Issue 258,  published May 12, 2020

Going Live(stream)

Of all the changes that podcast creators have had to grapple with over the last few months, figuring out how to adapt live shows, typically staged in theaters, for the live streaming context has to be among the most dramatic.

Selling tickets for live episode tapings and associated performances has provided a solid chunk of revenue for audiomakers for many years now. Indeed, in 2018, the podcast segment of the live experience market had grown visible enough that the Wall Street Journal even wrote this (slightly wide-eyed) trend piece about it. Plus, on top of the podcasts that use live touring as one revenue stream among many, there are shows that were built specifically with live audiences at the centre of the concept, from storytelling experience like The Moth and RISK! to comedy panel shows like Lovett or Leave It and Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!

It’s one thing to get to grips with how to hold a happy hour for your friends on Zoom, but it’s quite another altogether to work out how to flip a live show into something that can be delivered smoothly over live video… not to mention something good enough that people will still be willing to pay for it.

Over the past week, I’ve been checking in with different shows and teams to find out how podcasters are handling this transition. Along with the practical stuff — take all sensible precautions against Zoom bombers, think hard about what timezone your audience is in when you’re scheduling a stream, try to light yourselves properly — a few larger themes emerged in what they had to say.

Test the tech. Then test it again. While there is a wide range of tech options out there for live streaming an event, finding the one that matches your podcast both in terms of functionality and cost isn’t necessarily that easy… so don’t beat yourself up if there are glitches.

Martin Austwick, who has been coordinating live online events for the Podcast Maker series that usually runs at the London Podcast Festival, said that “the tech for livestreams is still really flaky and weird. If you’re a ninja with the software, you can do all sorts of cool stuff — Jonathan Zenti did a great psychedelic session — but if you’re not a hardened livestreamer, it’s OK to lean into it.”

Catherine Burns, Artistic Director at The Moth, explained that the live storytelling outfit has added a new element to their workflow to try and account for potential platform issues. “We’ve added tech ‘cue-to-cue’ rehearsals. We want everyone going into the evening confident that they know what is happening when.”

Be prepared. From all the conversations I’ve had about this, it quickly became clear that it’s vital to have a Plan B at the ready in case the internet connection drops out or a laptop dies mid sentence. Sarah Myles, who runs the RISE & SHINE audio festival, explained her precautionary setup, which involves a Zoom meeting streamed live to YouTube. “During the festival I used two computers to hold the stream in case something happened and had a mobile hotspot ready if my internet dropped. Also, getting everything ready well in advance is critical — setting up the YouTube links, doing line checks, running a few test streams… These things may seem tedious but they’ll make sure you and your speakers are confident in the process,” she said. Be ready to work hard on this, too: “The amount of tech, coordination and production involved has been pretty mind-blowing,” Burns added. Christina Moore of Don’t Skip Media echoed this as well. People don’t realise “how much work goes into nurturing an audience for free for the livestreams, never mind those behind a paywall,” she explained.

Make it interactive. Myles notes that her audience is noticeably more confident about asking questions online than at previous in person events, so she tries to provide more opportunities for them to get involved. “The podcasting world can often put pressure on people to pretend they know every geeky detail so seeing that pressure ease a bit has been nice,” she said. During shows, she fields questions from YouTube comments and feeds them live to the speakers through Zoom chat. Others I spoke to mentioned having a separate Whatsapp group as a back channel just for performers and crew during the show for the same reason, making sure that they can get through as many questions as possible.

It won’t be the same. Podcasters who are used to seeing a physical audience before them while they are onstage may find the digital experience sterile by comparison, so it’s important to account for that. “It’s impossible to get a sense of the audience because there isn’t an audience in front of you. You can’t hear the laughter after a joke or feel the hushed tones of an audience leaning in towards you during the serious parts,” said Burns.

Kevin Allison, from live true storytelling show RISK!, agreed: “Instead of being able to look right at the audience in the room and play off of their visible and audible reactions, you have to look at your webcam and act as if people are definitely watching and listening to you, because they are!” It might be necessary to refashion your show as a streaming experience. “Don’t try to just point a webcam at your regular stage show and call it a day,” he added. “Figure out how to look and sound your best in a livestream in particular, and take the time to figure out how to give your audience the best viewing experience possible.”

Live is still Live. A universal lesson that everyone I spoke with has had to learn fast: Embrace the Imperfections. “We’re working hard to preserve the essence of the live experience,” said Sarah Haberman, Executive Director for The Moth. “There will always be tech glitches, but even with the snafus, how can we ensure that our audience and tellers will feel connected by the shared experience?” Her colleague Catherine Burns elaborated: “Often the little missteps end up being a memorable part of the night because they remind the audience that we’re all human, trying to make this unprecedented moment in history work.”

Celebrate the upsides. The process of moving live shows online hasn’t been all challenges and tough choices, though. Accessibility was a benefit that several creators highlighted as something positive to come out of this transition. “We have so many fans in far flung locations who would never get the opportunity to see a normal live show anywhere near them who are easily and happily able to come to these online shows,” Allison said. “We also have fans with disabilities and mobility issues who find online shows much more pleasant to attend than in-person shows. We also have fans who are parents who love not having to get babysitters.” Sarah Myles was also delighted to discover how she could integrate YouTube’s automatic closed captioning system into her events: “I can’t afford to pay a captioner for every stream I do live, but having captions there for catch up watching is a great step in the right direction,” she said.

Finally, everyone I spoke to urged those considering streaming events to put as much, if not more, planning and production into them as they would for an in person show. There’s now a lot of competition for listeners’ time and cash in this area as more and more publishers announce summer programmes, so keeping everything focused and purposeful matters.

Allison summed it up: “If you wouldn’t pay or make time to come see your own online live show, why would the audience?”