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Emergency preparedness: Radio, podcasting and COVID-19 (Coronavirus)

Emergency preparedness: Radio, podcasting and COVID-19 (Coronavirus)

General Disclaimer

This post is giving some general suggestions for things radio stations and podcasters might need to consider during the Coronavirus / COVID-19 outbreak. It does not constitute medical or legal advice, and there are plenty of other things to consider which I may have missed out!

Remote working for radio stations and podcasters

The COVID-19 / Coronavirus outbreak is causing challenges for radio stations across the world.

We need to report the facts accurately, as well as deal with the practical issues that are faced when guests and members of staff are not able to travel and operate as normal.

This post has some ideas for ways to work around having staff and contributors in different locations – especially those smaller stations who might not have a team already tasked with thinking about this.

Please add your own ideas in the comments section below.

Remote guests

If your country has not yet imposed travel restrictions, it is likely that it will do, soon.

You probably already have a way to have guests contribute remotely (e.g. via phone), but here are some additional suggestions that may be more accessible for contributors who are not tech savvy.

Whichever system you choose, make sure that your guests are in a quiet room and have headphones plugged in, to reduce echo. Smartphone headphones which come with a microphone attached can also be useful if guests don’t have proper microphones or headsets. And don’t forget that many portable recorders can be used as USB interfaces into laptops.

Cleanfeed

Cleanfeed allows you to record guests in high quality, so long as they have a laptop or a smartphone.

The system has a free option which allows stereo recording, or a paid upgrade which allows recording in multitrack.

Guests can be muted / taken out of the recording using a simple button press.

It is also possible to play in short clips via the system.

Pros:

  • High quality – uses the Silk Opus codec
  • Guest does not need to install a program – they can join the call by clicking a link
  • FREE version if you only need stereo

Cons:

  • No video or chat option, so if your guest doesn’t connect then you need another way to contact them to troubleshoot
  • Your guest will need the Chrome browser installed – not everyone is able to do this
  • Cannot dial mobile or landline numbers – smartphones are OK (via e-mailed link) but not ‘dumb’ phones.

Skype (Domestic / for Business)

Skype is a VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) system which allows you to make free calls to users with a Skype account, or you can pay for ‘Skype Credit’ and call landlines and cell phones in some countries.

If you have an up-to-date version of Skype, you can record inside the application itself. Alternatively, there are programs such as eCamm Call Recorder (Mac) or Pamela (Windows) which allow you to record Skype separately.

Pros:

  • People are familiar with Skype – not a ‘scary’ technology
  • Free to use if you are calling another Skype ID
  • Can call mobiles/landlines if you pay for credit

Cons:

  • Call quality can be variable
  • Requires your guest to install software or an app for free calls
  • No multitrack option in the native recorder

Skype TX for Radio

If you have a Bionic Studio system installed (née PhoneBOX), then you can licence the Skype TX for Radio module.

This allows you to make and receive Skype TX calls, which are of a higher quality than normal Skype.

You can then route the recording via the sound desk as normal.

Pros:

  • Silk Opus codec, so higher quality
  • Links into the Bionic Studio system, which your station may already have

Cons:

  • Expensive if you don’t already have Bionic Studio
  • Overkill for most podcasters

Zoom

Not the portable recorder manufacturer, but the online meeting software.

Zoom allows you to have one-on-one or multiple callers on a conference.

The chair can mute callers and it is possible to record within the app.

Guests can join via a link but will be prompted to install software.

The free version allows for one-to-one calling, or group calling with a 40 minute cut off.

Paid plans allow you to add dial-in numbers or to host group calls which last more than 40 minutes.

Pros:

  • Zoom will be familiar to users who are already used to taking part in online meetings
  • You can see your guests and type behind-the-scenes to each other if wished
  • Free option

Cons:

  • No multitrack recording option
  • Guests will be prompted to install software when they are invited to your meeting
  • 40 minute limit for groups on the free plan (although Zoom is temporarily allowing longer calls in many countries)

Google Hangouts

Google Hangouts is another option for group video/audio calls. It’s free to set up. The person running the meeting will need a Google Account.

The free version on domestic Hangouts does not allow recording. The GSuite version used by businesses does.

It is possible to record Google Hangout calls using Snagit as a backup option. This could be a useful last resort if other systems get overloaded.

Pros:

  • Free. Easy to access if you already have a Google account
  • Participants can see each other and have behind-the-scenes chat if required.

Cons:

  • No record option in the non-business version

Team meetings

All of the options above (apart from Skype TX for Radio, which is designed to be used in studio) can be used for team meetings, if you don’t already have a company-wide system.

Interviews at a distance

My colleagues Francesco Facchini and Nico Piro in Italy recommend that stations get hold of boom arms for microphones as soon as possible, as physical distancing restrictions mean that this is the only way you can get a microphone close enough to the interviewee.

An alternative is to adapt a selfie stick with a microphone hook. You may also need some thread adapters (3/4″ – 1/4″ are really handy, as well as the more standard 5/8″ – 3/8″ mic adapters you may already have on site), and probably lots of gaffer tape. Use your own risk judgement so you don’t accidentally knock your guest out by dropping a heavy microphone on their head!

You can also use your mobile phone as a microphone on the selfie stick.

Another suggestion is to use a shotgun microphone which is capable of picking up sound from a 6 metre distance.

Radio stations are less likely to have boom arms and shotgun microphones capable of capturing larger distances than tv stations, so work out your strategy and order these in now.

Microphone covers

…are often disgusting. Remind your presenters not to eat the mic. Eurgh.

Mobile Journalism

Now is the time to make sure you are able to produce content using your smartphone.

At the very least, you should be able to record content into a voice memo app, know how to send photos and film a basic ‘5 shot’ sequence. If the content is for broadcast, make sure your app can record at appropriate quality.

There are lots of resources here: mojo-manual.org

Ferrite (iOS – audio recording and multitrack editing) and Filmic Pro (iOS and Android – lets you shoot tv footage on your phone) are both inexpensive and can turn your phone into a professional production device.

Sharing footage

Your station should already have a preferred method of sending footage to base. If not, common options include:

Google Drive

Dropbox

WeTransfer

Microsoft OneDrive

Check your local data privacy policies to see which ones you are allowed to use in your organisation.

Playout

You may need to upload information to your playout (automation) system remotely. Now is the time for engineering and IT to work out safe ways to do this in a way which is secure.

Broadcast Radio (makers of Myriad) have made their remote-access version (Myriad Anywhere) free to existing users to help stations during this Coronavirus season.

RCS also offers Zetta2Go, which allows remote operation.

Check with your playout manufacturer to see what remote options you have, should you or your presenters be unable to get to the station for a few days. And make sure your emergency playlists are ready to go!

Remote access

You may already have a system for remote access, but more people might need to use it. Think about IT security and also consider if you need any extra licences.

Licence trials

Large companies are making announcements all the time, but Adobe, Avid and TechSmith have already announced extensions of free trials and changes to their remote access licensing to help organisations during the outbreak.

It’s worth checking with your existing software providers to see if there are any options in place.

Although don’t be afraid to pay if it keeps you on air – some technology companies, especially in radio, are small, and they deserve to be paid for the technology which is helping you to continue broadcasting!

Content

This could be a whole series of blogposts in itself, but radio will be essential for keeping everyone together during stressful times. We’re good at educating, entertaining and informing!

Make sure news and medical sources are reliable, check your playlists for songs which might not seem so appropriate (keywords like ‘virus’, ‘infection’, ‘I can’t breathe’ and so on), and remember that you are a lifeline for people who are isolated and lonely.

Local stations in particular might be able to work with emergency planning departments to ensure more vulnerable members of the community get the information and supplies they need.

And, after a few days without going out, we’re definitely going to need some upbeat music and comedy. Don’t question the value of what you do as a job. And if you need to change formats to reflect the mood, do it (don’t tell Ofcom I said that…).

Freelancers / Temporary studios at home

If you present, now is the time to get your home studio ready.

What equipment do you already own?

Is there a quiet area you can adapt?

Towels and duvets are helpful for dampening sound. Make sure your laptop doesn’t overheat if it’s resting on fabric.

If you can’t afford lots of equipment, consider making sure you have a decent microphone which you are able to connect to your laptop (via an interface or portable recorder working as interface) so you can get remote access to your playout system for voicetracking.

Steven McIntosh posted a thread on Twitter showing lots of makeshift presenter setups for inspiration.

Colleagues are likely to be ill, so it’s worth making sure you are able to take over at short notice if necessary.

Teams

I have run my own business for over five years, so I am used to working anywhere and everywhere!

Some of your team members won’t be used to this situation, however.

Make sure you take care of each other. People might be caring for sick relatives, or have young family members at home. Reassure them that you know they are doing their best.

Don’t hound people at all hours of the day and night (although remember some people might need to work odd hours to fit round family life). Agree times when it’s OK to call.

It’s tempting to get stuck into e-mails and messaging systems – but don’t forget that human contact is vital! Call each other. It doesn’t have to be about work – you would have friendly conversations in the office, so don’t forget to speak to each other as well as typing messages.

Now might be the time to try something like the Results Only Work Environment (ROWE) or similar – agree tasks as a team, and stop worrying about hours at a desk.

If you have an HR team at your station, it’s also worth looking at sick / bereavement leave policies and updating them to take account of the ongoing advice about ‘social distancing’.

General Health

I can’t give health advice, but think about areas that people touch in your buildings and make sure they are appropriately cleaned. You don’t want to ruin your touchscreens by squirting bleach all over them!

Inside Radio has some suggestions about how to tackle cleaning studio equipment, if you need to come into your building.

Mental health

Make it a priority to talk about mental health and wellbeing. Anxiety levels will be up. People will be working in unfamiliar environments, different patterns and possibly with reduced teams (or worrying about family members). Look out of each other!

Some people find meditation apps useful – Calm and Headspace both offer free trials.

Post outbreak

When this is all over, review your emergency plans. What worked? What did you miss? Update and share with the wider industry accordingly.

Don’t be afraid to change the way you work. If you discovered that remote working suited a lot of people, then look at ways to make it something you can do more permanently.

A lot of events and activities will have been put on hold. Make sure that you hire people – even booking them in advance if possible. Smaller creative companies may go out of business if multiple jobs are cancelled.

If you are a larger firm, continuing to work with your suppliers and freelancers will mean that they will still be there for years to come.

And for heaven’s sake – make sure you are paying invoices on time! There is no excuse for three month delays, especially at a time when other work may be drying up.

Get in touch

This is a quick list of suggestions and resources. Things are changing all the time, so check with the official advice from the authorities in your area.

If you have any further suggestions or signposts, please add them in the comments below.

Radio station preparedness planning is one of the services I offer, so if you need more help to get your plans in place, creating new workflows, or just need a spare pair of hands, please contact me.

Stay safe, and lean on the rest of the radio and audio community if you need some help. We’re all in this together!

Disclosure alert: Cleanfeed gave me a free copy of their pro version and have sponsored bursary tickets at Radio TechCon (I am one of the organisers of the conference). Broadcast Bionics, who make Skype TX for Radio / Bionic Studio, are one of my clients. Broadcast Radio (who make Myriad) and RCS (who make Zetta) have both sponsored Radio TechCon. Adobe gave me a free copy of Creative Cloud once. Other systems are available. Nobody has asked me to write about them, and everything I have written is my own opinion. Links are not endorsements – please make decisions based on what best suits your station and budget.

Photo Credit: Flickr/Marcin Wichary

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