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The Coronavirus Issue: Battle Tactics for the Pandemic Prepared Workplace

First of all, shouts to KUOW’s excellent Battle Tactics for Your Sexist Workplace podcast, apologies for copping the title, it just stuck in my head and I couldn’t help it.

Anyway, speaking of KUOW — the Washington state public radio station with an office in Seattle, the first US city to get really slammed by the virus — I’d like to kick things off by plugging this Current piece by the station’s news director, Jill Jackson, which lays out several recommendations for how newsrooms should approach the outbreak as it reaches their respective communities, based on their hard-earned experiences.

The whole thing is definitely worth checking out, but one specific thing I’d like to highlight from the piece is the following fact: on Tuesday, NPR provided station leaders with a list of best practices that includes the recommendation that reporters should be given the right to veto an assignment if it feels too risky for them. In my opinion, this practice should be adopted widely beyond the public media community.

Meanwhile, radio and podcast production teams around the country with considerable staff sizes have begun implementing COVID-19 preparedness plans. Those plans tend to revolve around shifting to remote work arrangements, limiting in-office work to essential production personnel, suspending nonessential travel, and maintaining a good flow of communication with staff to keep everybody on top of latest developments, best practices, and further information resources.

If you work for an organization that hasn’t yet developed a comprehensive preparedness plan or is in the midst of doing so, or if you simply would like to see what another team is doing in order to bolster your own policies/confidence, you should most definitely check out the preparedness plan made by the Bay Area-based team at the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal podcast. Annie Chabel, the team’s Chief Operating Officer, very generously made those plans publicly available through a living Google doc, which you can find here.

The global coronavirus pandemic is an exceedingly fluid situation, obviously, and a common characteristic of these plans is an explicit recognition of that reality. Specific policies may come with stated end dates — Reveal’s work-from-home policy is said to be in effect through March 27, for example — but they are couched within the expectation that those dates may, and likely will, be revised as the situation develops.

One other thing I’d like to spotlight in Reveal’s preparedness efforts: the fact that they are working to increase the flexibility of their leave policies to accommodate for however conditions may change for the individual situation of every worker. Again, this should be a widespread approach, in my opinion.

To state the obvious: risk management is the organizing principle in these efforts. For some, this has meant the temporary cancellation of major community campaigns, as in the case of the Los Angeles-based Maximum Fun, which moved to postpone the MaxFunDrive, its recurring fundraising effort. That team will instead reallocate their efforts to alternative means of engaging its community. “During the next couple of weeks, we’re going to do our best to be extra available to you,” wrote Maximum Fun founder Jesse Thorn in a blog post announcing the postponement. “We’ve got some streaming events planned, some social media stuff. We know a lot of folks are isolated right now and we want to help provide comfort in the ways we know how.”

Southern California Public Radio, a fellow Los Angeles-based organization, cancelled their pledge drive after the first day. It’s a tough decision, but I’m told that member response has nevertheless been positive, with people donating online.

On a production-level, SCPR has started limiting in-community host reporting. Meanwhile, reporters are issued boom mics when they are sent into the field, with the idea that the equipment would allow them to keep the recommended six-foot distance. The organization has also cancelled public events through the end of the month, with the expectation of extending that policy through April. Office work is limited to essential production personnel, and the station is preparing to completely broadcast from remote locations should its headquarters be later found contaminated.

The focus on minimizing studio time is a commonly held one. “We’ve been planning for this inevitability for the last few weeks, unfortunately,” Laura Mayer, Chief Operating Officer of the New York-based ThreeUncannyFour, tells me. That team has already adopted a full work-from-home plan, which was developed by their director of operations, Nuna Ali Charafeddine. That plan includes providing recording kits to producers and hosts who need them, along with efforts to set up a bevvy of at-home technological workarounds.

The shift to a remote workflow also involves maintaining continuity of normal workplace processes and expectations. For ThreeUncannyFour, that means keeping all regular meetings, starting a Slack channel for staffers to flag their whereabouts, and committing to existing deadlines. Still, though continuity may be the goal, there will be differences. “My cats will be making appearances in video calls, and everyone is going to have to deal with it,” said Mayer.

Meanwhile, I’m told that the Vox Media Podcast Network has completely stopped using their owned and operated studios, and that they have also completely shifted to a remote workflow. Their efforts are based on an emphasis on remote recording with hosts and guests where possible, the provision of remote engineering support and recording equipment when needed, and an on-going exploration of cloud-based recording solutions to further solidify the distributed workflow. They are not anticipating any production delays, even as they expect to record under surreal circumstances. “I will be interviewing FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenwocel from my closet on Monday,” said Nilay Patel, editor in chief of The Verge and host of the Vergecast, when I checked in on Friday. I’m told that the interview did, indeed, take place, and the episode is scheduled to drop tomorrow.

(Quick note of further context on this one: over the weekend, CNN’s Reliable Sources reported that a Vox Media employee has since tested positive for the virus, which resulted in the closure of all its offices in the US and abroad until further notice.)

In downtown Brooklyn, Slate, which operates an extensive portfolio of persistently publishing podcasts, has implemented a set of best practices designed around the challenges of their network size. (Those best practices were designed by their operations team, which includes operations manager Asha Saluja and technical director Merritt Jacob.) Similarly, those plans involve distributing recording equipment to everybody, along with efforts to teach everyone how to self-record in home environments with sufficiently adequate sound quality.

A particular challenge involves the production of daily podcasts, already tough under regular circumstances. Slate currently operates two in their portfolio: What Next with Mary Harris and The Gist with Mike Pesca. This is how the What Next team describes their arrangement:

Mary will be recording on a normal recorder, but then will also have earbuds in attached to her phone to be dialed in to hear the interview with producer and guest also on. Because she’s recording in a closet, which is small, to communicate with producers during the interview, the plan is to have a computer on a small table about a foot or two off the ground, and then a desk directly above that with the audio rig on it. The team is also developing a contingency plan around substitute hosting. “What Next’s political editor Mary Wilson had a makeshift studio outfitted as well in case she has to take over hosting duties for Mary Harris should schools close and Mary Harris, who is the mother of two, needs an assist while managing the many parts of her life in these uncertain times,” they added.

The Gist is also adopting similar work-from-home arrangements, though Pesca is being set up to occasionally record in the office studio by himself. To minimize the number of people in the studio, Pesca learned how to record his own sessions, set up the control room, and manage the studio himself as he records a guest. “The office isn’t contaminated and one guy in an empty office is still social distancing,” he said. “Mostly I will be recording from home though.”

(If you’d like another case study in remote production when it comes to a daily news podcast, check out the latest edition of The Daily’s Friday newsletter, which lays out how they initially experimented with their set-up last Tuesday before ramping up by the end of the week.)

Speaking with various teams about their remote arrangements, a common thread I found is a general acceptance that their audio quality will likely take a hit under these conditions, but that the cost is a necessary one. Tracking in less-than-studio silent recording environments, relying on phoners instead of sending someone out to tape sync (and risk exposure/transmission), attempting to rapidly brief non-audio professional guests on how to produce clean self-recordings on their end (e.g. using the voice memo app on their iPhones, among other solutions), getting comfortable with relying on home set-ups for what may potentially be an extended period of time — these are the things they have to live with to help prevent the worst. “Our audio quality will suffer, but health and stopping community spread is most important,” said ThreeUncannyFour’s Laura Mayer.

Then again, perhaps there is a marginal silver lining to be found with these drops in audio quality. These are deeply irregular times, and less-than-perfect audio quality may well be something that communicates the human-ness of the myriad podcast and radio folk working to get their shows out to supply their communities in these extraordinary times. It could be a piece of meta-recognition, an indication that we’re all going through the same thing. That might be a small consolation, but it’s consolation nonetheless.