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The Coronavirus Issue: Independents

For the past few days, I’ve been reaching out to independent podcasters wherever I can, hoping to understand a bit better how the measures being taken in response to the spread of coronavirus are affecting them. While the implications of social distancing and quarantine will be felt by everybody no matter where they work, being independent or working completely freelance often comes with greater precariousness. And that was the universal theme of all the conversations I’ve had about this — audio freelancers and small companies alike are worried both about what social distancing will mean for their business in the short term, and what an economic downturn will do in the months to come.

The main thing I heard about is what we would expect: interviews and tape syncs are being cancelled all over the world as people move to avoid in-person contact. Lots of studios are either shutting down completely or moving to operations only situations, meaning that guests from outside can’t come in to record down the line. Producers who were relying on prompt, high quality recordings now need to postpone interviews and educate guests in using remote recording tools — plenty of people raised the extra time this takes, which is an issue if the project is being paid at a fixed fee rate. People are also considering posting tech savvy guests cheap usb microphones, which suddenly seems like a not unreasonable thing to do.

At this stage, a lot of work is being postponed rather than cancelled, as is — of course — planned travel for reporting. And it’s all happening pretty fast, with shows going on hiatus or pushing back new seasons day by day. For those with long-term contracts, this kind of pause is frustrating, but for those working on a day rate or per project, a production schedule moving can mean extra months before an expected invoice gets paid. (“No recording, no invoicing,” is how one hardhit freelancer succinctly put it.) I heard a couple of heartening stories of people being paid in advance of postponed work, and I hope there’s a lot more of that to come.

The general economic downturn that is coming with the spread of coronavirus is also already impacting audio freelancers. Kristofor Lawson of Lawson Media in Melbourne, Australia, told me they’d had branded podcast contracts delayed and ad inventory cut before social distancing began, as their clients were already feeling the effects. “I’d put the impact of these at around $35,000 AUD. Not a lot compared to bigger companies, but enough to make a significant dent in our small operations,” he said.

Those audio businesses that have a brick and mortar competent such as a studio or coworking space have also been hit hard and fast. Michelle Durant, who helps to run Chelmsford Community Radio in the UK, explained: “Our once bustling coffee shop which usually helped cover some of the costs is a shadow of its former self and the small businesses we work with are also impacted. Footfall is down everywhere. Advertisers are hard to come by or want stupidly cheap deals.”

Aside from difficulties with recordings and brands pulling out, one of the biggest areas of podcasting to be affected by all this is sports. As I’ve covered for Hot Pod before, in the UK football shows make up a big chunk of the larger independent market, and now that pretty much all professional football is suspended or cancelled, there’s now a potentially big gap in the schedule for those shows.

Freelancer Tom Whalley, who works with Radio Stakhanov on shows like Football Ramble Daily, said they’re not decreasing production in spite of this: “Still loads of stories to talk about, stuff from this season to look back on, football and cycling films to watch, classic matches and bike races to rewatch, literature to talk about. We’re gonna keep the content coming and get the community as involved as possible.”

I’ll end on that note: plenty of people I spoke to talked about community and routine, and how they wanted to keep making their usual shows as far as possible to help listeners feel normal. Which is really great. But there’s also a lot of freelancers who are going to see much smaller paychecks in the next few months, and we have very little sense of what the longer term impact of that might be on this industry.