Issue 254,  published April 14, 2020

Zoom Storytelling

The present challenges might be universal, but not everybody is challenged in the same way. Consider, for instance, the plight of live storytelling podcasts under social distancing conditions. In addition to facing the same burdens faced by the broader podcast community, they face the more fundamental problem of overcoming the loss of their core mechanic: the live stage.

But the beloved subgenre is working to figure out a way forward. A number of these podcasts are turning towards adapting their live show experiences for live streaming environments, and we’re beginning to see the first wave of such efforts come to life. On Saturday, Radiotopia’s Mortified made their live stream debut over YouTube Live, which was staged and distributed for free. This weekend will see Kevin Allison’s RISK! take to Zoom for its first online show. Tickets for that event went on sale yesterday.

And then there’s The Moth, the New York-based global storytelling community and institution, which will hold its first-ever “virtual mainstage” on Wednesday.

Catherine Burns, The Moth’s artistic director, told me that the team started thinking about online staging options the minute they started canceling shows a few weeks ago. “The Moth has always been more than just a live show, radio show or podcast; it’s a worldwide community,” she said. “We wanted to bring that community together as quickly as possible — but also didn’t want to rush it.”

After a fair bit of research, which involved watching a range of other virtual shows and piecing together a set of best practices, they decided to begin their foray into live streaming entertainment with an abridged version of their usual production format. “We felt less was more for the first time out, so we’re doing a one-act,” Burns said, adding that they’re bringing on Jon Goode, a warm and reliable presence who hosts the shows in Atlanta, as the anchor for the night. Tickets, which went up last week for a $10 sliding scale donation, are already sold out.

Like RISK!, tomorrow’s online staging of The Moth will happen over Zoom — specifically, its Webinar platform. Burns described the process of organizing the live stream as a combination of producing a stage and television show, albeit one that involves a fully remote workflow. A full production team will be on-hand, with some handling the technical transitions, others responsible for cueing up the hosts and storytellers, and others still in charge of monitoring attendees to ensure there are no disruptions.

To control for the threat of Zoom Bombings, they are not releasing the link until tomorrow, which is the day of the event itself. The link will require a password, and all attendees will be muted. “This will lessen the chance someone can use an algorithm to attain our meeting ID to sneak into our show,” said Burns. “We’re excited to explore this new frontier and know that there may be some glitches — hopefully not many — but that’s okay.”

Understandably, the team is nervous about tomorrow. It’s the first stab at a new arrangement for what may very well be a new extensive phase for the global storytelling production. Nevertheless, they have faith in their team and their storytellers — as well as the process itself.

“One of the few ways you can bomb at the Moth is to be too polished,” said Burns. “If someone stumbles a little, it can actually make the story better because that’s authentic… so we hope that, even if something does go wrong — which it inevitably will — that will only add to the shared experience.”

I run this thing.