Issue 300,  published April 6, 2021

Radio’s Prelude to Overwork in Podcasting

When Phoebe Keane started working on podcasts for the BBC, she anticipated the amount of work it would take — which is, by all accounts, a lot. As a broadcast reporter and audio producer based in the U.K., she saw her experience as in line with the principles of the prestigious national institution, which delivers news as well as an assortment of creative content, like this artistic reflection on lust. But the amount of labor that goes into these productions might not be all that apparent to the outside listener. Sometimes, it isn’t even apparent to the BBC itself.

To be clear: Keane’s not complaining. I had originally reached out to her because I wanted to understand more about non-true-crime audio documentaries, particularly how they’re planned and budgeted for. But as we talked, I found myself surprised not only by how much work she, alone, puts into one of the shows we were discussing, but also by how normal she made this amount of work seem. And so I felt compelled to ask her more about it.

In early 2019, Keane had been producing a standalone BBC segment about why opinions on climate change have become as politicized as they are. “In my research for making that one 20-minute program, I came across Naomi Oreskes’ work and realized there was so much more evidence there,” she says. “It was too complex, so I decided it needed to be made into a series.”

Keane willingly pursued a more comprehensive, longer-term project: what eventually became the ten-episode series How They Made Us Doubt Everything, which covers oil companies’ attempts to muddy public understanding of climate change, specifically as they relate to efforts to do the same thing for the causes of cancer, as employed by tobacco companies years earlier. “Lots of people have covered this before, Keane says, citing Los Angeles Times reporting in particular. But she believed that the BBC’s platform could widen the reach of previous coverage; further, addressing the subject in a serialized manner would permit a deeper dive.

The sheer amount of work this would require of Keane was apparent to her from the start, beginning with working on her original standalone piece, conducting the additional research that inspired, and developing a comprehensive pitch. A commissioning editor for BBC Radio 4 approved the proposal, but when Keane was given the green light, what she wasn’t given was a team.

“It’s just me — I’m the producer, and I did all the research,” she says. “I chose who we were going to interview, I chose the structure, and I wrote a brief.”

She auditioned hosts, ultimately choosing the journalist Peter Pomerantsev, and the larger production process, which took about four months in total, kicked off. Pomerantsev interviewed sources on tape by following Keane’s research, selection, and guidance, she says, and down the line, she was assisted by someone on a one-week stint to physically stitch together the audio, then a sound designer a bit later on. (Of the latter: “We had this really funny half hour where I was just making noises at him,” says Keane, who was trying to convey a sound she imagined for one particular moment in the show.) There was also a department editor who gave the final say on cuts, and given the particular complexity of the series’ topic, they occasionally did a play-through for some colleagues, but that was it.

“People will be shocked to hear it, but it really was just me and Peter,” says Keane.

To some podcast producers, this might sound perfectly normal. Whether or not that should sound normal is a different question — which I’ll get to shortly — but as I mentioned at the start, the particular context of this being a BBC project implied there would be even more layers of work. Let’s break down what that means.

“At the BBC, with our journalism,” Keane says, “accuracy is really important,” part of which has to do with honoring historical expectations: In a recent study conducted by Ofcom (short for the U.K.-government-adjacent Office of Communications), “[t]ime and again people reiterated the importance they place on the BBC as a universally-available and accessible source of accurate and trusted news.” The other part has to do with attracting future investment: The BBC is a public service broadcaster, but its content isn’t free; the government charges a “license fee” on its behalf, kind of like a tax, and if the BBC releases content that garners complaints, people might take issue with paying that fee, Keane says.

As such, talking to lawyers and company representatives, as when accessing files and gathering statements for How They Made Us Doubt Everything, can — and, some might say, should — take weeks. Though legal counsel could be accessed in house, the only real barrier that eliminated for, in this case, the show’s sole producer, was the cost of such services.

“There’s a lot of importance on the reputation of the BBC,” says Keane. When a mistake is made, it reflects on a lot of people. “It’s not just me, even though it is me doing all of the work.”

Keane is humble. She credits her ability to nearly single-handedly execute a show like How They Made Us Doubt Everything to the institutional support that working for the BBC has offered, as well as the practices she’s been exposed to through her radio background more broadly. But she’s also mastered the act of doing a dozen things in one job, a skill that’s often taken for granted by institutions and, as such, can inform the formation of production teams that are too small for folks to complete the work and keep their heads. The mountain of expectations for producers has been assimilated into the world of radio in which Keane was trained, as it’s already showing itself to be in the world of podcasting.

As I said, the amount of responsibility put on Keane as a podcast producer, and the versatility expected of her, isn’t unusual, but her embrace of — or at least preparedness for — it is what struck me, as it appears to illustrate how the demands of the modern producer, though they are tackled and managed by people of all stripes (however egregious those demands may be), might be best anticipated by people who’ve trained under rigorous news organizations.

While an awareness of certain industry practices is necessary for investigative documentary podcasts, I’d like to think that the accompanying overwork isn’t, whether for that genre or the many others in which producers find themselves overworked and under-resourced. Isn’t podcasting supposed to be for everyone? A given producer might not need to use legal counsel for the show they work on (and whether they can afford it is a whole other conversation), yet their plate may still be way, way overfilled. This can’t be said often enough — particularly because, even within industries that, for better or worse, condition producers to expect this, the target continues to move.

“Even within the BBC, we’ve had problems,” Keane says, at least over the past year. She estimates that recording remotely has added on five hours per guest, what with checking, setting up, and coaching them through the tech they’ll be using, amounting to “hours and hours and hours before even getting to the point where we’d begin in normal times.” And even then, as many producers would surely know, you still have to obtain the file, download it, convert it, etc.

Higher ups sometimes don’t understand these more recent holdups, says Keane, whose home internet, she says, is also pretty slow. That adds time and increases pressure to meet deadlines, which is already pressurized by the additional work.

And yet, the machine churns on.

“You don’t want to be the one who says this isn’t achievable with a deadline,” Keane says. “You don’t want to be the weak link.”

Aria has been reporting since 2015, making audio since 2016. She’s moved between the two worlds, but here, she’s in both.