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When should in-person tape syncs resume?

Back in early March, the audio industry moved quickly to adapt to the remote working practices required by the spread of coronavirus. We covered some of the practicalities of this in this very newsletter, back when producers all over the world suddenly got very familiar with the inside of their closets.

Five months on, ideas about what constitutes “safe” working practices have diverged and there’s no sense that one universal set of guidelines will work for everybody making podcasts or radio right now. Infection rates now vary greatly from country to country and region to region, so while producers in New Zealand or Hong Kong might feel able to begin venturing out into the field again, that isn’t necessarily the case in places like California where lockdown restrictions are being reimposed.

One of the ways that I’ve been monitoring this is via the various radio and audio listservs in the US and the UK, which prior to March were always lively with posts looking for freelance producers to record interviews and tape syncs all over the world. After months of total silence on this subject, I’ve noticed in the last week or so that a small trickle of this kind of job posting has appeared again, which prompted me to look into this further. The big question I came away with was this: how can publishers and freelancers tell when it’s safe to record in person again?

First off, I think it’s worth underlining that everybody needs to do their own research on this. Consult the government and municipal advice for where you are. If you are contemplating a non remote recording, build in plenty of time for planning, then use caution and common sense to evaluate the risks. Have open and honest conversations with everybody involved, and respect others’ views about safety even when they differ to yours.

AIR has a comprehensive and evolving set of guidelines for freelancers navigating recordings during Covid-19, which includes information about how to sanitize microphones and headphones, keeping distance while interviewing, and wearing a mask at all times. However, with audio work, situations aren’t always as cut and dried as rules like this might suggest.

Amanda Hickman, managing director at AIR, told me over email that although the organization recommends that the guidance from the OSHA and the CDC should inform most decisions around when to record in person again, there are always situations (pandemic or otherwise) where reporters work at their own risk in situations that OSHA would not recommend.

“There are steps you can take to minimize risk while covering an armed conflict or natural disaster, but that isn’t the same as being safe,” she said. “And Covid-19 is unique in that it can spread between people who have no idea they are carrying the virus. So we’re not just talking about keeping the tape syncer safe, we’re talking about making sure we don’t introduce a potentially fatal virus to an interview subject’s home.”

In addition, Hickman highlighted a really important aspect of this work at the moment — the extra labour involved in following safety precautions. “Anyone sending a syncer out right now should be taking into account the added work of making that tape sync safe, when negotiating rates. . . There’s no one-size-fits-all rate adjustment we can recommend, but producers should expect to pay more for a tape sync right now,” she added.

That added work might include sterilizing equipment after each job or sourcing extra long booms for recordings, or in some more extreme situations taking a Covid test and isolating for two weeks before meeting the interviewee to minimise the risk of transmission further.

One of the few tape sync call outs I saw recently on the UK audio listserv, UKAN, came from Graham Hodge at the Cup & Nuzzle production company. At the point when we spoke over the phone on Friday afternoon, nobody had yet responded to his call for a freelance recordist in El Paso, Texas, but he did tell me about a successful tape sync they had done recently in Los Angeles.

That interview was with Marthe Cohn, a 100-year-old Holocaust survivor and spy who served behind enemy lines in World War Two, and was for the latest episode of their True Spies podcast. During lockdown, Cup & Nuzzle have been sending microphones to contributors to record themselves, but that wasn’t going to work in this instance, Hodge explained. “[Cohn] didn’t have the expertise to set herself up with a microphone or even really record into a phone, so the only way we were going to do it was to use a trusted local producer and satisfy ourselves that she could set up the recording safely. And luckily, she’s brilliant, so it happened,” he said.

The producer in question was Anny Celsi, who told me over email that although she hasn’t done any in person recordings since mid-March, she felt the chance to meet someone like Marthe Cohn couldn’t be passed up. “A week before the interview, I went to a drive through testing site to get tested for coronavirus. Given Marthe’s age, I wanted to take every precaution,” Celsi explained. “The test was negative, but to be extra careful I severely limited my social interactions for the next few days. Per recommended protocols in producer circles, I sterilized all my equipment and used a brand-new microphone cover, and I wore a mask the entire time I was there.”

The interview took place in a “small and cramped” office at Marthe Cohn’s home, so Celsi was in close quarters with Cohn and her husband for the three or so hours it took to record the interview. “When we finished, she invited me to stay for tea and cake, and they showed me around their house. . . My only regret is that my phone ran out of juice by the end of the interview, and I wasn’t able to get a picture with them,” she added.

This was one of the few “old style” in person tape syncs that I was able to verify as taking place recently while working on this piece. However, lots of other producers got in touch to tell me about the adaptations they are making to record in person as circumstances change. The majority that I heard from were staying completely remote for now, but Natalie Steed of the Folk on Foot podcast explained that she’s using a long boom for outdoor interviews, freelancer Mark Cotton said he was going to use radio mics for a socially distant conversation for the first time this week, and Rosa Eaton of Cube Cinema Radio Hour said she had managed by leaving a recorder on a wall outside and walking away so that the interviewee could stand by it and speak. Lots of documentary makers said that remote or down the line interviews really don’t work for their projects — there’s no substitute for being able to read a subject’s body language and capture their physical presence in sound.

BBC producer Amanda Litherland, host of BBC Radio 4 Extra’s Podcast Radio Hour, told me that she is now largely recording back in her usual central London studio — she lives by a noisy train line and working in her wardrobe at home was becoming unsustainable in summer heat — but she is recording alone with all guests calling in remotely. She has done one in person interview, with Chrystal Genesis of the Stance podcast, where they met in a park and each recorded themselves on their own equipment while sitting at a safe distance.

I did hear from one person, Ian Wheeler of Talkhouse, who said that his colleagues and contributors have actively preferred remote recording. “We’re finding that everyone across the board (especially our predominantly musician and filmmakers base of podcasters) would like to continue recording from home, perhaps because the music and film industries are hit particularly hard, and these types of creators are especially wary of getting back into confined spaces,” he said over email. “My team has ultimately preferred recording remotely and, at this point, I’m not sure to what extent we’ll capture audio in proper studios going forward once there is some kind of ‘return to normal’.”

After spending a few days immersed in this subject, I came away with two main observations.

Firstly, there are probably far more in person recordings happening now than is immediately visible online — calls for tape syncs might have all but vanished, but freelancers with existing relationships to production shops are still being offered this work, so factor that into your overall picture of the current situation.

Secondly, the question of resuming in person recordings is a pretty polarising one. In that sense, the audio industry seems to be mirroring the situation with mask wearing and safety precautions more generally: there are a lot of different views out there, and plenty of people are convinced that their way is the right one.