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How To Wind Down a Pandemic Podcast

When lockdown orders started coming into effect around the world back in March, everyone I spoke with in podcast-land articulated their need to do something to meet this unprecedented moment. In the following weeks, numerous spin off projects were launched, and listeners started to find podcasts of all kinds catering to different aspects of the pandemic. We’ve spent some time covering this trend — from feeds for kids to online live shows — over the past few months, and observing how this sudden influx of new shows has impacted those who make them.

These days, I’m interested in a different question: how do you know when to end your pandemic podcast? What initially felt like an acute emergency has now warped into a “new normal.” We’re now around several months out from the initial widespread implementation of stay-at-home measures around the world, and the protest movements that have emerged since have added a new context to the way podcasters are working. By any definition, it’s been a long time to stay in a heightened state, subject to so much creative, professional, and person stress. No matter how important pandemic coverage may be, failing to recognise the effects of working at that level for so long can lead to burnout.

Plenty of teams are now contemplating winding down those pandemic shows — both as a reflection of how the world has changed, and as a way of taking care of employee health. To understand the decisions around how and when this is happening, I spoke with two teams of different sizes that substantially stepped up their workload in the face of the coronavirus crisis, and are now transitioning to a more sustainable arrangement.

The first was Freakonomics Radio, which went all in on covering COVID-19 in their weekly episodes from mid-March onwards. They’ve now dialed that back, driven largely by the needs of their team.

“In all honesty, [the decision] was largely driven by our need for a break,” executive producer Alison Craiglow told me over email. “We have more COVID-related episodes in production now, but we feel they will withstand a delay of a week or two, and everyone on our staff (which is very small) was pretty fried. Going forward, we’ll keep covering COVID quite a bit — it’s right in our wheelhouse of data, economics,  and human behavior — but we’ll be publishing episodes on other topics as well, that don’t require such a quick turnaround.”

However, she said “aside from the obvious burnout” and the technical challenges of working completely remotely, the past couple of months have been a largely positive experience for the show, and that there are some practices that have emerged from this time that the team will be taking forward into future production. “We are pretty unaccustomed to turning things around in a week or less, which is what we’ve been doing these past few months, every week. It has been great to flex those muscles and to learn from the breakneck pace,” she explained. “There are lots of efficiencies we’ve had to institute — both in terms of streamlining some of our production processes and in approaching the research and interviews — and I think we’ll retain some of those even when we get back to a more normal production schedule.”

The biggest takeaway has been that they can be more discerning about how they allocate resources, especially in pre-production. “In the past we mostly didn’t distinguish between interviews that require deep background research and those that don’t require as much,” Craiglow said. “Producers worked under the assumption that they needed to deliver those really robust packets for every single interview. But the reality is, some don’t need that.”

Doree Shafrir and Kate Spencer, who host the self care podcast Forever35 and have recently started executive producing other shows, went a different route with their pandemic coverage. After initially making a special episode of their main show that featured interviews with an epidemiologist and listeners quarantined in Italy, they then launched a new daily show called Here For You on its own feed. These episodes were about thirty minutes long, and had the explicit mission to “help you get through the global pandemic without going completely bananas.”

The first episode dropped on 23 March, and the show continued to put out an episode every weekday for the next ten weeks. From the start, the hosts were explicit about how they weren’t seeking to monetise Here For You, and if sponsors did ever come along they would donate the revenue to charity.

Shafrir told me that the decision to wind down the show after 50 episodes felt right. “When we launched, we naively assumed that lockdown would last two weeks, maybe four weeks at most. Now we’re going on ten, eleven weeks? Who knows, I’ve lost count,” she said.

She added: “The point is, we had never planned on doing the podcast indefinitely, and it seemed like after 10 weeks and 50 episodes, that it would be nice to end on a high note before everyone got sick of us. Also, it turns out that doing a daily podcast is a lot of work. Who knew?”

Shafrir and Spencer had been making seven podcast episodes a week during this time, with their usual two Forever35 installments on top of the five weekday Here For You check ins, so it isn’t surprising that the work was a lot to handle. However, Shafrir said that even though Here For You has now come to an end, they would be importing some elements of it into their main show going forward.

“We learned that people actually enjoyed hearing from us every day, which we honestly weren’t sure would be the case,” she said. “We also learned that people wanted to hear more about our day-to-day lives. So we tweaked the schedule and format of Forever35 to accommodate what we’d learned.” Forever35 will now move from two episodes a week (a main edition and a shorter mini episode) to three, with the two shorter episodes structured like the erstwhile daily show.

“We’ll be doing a catch-up with each other in the beginning of the episodes, followed by hearing from listeners, followed by another short segment we did on Here For You — a word, activity, theme for the episode. We found that people liked the sense of community that these fostered, in addition to giving people ideas for things to do during quarantine,” Shafrir added.

It was encouraging to hear from those I spoke to for this piece that avoiding or mitigating burnout was a primary factor in deciding to step back from these pandemic projects. This is a story line I’ve been tracking in the podcast industry for a while, and it has definitely not always been the case that mental health concerns inform these kinds of decisions. More than that, I think there is now a recognition that things aren’t just going to snap back to where they were at the start of 2020. The short term choices must now be refined and modified to work for the long haul.