as during a global pandemic — will limit its potential.

Hitting 100 episodes

If we’d set a target of producing 100 episodes back in early 2018 I doubt we’d have embarked upon the project. We’d never have time to make 100 episodes of a podcast!

Doing one at a time, week-by-week, becomes suddenly possible. Much like breaking a novel down into chapters. Or a marathon down into one step at a time.

It’s turned out to be an effective way to reach people regularly and frequently. It binds together our excitingly diverse portfolio of projects, able to introduce each of them to audiences. Crucially, it pushes our output internationally: we have listeners from all over ther world.

One week at a time we’ve built a resource of useful material for writers. When we’re contacted by writers looking for help in a particular area, invariably we already have a podcast covering that subject that we can point them toward.

And, it turns out, it put us in an excellent position to be resilient during a massive, unprecedented global pandemic. That wasn’t part of the initial project brief back in 2018, but I guess that was unconsciously the ‘preparation’ part of the luck equation.

Producing a podcast during lockdown

Podcasts, and audio content in general, is pleasingly immune to disruption from Covid-19. We were able to continue producing the show during the transition from office to home working without any interruption in the schedule and without any meaningful change in quality.

Audio is vastly cheaper and easier to produce than video. It still requires some technical expertise, and evidently there’s always going to be a gulf between a truly professional, BBC-level production and something more DIY and ad hoc. However, the separation between professional, semi-professional and amateur is much less drastic in audio than with video.

Making a good video is incredibly hard. And will either take a long time, or a lot of money. Whereas making good audio is relatively cheap and simple. Podcast listeners are also quite relaxed about technical quality: as long as the technicals are good enough, the main thing will always be the quality of the content itself.

We rely on some key equipment:

  • Decent microphones, which cannot be underestimated. If you start with bad mics, everything else will be bad and difficult. Use good mics and your job will be easier and the end product better. That doesn’t mean you have to spend hundreds or thousands of pounds, though. I have a Blue Snowball mic which I use at home. Cost about £60 and does a perfectly good job.
  • Ordinarily we use a Zoom H4N portable recorder to record the pod, because we tend to be roaming around Dragon Hall and recording in different spaces, or out at other venues. It’s a great investment, especially if you’re podding on the move. We’re not using it during home working, because we’re stuck in our locations.
  • Adobe Audition is our choice of audio editor. The Creative Cloud license has made it very easy to shift our necessary software (also including Premiere Pro for video and Photoshop for images) from our office to our home computers. Adobe CC isn’t cheap, though, and its licensing isn’t very friendly towards non-profits, so if you need a free alternative there’s always Audacity.
  • Nvidia RTX Voice is a very new technology which rolled out conveniently at the start of lockdown. This is only available on compatible PCs but has proven exceedingly useful. It’s an AI-, machine learning-based noise removal system which cleans up audio while retaining human voice. Ordinarily I’d avoid processing the source recording, but it’s been essential during lockdown due to the nature of my setup. I can record the pod even when the grass in the cemetary outside is being mown by a giant industrial mower. It immediately removes the fan hum from my computer. any background shouts from my 7 year old disappear. If you have the hardware it’s amazing and can save a lot of time and pain in post.
  • A service we’d used numerous times prior to lockdown is Zencastr. This is an audio chat service designed specifically for podcast producers, which records participant audio locally on their computer, then uploads the individual tracks at the end for editing. This means that internet glitches and minor dropouts during recording don’t affect the actual recordings. I’ve only had Zencastr go wrong on me once, and it otherwise has been very reliable. It’s also free, unless you’re really pushing it.

If you’re just getting started with a pod you’ll also need to find somewhere to host it. This is where your audio files live on the internet, so that listeners can download and stream episodes. We currently use Soundcloud for various legacy issues, but if you’re starting out I’d recommend looking at a more professional setup such as Libsyn. We’re intending to make the switch to a dedicated pod host this summer.

Once you’ve got your mics, the monthly/annual host payment is the only real expenditure you’ll have for the podcast. The main resource drain is time, but tight budgets shouldn’t prevent you from exploring the medium.

For more specifics on arts, non-profit and culture podcasting I’d recommend checking out Hannah Hethmon’s Your Museum Needs a Podcast.

You can subscribe and listen to The Writing Life podcast here: https://nationalcentreforwriting.org.uk/ncw-podcast/

Photo by Matt Botsford on Unsplash

Find out more about me at https://simonkjones.com. You can even support my writing at https://patreon.com/simonkjones

The National Centre for Writing continues to be excellent — check them out here: https://nationalcentreforwriting.org.uk/

Writer & tutor. Serialised fiction author. Producer of the Writing Life podcast at the National Centre for Writing. http://simonkjones.com

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