What do podcasts owe their listeners at a time like this?
This is a question I’ve been turning over in my mind for the past few weeks, as the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic rippled out around the world. For those working in the current affairs space, the answer is pretty clear: rigorous, well sourced updates about your beat made to the best of your team’s ability under the new circumstances. It’s no surprise that we’ve seen plenty of daily news podcasts adapt to providing almost entirely coronavirus coverage, as well as new spin-offs launched into this space. Although the subject matter might be unprecedented, the methodology at work is largely the same. After all, these are shows built to cover fast moving news stories. For science podcasts, too, the path is reasonably clear. There’s a straightforward angle for history shows as well, with parallels to draw with the 1918 flu pandemic and other major events of the kind.
It’s for regularly publishing shows that aren’t directly related to news or science that the question of how to conduct one’s self becomes trickier to parse. The capability to react to the outbreak in a timely fashion may well be there, especially if the show was already recorded regularly with guests or hosts dialing in remotely. Then again, just because you can talk about coronavirus, it maybe doesn’t necessarily follow that you should.
This dilemma reminds me of a somewhat regular problem I would have when I used to run the website for a weekly current affairs magazine in London. If something overtly significant happened — like, say, an act of terrorism — we had the publishing tools to engage in rolling updates, and indeed, that’s what my boss often wanted us to do. But as a smaller publication that largely specialized in commentary and long-range reporting, we weren’t actually equipped with the right kind of breaking news reporters and editors who could make sure that what we did was contributory, effective, and responsible. At best, we could do good secondhand curation of information for our readers, but that didn’t really help satiate the feeling that we should immediately be doing something major in response to a major incident.
In my recent conversations about how podcasting as a whole relates to this problem now, I’ve heard people make the case for two broadly opposite approaches. On the one side, some argue that whether you’re a pop culture discussion show or an improv comedy podcast, you should carry on as before, as you’d be providing listeners with a needed form of escapism. (Plus, you’d be avoiding the trap of spreading misinformation unwittingly.) Beyond perhaps noting the existence of the pandemic and politely reminding listeners to stay indoors and keep washing their hands, so this line of thinking goes, there’s no need to get into it any further.
On the other side, it’s been suggested to me that the intimacy and community around a podcast is the perfect place for people to get into their feelings about the outbreak. A lot of listeners are loyal to their favourite podcasts in a way that they are to few other forms of media these days — the podcast advertising industry thrives on this — and want to hear their chosen hosts’ take on “the new normal,” even if they aren’t an expert or a scientist or anything like.
One of the more prominent shows that has engaged with this latter approach is Gimlet’s Reply All, which so far has published two episodes of “The Attic and Closet Show” composed of calls from listeners around the world. Although peppered with the hosts’ trademark teasing banter, the actual content is quite far from the podcast’s usual beat. Other podcasts have done similar things as well, like Forever35’s March 16 episode featuring listeners under lockdown in Italy, or the comedy show Radio Spaetkauf’s coverage of how quarantine regulations are being policed in Berlin.
For what it’s worth, I’m finding that I can’t personally listen to much about the virus at the moment without experiencing serious anxiety. I’m managing to keep up with the UK’s daily government briefing, but listening to first person accounts about just how bad it all is around the world or speculation about what this might mean for our future civil liberties is beyond my capability right now.
I am, however, aware that not everybody feels the same — in fact, I’m sure some feel precisely the opposite way to me and are hungry for as much virus solidarity content as they can get. Which brings me back to my original question: what do podcasts owe their listeners at a time like this? There is no definite answer, of course, because there’s no one right way to meet this moment. Publishers have responsibilities to be fair, accurate, and avoid being gratuitous with what they do, but then that’s true when there isn’t a pandemic happening as well. Some listeners might take a break if they find your approach doesn’t work for them, and that’s to be expected. But when you get right down to it, all that podcasters owe their listeners is… well, accuracy, of course, but also kindness and a pact to be understanding.
Everything else is up to you.